A group of Israeli human rights activists has begun a project to help Palestinians in the West Bank, who have in the past had land taken away by settlers, regain what they say are their property rights.
Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, according to a 2007 report entitled The Humanitarian Impact of Israeli Infrastructure in the West Bank by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), are causing hardship to the local Palestinians: Their ability to develop urban areas is severely hampered, their agricultural land has shrunk and their movement has been restricted.
Said Shahada, from the village of Ein Yabroud, recalled how settlers took over an old Jordanian army base, and then gradually occupied Palestinian land and built Ofra, one of the first and largest settlements in the West Bank.
"After 1973 [war between Israel and the Arabs] the settlers slowly began to take the land, little by little," he said in a phone conversation with IRIN. "Now, all that separates us from the settlement is a road."
Besides loosing land they had used for agriculture – and could have developed for industrial zones and other projects – their freedom of movement has been severely hampered.
"We have been prohibited from going on the road between us [and the settlement] since about 2003," Shahada said. "There is a manned checkpoint there with soldiers on guard." To reach Ramallah, the nearest town, Shahada has to take a circuitous route.
Israel does not consider such settlements illegal. It believes Israelis have the right to settle in the West Bank and that no settlements have been established on private Arab land. For further details of the Israeli position on settlements and international law, see the Israeli Foreign Ministry website.
The first move in the new project was a petition sent to the Israeli High Court on 4 June – by two non-governmental organisations (NGOs) B’Tselem and Yesh Din, and five Palestinian landowners, including Shahada – against plans to complete nine new permanent structures in the settlement of Ofra near Ramallah.
The court was given documents allegedly proving Palestinian ownership of most of the settlement, including the area where construction is taking place.
"The petitioners’ ownership of the land is unquestioned," said Michael Sfard, a lawyer for the groups. He hopes the court will issue an order preventing the buildings from being inhabited.
"If the settlers manage to inhabit the homes, based on past experience, it will be very difficult to remove them," said Avi Berg from B’tselem. "Each day that passes makes this more urgent."
Violence has generally erupted between settlers and the Israeli police and military in the few instances in which the latter tried to evacuate inhabited homes.
"I can see them building on our land from the village," Fouad Msalah, one of the petitioners, said, adding that he had filed the petition to stop construction work and eventually regain his land in the future.
Berg believed that a process had begun which would help the Palestinians, and change Israeli public opinion regarding the settlements, by showing that many of them were built on stolen private land.