A letter from the Officer of the Legal Adviser of the Commander, Judea and Samaria Area — the name the IDF attached to the West Bank — arrived recently at Yesh Din’s offices. The letter said that soon, the Custodian of Government Property intends to announce the lands on which the outpost Derekh Avot is located as Public Lands (commonly known as “state lands”). It further said – feel free to snigger – that prior to making that the decision, the Custodian will hold a hearing, in which our clients, the owners of the land, may make their claims.
Derekh Avot, notes Shalom Achshav (Hebrew), is one of 16 outposts built partly on stolen Palestinian land (this is a good place to give a shout out to Hagit Ofran, who excels at the Sisyphic and thankless job of documenting the creeping annexation of the West Bank). A report commissioned by the government in 2010, written by Malka Ophri, the chief of the Photo-Analysis Department in the Israeli Mapping Center, found that 60% of the lands controlled by the outpost are lands which were previously tilled by Palestinians, which makes them, according to the laws operative in the West Bank, private lands.
Among the residents of the outpost you may note settler legend and convicted felon Ze’ev Hever (under his original name, Ze’ev Friedman, he was convicted of planting a bomb under the car of a Palestinian leader). The settlers used to quote Zvi Yehuda Kook, the rabbi of the movement, who said that settlers had no problems with “the individual Muhammad,” just with the Palestinians as a group, and hence they have no intention of stealing private Palestinian property.
It was a lie then and it is a lie now. The whole process of declaring lands as “State lands” – the common name; the more accurate one is “public lands – proves it. It derives from the fact that confiscation lands in occupied territories is prohibited in international law, unless for strictly military purposes. After the HCJ has forbidden in the 1970s the army to declare settlements as “military bases” – the army and the settlers were thick as thieves even then – the government started using the new schtick of “public lands.” Making a manipulative use of Ottoman land law and the fact the British and the Jordanian authorities never finished registering the lands, and while ignoring the common law practice of villagers testifying to land boundaries, the government declared lands which went uncultivated for some years as “public lands”, thereby confiscating them from their owners. “Confiscation”, as used here, Is the bowdlerized term for robbery by people in authority.
You’d think that “public lands” would serve the public, i.e. the Palestinian population, since Israel runs the West Bank based on the concept that it is held in wartime occupation. This concept is the basis for all of the military authority there. As noted, according to international law, confiscated lands can only serve for pressing military needs or the benefit of the residents. In practice, however, state lands serve almost without exception for building settlements.
The case of Derekh Avot is particularly malicious. The outpost was built under the cover of the Second Intifada, when no one had the time or inclination to deal with fine points of law. When the Civil Administration was forced to examine the status of the lands, it tried – as exposed by Haim Levinson (Hebrew) — to suppress the report. The reason was simple: the report showed that the land was stolen, plain and simple. In 2010, the government came up with a new trick: it told the HCJ it does not intend to evacuate the outpost, even though orders for its demolition were issued, because of the settlement freeze. The HCJ accepted this position (Hebrew) while criticizing the government for, err, being economical with the truth.
Just how relaxed the settlers have become with this system can be seen by the ad found by Shalom Achshav (Hebrew). A caravan in Derekh Avot is offered for sale, along with a dunam of land. The ad makes it clear that there are no building permits – but that building goes on nevertheless.
So now these lands, stolen by force and by government fiat from their legal owners, will become, with the scribble of a clerk’s pen, “State lands” – which, in turn, would be turned over to the settlers who already live there, which will retroactively whitewash the long illegality of Derekh Avot’s existence.
Don’t steal, goes the old anarchist maxim; the government hates competition. In this case, the government is splitting the loot with its allies.