|About 86 percent of Maale Adumim, an Israeli settlement, sits on privately held Palestinian property, according to government data. [NYT]|
JERUSALEM, Nov. 20 — An Israeli advocacy group, using maps and figures leaked from inside the government, says that 39 percent of the land held by Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is privately owned by Palestinians.
Israel has long asserted that it fully respects Palestinian private property in the West Bank and only takes land there legally or, for security reasons, temporarily.
If big sections of those settlements are indeed privately held Palestinian land, that is bound to create embarrassment for Israel and further complicate the already distant prospect of a negotiated peace. The data indicate that 40 percent of the land that Israel plans to keep in any future deal with the Palestinians is private.
The new claims regarding Palestinian property are said to come from the 2004 database of the Civil Administration, which controls the civilian aspects of Israel’s presence in the West Bank. Peace Now, an Israeli group that advocates Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, plans to publish the information on Tuesday. An advance copy was made available to The New York Times.
The data — maps that show the government’s registry of the land by category — was given to Peace Now by someone who obtained it from an official inside the Civil Administration. The Times spoke to the person who received it from the Civil Administration official and agreed not to identify him because of the delicate nature of the material.
That person, who has frequent contact with the Civil Administration, said he and the official wanted to expose what they consider to be wide-scale violations of private Palestinian property rights by the government and settlers. The government has refused to give the material directly to Peace Now, which requested it under Israel’s freedom of information law.
Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the Civil Administration, said he could not comment on the data without studying it.
He said there was a committee, called the blue line committee, that had been investigating these issues of land ownership for three years. “We haven’t finished checking everything,” he said.
Mr. Dror also said that sometimes Palestinians would sell land to Israelis but be unwilling to admit to the sale publicly because they feared retribution as collaborators.
Within prominent settlements that Israel has said it plans to keep in any final border agreement, the data show, for example, that some 86.4 percent of Maale Adumim, a large Jerusalem suburb, is private; and 35.1 percent of Ariel is.
The maps indicate that beyond the private land, 5.8 percent is so-called survey land, meaning of unclear ownership, and 1.3 percent private Jewish land. The rest, about 54 percent, is considered “state land” or has no designation, though Palestinians say that at least some of it represents agricultural land expropriated by the state.
The figures, together with detailed maps of the land distribution in every Israeli settlement in the West Bank, were put together by the Settlement Watch Project of Peace Now, led by Dror Etkes and Hagit Ofran, and has a record of careful and accurate reporting on settlement growth.
The report does not include Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed and does not consider part of the West Bank, although much of the world regards East Jerusalem as occupied. Much of the world also considers Israeli settlements on occupied land to be illegal under international law. International law requires an occupying power to protect private property, and Israel has always asserted that it does not take land without legal justification.
One case in a settlement Israel intends to keep is in Givat Zeev, barely five miles north of Jerusalem. At the southern edge is the Ayelet Hashachar synagogue. Rabah Abdellatif, a Palestinian who lives in the nearby village of Al Jib, says the land belongs to him.
Papers he has filed with the Israeli military court, which runs the West Bank, seem to favor Mr. Abdellatif. In 1999, Israeli officials confirmed, he was even granted a judgment ordering the demolition of the synagogue because it had been built without permits. But for the last seven years, the Israeli system has done little to enforce its legal judgments. The synagogue stands, and Mr. Abdellatif has no access to his land.
Ram Kovarsky, the town council secretary, said the synagogue was outside the boundaries of Givat Zeev, although there is no obvious separation. Israeli officials confirm that the land is privately owned, though they refuse to say by whom.
Mr. Abdellatif, 65, said: “I feel stuck, angry. Why would they do that? I don’t know who to go to anymore.”
He pointed to his corduroy trousers and said, in the English he learned in Paterson, N.J., where his son is a police detective: “These are my pants. And those are your pants. And you should not take my pants. This is mine, and that is yours! I never took anyone’s land.”
According to the Peace Now figures, 44.3 percent of Givat Zeev is on private Palestinian land.
