Israel denies report it illegally seized land for settlements

jerusalem | Israeli officials have dismissed a report from a group opposed to Jewish settlements in the West Bank stating that nearly 40 percent of the land on which the settlements stand was seized from private Palestinian owners — much of it since the practice was outlawed in 1979.

“There is nothing to it,” Emily Amrusi, a spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, told the Jerusalem Post. “It’s just another lie to attack the settlement movement.

“In the war of Peace Now against the Jews, everything is kosher,” he added.

Amrusi argued that the government had approved all the settlements and that since 1948, the state had not authorized construction on Palestinian-owned land.

Peace Now released the report Tuesday, Nov. 21. The report challenged Israel’s claims that it stopped the land seizures decades ago. Peace Now said its charges were based on information leaked from the Civil Administration, the Israeli military department responsible for administering civil affairs in the West Bank. Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israel’s Supreme Court — which in 1979 ordered the government to stop confiscating private land for settlements — has not ruled on Peace Now’s petition to have the data released under freedom of information laws, the organization said.

Israel’s settlements have been a controversial enterprise throughout the decades and a major source of friction with the Palestinians.

“We are talking about an institutional land grab,” said Dror Etkes, a settlement expert with Peace Now.

In a 174-page report, Peace Now said the Civil Administration database showed that 38.8 percent of the area currently occupied by Israeli settlements, unauthorized settlement outposts and industrial zones in the West Bank was privately owned Palestinian land expropriated by Israeli authorities since 1967.

Most notable was Israel’s largest settlement, Ma’aleh Adumim, a community of 30,000 people outside Jerusalem, where 86.4 percent of the prime, commuter-belt real estate is Palestinian-owned, the report said.

Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the Civil Administration, said he had not yet studied the report and declined comment on the figures.

“I can say that in general we have a clear directive not to build on privately owned Palestinian land,” Dror told the Associated Press.

But establishing ownership is problematic, Dror added, noting that property registers changed hands multiple times as the West Bank shifted from Ottoman to British to Jordanian and then Israeli rule.

“I’m not sure that all the land Peace Now says is Palestinian, is Palestinian,” he said.

The 1979 Supreme Court ruling barred the previously widespread practice of seizing private Palestinian land for military use, then turning it over for settlement construction. Peace Now said the practice had continued nonetheless and 31.3 percent of the settlements built since 1979 stand on privately owned Palestinian land.

Dror denied that assertion.

“That was something we stopped doing many years ago,” he said.

The YESHA Council settlement organization also said the 1979 ruling had ended the practice.

“Since 1979 the state of Israel has not set up settlements on private land,” it said in a statement responding to the Peace Now report. “The state of Israel founds settlements only on state land and that is the manner in which all the settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were created.”

Israel declared an official freeze on new settlement construction as part of peace agreements with the Palestinians in the early 1990s but reserved the right to expand existing sites in line with population growth.

In 2003 it agreed under the U.S.-backed road map peace plan to also freeze such “natural growth” expansion, but little has been done to combat the more than 100 unauthorized settlement outposts that have sprung up since.

Nearly 244,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank. In the summer of 2005, Israel evacuated all 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip.