View from Nahalin over the settlement of Beitar Illit, which may expand following declaration. Anne Paq/Activestills.org, 3 Apr. 2014
On 25 August 2014, Israel declared about 380 hectares of West Bank land as state land. According to the military order, the declaration applies to vast tracts of land belonging to the Palestinian villages of Husan, Wadi Fukin, Jab'a, Surif and Nahalin, in the Bethlehem district, northwest of the settlements of Beitar Illit and Gush Etzion and adjacent to the Green Line.
According to media reports, the declaration was carried out under directives from government officials in retaliation for the abduction and killing of Yeshiva students Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar in June 2014. As such, the declaration constitutes collective punishment of the residents of these five villages, who will no longer be permitted to use their land. Such punishment is prohibited.
Public land is meant to serve the needs of the Palestinian public, rather than those of Israel or of the settlers. However, it appears that the purpose of the current declaration, as others before it, is to clear the way for developing nearby settlements or establishing new ones in the declared area. It is also meant to impede the development of the Palestinian villages whose lands have been declared state land and intensify the territorial divide between them, already exacerbated by the presence of Israeli settlements in the area.
Moreover, the location of the lands that have been declared state land suggests an intention to create territorial contiguity between Israel and the nearby settlements of Beitar Illit, Gva’ot and the Gush Etzion bloc, in a manner that would effectively erase the Green Line in the area. This declaration is one of several actions taken by the state in this vicinity, including the April 2014 declaration of some 100 hectares of land in Neve Daniel as state land and a plan to advance building projects in the Gva’ot settlement (officially part of Alon Shvut).
B’Tselem calls on the Civil Administration to cancel the declaration immediately.
Israel began a massive project of declaring state land in the West Bank in 1979, following the High Court of Justice ruling in Elon Moreh, which restricted the government’s power to establish settlements on private Palestinian land that had been seized by military order, as had been the practice until then. The Israeli government announced it would build settlements only on land that had been declared state land. However, the reserve of state land Israel had “inherited” from the Jordanians was limited. Hence, by 2002, Israel had declared almost 100,000 hectares of West Bank land as state land. In Area C, which is under full Israeli control, there are currently 120,000 hectares of state land, comprising about 36.5% of Area C (22% of the West Bank).
Comprehensive research conducted by B’Tselem showed that state land had been declared over the years in breach of the basic norms of due process and natural justice. Palestinian residents often did not know that their land had been registered as government property, and by the time they found out, it was too late to appeal the decision. The burden of proof always rests on the Palestinian claiming ownership of the land, and even if the landowner manages to prove the land is his, in some cases, it would still be registered to the state on the claim that it had been handed over to a settlement “in good faith”.
Even if state land declarations had been done lawfully, according to international law, the land, including land declared prior to 1967, remains public land that is meant to serve the population of the occupied territory, that is, the Palestinian public, rather than Israel or its citizens. In practice, Israel prohibits Palestinian construction and development on state land almost completely, designating it almost entirely for the construction and development of Israeli settlements, whose very establishment is a breach of international law: 94% of state land in Area C is located in the jurisdiction of settlements and their local councils.