Of land and peace

December 04, 2006

Common to most journalists who have reported from the Holy Land is the interview with a displaced Palestinian whose family home or land has been seized and settled by Israelis. The Palestinians can often produce a rusty key from their ancestral home or a yellowed deed to their family land to prove their rightful ownership. When Israel is pressed about the issue, the government says only state or purchased land has been settled.

But an Israeli peace group has challenged the veracity of the government's claims and the legality of its destructive settlement policy. A new report underscores the imperative for Israel to cease settlement expansion until a peace agreement with Palestinians is reached.

The Peace Now report, released last month, contends that 39 percent of West Bank land held by Israeli settlers is privately owned. It is based on leaked documents from Israel's Civil Administration, which oversees land matters in the disputed West Bank territory and Israel's 162 settlements. A government spokesman says some of the leaked data are from an internal government review of West Bank land ownership, but the complexity of such transactions precludes an easy assessment.

The report's inventory, if true, could have serious implications for any peace settlement with the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert indicated as recently as last week that he is willing to return large portions of the West Bank as part of any future peace deal.

But while the Peace Now report appears to verify long-standing Palestinian claims of disenfranchisement, its findings pose no threat to Israel's interests because there are no current peace negotiations.

Palestinians, along with the United Nations, have long charged that Israel's occupation of West Bank land after the 1967 war violated international law. The Peace Now report also shows how the seizure of Palestinian land violates Israeli law.

That, as well as the key points in the Peace Now report, should resonate with many Israelis who view the religious settlement movement as a drain on government funds and an impediment to peace. Some Israelis may view the report as a strong indictment of Israel's West Bank settlement policy and further proof of the need to revamp it for the sake of the country's security. They wouldn't be wrong.

But for many Palestinians, the Peace Now report only reaffirms their claim to the land, eliciting a collective, "I told you so."

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