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The Israeli government’s “price tag” operation

On Wednesday, 20 June 2012, the Israeli government’s Ministerial Committee on Settlement Affairs approved an agreement to evacuate five buildings in Ulpana Hill, a neighborhood of the Beit El settlement. Following the approval, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the significance of the agreement is in “safeguarding the law.” The precise law to which the Prime Minister is referring, however, is unclear, and the agreement that was signed is not legal -- neither in light of High Court rulings nor under international law.

Houses in Dura al-Qara with Beit El in the background. Photo: Silan Dallal, B'Tselem, 29 June 2010
Houses in Dura al-Qara with Beit El in the background. Photo: Silan Dallal, B'Tselem, 29 June 2010

Almost the entire Beit El settlement is built on private Palestinian land, most of which was confiscated during the 1970s by means of military orders issued on the dubious pretext that settlement there was an urgent military necessity. However, five of the buildings in Ulpana Hill, which lies northeast of Beit El and houses 33 families, were built on private Palestinian land not encompassed by the military orders. Moreover, these houses were erected without a building permit. The Civil Administration, whose offices are just a few hundred meters from the neighborhood, documented the land theft and building violations in this case, as it has for construction carried out without permits in dozens of other cases in Beit El not far from Ulpana Hill, on private Palestinian land similarly not encompassed in the military orders. The Civil Administration issued orders to halt the Ulpana construction and demolish the structures, but it did not carry out these orders and did not move to punish those responsible for the illegal construction.

The settlers of Beit El, via the settler movement Amana and the Kiryat HaYeshiva Beit El company, told the Civil Administration’s that they had purchased the land on which the Ulpana Hill houses stand. However, the state rejected this claim as false. The man who the settlers claimed had sold them the land was never its owner. Moreover, this man ostensibly purchased the land from its former owner, although it turned out that the former “owner” of the land was, at the time of the “sale,” a boy of only seven years old, who could not have been registered as the owner of land. The purchase agreement was not registered in the Tabu (land registry) or approved by the Civil Administration, as required by the military orders. The Judea and Samaria Police file on the forged Ulpana Hill land purchase agreement was closed due to “absence of culpability” and the police explained that “some kind of transaction was concluded” by someone “thought to be the land owner, but who in fact was only a relative of the owner,” without addressing the responsibility of Amana and Kiryat Hayeshiva Beit El for the forged purchase agreement. A year and a half ago, Yesh Din lodged an appeal with the state prosecutor’s office contesting the closing of the case. Thus far no decision has been announced.

Following the petition submitted by Yesh Din on behalf of the Palestinian owners of the land who are residents of Dura al-Qara village, the state promised the High Court of Justice (HCJ) to enforce the law regarding the land theft and the illegal construction. However, this commitment was never acted on. The state further committed to the HCJ that it would demolish the five buildings by 1 May 2012. The state requested an additional one-year postponement of the demolition and evacuation of the settlers. The HCJ denied this request and instructed the state of carry out evacuation of the buildings by 1 July 2012.

As a prize for the theft of private Palestinian land in Beit El, for illegal construction and forging a land purchase agreement, and in exchange for the settlers’ promise to avoid violence when the Ulpana Hill buildings are evacuated, the ministerial committee approved the following deal: Residents of the said buildings on Ulpana Hill will be moved temporarily to upscale caravan homes on the nearby Judea and Samaria Division military base. This site was erected without a permit but with a special dispensation from Israel’s Attorney General.

Until 1979, the High Court interpreted international law as permitting the military commander to seize land for civilian settlements if establishment of the settlement served military needs. However, in the Elon Moreh case, the HCJ clarified that land seizure, when not intended to serve such needs, contravenes international law and hence is illegal. Since that decision was handed down in 1979, the state stopped seizing Palestinian land to erect settlements and instead began building settlements on Palestinian land that had been declared “state land.” Since moving the Ulpana Hill residents to a military base is clearly not intended to serve military needs, and no official figure has even tried to claim as much, this agreement is illegal and contravenes the HCJ ruling. The argument that this is a temporary measure is irrelevant, apart from which, past experience has shown that a temporary location is liable to become a permanent residential community.

In addition, media reports indicate that the settlers have been promised that 300 new apartments will be built in a settlement on land the state has declared as “state land.” It is not yet clear whether these apartments will indeed be built or where, but Israel has no such land in the occupied West Bank. Under international law, the lands in the West Bank, irrespective of their classification, are intended for the use of the local Palestinian population and Israel does not have the authority to designate them for settlements, whose erection is prohibited to begin with by international law. The “price tag” claimed by the government of Israel for “safeguarding the law” leads to additional criminal offenses and to contravention of the HCJ verdict in the Elon Moreh case.