Whose land is it, anyway

“This land is mine/God gave this land to me.”

So read the lyrics to the theme song from “Exodus,” words that still have the power to stir a Jewish heart. But Jews here and in Israel cannot dwell strictly in the realm of the heart. We must live in the real world as well, and deal with reality as it presents itself.

Thus we are troubled by a report this week on the front page of the New York Times stating that 39 percent of land held by Jewish settlers in the West Bank is actually privately owned by Palestinian Arabs.

Granted, the report was leaked by Peace Now, an Israeli organization strongly opposed to settlements, and funneled by an anonymous staffer within Israel’s Civil Administration. Granted, Israeli government officials have requested a review of the data before commenting, something they have every right to do. Granted, representatives of the settler movement vehemently deny any illegal transactions took place.

But if the report turns out to be true, then Israel will need to take action, either through individual compensation or as part of a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Land ownership in the region has always been complicated, going back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. A history of absentee landlords and disputed land claims tangle the truth. But official Israeli policy had maintained that settled land had been appropriated legally.

The new report contradicts that. It not only describes illegal claims on West Bank land, it further implies that resolving the issue will prove difficult. More than 80 percent of Ma’ale Adumim and 35 percent of Ariel, two of the largest settlements sit atop privately owned Palestinian land, according to the report. Israel has always planned to keep those settlements in any final peace deal.

For Israel to sustain the moral high ground, it must strive to act ethically in both war and peace. It must do so not only to assuage a suspicious world community, but for the sake of its collective soul. From the most devout haredi to the most secular Zionist, the Israeli national character is founded on adherence to bedrock principles of fairness.

Thus we urge the Israeli government to study the report, ascertain its veracity and then, if proven accurate, act.

Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people. That was true before, and it remains true forever. We will always support Israel’s inextinguishable right to the land. But we also expect it to live out the ethics of the Torah in its dealings with friend and foe alike.