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Israelis use barrier and 55-year-old law to quietly seize Palestinians' land

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  • Zafar Khan
    Israelis use barrier and 55-year-old law to quietly seize Palestinians land Chris McGreal in Bethlehem Monday January 31, 2005 The Guardian
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 31, 2005
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      Israelis use barrier and 55-year-old law to quietly
      seize Palestinians' land

      Chris McGreal in Bethlehem
      Monday January 31, 2005
      The Guardian


      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
      independent state.

      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
      independence war.

      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
      his orchard.

      "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
      without recompense.

      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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