(photo credit: Courts Administration)
Israeli Jewish real estate developer David Myr, CEO of Makor Issues and Rights, never expected to fight his own government for his company’s rights. In 1991, the Israel Land Authority (ILA) confiscated 551,000 square meters of West Bank land Makor had purchased on Jabal Abu Ghneim from its original Palestinian owners. It also seized land owned by Palestinians from neighboring villages, eliciting rage and causing an international uproar. The ILA claimed that it needed to develop a larger area, renamed Har Homa, for security reasons and the public purpose of settling Russian immigrants.
Twenty years on, the government explanation for this confiscation leaves serious holes. First, the ILA justified the seizure with the Land Expropriation Law of 1943, which allows it to assert eminent domain for public purposes, such as military bases and hospitals. Yet the government resold Makor’s land to other Israeli contractors with no appreciable public benefit, and Myr believes authorities did so to benefit political allies. Second, the ILA never developed the larger area, only the land it took from Makor.
To add insult to injury, the Supreme Court provided compensation equal to only four percent of the land’s expertly assessed value. Circumstances suggest an unethical judicial conflict of interest. Justice Yoram Danziger, who recently underwent investigation for unrelated alleged improprieties, had failed to recuse himself from Makor’s case even though he himself had a land confiscation case pending against the ILA. In September, Makor presented a criminal complaint regarding the court’s handling of its compensation hearing; at stake is the legitimacy that Israeli Jews consider their legal system to have.
Makor bought its swath from Palestinian owners in 1970 after Israel annexed east Jerusalem and Jabal Abu Ghneim. In 1989, the Jerusalem Development Agency and Makor signed an agreement on developing the site. The plan envisioned Israeli Jews’ settling on Makor’s land in violation of the international legal principle that occupiers cannot move their own population into occupied territories. But at least the plan would have allowed the Palestinians to live on the land they owned on the hill.
Myr even planned to build a Peace Center there where people of different religions and nationalities could work together toward mutual understanding. “For me, it’s not important if the land ends up under Israeli sovereignty or Palestinian sovereignty,” Myr said in an August 27 interview. “I agree to live under either.” Ziad Abu Ziad, a Palestinian legislator who helped Palestinians whose land was confiscated at the same time, agreed in a September 22 interview: “If they [Jewish settlers] want[ed] to stay as Palestinian citizens, I don’t think there would be a problem with that.”
Although he’d lost his battle to keep his land, Myr still hoped for justice. During last November’s court hearing to determine fair value for the confiscated land, Makor brought thirteen expert witnesses – including a Bank of Israel vice president, university finance professors, economists, and a prize-winning architect – who appraised the land at $600 per square meter. The government presented one ILA employee witness who valued the land at $25 per square meter, even though the ILA had paid $1800 per square meter to lease agricultural land near the Makor parcel. Inexplicably, Justice Danziger ruled to accept the abrogation of the agreement and compensate Makor at the vastly lower rate. As a result of Danziger’s ruling, Makor lost $317 million in expected fair market rate compensation.
The plot thickened when the media revealed that Danziger had his own land dispute with the ILA. The ILA had confiscated a tract of land that Danziger had leased with Bat Yam Mayor Shlomo Lahiani, and they were requesting $20 million compensation. Myr believes that Danziger and Lahiani expected the ILA to compensate them fully in exchange for Danziger’s compensating Makor at a tremendous savings for the government. As Israeli judges are not allowed to speak to the press, Danziger could not be reached for comment. Makor’s allegations of Danziger’s corruption hold water, especially since police recently investigated Danziger for bribery in a separate matter.
Makor appealed to Supreme Court President Dorit Beinish, alleging bias by Justice Danziger and requesting that the compensation verdict be voided. Beinish ruled against Makor: “The proceedings of the appeal before me and the matter to which Judge Danziger is a party have no relationship, let alone the kind of relationship that may found a fear of partiality.” But Israeli law and the Code of Ethics for Judges require recusal when the judge has a substantial financial or personal interest in “a party to the proceedings.” Given Danziger’s alleged ethical shortcomings, his personal interest in ILA land confiscation claims, and the surprising land value verdict, the Supreme Court should provide a retrial.
Makor’s rights appear to have posed little more than an inconvenience to officials who cared more about other political and financial objectives. This miscarriage of justice represents a new twist in a pattern of land rights abuse in the occupied Palestinian territories. Israeli authorities should investigate and correct this abuse to restore the Israeli judiciary’s reputation for dealing fairly with its own Jewish citizens.
The writer is an award-winning American journalist and former diplomat specializing in Middle Eastern human rights issues.