Peace Now and over a dozen Palestinian landowners petitioned the High Court (3303/20) in 2020 against the allocation of about 1,200 dunams of a-Nahla land, in the Bethlehem area for the preparation of a construction plan for a new settlement near Efrat, known as Givat Eitam.
This decision gives a green light for doubling the Efrat settlement in a way that will seriously harm the chance for future peace based on a two-state solution. If the plan is indeed executed, a buffer will be created between Bethlehem and the south of the West Bank, which will prevent territorial continuity for a future Palestinian state, a necessary condition for reaching a political solution and a peace agreement.
The Supreme Court’s verdict shows clearly that the court ignored the claims of the petitioners – Peace Now, and 13 Palestinian landowners from the area – and determined that once the Palestinian petitioners refused the offer to receive some dunams on the edge of the hill, as the state was required by the judges, the petition “has run its course.”
Peace Now: “It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court, which is supposed to protect the underprivileged and strive for equality, chose to avoid responding to the central claim of the petitioners, according to which the allocation is tainted with severe discrimination and inequality, was made solely to serve the settlement project as part of an allocation policy which completely separates the Palestinians from land resources. Everything must be done to stop this dangerous plan, which will seriously harm the chance for peace and the development capacity of the Bethlehem area. The land must be allocated instead to the Palestinians who live there.”
Adv. Michael Sfard, who represented Peace Now and the Palestinian landowners in this petition, stated:
“The allocation to Efrat is a clear expression of the apartheid allocation policy, and this is what we argued before the court. Unfortunately, the court chose not to deal with the argument but to ignore it.”
Watch our video to learn more about the importance of this petition:
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.
Excerpt from the petition:
“For over fifty years of occupation, Israel has done all it can to take care of the establishment and expansion of the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, at the expense of and serious harm to the Palestinian protected residents. In recent decades, the main tool at its disposal for advancing its political-national goals has been the [state land] declaration mechanism and allocation policy. Through the cynical and massive exploitation of this mechanism, Israel has promised vast tracts of territory to expand the settlement enterprise in the Occupied Territories by pushing the needs of the Palestinian population to the bottom, utilizing its public resources, engaging in harsh and deliberate discrimination, and depriving Palestinian villagers. The time has come for the Israeli government to recognize its duty to ensure the welfare of the protected occupied population and to repeal its criminal allocation policy. The allocation of land in the a-Nahla area for the use and needs of the petitioners and the Bethlehem community will be a start toward fixing this [longstanding policy].”
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 only for settlements.