In their latest redrawing of the map of the West Bank at the expense of Palestinians, Israeli occupation authorities have declared about 250 acres of territory south of Bethlehem to be land belonging to the state, paving the way for it to be used to expand three Israeli settlements.
The step, approved by the hard-line defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, comes at a particularly sensitive time in Israeli-Palestinian relations, with the peace process on the brink of expiry after Israel failed to fulfil a commitment to release a group of Palestinian prisoners on 29 March, and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas subsequently applied for membership in 15 international treaties and conventions.
It is the largest declaration of state lands in the West Bank since 2004, and draws on 19th-century Ottoman Turkish law to take over Palestinian land found to have been uncultivated for a decade. Palestinians, who are given 45 days to appeal, view the measure as tantamount to expropriation, with many of them saying that Israeli strictures on their movement make cultivation of the land impossible.
An Israeli official sought to play down the significance of the move, saying: “This is a process… that has been going on for years. It is not new.” He added that what Mr Ya’alon had approved was a “declaration of intention to turn the land into state land if there aren’t objections”. However, the declaration itself, obtained by The Independent, says the land in question “is government property”. Signs in Hebrew and Arabic have been posted on the land saying: “Government Property. No Trespassing”.
Three Palestinian villages will lose land – Beit Omar, Naalin and al-Khader – and it’s thought that the territory will be used to expand Neve Daniel, Elazar and Alon Shvut settlements, and by residents of the Netiv Ha’avot settler outpost.
“This is a big chunk of land that once allocated to settlers will give them big room for expansion,” said Dror Etkes, head of Kerem Navot, a dovish organisation specialising in West Bank land issues. Noting that the order was signed on 6 April at the height of the crisis in the peace talks, Mr Etkes said it was aimed “to make the whole thing collapse”.
The move came as three Israeli settler families took up occupancy of building with 20 apartments in the West Bank city of Hebron after Israel’s supreme court last month ruled they had purchased the property legally. Palestinians and Israeli doves consider this to be the equivalent of a new settlement in Hebron.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, condemned the settlement steps: “This is a government of land theft and expansionism and it is the worst enemy of peace. Israel is doing everything possible to torpedo any chance of peace.”
Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responded: “In all cases, disputes regarding land ownership are ultimately decided by the Israeli Supreme Court which is known internationally for its professionalism and objectivity.”