Israelis use barrier and 55-year-old law to quietly seize Palestinians' land
- Israelis use barrier and 55-year-old law to quietly
seize Palestinians' land
Chris McGreal in Bethlehem
Monday January 31, 2005
The Israeli government has quietly seized thousands of
acres of Palestinian-owned land in and around east
Jerusalem after a secret cabinet decision to use a
55-year-old law against Arabs separated from farms and
orchards by the vast "security barrier".
Most of the hundreds of Palestinian families whose
land has been confiscated without compensation have
not been formally notified that their property has
been transferred to the Israeli state. But plans have
already been drawn up to expand Jewish settlements on
to some of the expropriated territory.
The move has drawn stinging criticism from the
Palestinian leadership and some Israelis, who call it
"legalised theft" and say it is evidence that the vast
steel and concrete barrier under construction through
the West Bank and Jerusalem is less for security than
a move to expand Israel's borders.
"The government is walling in east Jerusalem for the
first time in six centuries," said Daniel Seidemann,
an Israeli lawyer fighting the seizures on behalf of
several Palestinian families.
"It is turning the eminently reversible step of a
barrier into an irreversible step by building
immovable homes. It is a move to assert aggressive
Israeli sovereignty over east Jerusalem."
Palestinian officials have warned that if the strategy
is not reversed it could prove an insurmountable
obstacle to a final peace agreement with Israel. The
Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of an
The cabinet secretly decided to seize the land in July
last year using a law passed in 1950 allowing the
state to confiscate property abandoned by Arabs who
fled to neighbouring countries during Israel's
Among those who have lost their land in the recent
seizures is Johnny Atik. His front room, in the
Bethlehem house he has lived in for 55 years, looks on
to the three hectares (eight acres) of olive groves
from which he is now officially deemed absent after
Israel built the "security fence" between his home and
"What is the law of absentees when we are here before
your eyes? We are not absent. The law is that any
Israeli with an American or European passport who goes
to live outside Israel is not considered absent. But
me, who lives here, is called absent," he said.
Immediately after occupying east Jerusalem in 1967,
Israel redrew the city's boundaries to run deep into
the West Bank. Swaths of land that had fallen within
the municipality of Arab towns such as Bethlehem -
including Mr Atik's - were suddenly defined as part of
"greater Jerusalem" and therefore within the borders
of the Jewish state. But the landowners were
classified as residents of the occupied territories
and therefore outside the country.
However, successive Israeli governments decided not to
apply the absentee property law to Jerusalem because
many Arabs who owned land within the area claimed by
Israel lived only a short distance away in other parts
of the West Bank.
But over the past two years, the invisible city
boundary that Mr Atik walked across to reach his land
each day was transformed into a border marked out in
concrete and steel.
In July, Mr Sharon's government decided to reverse the
absentee law policy on east Jerusalem, but the
cabinet's decision has only now become public after
the army told lawyers for some affected Palestinians.
The army had promised Mr Atik a permit to cross
through a military checkpoint to get to his olive
trees, but his lawyer, Mr Seidemann, spent a year
trying to get the pass out of the military.
"Eventually, I was told that the reason Johnny Atik
couldn't go to his land was that it was no longer his,
it belonged to the government," he said.
Another Bethlehem resident, Anton Salman, has lost
about 40 acres. "It began in 1996 with a small road
for the checkpoint. Then there is a bigger road, and
then a fence. And then you lose your land. It's all
done in the name of security but this is no way to
bring peace," he said.
Across the valley from Mr Atik's land is the Jewish
settlement of Har Homa. The clank of heavy machinery,
the scaffolding crisscrossing the front of half-built
flats, the cranes towering over the site all testify
to the rapid expansion of the settlement. The latest
Jerusalem municipal plan earmarks land for Har Homa's
expansion as far as Mr Atik's land.
The West Bank town of Beit Jala, near the Jewish
settlement of Gilo, asked the Israeli government to
route the barrier so that residents could still reach
their land without passing through a checkpoint. The
authorities refused and the army now says that
everything on the Jerusalem side of the barrier -
about 1,000 acres, which provide an income for 200
families - has been seized.
Some of the land is already being levelled in
preparation for construction linked to a nearby Jewish
The village of Walaja, which straddles the greater
Jerusalem border, is losing about 2,500 acres. An
Israeli development firm already claims to have bought
part of the land to build new homes for Jewish
The state has also appropriated a once thriving hotel,
the Cliff, on the edge of east Jerusalem even though
the owners live nearby. When the army started building
the eight-metre-high concrete wall that bisects the
area, it seized the hotel for "security needs". But
under the regulations for constructing the barrier,
the government would have had to pay more than £1m in
compensation. Then the owners were told their hotel
had been confiscated under the absentee property law
The government declined to discuss the new application
of the absentee property law.
Since the signing of the Oslo accords a decade ago,
Israel has doubled the size of the Jewish settlements.
Many Palestinians suspect that the West Bank barrier
was just another means to grab territory.
"This is state theft," said the mayor of Bethlehem,
Hanna Nasser. "They are thieves and they are bluffing
everybody. It's not a security wall, it's the future
frontier of the state of Israel."
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