The confiscation 4000 dunams (990 acres) of Palestinian lands near Bethlehem of was announced on Sunday 31st August, all the land being in the area of the existing Gavot and Betar Illit settlements. Israeli NGO Peace Now has stated that this is likely to allow Gavot to extend as far as the Green Line, further cementing the reality of the settlements and further undermining peace negotiations. Whatever happens, villages that have already found life difficult will come under even greater pressure. Peace Now have stated that the recent announcement by Israeli authorities of a significant land confiscation in occupied Palestine shows that Israel is not serious about a sustainable and long term peace.
My team are currently working in the wider Bethlehem area and we are working among the communities affected by this order, villages such as Nahhalin, Al Jab’a, and Wadi Fukin. These communities at present face significant difficulties including threats and intimidation from settlers, damage to agricultural land and produce and a choking of natural growth through the Israeli controlled planning system. In Nahhalin locals showed us pictures and video footage of sewerage pipes from Betar Illit leaking out onto Palestinian farm land. The effluent seeped into the land, destroying olive trees and agricultural land. Trees that survived this were later cut down or burnt by local settlers. In 2012 settlers threw a Molotov cocktail at a taxi from Nahhalin, badly injuring the driver and five passengers including two 4 year old children (link to news story – http://www.jpost.com/National-News/Firebombing-injures-6-Palestinians-near-Bat-Ayin). Al Jab’a village have also had its olive trees cut and damaged to prevent local Palestinians working the land. In Wadi Fukin, caught between the Green Line and the growing settlement of Betar Illit, we met with the local school teacher who told us that their playground was demolished as it did not have a permit to be built and that the village has no room to grow, forcing people to leave the area.
This is the present reality of life for many people in Palestine. Now, with the announcement of the land confiscation and the inevitable settlement growth that will come, these problems will only get worse.
The Israeli government says that it is simply following the letter of the law. Using Ottoman Empire laws the Israeli government assumes all land to be state land unless proven otherwise. Equally if land is not worked for three years it can be declared state land, the Israeli state says it is simply enforcing the law and nothing more.
This justification however ignores several key issues related to the use of Ottoman laws and the declaration of state land. Under the Ottoman Empire most land was unregistered, the British tried during the mandate era, as did the Jordanians during their tenure, to register all land in Palestine. The Israeli authorities ended land registration for Palestinians in 1968, meaning that most of the land remains unregistered and that it has been made difficult for Palestinians to establish title. This allows the Israeli government to use Ottoman law while denying Palestinians access to protection under the same law, giving the Israeli authorities ample opportunity to confiscate this land. Equally, Palestinians are often deliberately prevented from accessing their land and from working their land. The separation barrier contributes to this, as does the obtuse permit system that goes with it. Settler violence and intimidation is also frequently used to prevent Palestinians using their land so that it becomes at risk of confiscation. Again the law is used against Palestinians while at the same time any protection under it is denied to them. A more fundamental problem is the very fact that these decisions are made under Ottoman Law, as Ottoman law is discriminately only applied to Palestinians, and not to settlers in the same area in the West Bank who live under Israeli law.
An occupying power has a responsibility to protect the local population and promote its welfare; as such the discriminatory application of law by Israel in occupied Palestine violates the core international humanitarian law principle of the protection of the occupied population. Furthermore, under this same principle, state lands in an occupied country should be used for the benefit of the local population; using the lands for the settlement building breaches not only this legal obligation but is also a transfer of the occupier’s population into an occupied territory, which is itself illegal under Article 49 of the 4th Geneva convention. Article 27 of the 4th Geneva convention states that the an occupying power has a responsibility to protect against threats and acts of violence towards civilians and their property, the existing failure to protect Palestinians from settler violence constitutes a breach of Article 27 which will be exacerbated by the increased settlement expansion.
If Israel is truly interested in peace it must respect international law and stop building settlements and stop confiscating Palestinian land to build them.
Using violence, harassment and intimidation and confiscating land by way of declaration of state land are but two of a wide variety of policies we have seen used by Israeli authorities to take over land and displace the Palestinian population. In future posts I will look at the other methods, such as declaring land to be a military firing zone – a tactic used locally against the Bedouin community in ‘Arab ar Rashayida whose story I will tell in my next blog post. As a team we will be linking with and supporting local villages with this issue and I will provide updates for each of the villages.