The legal battle over settlement building on privately owned Palestinian land is heating up. Yesterday, the Supreme Court barred settlers from taking up residence in houses at Beit El. The court was responding to a petition by two Palestinians from the village of Dura a-Kara, who say the buildings are on land they own. (The Supreme Court order in Hebrew is here; an AP story on the decision is here.)
In honor of that decision, I’m adding a new document to my online archive of settlement history. The mimeographed Hebrew flier, from the flagship settlement of Ofrah in 1976, shows how aware settlers were at the outset that they were using land that belonged to someone else, how intentional the theft was.
First, some background on the latest legal case. The land-owners from Dura a-Kara got legal help from the intrepid human-rights activists of Yesh Din’s Land Advocacy Project. Earlier this year, Yesh Din filed a similar petition on behalf of Palestinians who own the land on which new houses have been built in Ofrah.
To be clear: Neither of these actions touch on whether it’s legitimate for a government to settle its civilians in occupied territory. The issue here is old-fashioned property law. To build your house on someone’s land is theft. It’s like going into someone’s home and taking his TV. The only difference is that the burglar vanishes into the night. The land thief stays in public view. A larger chutzpah quotient is needed.
Together, the two petitions touch on a tiny portion of land theft. According to a Peace Now analysis, using official Civil Administration data, 32 percent of the land used by settlements is the private property of Palestinians. Ofrah is a particularly severe case: 85% of the settlement’s land belongs to Palestinians.
Ofrah was established in April 1975. A small group, led by Gush Emunim activist Yehudah Etzion, moved into an abandoned Jordanian army base north of Ramallah without government permission and in defiance of a policy barring settlement in the area. Nonetheless, Defense Minister Shimon Peres allowed them to stay under the guise of a “work camp,” and became the settlement’s patron. (You can read the full story in Chapters 10 and 11 of my book, The Accidental Empire.)
In 1976, the settlers were planning to build houses on an area of 220 dunam (55 acres) which, they believed, belonged to the state. The 1976 flier, “Build Your House in Ofrah,” clearly states that construction will take place “without approval from the owner of the land.”
According to Dror Etkes of the Land Advocacy Project, the actual area of the Jordanian base was 140 dunam (35 acres), and the surrounding land is the private property of individual Palestinians. Ownership of the land on which the Jordanian base stood is uncertain. Actual construction, as shown in aerial photographs, did not take place until the early 1980s, by which time the settlers may have had government permission to use the area of the base.
The current legal fights are over land taken from Palestinians. The settlers’ original intent at Ofrah was to take land without permission from the state. The bright red thread running through the settlement story, from then to now, is readiness to build “without approval from the owner of the land.”