Settlements in West Bank called illegal

40% of land they sit on is owned by Palestinians, peace group says

November 22, 2006|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli peace group said yesterday that it had obtained government data showing that nearly 40 percent of land covered by Jewish settlements in the West Bank is privately owned by Palestinians, including major portions of areas that Israel intends to keep under any peace agreement.

Activists from Peace Now said digital mapping data it obtained indirectly from a government source showed a wide-scale land theft by Israel, which has long asserted that it respects private land ownership in the West Bank.

"What we have here is a mess," said Dror Etkes, a co-author who heads a Peace Now team that monitors the growth of settlements and their less-formal annexes, known as outposts.

He said the data were compiled by the Civil Administration, the Israeli military authority that deals with Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and passed to Peace Now through a third party.

Etkes said the findings could bolster the group's efforts to challenge the legality of settlement and outpost construction, and could complicate any peace talks over the fate of the settlements.

The group urged the state attorney to investigate possible official wrongdoing and said it would look for ways to use the findings in its legal cases.

Peace Now is co-plaintiff in a petition before Israel's Supreme Court demanding that the government dismantle a four-year-old outpost known as Migron, in the northern West Bank, on grounds that it was built on land owned by Palestinians.

In February, Israeli authorities demolished nine houses in an outpost called Amona after the high court ruled that they had been built illegally on private land.

Palestinians have long argued that settlers took their land. The Peace Now report marks the first time that activists have had such extensive access to government data to make their case. The group said it obtained the data after the government resisted its request for access under freedom of information laws.

Israel has said that it respects private ownership in the West Bank and has used its authority to declare property "state land" in cases where it was deemed abandoned or never formally registered. The government also seizes land temporarily for security purposes.

Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Civil Administration, said he had not seen the report and could not comment in detail. But he said the Israeli government had two committees looking into questions related to land ownership in the West Bank, including defining the boundary lines of settlements.

Dror said it has been known that some settlement construction was on private land. That practice has stopped, he said, and "in the last few years there is a decision not to build settlements on private Palestinian land."

Emily Amrousi, spokeswoman for the Yesha Council, the main settlers group in the West Bank, said the government is bound by a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that barred settlement construction on private property that had been seized temporarily for security reasons.

Amrousi said every Israeli government during the past 40 years has supported settlements to one degree or another and has made the decisions on where to build.

"The government of Israel is not a big criminal. It is a legal state, and the state built these settlements," she said.

The Peace Now report relied on mapping data showing the boundaries of areas that were deemed by the government to be privately owned because they were registered before 1968 or recognized by Israel as private under earlier Ottoman law.

The group then determined the outlines of each settlement, based on where houses, fences and roads have been built, and calculated the share that overlapped with the private land.

Overall, the group determined, 15,271 acres, about 38.8 percent of the land covered by settlements and outposts, was privately owned by Palestinians.

The group's findings, first reported yesterday by The New York Times, add a new dimension to the debate over settlements, which are considered illegal by much of the world and have long been viewed by activists and the U.S. government as an impediment to any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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