For the first time in more than 30 years, we forced the government to return land seized for a settlement — but the battle is not over yet

Last Thursday, at about 6:00pm, a short fax message was received in Yesh Din’s offices. In the message, the state attorneys informed us that the state is voiding its seizure order no. T/4/78. This short message represents the first time in more than 30 years that the government has been forced to return land it grabbed for settlement purposes.

The story is as follows. In 1978, the government seized lands belonging to Palestinians from the West Bank village of Burkeh, claiming it intends to use it for building a NAHAL (a military brigade also involved in agriculture work and settlement) settlement. This schtick was used to make the land grab legal, as international law allows it only for pressing military reasons. This form of deceit, practiced by the IDF and the settlers together, became illegal after the Alon Moreh verdict of 1979. The government did build a NAHAL outpost there – unimaginatively named Ma’aleh NAHAL– which two years later was turned over to civilians, and named Homesh.

The latter was one of four settlements in the West Bank which were evacuated in 2005, as part of Ariel Sharon’s Disengagement Plan, which the Knesset affirmed as a law. Even though no settlers have lived there since 2005, the government refused to void seizure orders from 1978, despite the fact it had no security reason for it. As a result, the owners were prevented from returning to their lands.

In 2011, the chief of Burkeh’s council and the owners of the seized lands, aided by Yesh Din through attorneys Michael Sfard and Shlomi Zecharia, appealed to the HCJ. Now, in a short message at the end of the work week – a well-known trick when trying to avoid attention – the government voids the seizure orders. It’s hard to assume it would have done so had it believed it had any chance of defending them in court.

But the fact that the government rescinds the land grab, does not mean the lands revert back to their legal owners. In the wilderness of mirrors beyond the Separation Barrier, the government can void its seizure orders, but at the same time refuse to protect the land owners, effectively preventing their return. As Attorney Shlomy Zecharia wrote following the government’s decision, “based on our painful experience, the government recognizing private legal ownership does not necessarily translate into an actual opportunity for the land owners to reach their land and work it.”

Since the evacuation of Homesh, and despite ordering the area as a closed military zone, settlers and their supporters (government representatives included) reach the lands time and time again. The army, to say the least, is not zealous about enforcing its orders. Yesh Din intends to demand the removal of all barriers preventing the owners from accessing their lands.

It’s too early to know whether joy and optimism are warranted: History shows that the fact that the State of Israel lets go of a piece of land it grabbed does not mean that it will enforce the law on the population it exported to the West Bank. It may well turn out that the government will allow the settlers, once more, to prove that the term “law enforcement” in the West Bank is hollow at best, a bitter joke at worst.