Yovel outpost: Israel retroactively approves theft of private land

12:00 Jun 26 2011 Yovel outpost, west of Qaryut

On 26 June 2011, the Civil Administration announced its intention to declare as state land 189 dunams (189 km2), some of it privately owned, of the Palestinian village Qaryut. The Yovel outpost was built on the land, as was most of the access road to the outpost. By law, the Palestinian landowners have the right to object to the declaration within 45 days. No objection has yet been submitted.

The Yovel outpost, established in 1998, lies west of Qaryut and south of the Eli settlement. The 12 permanent dwellings in the outpost were built without a permit, without an outline plan, and partially on private Palestinian land. The declaration of state land was made in an attempt to approve retroactively the construction and to overcome the claims made in petitions to the High Court of Justice by the Palestinian landowners together with Israeli organizations. In September 2005, Peace Now petitioned the High Court in objection to the illegal construction in the outpost, and in April 2009, Yesh Din petitioned the court regarding the construction of the access road.

All the Israeli law-enforcement authorities failed in their handling of the criminal construction in the outpost and enabled the establishment and expansion of the outpost. The Civil Administration refrained from enforcing the building laws. The Supreme Court justices declined to issue an absolute order directing the authorities to enforce the law, even though the state admitted at the start of the judicial proceedings that the construction was illegal and that some of it was taking place on privately-owned Palestinian land. On 1 May 2011, the High Court ordered the state to present a “practical time schedule” for handling the building offenses in the outpost. In response, the Civil Administration announced that it intended to declare as state land some of the land on which the outpost was built.

Israel’s use of declaration of state land is ostensibly based on the Ottoman Land Law of 1858, which applies in the West Bank and permits the state to declare land “state land” under certain limited situations, and only when the land has not been worked for three consecutive years. Israel has interpreted “agricultural cultivation” in a very stringent manner, inconsistent with the intent of the original legislation, maintaining that only a plot of land 50 percent of which is worked without interruption is deemed under cultivation. In addition, Israel ignored a principal provision of the Ottoman Land Law, whereby continuous cultivation of the land for ten consecutive years grants possession of the land to the person who cultivated it.

During the British Mandate and the period of Jordanian control, declaration of state land was rare, and the usually authorities preferred to advance the orderly registration of rights of the landowners. By contrast, as early as 1968 Israel froze the land-registration process and declared 16 percent of the West Bank – 913,000 dunams (913 km2) – state land. These lands now comprise most of the municipal and built-up areas of the settlements. Moreover, international law prohibits the establishment of settlements in occupied territory and the exploitation of the land of occupied territory for the benefit of the occupying state’s population.

The declaration of state land is a flagrant violation of international commitments made by Israel’s government. In May 2003, the government approved the “Road Map” plan, in which it undertook to freeze construction in the settlements. Israel also promised the US administration of George Bush that it would not expropriate new land for the settlements and would not allocate new land for the settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu made a commitment, in June 2009, not to expropriate land to expand settlements.

This is not the first Israeli breach of these commitments: since approval of the Road Map, Israel has declared thousands of dunams in the West Bank state land, including land that was intended for settlements, such as the settlement Avnat, in the northern Dead Sea. However, the declaration of state land for the Yovel outpost is the first time that Israel has openly stolen land to retroactively approve an outpost.

The attempt to retroactively approve the building in the Yovel outpost is unlawful, and is made to grant a cloak of legality to the theft of land. The West Bank is full of outposts which, like the Yovel outpost, were built on private Palestinian land, without building permits, and without an outline plan having been made. In all these cases the authorities must ensure enforcement of the law. They must demolish the buildings that were built in violation of the law and return the land to its lawful owners.
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