Palestinians 'own 40%' of Israeli West Bank settlements

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Almost 40 per cent of land used by Israel for its settlements in the occupied West Bank is the private property of Palestinians, the Israeli organisation Peace Now said yesterday on the basis of leaked official maps and other data.

Contrary to official claims that the land is state-owned and that private property is only seized temporarily for security reasons, the leak shows that privately owned Palestinian land has been repeatedly used to build and expand settlements.

The potential embarrassment to Israel is all the greater because it suggests that the use of private Palestinian land is especially prevalent in Jewish settlements which successive Israeli governments have made clear they are determined to keep.

For example, Peace Now say the leaked data for the largest settlement built on territory occupied in the 1967 Six Day War, Ma'ale Adumim, to the east of Jerusalem, indicates the amount of privately owned Palestinian land accounts for 86.4 per cent. The settlement is one of the "major population centres" which President George Bush conceded in 2004 would remain Israeli in any "final status" settlement.

Peace Now says the disclosure demonstrates that "in addition to ignoring international laws and agreements, Israel has violated its own norms and laws in the West Bank through the confiscation of private Palestinian property and the building of settlements upon them."

Peace Now says that digital maps showing that 15,000 acres of privately owned Palestinian lands have been used in the settlements were leaked from within the Israeli military's Civil Administration, which runs the West Bank.

Claiming that "the property rights of many Palestinians have been systematically violated," the report says the data was used by Talia Sasson, the lawyer charged by the then prime minister Ariel Sharon to report on illegal settlements last year.

Ms Sasson said in her report that the use of private Palestinian property for outpost construction could be a "felony", and contravene a "basic right" of possession defined by the Israeli Supreme Court as a "constitutional right". She added that such outposts must be "evacuated, the sooner the better".

Dror Etkes, the director of Peace Now's settlement watch programme, said yesterday that the same legal considerations applied in the case of the settlements themselves. He said Israel was conducting itself as a "Mafia state when it comes to private Palestinian property, taking, stealing, land from the Palestinians not only as a collective but as individuals." The Civil Administration did not dispute that some private land had been used but insisted that it did not have such figures as those produced by Peace Now.

The administration is resisting a case brought by Peace Now to release information under the Israeli Freedom of Information Act, arguing that "security considerations and foreign relations aspects" are involved.

The private land was either registered by Palestinians under British rule before 1948, or Jordanian rule before 1968, or recognized under Ottoman law, which has never been revoked.

The disclosures could trigger the possibility not only of fresh international pressure, but also of legal action by Palestinian landowners. Peace Now and a group of Palestinian owners are pursuing a High Court case for the evacuation of the Migron outpost, on the grounds that it was constructed on Palestinian land that was 100 per cent private. Mr Etkes predicted the case would succeed and would be a "very interesting development".

Shlomo Dror, for the Civil Administration, said that the practice of building on privately owned Palestinian land had stopped in "1997 or 1998" and that much of the material had been published in Ms Sasson's report. He said officials had been examining the report on the Peace Now website and added: "We don't have the figures they have. It is not always easy to say what is privately owned land and what isn't, particularly when there is no documentation. We have a 'blue line' committee which has been looking at these issues of ownership for about three years and is still working."