UPDATED: More propaganda from the Los Angeles Times

Jan. 17 update follows.

Dec. 30, 2007 — “Pistol-toting” Israeli settlers who allegedly “covet” (note Biblical reference) and steal Palestinian land are a trope for some western reporters, including Richard Boudreaux of the Los Angeles Times, as exemplified by his Dec. 27th front page story A West Bank struggle rooted in land. Boudreaux includes all the usual dreary cliches: the Palestinian protagonist, Daoud Nassar, is described as “a square-jawed man of 37 with a calm, hopeful disposition and a mop of curly dark hair.” (In fact, according to the article, Nassar is not a Palestinian at all – he is a settler, since his grandfather, who allegedly bought the land now in dispute, is said to come from Lebanon.)

The Israelis, on the other hand, are “pistol-toting settlers who have barricaded the farm’s dirt lanes, uprooted its olive groves, tried to bulldoze their own roads and disabled a tractor and a rooftop water tank.” And Boudreaux has apparently personally witnessed all this, since he presents the charges as fact, rather than allegations by Nassar or his supporters.

Boudreaux also seems less than curious when it comes to some of Nassar’s other assertions. For example, Boudreaux writes that:

In 1991, the Israeli military committee had ordered three-fourths of the farm taken by the state, claiming it was neither privately owned nor actively cultivated. The family went to court to challenge the order with land ownership papers dated and stamped 1924. But the military judge rejected the challenge, ruling the hand-drawn map inadmissible as evidence.

The ownership papers had been honored by Turkish, British and Jordanian rulers who came and went. And until the 1991 order, there had been no hint of trouble with the new Jewish overlords.

So according to Boudreaux “ownership papers dated and stamped 1924″ had been honored by Turkish rulers. Of course, there’s a slight problem with this – Turkish (or Ottoman) rule had ended in 1917 when the British under General Allenby conquered the entire region, including what became known as Palestine. By 1924 the area had already been under British rule for 7 years.

That is, contrary to Boudreaux, the Turks could not possibly have honored the Nassar’s 1924 ownership papers.

And of course, the Israelis are hardly “overlords,” since the Palestine Mandate enshrines in Article 6 the right of “close settlement by Jews on the land.”

And these are just the most obvious of the problems with Boudreaux’s reporting; there are many others. For example, he cites as credible in his story claims made by the group Taayush, which he describes as “a Tel Aviv-based organization that advocates Israeli-Palestinian cooperation”:

Parcel by parcel, Israel is taking control of farms, pastures and underground water sources to expand the Gush Etzion settlements for a growing population that now totals more than 55,000. According to Taayush, a Tel Aviv-based organization that advocates Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, the region’s 20,000 Palestinian residents have lost at least one-fifth of their land to the settlements, which sprawl closer to their homes by the day.

Is this really an accurate description of Taayush? Not according to the group’s website, which indicates that the only “Israeli-Palestinian cooperation” the group would support is the dismantling of Israel. Here’s the proof, from Taayush’s self-description:

We — Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel — live surrounded by walls and barbed wire: the walls of segregation, racism, and discrimination between Jews and Arabs within Israel; the walls of closure and siege encircling the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip; and the wall of war surrounding all inhabitants of Israel, so long as Israel remains an armed fortress in the heart of the Middle East.

So the Los Angeles Times finds credible and quotes the “research” of a group which uses the terms “segregation, racism, and discrimination” to describe Israel, and which labels the country “an armed fortress in the heart of the Middle East,” which clearly blames Israel alone for the region’s lack of peace. Not a word about Palestinian terrorism, Palestinian hate education, suicide bombings, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, the PLO, the al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades, the Popular Resistance Committees, etc.

Quoting Taayush, and affording them credibility, on the Israeli-Arab conflict is like quoting the KKK on race relations. In doing so Boudreaux and his editors deceive their readers and damage their own credibility.

The reporter’s description of the history of the Jewish communities near the Nassars is also less than accurate. Boudreaux writes that:

A Jewish community flourished here until the Roman era and was reestablished in the 1940s as the Kfar Etzion kibbutz on land purchased the previous decade. But it was overrun by Jordan’s Arab Legion on the next-to-last day of Israel’s 1948 war for independence …

In fact, the first reestablished Jewish communities on that land date to 1927, and Kfar Etzion itself was established not in the 1940’s but in 1934. And Kfar Etzion fell in May of 1948, on the same day that Israel declared its independence. This day marked not the end of the war, but the end of the civil war and the beginning of the Arab invasion. The war itself did not end until almost a year later in 1949; Egypt was the first Arab country to sign an armistice agreement on Feb. 24, 1949, and Syria was the last to sign, on July 20, 1949. (Here is a brief history of the Etzion Bloc, and here is a brief history of the war.)

If Boudreaux cannot get such basic facts of history correct, how can readers trust him on more complex and harder-to-check facts, like the involved details of Nassar’s land claims?

In fact, according to the fragmentary information that Boudreaux provides about those claims, it seems that under the complicated land laws of the West Bank the family never actually owned the land in question. And contrary to Boudreaux’s claims, these land laws are not Israeli but were inherited by Israel from previous rulers. Here is Boudreaux’s man gled take on the legal situation (including his use once again of the pointed term coveted):

… Israel has vastly expanded the kibbutz’s pre-1948 holdings by seizing agricultural land from long-settled Palestinians and turning it over to Jewish settlers, a practice replicated across the West Bank.

Although that practice is widely viewed as a violation of international law, it is codified in Israel’s legal system. A military committee identifies coveted land it deems un-owned or unused and declares it “state land.” Any Palestinian with a claim has 45 days to appeal to a military court.

