‘Israel must prosecute West Bank land thieves’

Settlement depends on deception, lies and theft. So why aren’t the police and prosecution doing everything in their power to put an end to it? 

By Yesh Din (written by Yossi Gurvitz)

Ulpana Hill neighborhood in the settlement of Beit El (photo: Yaakov/wikimeida CC-3.0)
Ulpana Hill neighborhood in the settlement of Beit El (photo: Yaakov/wikimeida CC-3.0)

The story was supposed to be simple: Yoel Tzur, the CEO of the Company for the Development of the Yeshiva Town in Beit El (Yesh Din dealt with this shady company previously) admitted during his police interrogation that he built what would come to be known as “Ulpana Hill” on private Palestinian land, for which he had no valid contract. Tzur told the police that he began construction in 1998, and that by 2000 he thought he obtained a contract for the land, which turned out to be forged. That is, Tsur himself says he began the construction two years before he even thought he had a contract. Everything was done on private land (since it’s Palestinian land, who cares?), and not just that – as was exposed by the press (Hebrew), Tzur also misled the buyers, good Jews who preferred not to ask any questions.

But the police preferred to close the case, citing, with chutzpah, the “no criminal guilt” clause. That was impressive even by the usual standards of the SJPD (Samaria and Judea Police District). As part of Tzur’s investigation, the investigators came uncomfortably close to Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever, whose hand is in every plate. During his interrogation, Tzur connected Hever’s communal society, Amana, to the land purchase that never took place. Hever denied it. The police, which interrogated him as a witness rather than as a suspect, did not bother to do what was expected of it and didn’t search Amana’s offices nor its computers. This, after all, comes too close to the centers of power.

But Hever is not the only powerful man involved: the lawyer who edited the forged purchase documents is David Rotem. You may know him as member of Knesset David Rotem from Yisrael Beitenu, or former head of the Law, Constitution and Justice Knesset Committee. But do the cops look for trouble? They eventually closed the case.

Yesh Din expects little of the SJPD. Its expertise, after all, is botching investigations, at which it is quite successful. Turns out there’s nothing much to expect of the prosecution. We appealed the police’s decision on December 14th, 2010, more than three years ago, demanding the investigation be completed and Tzur be indicted. We have been waiting for the conclusion since.

So what is really going on? It’s hard to not suspect that the prosecution, which long ago forgot about “ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger as one for your own country,” deleted the “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee” years ago, and is now leisurely working at turning “thou shall not honor the person of the mighty” into a dead letter as well. And all this by the easiest method of all – inaction.

Tzur’s suspected violation – which, if indicted, may lead him to open his mouth and jeopardize the careers of the mighty – is a misdemeanor. It will come under the statute of limitations five years after the last investigation in the case. Since the case began on November 5th, 2009, all the prosecution must do is while the time away until November 5th, 2014.

The process of settlement is one based on deception, lies and theft, and any child will tell you that the Israeli police is a broken tool. But when the prosecution collaborates (admittedly by inaction) with posh land thieves, it is an attack on what is left of the trust in the rule of law.

Another point which may rouse the prosecution from its slumber: by avoiding an indictment of the criminals in the Ulpana Hill case, it not only gives a green light for continuing land theft, it also harms the right of Palestinians to protect themselves, as a population living under occupation, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. That is, it’s playing close to the border of war crimes.

When we face a normal court, all we have are laws and procedures. Sometimes, admittedly, they lead to transcendence: I doubt there is any other court aside from the Israeli High Court of Justice which could write such an awe-inspiring sentence as Meir Shamgar’s “the Wachmann John Ivan Demanjuk goes free from before our bench,” in which the jurist submits to the dry law, letting justice slide away, knowing that if he lets justice run roughshod over law, he opens the floodgates to vigilante justice. That the submission of justice to law is, all too often, the price we pay to avoid having our society descend to the level of Michael Kohlhaas, where man is wolf to man. Just as often, however, law overrides justice not for the benefit of society, but of the mighty.

But there is also another court. The poet Auden wrote lines he would come to regret, about history kindly judging those who master words (“Time wthat with this strange excuse\pardons Kipling for his views\and will pardon Paul Claudel\pardons him for writing well…”). One may be permitted to think that history – which takes the dim vim of jurists who turn judgment into mischief – will have some unkind words for the legal technocrats who by delaying tactics and splitting hairs deny the rights of the occupied to maintain whatever is left of their rights against their occupiers – the same ones who transform the law from a tool that strives for justice to one that protects theft and thieves.

Written by Yossi Gurvitz in his capacity as a blogger for Yesh Din, Volunteers for Human Rights. A version of this post was first published on Yesh Din’s blog.

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