The Knesset approved in preliminary reading a bill that would allow the Settlement Division to manage most of the land in Area C of the West Bank. Peace Now: Instead of curbing the illegal activity, they are scrambling to make it legal.
Peace Now: “The Knesset today approved a bill allowing five decades of land theft, delinquency and corruption under the guise of ‘unique characteristics and development of settlement.’ Despite stacks of State Comptroller reports, complaints from legal advisers and evidence of criminal offenses, the government is scandalously planning to give the biggest land thieves responsibility for managing the land distribution, which will continue to be done under the cover of darkness if the bill passes into law.”
On Wednesday, 13 June, the Knesset approved the bill proposed by MKs Smotrich (Jewish Home), Kish and Bitan (Likud), according to which the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), a non-governmental body, will be given charge of managing lands in the rural sector of Area C of the occupied West Bank. It is important to note that according to international law, the occupying power must not grant non-governmental organizations the authority to manage lands in the occupied territory.
The Settlement Division has managed most of the land in the territories for decades, and it has done so thus far away from proper administration, in the dark, without supervision and sometimes in violation of the law, including fraud. For over a decade, efforts have been made mainly by legal advisors in government ministries to change the situation and stop the management of the land by the Settlement Division, or at least supervise it, yet in practice the Division continues to do with the land as it wishes. Today, the government is forced to deal with the issue following two petitions submitted to the High Court of Justice, to which the State must respond in the coming weeks.
The Settlement Division as Land Manager: Carte blanche, zero state supervision
In 1968, the Israeli government gave the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division extensive powers to establish settlements in the Occupied Territories. Funding for the activities of the division comes entirely from the state budget, but the division itself is not a government body, and is not subject to the rules and restrictions binding public bodies, while its employees are not civil servants.
Among the powers given to the Settlement Division was the administration of land in the rural sector of the settlements, to the extent that it manages most of the public lands—otherwise known as “state lands”—in the West Bank which were allocated for any use. The Settlement Division allocates the lands in sub-allocations to the settlers (contracts called “bar reshut”, or authorization certificate) for the use of construction, agriculture, industry and more.
The Settlement Division manages the land without any transparency, contrary to the rules of proper administration, without supervision, and sometimes with corruption and fraud. Thus, for example, the Settlement Division gave settlers in Amona, Giv’at Haulpana, Mitzpeh Kramim and others the rights to build on what was private land belonging to Palestinians.
For more on the activities of the Settlement Division in the field of land management, see Chapter 2 of the Peace Now report, “Unraveling the Mechanism behind Illegal Outposts,” January 2017.
Background: Petitions to the High Court of Justice
In 2015, contractor company M.I. Shaham submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that the Settlement Division be relinquished of its authority over land management. The company, which wanted to build in the settlements, suffered from severe discrimination by the Settlement Division which raised impossible obstacles in front it. The case opened a window into the Division’s land management system.
In response to the High Court of Justice, the State announced that the Prime Minister had established a “committee to examine the issue of the management of state land in the rural sector of Judea and Samaria,” consisting of the directors-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (as an observer).
Another petition was filed by Peace Now demanding that all land allocations in the West Bank, including those of the Settlement Division, be publicized, and that there be a possibility to appeal any plans to allocate land.
On June 11, 2018, the State submitted an update to the High Court of Justice regarding Peace Now’s petition stating that in the end the Committee “failed to reach an agreed-upon recommendation” and the matter is hence being examined by the attorney general.
According to the State’s announcement, the bill will be put on hold for two weeks so to give the government time to examine the possibility of making the law redundant by means of a cabinet decision.