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Like thieves in the night: Stealing Palestinian land

The Israeli government wants to prolong its long-term thievery, based on a particularly dirty trick. A few words on the uneven ground upon which the settlement of Beit El rests.

By Yesh Din, written by Yossi Gurvitz

Construction at the settlement of Beit El, February 05, 2013. (Photo: Ahmad Al Bazz/Activestills.org

Up until a few months ago, yours truly lived in a Jaffan cubicle, for which he shelled a large sum to a shyster who shall remain unnamed. One day, I heard a ring at the door. A municipal inspector was standing there. The undersigned opened the door with some trepidation, only to be told by the inspector that he was there to inform me the neighbors next door were asking for permission to do some remodeling. When I wondered what this had to with me, as I was only a lowly renter, the inspector made it clear to me I had the right to oppose the construction, and that it was his job to inform me of this right. This is how things are carried out in a law-abiding region.

The West Bank is famously not such a region. If any more proof is necessary, please look at the following pictures.

The first is a seizure order signed by Brig. Gen. Binyamin Eliezer on July 18, 1979; the second is a map of the seized land, taken from the lands of the village Dura Al Qara; the third is a document issued by Major Amnon Shasha a day later. Please pay attention to paragraphs 6a and 8 in Shasha’s document: in the first, Shasha stipulates that the “seizure order is not to be published to the locals,” and in the second, that “no publicity is to be given to the order.”

Why am I boring you with paperwork from 1979, a time so unenlightened its favorite music was disco? Ah: because it shows us how the system of theft works in the West Bank. Shasha was basically ordering the confiscation of private, registered land, ostensibly for security reasons and in actual fact for the purpose of building a settlement (his document also demands that the head of the local yeshiva – a religious school – will be cautioned that “any further attempts at unpermitted deviations,” such a lovely term, will be “punished with all severity”), all the while hiding the fact from the residents. By doing so, Shasha deprived them of their right to protect themselves from the order by appealing to the High Court of Justice.

Such an act, the High Court ruled back in 2005, is reserved for totalitarian states: “Secret legislation, kept in hidden archives, is one of the signs of a totalitarian regime and contradicts the rule of law.” Now we expect the court to follow its own ruling.

Attorneys Michael Sfard, Muhammad Shaqir, Shlomy Zachary and Anu Lusky petitioned the High Court last week on behalf of Yesh Din, in the name of Abd-Al-Rahman Ahmed Abd-Al-Rahman Qassem, a resident of Dura Al Qara whose land was confiscated under Shasha’s order. It’s important to note that since the land was confiscated – a minor phase lasting merely 34 years – no military use was made of Qassem’s land.

Seizure orders, according to international law and the judgements of the High Court, allow the seizure of lands only for pressing military needs. For instance, you may seize land to build fortifications on it to block an advancing enemy force, or an observation post. Military necessity, by its very nature, expires after time has passed, or, as our petition states, “the military order that is the subject of this petition is essentially intended to answer an immediate and pressing military necessity, therefore it is temporary in nature, as the presence of the IDF forces in the West Bank is temporary.” If the army has not used the land all this time, the reasonable conclusion is that it has no such need. Shasha’s document also hints at the real goal of seizing the land: the expansion of the settlement of Beit El.

While the army made no use of the land, settlers invaded it in 2010, and began illegal construction on it. It was illegal enough to cause the Civil Administration to issue demolition orders to those structures that same year – orders which were never enforced since the rule of law is important, but the settlers’ political lobby is more important. Our petition demands that, since the army has made no use of Qassem’s land for the past 34 years, it is time to return it to its owners – before the government pulls a fast one and “retroactively validates” the illegal construction on the site, which is part of the slippery deal Prime Minister Netanyahu offered after the evacuation of the Ulpana Hill. The land must be returned to its owners both because no legal use was made of it, because so much time has passed since it was confiscated for alleged military use, and because the procedure used to seize it – Shasha’s order – was completely invalid.

And a final, critical point. Shasha, you’ll recall, was a major. The man who issued the original land seizure order, which said that “an announcement of the content of this order is to be given to the owners or holders of land in the area” was a brigadier general. And not just any brigadier general: Binyamin “Fuad” Ben Eliezer – although his political career obscured it – was an outstanding and famous officer. How come a major allowed himself to openly, in writing, defy an order signed by a general, and a prominent one to boot?

How did that happen? Perhaps because even then, the IDF officers knew which way “the Commander’s Spirit” points: actions promoting effective annexation. And they knew that even if Ben Eliezer himself wouldn’t like what was done to his order, his seniors – in the army or government – would. And that’s another way the occupation corrupts the army.

Written by Yossi Gurvitz in his capacity as a blogger for Yesh Din, Volunteers for Human Rights. A version of this post was first published on Yesh Din’s blog.

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    1. If Ben Eliezer’s empowering order stipulates that seizure is to be announced via paper to residents, and the acting Major violates this, the order fails its own internally defined process so is invalid on its own terms. There was no legal seizure in the military’s own definition. The point of invalidating on process is to insure the chain of command. Here, however, there is no subject demanding redress, for the Palestinian residents have no standing or venue of complaint. Welcome Kafka.

      By disallowing complaint on the ground, command and control is lost as well, so long as those harmed by this loss, residents, have no process. This effectively lets lower officers on the ground to make policy rather than simply execute such. Over time, these “ground necessities” migrate laterally and upward, becoming evolved “common sense” IDF policy. A culture of conformity results, with some questions just not asked.

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