Over the past 33 years the Civil Administration has allocated less than one percent of state land in the West Bank to Palestinians, compared to 38 percent to settlers, according to the agency’s own documents submitted to the High Court of Justice.
The West Bank includes 1.3 million dunams (approximately 325,000 acres) of “state land,” most of which is allocated to Jewish settlements.
The declared policy of the previous Netanyahu government was to remove Jewish construction from private Palestinian land in the West Bank and to approve all construction on state lands.
According to the classification of the Civil Administration, a small amount of “state land” was registered with the Jordanian authorities until 1967. But most declared “state land” was declared as such after 1979.
The need for such a declaration emerged in October 1979, when the High Court struck down as unconstitutional the state’s practice of seizing Palestinian land, ostensibly for “military needs” but in practice in order to establish Jewish settlements.
It was after 1979 that the process of the wholesale declaration of territory as state land began. According to the law in the West Bank, any land with continuous agricultural cultivation for at least 10 years becomes the property of the farmer; land under cultivation cannot be seized by the state.
Although the Civil Administration team charged with determining which lands are cultivated is supposed to base their conclusions on testimony and aerial photos, a senior official in the Civil Administration conceded recently in the Ofer Military Court that the decisions are political.
The hearing at which the official was speaking was over the state lands declared with regard to the Hayovel outpost. The latter has been at the heart of a High Court case for over seven years. The state had decided to retroactively authorize Hayovel, but aerial photos clearly show a number of houses and cultivated land, and the road to Hayovel goes through private Palestinian land. The state therefore devised a method of declaring the area between cultivated spots, for example, between trees, as “uncultivated” and thus it could deem it state land. Palestinians claiming ownership of the land petitioned against the decision through the organization Yesh Din and attorney Michael Sfard.
In a court hearing in January an official from the Civil Administration’s oversight unit, Gilad Palmon, told the court: “The official who decides on the declaration [of state land] is at the political level, the defense minister. Another Civil Administration official, Yossi Segal, said: “The political echelon decides the size of the area.”
Three years ago the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Bimkom − Planners for Planning Rights asked the Civil Administration, by dint of the Freedom of Information Law, for figures on the extent of state lands in the West Bank. The Civil Administration refused to provide the information and the organizations asked the court to intervene.
The Civil Administration’s representatives told the court that there are 1.3 million dunams of state land in the West Bank and that it could not provide additional data. Jerusalem District Court Judge Yoram Noam did not accept the response and instructed the agency’s representatives to provide more information.
The Civil Administration subsequently provided the court with the following details: 671,000 dunams of state land is still held by the state. Another 400,000 dunams were allocated to the World Zionist Organization. Most of the Jewish settlements, both residences and agricultural land, are on this land.
Another 103,000 dunams of state land were allocated to mobile communications companies and to local governments, mainly for the construction of public buildings.
Utilities such as the Mekorot water company, the Bezek communications company and the Israel Electric Corporation received 160,000 dunams, 12 percent of the total state land in the West Bank.
Palestinians have received a total of 8,600 dunams (2,150 acres), or 0.7 percent of state land in the West Bank.
The Civil Administration told the court that of this, 6,910 dunams were in the Jenin district, land allocations made a long time ago that are now in areas A and B (under full Palestinian control or Palestinian civilian and Israeli military control, respectively). One dunam was allocated for a stone quarry in the Hebron district; 630 dunams in the Bethlehem district were allocated for Bedouin; 1,000 dunams were allocated in the Jericho district and 10 dunams were allocated in Tul Karm.
Nir Shalev, a researcher for Bimkom, said: “Israel has claimed for years that the settlements are built only on state land, a claim that is repeatedly shown to be inaccurate. The data on allocations to the Palestinians, which the Civil Administration was forced to reveal, show the other side of coin: Israeli policy determines that state lands in the West Bank are for the use of Israelis only − mainly settlers.”
Because state land is essential for the expansion of settlements, a great deal of pressure is exerted to influence the decision of where such lands are declared. Haaretz checked and found that even when the state claims that certain lands are state lands, the process of determining usage beforehand is careless, and land declared as state land also includes private Palestinian land and cultivated land. One example of such carelessness regards the large settlement of Givat Ze’ev, northwest of Jerusalem. Next to the settlement is a home belonging to a Palestinian man, Saadat Sabri, who also cultivated a plot of land nearby.
In 2006, when building began on the separation barrier, bulldozers destroyed his fields. Although aerial photos clearly showed the land was cultivated the state declared the land to be state land in 2010 and joined Sabri’s plot to Givat Ze’ev. Sabri petitioned the High Court against the move.
Researcher Dror Etkes found that land important to the expansion of settlements was declared state lands, including territory near Susya, Tekoa, Ma’aleh Adumim, Kiryat Arba and other Jewish communities.
In the center of Ma’aleh Adumim, for example, is land that aerial photos from the 1970s show as partially under cultivation. Yet in 2005 the entire area was declared state land and is now built on.
“The findings, which are a sampling, prove the claims that Palestinian landowners have been consistently presenting over the past few decades: Under the aegis of the broad declaration of lands as state lands, which includes almost a million dunams, Israel has taken over extensive cultivated areas, which were stolen from their owners through administrative decisions over which public and legal oversight is minimal, because they were supposedly not cultivated.”
The director of Yesh Din, Haim Erlich, said: “Yossi Segal, who is in charge of abandoned property in the West Bank, reveals the painful and ugly fact that we have been aware of for some time: The survey, which is supposed to be professional, has become a political tool.”
The Civil Administration did not respond to numerous requests for comment.