Israel uses declaration of public land (“state land”) in the West Bank as a significant means to reinforce its settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). This report presents and analyses a specific feature of Israel’s declaration policy: declaring Palestinian land to be “state land” in areas where settlement of title was halted after Israel occupied the West Bank, in order to appropriate this land.

‘Settlement of title’ to land is a complex, systematic and centralized procedure initiated by the sovereign. It is undertaken in order to identify and then title and register all title to land in the territory subject to the sovereign’s control. In 1928 the British Mandate government began to systematically register title to land for the first time in Palestine, which was subject to its control. Settlement of title in the West Bank continued under Jordanian rule; by 1967, settlement of title was concluded for approximately one third of all West Bank land. After Israel occupied the West Bank, the Israeli military commander issued an order suspending all settlement of title procedures.

Although settlement of title was never renewed, during the early 1980s the Israeli army began applying Ottoman Land Code; by way of the Civil Administration, it declared hundreds of thousands of dunam of West Bank land “state land”. This land, which is administered by the Israeli army, is meant for the use of the local Palestinian population living under occupation, such as for building towns and villages or for necessary infrastructure. In spite of this, Israel allocated the vast majority of this land for expanding Israeli settlements, which were built in the oPt in violation of international law. Over the past decade, this means has been used to retroactively authorize illegal Israeli construction on Palestinian land.

Settlement of title procedures were underway and reached an advanced stage in at least 16 Palestinian villages and towns prior to 1967, but these procedures were never concluded because Israel suspended settlement of title. It is highly likely that if Israel had not suspended settlement of title, a large portion of these villages’ land would have been registered as private land belonging to Palestinian individuals and not as land belonging to the sovereign. Despite this, Israel has declared at least 41,000 dunam of land where settlement of title was underway as “state land”. This policy annuls settlement of title proceedings in places where prima facie rights of Palestinians were recognized, and it effectively prevents settlement of title from being concluded – preventing the Palestinian landowners’ rights to title from ever being registered.

Israel’s policy of declaring “state land” in areas where settlement of title was halted is based on selective application of the legal mechanisms that regulate the land regime in the West Bank. Israel does so in violation of the rules of international law that apply to Israel as the occupying power in the West Bank. Such declarations also violate the local law in force in the West Bank and the military order issued by the Israeli military commander (Order Concerning Government Property). Above all, Israel’s policy infringes upon the right to property of Palestinians who took part in settlement of title and allows it to dispossess Palestinian individuals and communities of their land.

In practice, Israel, which is and has been responsible for the land registry in the West Bank for over 53 years, is benefiting from this policy. Israel does not permit Palestinians who participated in settlement of title to complete the process and register title to their land, but it does declare these very same lands “state land” and transfers them to the exclusive use of the Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank.

On November 29, 2020, the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ) rejected the petition filed by Palestinian landowners from Kafr ‘Aqab with the assistance of Yesh Din. The petition addressed the status of village land where settlement of title began but was not concluded, and Israel’s authority to declare “state land” there. The judgement, which accepted the State’s position, endorses Israel’s policy of dispossession. This policy infringes upon Palestinians’ right to property in the West Bank and violates the rules of international law. Moreover, this judgement will allow additional Palestinian individuals and communities who participated in unconcluded settlement of title proceedings to be harmed. After the Court rejected the petition, the landowners and head of the Kafr ‘Aqab village council filed a motion for an additional hearing in an expanded panel of justices. The motion is pending.

This report depicts a policy of land theft that is inseparable from the broader Israeli effort to increase Israeli control over land in the West Bank and retroactively authorize all illegal Israeli construction in the West Bank.