On November 14, at 11:30, a critical hearing is expected to take place in the Supreme Court for a precedent-setting case filed by Peace Now and over a dozen Palestinian landowners against the allocation of about 1,200 dunams of a-Nahla land, in the Bethlehem area. In 2020, an unprecedented petition was submitted to the Supreme Court by a group of Palestinian landowners, together with Peace Now and Michael Sfard’s law firm, against the allocation of over 1.000 dunams in the heart of Bethlehem’s development area. The plan would seriously jeopardize the prospect of reaching a two-state agreement and would impede the territorial continuum between Bethlehem and the southern West Bank, and, therefore, the viability of a Palestinian state.
Watch our new video:
This is the first time the issue of land allocation in the Occupied Territories is being brought to trial. For over fifty years, virtually all public land that Israel has allocated in the West Bank has been for settlement purposes, and not for the benefit of the Palestinian public, despite consisting of more than 86% of the West Bank population. This discriminatory and apartheid policy is one of the key building blocks of the separation and discrimination regime Israel operates in the Occupied Territories and is a blatant violation of international law and basic principles of fairness and equality.
Since 1967, Israel has allocated the precious resource of land in the West Bank to Israelis only. This policy confirms the claims of those who accuse Israel of applying an Apartheid regime in the Occupied Territories. The allocation of the land in E2 for a settlement is immoral, illegal, and disproportionate in a way that cries to heaven. Although the order given by the court does not cover the entire area of the petition, the court signals that this discrimination must not continue.
In the petition, the petitioners claim that the land in the a-Nahla area, also known as E2 or Givat Eitam, is an essential land reserve for the development of the Bethlehem area and that it should be allocated to the Palestinians and to settlers. They also raised in the petition their long-standing personal connection to the land, as well as the importance of the area for the development needs of the entire Palestinian public in the Bethlehem area.
The Land in a-Nahla (E2/Givat Eitam)
The area of the plan is located within the Palestinian area of the Bethlehem metropolitan area, east of the Separation Barrier, which was partially established by Israel in the area. The planned settlement is located 2 km northeast of the settlement of Efrat and is intended to double the size of the settlement while damaging the only remaining area in the Bethlehem area that could enable sustainable Palestinian development. This plan would seriously threaten the possibility of reaching a two-state agreement and would impede the territorial continuum between Bethlehem and the southern West Bank, and, therefore, the viability of a future Palestinian state. Any attempt of Israel to annex the settlements Efrat and E2 would split the West Bank (similarly to the plan in E1) and would bisect the main highway (Highway 60) that connects the southern West Bank to Bethlehem.
In 2004, Israel declared approximately 1,300 dunams south of Bethlehem near the village of a-Nahla as state land. Nine Palestinian landowners filed appeals regarding the declaration. The appeals committee accepted their claim for approximately 100 dunams, yet for roughly 1,200 dunams it determined that the landowners did not prove that they had cultivated the land as consecutively and intensively as required. The landowners filed a petition to the High Court of Justice, claiming that whole purpose of the declaration of state land was meant to take land from them and give it to settlers. Their petition was rejected in January of 2016 (see more about “declaration of state land” here).
On December 26, 2018, the state announced its intention to allocate the land to the Ministry of Housing for settlement planning purposes and that the allocation contract would take effect within 30 days (the announcement came after Peace Now petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding that the state inform of its intention to allocate because land allocations in the West Bank are done secretly with no transparency).
On February 7, 2019, Peace Now, along over a dozen landowners, turned to the Civil Administration’s Custodian of Government and Abandoned Property demanding that the intention to allocate land to the Ministry of Housing be revoked and allocated to Palestinians instead.
On May 3, 2020, more than one year later, the letter of appeal was rejected by the Civil Administration, which then wrote to the Housing Ministry that it could begin designing a plan for the new Givat Eitam “settlement neighborhood,” reportedly for some 7,000 housing units.
With the rejection, Peace Now’s attorney Michael Sfard contacted the Civil Administration demanding that it refrain from giving the Housing Ministry the allocation for 30 days to allow Peace Now and the Palestinian landowners to challenge the decision in the High Court. Outgoing Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, in his last days in office, chose to dismiss our request and approved the allocation immediately and even issued a press release. Subsequently, we filed the petition.
Peace Now’s main arguments were threefold:
1. Allocation of land to settlements contravenes its duty to act as but an administrator and usufructuary, as set forth in Article 55 of the Hague Regulations.
2. In view of the fact that 99.8% of land allocated in the West Bank has been allotted to settlements, while only 0.2% was apportioned for Palestinian needs, the designation of additional land for settlement use is tainted by discrimination and inequality, and is thus prohibited.
3. The Palestinian need for this land in the heart of Bethlehem’s development area is immeasurably greater than that of the settlement of Efrat, which is peripheral to Israel and far from constituting a desirable area.
Since the 1979 Elon Moreh ruling, no petition has succeeded in undermining the legal infrastructure that enables the ongoing expansion of the settlement enterprise. This initiative and the surrounding public struggle aims to undermine the prevailing view that “state land” in the occupied territories effectively constitutes land available for Israeli use, and to obligate the Supreme Court and the Israeli public, to address this fundamental question.
State Land Allocation in the West Bank – For Jews Only
Following a request under the Freedom of Information Act submitted by Peace Now and the Movement for Freedom of Information, the Civil Administration’s response was received:
99.76% (about 674,459 dunams) of state land allocated for any use in the Occupied West Bank was allocated for the needs of Israeli settlements. The Palestinians were allocated, at most, only 0.24% (about 1,625 dunams).
Some 80% of the allocations to Palestinians (1,299 dunams) were for the purpose of establishing settlements (669 dunams) and for the forced transfer of Bedouin communities (630 dunams). Only 326 dunams at most were allocated without strings for the benefit of Palestinians, and at least 121 of those dunams are currently in Area B under Palestinian control. Most of the allocations to the Palestinians (about 53%) were made prior to the 1995 Interim Agreement (the Oslo II Agreement, in which the West Bank was divided into Areas A, B, and C, and transferred control over 40% of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority).
The significance of the data is that the State of Israel, which has been in control of the West Bank for more than 55 years, allocates the land exclusively to Israelis, while allocating virtually no land for the unqualified benefit of the Palestinian population. Land is one of the most important public resources. Allocation of land for the use of only one population at the expense of another is one of the defining characteristics of apartheid. This is further proof that Israel’s continued control of the occupied territories over millions of Palestinian residents without rights and the establishment of hundreds of settlements on hundreds of thousands of dunams has no moral basis.
The decision to allocate a-Nahla land for a new settlement is illegal and immoral. Implementing this plan will severely damage not only the Palestinian landowners and the development capacity of the Bethlehem area, but also the ability to reach a future peace agreement and territorial compromise for a future Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. After 55 years of Israeli occupation in the West Bank, it is time that Israel start to allocate lands for Palestinian development, and not to only for settlements.