Thanks to quick action and a sense of his own worth, S. managed to save two thirds of his land from being swallowed up by the Israeli armed forces. His dogged determination didn’t save all of his land, but it saved the best of it for the livelihood of himself and his family.
S. came to his land near Bethlehem one early morning in May 2000 to find workers, the employees of an Israeli contractor, preparing to open a road on and over his property.
S. could get little further information from the workers and drove straight to the office of the Society of St. Yves in Bethlehem. Within the hour the Society’s lawyers had faxed a letter to the Legal Advisor of the Civil Administration, the arm of the Israeli occupation forces that deals with citizens of the Occupied Territories, demanding an explanation for the trespass and that the trespass cease immediately. Despite repeated registered letters and faxes to the same purpose, the Society received no response for over a month.
During this period S. was unable to enter onto his land to work because he was daily prevented by settlers and soldiers whose presence there was constant from the very day after the first letter was sent.
Finally St. Yves received a reply from the Israeli Civil Administration. St. Yves was advised that the land had been declared “State Land” and confiscated in 1986. The purpose of the confiscation was to set aside the land for the future extension of the settlement of Beitar Elite. Israeli legislation does provide for such declarations by its military rulers but stipulates that such an announcement, though contrary to International Law and the Laws of War and Occupation, must be made at the site of the confiscated village lands in the presence of the village Muchtars. This is legal wisdom of the highest order since announcing a theft solely to the inanimate thing that is stolen is pointless in the extreme. The old Confucian conundrum comes to mind, “If a tree falls in the forest and there are no ears to hear, does it make a sound?”
A Muchtar is like a Justice of the Peace and under Ottoman Law adjudicates over all kinds of disputes within a village or town, particularly in agreeing on borders between properties and land holdings. In the saga of the attempted theft of S.’s land the four Muchtars of the area declined to cooperate with the Military Authorities and refused to appear for the declaration. The Civil Administration admitted this fact.
On the 15th June 2000 the Society entered a petition in the High Court of Justice on behalf of S. demanding an end to the trespass. In the course of argument the State Prosecutor admitted that none of the four Muchtars had been present at the declaration and also that the land itself, with the exception of about one third of its total area (the third that was uncultivated was the extremely rocky land at the very top of the hill), was well and consistently husbanded. One of the principal pillars upon which the legal fiction of “State Land” is erected is the principal of neglect. That is to say that the occupier claims that the legal owner of the land failed to cultivate it and therefore the land “reverts” to the Occupier State. With these two fundamental defects in the confiscation, the High Court had no option but to issue Interlocutory orders restraining further trespass. On 7th September 2000 the High Court directed that the Israeli Army’s Civil Administration Appeals Committee review the confiscation.
One week later, on the 14th September 2000, the Appeals Tribunal met for the initial hearing and was presided over by a military officer with the standing of a Judge. The hearing was short and ended with a judicial request for “further information.” What followed was an odyssey of over 10 months, with a dozen hearings and more and more requests for “further information”, more maps, more photographs and more sessions to review documents and deeds. In short, a wearing-down period designed to convince the appellant to take the best offer of the Tribunal.
So it was in late July of 2001, the Tribunal decided to confiscate only the rocky land at the brow of the hill. S. was relieved and only too willing to be done with the matter. After all he lost only the unproductive land, a little under one third of the total land holding. The fruit trees and the vines had been saved from the bulldozer. Saved to feed and support his family with their produce.
Over the course of the next six years the case of the family and its agricultural fields of orchards, wells and supporting infrastructure was again brought to the Society. St. Yves again appealed to the High Court which directed a prolonged consultation between all the parties. This resulted in an exchange of portions of land between the family and the settlement of Betar Elite. This was a doubly favorable, if extremely time consuming, outcome since the negotiations left the family with five more dunam that it started with and the family land was fenced at the settlement’s expense, the property registered on Tabu (Israel Lands Registry), a paved access road was built, water pipes were laid to the land’s borders and the family were given a guarantee of the future protection of the IDF and the Israel police.