Whose Land? Ha’aretz Distorts Eli Land’s Status

This past week, Ha’aretz reported that according to the Civil Administration, at least 166 homes in the settlement of Eli were built on private Palestinian land. Yet the Civil Administration has never made such a determination. Once again, Ha’aretz readers are treated to a distorted headline.

Chaim Levinson reported on Jan. 29 (“At least 166 homes in Israeli setttlement built on private Palestinian land”):

At least 166 houses in the West Bank settlement of Eli were constructed on private Palestinian land, a recent survey by the Civil Administration revealed.

A quick check reveals that Ha’aretz‘s error is two-fold. The land upon which the 166 homes are built is not defined as private Palestinian land — not according to the state, which built the homes in the 1990s; not according to the army, whose then GOC Central Commander signed off on the demarcation boundaries of the new settlement which the state declared; and certainly not by the residents of Eli.

More importantly, Ha’aretz errs by wrongly stating that the Civil Administration defines the land as privately owned Palestinian land. According to Guy Inbar, the spokesman for the Civil Administration, the administration defines the land in question as “survey lands” or “land under clarification,” meaning they are currently going through a procedure to resolve possible claims of private ownership and to complete the process of declaring them state lands.

Moreover, it is undisputed that no Palestinian claims ownership of these particular lands. At most, there are possible signs of earlier cultivation during an undetermined historical period. If they were cultivated at all in the past, it is not known by whom. Thus, to claim that these are private Palestinian lands is like declaring a murder based on a possible motive, but without a body or a weapon. What serious investigator would determine a murder took place under these circumstances? In any event, the Civil Administration has not determined that these are privately owned Palestinian lands. Then, how, and why, has Ha’aretz falsely attributed this claim to the administration?

No Plaintiffs

The settlement was founded in 1984, between Ramallah and Nablus, as an urban center serving the surrounding settlements. Then GOC Central Commander, who is the legal authority in the territory, signed off on the demarcation boundaries of the settlement which the state declared. The lands discussed in the Ha’aretz story are located within these demarcation boundaries. At the time, the then head of the Civil Department of the State Prosecutor’s Office, Plia Albeck, addressed two plots of land within the demarcation boundaries which appeared to her to have been possibly cultivated, despite the fact that there were no plaintiffs. The lands mentioned in the Ha’aretz article are not part of these two plots.

Under pressure from the High Court, the Civil Administration began participating in drawing up Eli’s zoning plan. In a conversation with Presspectiva, CAMERA’s Hebrew site, Inbar, the Civil Administration spokesman, explained the administration’s modus operandi of beginning with the simple tasks and moving on to the more difficult ones. First, they map out the lands which have absolutely no possibility of being private Palestinian land, and they delineate them as one land block, in which zoning plans can be relatively expedited without any delays. In the next stage, they deal with land outside of the new line (but still within the original boundary) in order to retroactively approve them even if they already have houses built on them. These lands, which are undergoing the approval process, are called “survey lands,” meaning they are still being clarified. They are defined as such because aerial images show old signs that they had been cultivated.

How is it definitively determined that they are privated owned? In its explanation, Ha’aretz misleads:

It should be noted that land in this area was never officially registered, and that ownership is dictated by Ottoman law, which determines that any land farmed for a period of 10 years is considered the legal property of its cultivator.

In the Hebrew edition, the article also states (CAMERA’s translation):

In the course of the investigation, aerial photographs from the 1970s are checked, and every place in which there is continuous cultivation is categorized as private property.

But, as we have already explained, a place that has been continuously cultivated is classified as “survey land,” not private land. Secondly, the Ottoman Law is indeed the relevant law. Under the law it is permissible to legally claim ownership of the property. According to the law, the plaintiff must produce a title deed to establish ownership. Ha’aretz is wrong to assert that according to Ottoman law ownership is established by 10 continous years of cultivation. A decade of cultivation of “miri” or state land entitles the individual to register with the land registry, and to thereby gain certain rights, but not ownership. Those rights lapse when the individual ceases to cultivate the land for more than three years.  
The lands upon which the 166 homes were built are lands with no plaintiff. Not a single person, Jew or Arab, has come forward claiming ownership, and certainly no one holds valid documents attesting to ownership.

Does Ha’aretz Provide the Full Picture?

It is nevertheless important to note that despite the fact that decades have passed since Eli was founded, aerial photographs from before its construction do show signs of cultivation at various levels from a variety of time periods. They start with remains of ancient terraces, which according to Kobi Eliraz, the chairman of Eli’s local committee, could possibly have been built thousands of years ago by Jewish pilgrims on their way to the Tabernacle in Shiloh, or by residents of the region throughout history, and end with vineyards which appear to have been tended for a few years, and some of them may have been maintained for 10 consecutive years. Theoterically, the land owners, if they exist, could produce documention showing continuous cultivation which was interrupted due to Israel’s seizing the land.
The bottom line is Ha’aretz selected the most extreme possibility from among a wide range of possibilities which the Civil Administration was checking, and predetermined that most extreme option — ie, that the land was stolen private land — was the correct one. The Civil Administration, for its part, insists that are “lands under clarification,” a substantially different status than the one that Ha’aretz attributed to the administration.
The legitimate question that lies at the heart of the matter is: Are the unclaimed lands, which show signs of cultivation (albeit of unknown age and origin), and which therefore await the Civil Administration’s next step, Palestinian lands, as Ha’aretz claims, or are they survey lands which the state hopes to designate as state land because the criteria for determing private ownership do not apply?
Rather than raising the question and describing the complex reality, editors opt to distort the Civil Administration’s position in order to feed readers a definitive picture. How can this be considered serious journalism?
Ha’aretz has refused to comment on this report.
For the Hebrew version of this article, please visit Presspectiva.
Clarificiation: This article was revised because an earlier version incorrectly stated that according to Ottoman law, individuals who cultivate a piece of land for 10 continous years gain ownership. In fact, according to Ottoman law, after 10 continuous years of cultivation, individuals can gain certain limited rights to the land, but they do not gain ownership. These rights are relinquished following three years in which the land is not cultivated.

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