By Ray Hanania
Since 1967, Israel has spent millions of shekels secretly buying up Palestinian lands in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, a new study by the Israeli group Peace Now (PN) reports. Among those buying land are Jewish settler groups like Elad and Ateret Cohanim, as well as organizations associated with the state itself, such as Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-the Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF).
When we talk about Israelis “purchasing” Palestinian lands, we are not talking about a free market system where the rights of the two sides are protected. Rather, Palestinians are being forced to sell their lands to Jewish groups and settlers. The bottom line is that these so-called land purchases are in fact land thefts and they must be stopped.
Every week, new lands are targeted and secretly purchased. The victims are the civilians who live on the land, as well as many who live outside of Israel’s control but are prohibited by Israeli laws from living on the land because they are Palestinian.
The KKL-JNF effort is one aspect of a much larger problem that must be addressed in a strategic and legal way. Currently, most landowners are forced to hire their own lawyers and pay their own costs in an attempt to resist Israel’s efforts to steal these lands. But there are also laws prohibiting Palestinians from selling land to Israelis or Jews who represent the Israeli government or illegal settler movements. Such sales are crimes punishable by death.
In December 2018, Issam Akel, a Palestinian-American citizen with residency in East Jerusalem, was convicted by a Palestinian court of attempting to sell land in the Old City to an Israeli group and was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. Media reported that this was the first time Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had applied the law to a resident of East Jerusalem. He has never authorized a death sentence for the offense.
While Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) enforce the law, they have done little to help the Palestinians whose lands have been taken by Israel or who have been rebuffed in their attempts to establish legal claims under Israeli laws, which are written to help Israelis at the expense of Palestinians. This is a hypocrisy that must change.
In 1949, Israel launched an aggressive campaign to evict and even kill non-Jews in a bid to take Palestinian lands, using organizations such as KKL-JNF. Since 1967, the campaign has been even more aggressive in empowering a settler movement that is a major stumbling block for peacemaking attempts.
Every Palestinian has a land theft story — many even still hold the keys to their stolen properties. Some of my mother’s family emigrated from Bethlehem prior to 1948 to escape a wave of violence waged by Zionist terror groups Irgun and the Stern Gang. Many others fled the West Bank to escape Israeli violence after 1948. The Israelis were constantly launching missile attacks and invading the Jordanian-held territories, including near Bethlehem, where my mother’s family originates.
Land they owned adjacent to Jerusalem under the old Jordanian system was illegally annexed along with East Jerusalem on June 28, 1967. Although my family has hired lawyers, both Palestinian and Jewish, to establish a claim of ownership under Israeli law, the land remains in limbo. Israel uses every effort to obstruct the legal claim.
What is worse is that, as the Palestinian Christian population continues to diminish, residents in the nearby Muslim village of Sharafat have also sought to claim the land because my mother’s family allowed them to harvest the 160 olive trees on the land as a gesture of support. After three generations of harvesting the olives (illegally under Israeli law), you can understand how local loyalty dissipates and kindness is rewarded with disregard and even contempt. In other words, this issue isn’t just about Israel blocking Palestinian land ownership — it is also about the conflict dragging on without any resolution.
The old belief was that there would be peace, but that has not happened. The Arab world, which fought and lost the wars over the years, has failed to defend Palestinian land rights, and so has the PA. They have made a mockery of Land Day, which has been marked every March 30 since 1976, when Israeli police and soldiers shot dead six Palestinians who were protesting Israel’s illegal expropriation of thousands of dunums of Palestinian-owned land.
If the Palestinian leadership wants to keep rejecting peace with Israel, then it needs to step up to the plate and help Palestinian families fight for their land rights; not just in press releases, but in the courts too. No one has ever offered to help my family fight for our land. The Israeli roadblocks that prevent the conversion of Palestinian-owned land from the Jordanian system into the Israeli system are insurmountable for any one family on its own.
Just as the Israelis set up agencies like KKL-JNF to fight for Jewish land rights, the Arab world needs to step in and create similar agencies to fight for the land rights of Palestinians.