Most West Bank Palestinian families lack formal land titles. In theory, Israeli law allows them to keep rural land acquired without title before 1967 as long as they keep it cultivated. In practice, Israeli and Palestinian lawyers say, titled and cultivated land is often seized.

But Boudreaux is once again wrong. The land laws are based on the Ottoman Land Code, with minor modifications made by the British and the Jordanians. And Israel was and is obligated under international law, in particular Article 43 of the Hague Regulations of 1907, to maintain the legal system in the territories, and to respect, “unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.” Had Israel ignored this and violated the Hague Regulations, the radical organizations routinely quoted by the Times would probably condemn Israel for not following those Ottoman-based land laws.

Details of Land Law on the West Bank

Under the Ottoman Land Code there are various categories of land, including mulk, which is private land, and there is absolutely no need to cultivate such land in order to gain or keep rights over it. (A Survey of Palestine, Vol. 1, p225; British Mandate)

So when the Los Angeles Times and Boudreaux refer to the Nassars’ cultivation of land as proving ownership, that actually strongly suggests the land is not private land at all, since as indicated above, for truly private land no cultivation is necessary.

On the other hand, so-called miri land is state land in which individuals can gain limited rights by consistent cultivation. But the rights in such land, whether or not it is registered, are in no way equivalent to what would commonly be called private property. Rather, it is more a form of feudal tenancy, as explained by the previously mentioned Survey:

The land tenures of Ottoman law consist of various modes of user the features of which are set out in the Ottoman Land Code… Most of the land [in Palestine] is held under two distinct tenures commonly referred to as mulk and miri. Mulk means “property.” The tenure called mulk is a private ownership tenure. Land so owned may be called “allodial” land. It is held in absolute ownership. The holder has almost unfettered freedom in regard to its use and disposition. Miri is a conditional usufruct tenure of land held by grant from the state. The holder or possessor is a usufructury whose tenure resembles a leasehold, subject to certain limitations on the use and disposition of the land and to the payment of certain fees. (p225-226)

That is, what Boudreaux is terming the private land of Mr. Nassar is under the Ottoman Code at best miri land, and it is therefore not privately owned. Rather, it is land in which a person is granted by the state a limited right of use (whence the term usufruct). The rights include, for example, that once registered and while in cultivation someone else cannot try to cultivate the same land. This is similar to the rights one has in renting an apartment – someone else cannot come and try to live without permission in the same apartment, but that doesn’t mean the renter owns the apartment.

Thus, contrary to Boudreaux, the land remains the property of the state, and therefore it does not revert to the state only if there is a failure to cultivate. Miri land – the land of the Emir, or equivalently, of the sovereign – is state land, period. If there is a failure to cultivate, the limited rights granted by the state are withdrawn, not ownership of the land, which was never granted in the first place.

Thus it seems that the disputed land is in fact state land, and that Mr. Nassar and his family may have some rights to those portions that they have consistently cultivated. The Israeli courts will presumably sort this out, as they have many times in the past.

And once again contrary to Mr. Boudreaux, Palestinians have often benefitted from this process. Since 1967 many Palestinians have been able to register state land in their own names by virtue of cultivation. To cite one example, a Palestinian farmer from the village of Beit Iksa was able to register more than 24 dunams (around six acres) of land on the basis of cultivation:

… the appeals board reached a final conclusion, which it also displayed visually in a sketch that it attached to the decision, according to which 24 dunams and another 200 meters from the territory in dispute are territory that must be recognized as in the ownership of the petitioner. (Sabri Mahmoud Gharib v. 1. Board of Appeals and 2. The Authority over Abandoned and Government Property, High Court of Justice (277/84) 24 March 1986)

Just as Mr. Gharib was able to register land by proving cultivation – under the inherited land laws the burden of proof is on the petitioner – so Mr. Nassar will be able to do the same.

It is a pity that Richard Boudreaux and his editors at the Los Angeles Times can’t even get basic Middle East facts straight. Rather than publishing deceptive, inaccurate reports on the region that can only deceive and misinform their readers, they might do well to crack open a history book or visit a library once in a while. It helps to actually know the subject before attempting to report on it.

UPDATE: Jan. 17, 2008: A Partial Correction on a Minor Point  

On Jan. 17,  the Times ran the following correction:
Error (Los Angeles Times, Richard Boudreaux, 12/27/07): A Jewish community flourished here until the Roman era and was reestablished in the 1940s as the Kfar Etzion kibbutz on land purchased the previous decade. But it was overrun by Jordan’s Arab Legion on the next-to-last day of Israel’s 1948 war for independence …

Attempted Correction
(1/17/08): Mideast land dispute: An Dec. 27 article in Section A about a land d ispute in the West Bank between Jewish settlers and a Palestinian family stated that the Kfar Etzion kibbutz established by Jews was overrun by Jordan’s Arab Legion on the next-to-last day of Israel’s 1948 war of independence. In fact, it was overrun by Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948 the day before Israel’s declaration of independence, which set off a wider invasion by Arab armies that unsuccessfully challenged the birth of the Jewish state.
 This correction was only partial because it did not deal with the inaccurate information about the kibbutz’s founding or the twentieth century Jewish resettlement of Gush Etzion in general. As stated above, the first reestablished Jewish communities on that land date to 1927, and Kfar Etzion itself was established not in the 1940s but in 1934. In addition, other serious substantive errors in this article remain uncorrected, such as the impossible claim that the Ottoman regime, which extended only until 1917, honored a Palestinian Arab land documented dated 1924.

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