Near the end of 2020, the option of renewing settlement of title (land registry) in the West Bank, which was halted when Israel occupied the Palestinian Territories in 1967, surfaced on the Israeli agenda. A subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee discussed the issue partly in light of the position of the Civil Administration that settlement of title should resume and that the legal impediment that prompted its suspension no longer exists.
Settlement of title would have far-reaching ramifications for the legal and political future of the West Bank. The process aims to formalize land tenure in hundreds of thousands of dunams of land and will consequently violate the human rights of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who are at risk of losing title to their plots.
Yesh Din’s position paper explains how the decision to renew settlement of title is, effectively, an implicit declaration of sovereignty. The West Bank is under temporary military occupation, a situation in which permanent measures are prohibited. Settlement of title, however, is an irreversible act that is characteristic of a permanent regime and, therefore, an indirect instrument for the application of Israeli sovereignty. Exercising this dimension of sovereignty constitutes annexation in breach of international law.
Moreover, the reasons behind the suspension of settlement of title include the fact that hundreds of thousands of West Bank residents became absentees following the 1967 war and the prohibition the international laws of occupation place on curtailing the rights of protected persons and on interfering with their property. The predicament of these protected persons has not changed, meaning the main legal reason for suspending settlement of title remains valid. Renewing settlement of title would negate the property rights of a great number of residents who are not physically present in the West Bank and consequently cannot protect their property. The potential harm is compounded given the fact that, by their own admission, the Israeli authorities operating in the West Bank lack complete information about the status of land registration in many areas and villages. This renders settlement of title impracticable and, should it proceed, a breach of international law, which prohibits making changes to the occupied territory and requires the occupying power to safeguard private property.
In addition to these, the decision to renew settlement of title must be understood in the context of other measures taken by Israeli authorities and Israel’s pursuit of expanding Israeli presence in the West Bank while reducing both the actual physical presence of Palestinians and their potential land rights. In the past few years, Israel has engaged in a slew of unilateral measures dedicated to sustaining the extreme discrimination practiced in the West Bank. The disparity in land allocations to Palestinians and Israelis is one of the most brazen and blatant manifestations of this discrimination. Promoting settlement of title in a manner to be determined by Israel and shaped by state officials who openly pursue political-ideological goals in the West Bank, without input from the Palestinian population in the design and function of the process, will inevitably hurt Palestinian individuals and communities. As such, settlement of title would serve, as another policy element, in the dispossession of Palestinians from lands in Area C and the transfer of these lands to Israeli hands.