Miri Eisin, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said that Israeli officials would have to see the data and the maps and added that ownership is complicated and delicate. Baruch Spiegel, a reserve general who just left the Ministry of Defense and dealt with the separation barrier being built near the boundary with the West Bank, also said he would have to see the data in detail in order to judge it.
The definitions of private and state land are complicated, given different administrations of the West Bank going back to the Ottoman Empire, the British mandate, Jordan and now Israel. During the Ottoman Empire, only small areas of the West Bank were registered to specific owners, and often villagers would hold land in common to avoid taxes. The British began a more formal land registry based on land use, taxation or house ownership that continued through the Jordanian period.
Large areas of agricultural land are registered as state land; other areas were requisitioned or seized by the Israeli military after 1967 for security purposes, but such requisitions are meant to be temporary and must be renewed, and do not change the legal ownership of the land, Mr. Dror, the Civil Administration spokesman, said.
But the issue of property is one that Israeli officials are familiar with, even if the percentages here may come as a surprise and may be challenged after the publication of the report.
Asked about Israeli seizure of private Palestinian land in an interview with The Times last summer, before these figures were available, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: “Now I don’t deny anything, I don’t ignore anything. I’m just ready to sit down and talk. And resolve it. And resolve it in a generous manner for all sides.”
He said the 1967 war was a one of self-defense. Later, he said: “Many things happened. Life is not frozen. Things occur. So many things happened, and as a result of this many innocent individuals on both sides suffered, were killed, lost their lives, became crippled for life, lost their family members, their loved ones, thousands of them. And also private property suffered. By the way, on all sides.”
Mr. Olmert says Israel will keep some 10 percent of the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, possibly in a swap for land elsewhere. The area Israel intends to keep is roughly marked by the route of the unfinished separation barrier, which cuts through the West Bank and is intended, Israel says, to stop suicide bombers. Mr. Olmert, however, describes it as a putative border. Nearly 80,000 Jews live in settlements beyond the route of the barrier, but some 180,000 live in settlements within the barrier, while another 200,000 live in East Jerusalem.
But these land-ownership figures show that even in the settlements that Israel intends to keep, there will be a considerable problem of restitution that goes beyond the issue of refugee return.
Mr. Olmert was elected on a pledge to withdraw Israeli settlers living east of the barrier. But after the war with Hezbollah and with fighting ongoing in Gaza, from which Israel withdrew its settlers in the summer of 2005, his withdrawal plan has been suspended.
In March 2005, a report requested by the government found a number of illegal Israeli outposts built on private Palestinian land, and officials promised to destroy them. But only nine houses of only one outpost, Amona, were dismantled after a court case brought by Peace Now.
There is a court case pending over Migron, which began as a group of trailers on a windy hilltop around a set of cellphone antennas in May 1999 and is now a flourishing community of 50 families, said Avi Teksler, an official of the Migron council. But Migron, too, according to the data, is built on private Palestinian land.
Mr. Teksler said that the land was deserted, and that its ownership would be settled in court. Migron, where some children of noted settlement leaders live, has had “the support of every Israeli government,” he said. “The government has been a partner to every single move we’ve made.”
Mr. Teksler added: “This is how the state of Israel was created. And this is all the land of Israel. We’re like the kibbutzim. The only real difference is that we’re after 1967, not before.”
But in the Palestinian village of Burqa, Youssef Moussa Abdel Raziq Nabboud, 85, says that some of the land of Migron, and the land on which Israel built a road for settlers, belongs to him and his family, who once grew wheat and beans there. He said he had tax documents from the pre-1967 authorities.
“They have the power to put the settlement there and we can do nothing,” he said. “They have a fence around the settlement and dogs there.”
Mr. Nabboud went to the Israeli authorities with the mayor, Abu Maher, but they were told he needed an Israeli lawyer and surveyor. “I have no money for that,” he said. What began as an outpost taking 5 acres has now taken 125, the mayor said.
Mr. Nabboud wears a traditional head covering; his grandson, Khaled, 27, wears a Yankees cap. “The land is my inheritance,” he said. “I feel sad I can’t go there. And angry. The army protects them.”