The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din announced Jan. 29 it is launching a campaign to help Palestinians sue the state of Israel for its use of their privately owned lands for Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The campaign follows the publication in the newspaper Ha’aretz of classified government data regarding the extent of construction in officially recognized settlements that is illegal under Israel’s own laws. Violations include private and public building carried out without appropriate permits or outside of approved plans, as well as the construction of whole neighborhoods on private Palestinian lands.
The information was published as President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, wound up his first visit to Israel and the West Bank. The leaked government data and any subsequent suits could prove embarrassing and costly for Israel. Yesh Din estimates that the extent of claims against the state could “amount to hundreds of millions of shekels.” Michael Sfard, Yesh Din’s legal counsel, said “many Palestinian households now have a valid legal claim against the state of Israel,” and could go to court to demand the removal of buildings from their property and reparations for the years they were denied access to their lands.
Some 285,000 Israelis now live in about 120 recognized settlements in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. Israel’s official position is that their fate will eventually be decided in negotiations with the Palestinians. Settler leaders say the settlements are built on areas defined as state land. Israel says it carries out exhaustive checks to ensure that there is no building on private Palestinian land. But the data published by Ha’aretz shows numerous examples where Israel has not enforced its own laws.
The information gathering began in 2004 as Israel came under international pressure to instate a settlement freeze. Then Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz tasked a retired general, Baruch Spiegel, with compiling a detailed database that would give the government an accurate picture of settlement construction. The data revealed a pattern of building violations not only in the unauthorized outposts that have sprung up in recent years, but also in many of the “official” settlements.
Despite numerous requests by Peace Now, another leftist advocacy group, the Defense Ministry has refused to make the Spiegel database public. A petition to require publication of the data has been pending for two years in the Tel Aviv District Court. An Israeli defense official, who would not speak publicly, dismissed the Ha’aretz report as “political” and “nothing new.” (NYT, Jan. 30)