How land theft has become the 'norm' in Israel

April 24, 2012
Sarah Benton

Israel’s Ulpana neighborhood is built on years of land theft and forgery

The Beit El neighborhood, the right’s new cause celebre, was established in 1999 during Ehud Barak’s term as Prime Minister.

By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz

Champions of Beit El’s Ulpana neighborhood residents maintain they are “normative people.” (Are they implying that non-normative folks live in the other outposts?) In other words, the building of the neighborhood and arrival of tenants, in their view, reflects accepted norms in Israeli society. If that’s so, something very bad has happened to our norms.

The Ulpana neighborhood was born and raised in sin. Ironically, it was established in 1999 during Ehud Barak’s term in the Prime Minister’s Office. Yes, the same Barak who is being denigrated by his fellow cabinet members for daring to uphold the High Court of Justice order to demolish the neighborhood. The first stop-work order there was issued on September 27, 1999, and through 2003 additional, “final” stop-work and demolition orders were issued for each of Ulpana’s “normative” buildings. As usual in the land of the settlers, illegal construction continued for more than eight years under the noses of the authorities.

Everyone connected with the neighborhood knew very well that all the houses were earmarked for demolition and that in October 2008, landowners from the village of Dura al-Kara, assisted by the Yesh Din human rights organization, petitioned the High Court of Justice to ensure the demolition and prevent people from moving in. The state notified the court that Gush Emunim’s Amana company, the neighborhood’s developer, knew that the Palestinian “seller” was not the legal owner of the land (he was seven at the time the land was registered).

During the hearing on the petition, the state prosecutor said it was the Beit El Development Company that built and filled the homes with “renters.” In other words, none of the residents of the five buildings to be torn down is the owner or even a protected tenant.

Going by accepted norms of the enlightened world, the Ulpana neighborhood is not the only illegitimate child of Beit El. The entire community was founded on an unaccepted norm that goes by the name “temporary occupation orders.” Over the years, the community spread north beyond the limits of those orders, onto the private lands of Dura al-Kara’s residents. In a normative society, individuals and organizations that turn land theft and forgery into norms end up in jail. In Israel, their names are known to cabinet ministers and Knesset members turn them into martyrs while the State Prosecutor’s Office abandons cases against them.

Take, for example, the case of Ofra. Three years ago, Dror Etkes, then a Yesh Din member, transferred to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz contracts presented to the High Court of Justice by purchasers of two homes in a community slated for demolition. One contract was signed with the World Zionist Organization’s settlement division, the other with Ofra Cooperative Association. The contracts stated that the WZO settlement division allocated to the cooperative association lands it had been given by the custodian of government and abandoned property in the area.

Etkes wrote that the lands were never given away by any Israeli government entity for the simple reason that these were private lands belonging to residents of the adjacent Ein Yabroud village. This information came from none other than the state itself in response to a High Court of Justice petition by these same villagers. On the basis of that petition, the Civil Administration issued stop- work orders and final demolition orders for hundreds of other structures built in Ofra.

Etkes noted that since the WZO settlement division is not a public body whose entire budget is government-funded, the attorney general should order the opening of a vigorous investigation to look into these suspicions. In July 2009, Mazuz’s office announced that the police had launched a criminal investigation into the matter. Last week, however, an Israel Police spokesman told Haaretz: “We are not familiar with any investigation such as the one you described in your query to the National Fraud Investigation Unit.” The Justice Ministry spokesman said that in May 2010, a decision was made to close the case due to lack of evidence.

Elad’s “lawfare”

The practice is familiar to news bureaus and left-wing NGOs: The investigator prepares a report on the digging in Silwan (City of David ) in East Jerusalem under the auspices of and funded by the right-wing organization Elad. A short time after the investigator requests the response of Elad’s spokesman, the news bureau/left-wing NGO receives a messenger with a letter from a well-known law office threatening a libel suit for an astronomical sum. In the past year, Elad has been pressing around half a dozen suits against peace organizations and activists. A NIS 1 million suit against a group of archeologists ended with symbolic compensation to Elad of NIS 1,000.

A few days ago, the hearing of the libel suit Elad filed against Peace Now ended. Elad complained that on its Internet site, Peace Now implied a possible connection between a bus’s fall into a deep pit two years ago and the archeological excavation conducted near the spot by the Israel Antiquities Authority conducted near that spot for Elad at the authority’s expense. Peace Now noted that after three students fell into a pit that opened up beneath their school, local residents asked that the excavation be halted and that engineers survey the site.

Jerusalem Magistrate Court Judge Oded Shaham rejected the suit seeking NIS 200,000 in compensation and an apology, and instead ordered Elad to cover Peace Now’s NIS 7,000 legal expenses. Peace Now promised to use the money in the campaign against settlement in Silwan. Perhaps this will teach Elad and its lawyers to stop terrorizing us.

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