Peace Now’s Blunder: Erred on Ma’ale Adumim Land by 15,900 Percent

Peace Now, the Israel-based advocacy group, claimed in an October 2006 report that Israeli settlements are situated mostly on “private Palestinian land,” and in particular that the territory of the largest settlement, Ma’ale Adumim, is 86.4 percent “private Palestinian land.” CAMERA raised a number of serious objections (here and here) to Peace Now’s claims, which the group has failed to address.

The original report, Breaking the Law – One Violation Leads to Another, was based on information described as leaked government data, and now, through Israel’s Freedom of Information laws, Peace Now has gained access to updated information which it portrays as confirming its original claims. However Peace Now has had to admit that it made a massive error regarding Ma’ale Adumim, a 15,900 percent mistake. Rather than 86.4% Palestinian land, the new data shows just 0.54% of Ma’ale Adumim’s land as supposedly Palestinian. In addition, Peace Now deceptively omits any mention of this extremely serious error both in its press release posted on its US website, and in the announcement posted on its Israeli website. Only in the middle of its updated report, strangely enough entitled Guilty, does Peace Now get around to its updated claims regarding Ma’ale Adumim’s land.

Such a massive error – acknowledged in such a grudging and deceptive way – raises serious questions about Peace Now’s credibility, and the reliability of the rest of their claims (which include that most other settlements also infringe upon “private Palestinian land”). If they could make such a transparently absurd allegation about Ma’ale Adumim – and it was transparently absurd – then how can one trust their assertions about the land situation in other communities?

In addition, nowhere in its updated report does Peace Now deal with the broader problems that also afflicted its earlier report:

1. Peace Now is relying upon government maps that are based not on Palestinian ownership of land, but on Palestinian claims to ownership of land. With Ma’ale Adumim, for example, there were indeed Palestinian (more accurately Bedouin) claims over the land, but they were investigated and found to be baseless, as even the claimants eventually admitted. That would perhaps explain why there was a huge change in the map in this case.

2. Peace Now continues to misleadingly ignore crucial details of land law in the West Bank, in particular that:

(A) Under the Ottoman Land code which Israel inherited largely intact from previous sovereigns, most of the West Bank land used by Israeli settlements, being quite far from other built up areas, is mewat or waste land, which is always owned by the state and cannot legally be owned by private individuals.

(B) Any land used by the settlements which was not mewat land was almost certainly miri land, which means land of the Emir, or the sovereign. Miri land is state land over which a private individual can gain certain rights of use by the fact of cultivation, something like squatters’ rights. Those rights expire, however, once the land is no longer being cultivated, but the fact that someone once had rights to use the land (as long as hundreds of years ago) may still be recorded in the land registry, even long after the rights have expired. Peace Now apparently is counting as “private Palestinian land” any land over which any Palestinian ever gained such rights via cultivation. Which renders their term “private Palestinian land” meaningless.

In their original report Peace Now charged that Israel “deprived thousands of Palestinians of the basic human right of possession.” We challenged them then, and we repeat that challenge now – If they claim the land is “private Palestinian land,” let them name the owners. Which persons owned this land, what are their names, what were the boundaries of the plots and where are the deeds? If they can’t answer such obvious and basic questions, their original and updated claims are nothing short of reckless.

Media Coverage

Unfortunately coverage of Peace Now’s claims by the “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, was also less than accurate, with an uncritical article by bureau chief Steven Erlanger that largely followed Peace Now’s press release. This latest article was similar to the credulous report the paper ran in November when Peace Now released its original report.

Once again Erlanger failed to quote independent Israeli experts knowledgeable in land matters, who could have explained the underlying legal and historical reasons why Peace Now’s claims were extremely implausible. Instead of including such experts, Erlanger quoted only official spokesman who were understandably unable to say much since the Peace Now report had just been released.

Beyond failing to quote opposing expert sources, Erlanger also buried Peace Now’s Ma’ale Adumim blunder in the eighth paragraph, choosing instead to first repeat and underscore the organization’s charges. While the first and third paragraphs did attribute claims to Peace Now, using phrases like “according to the advocacy group” and “according to the Peace Now report,” the rest of the article relayed Peace Now’s charges as if they were proven fact. Even the headline (which is not usually written by the reporter) read “West Bank Sites on Private Land, Data Shows.” In fact this is not what the data shows, it is merely Peace Now’s tendentious interpretation of the data.

By the end of the third paragraph Erlanger was referring not to claims by Peace Now, but to alleged confirmation of claims:

That large sections of those settlements are now confirmed by official data to be privately held land is bound to create embarrassment for Israel and further complicate the already distant prospect of a negotiated peace. (Emphasis added.)

Of course, there was no such confirmation. In the rest of the article Erlanger continued to portray Peace Now’s allegations as fact:

The earlier data showed Maale Adumim containing 86 percent private Palestinian land, which seemed very high to i ts residents. According to the new data, however, only 0.54 percent of the settlement is listed as private land…

In settlements west of the separation barrier, which Israel intends to keep and which include Maale Adumim, the amount of private land is 24 percent, compared with 41.4 percent in the earlier data.

In settlements that Israel would presumably give up in any peace settlement, the percentage of private land is 40 percent, higher than the earlier data, which was 36.4 percent. (Emphasis added)

In each case, that’s not what the official data says, it’s what Peace Now says.

On the other hand, an Associated Press story, headlined Military database released to Peace Now shows little land seized from Palestinians to build largest West Bank settlement, led with the fact that Peace Now had been forced to admit its original claims about Ma’ale Adumim were enormously inflated:

A military database released to an anti-settlement group under court pressure shows that very little private land was seized from Palestinians to build Israel’s largest West Bank settlement, the watchdog group reported on Wednesday.

The new numbers are vastly smaller than numbers Peace Now issued in a November report based on leaked information.

The AP got it right in this case, and the New York Times once again got it wrong. One wonders what will happen when Peace Now is forced to revise its numbers concerning other settlements, such as Ariel. Will the New York Times write yet another story, this time highlighting as fact whatever of Peace Now’s claims are still unproven to be false?

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