The lie of ‘state lands’: Whitewashing the confiscation of Palestinian land

The outpost of Derekh Avot, sitting on stolen Palestinian land, will soon be whitewashed and its lands will magically turn into ‘state lands’ which will be delivered to the settlers.

By Yesh Din, written by Yossi Gurvitz

The lie of 'state lands': Whitewashing the confiscation of Palestinian land
Havat Gilad outpost, just south of Nablus. (photo: Yuval Ben-Ami)

A letter from the Officer of the Legal Advisor 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 of Derekh Avot is located as Public Lands (commonly known as “state land”). It further said – feel free to snicker – that prior to making the decision, the Custodian will hold a hearing, in which our clients, the owners of the land, may make their claims to it.

Derekh Avot, notes Peace Now (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 Sisyphean 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” (although the more accurate name is “public lands”) proves this point. It derives from the fact that confiscation of lands in occupied territory is prohibited in international law, unless for strictly military purposes. After the High Court of Justice forbade the army from declaring settlements as “military bases” in the 1970s – 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 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 during 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 Chaim 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 High Court that it does not intend to evacuate the outpost – even though orders for its demolition were issued – because of the settlement freeze. The court 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 Peace Now (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 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.” These, in turn, will 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.

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.