Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s assertion that Jews would not be allowed to
build on private Palestinian land is a long-standing policy endorsed by Israeli
governments and the judicial system.
The question, however, is what
constitutes “private Palestinian land” and who decides what is and what is not
private Palestinian land? If it is true that Jews are stealing land, this
violates Jewish and Israeli laws and values and justifies calls for boycotts,
sanctions and even the elimination of the state, since it applies to areas
acquired after 1948 as well as in 1967. A devastating moral and legal
indictment, it would undermine Israel’s moral foundation, its raison
Promoted by Arab propagandists and their supporters, politicians,
academics, media and anti-Israel NGOs, this theory has also been adopted by
Israelis, including prominent judicial figures who give it legitimacy. A
poisoned narrative based on ignorance and/or misunderstanding, it is a
Based on titles and deeds, land that is registered becomes private
property. But what if there are no documents to prove ownership?
Land that Arabs
claim as their private property was not purchased; it was state-owned land that
was either given away by the sovereign power during the Ottoman, British and
Jordanian occupations or was encroached and developed. Arab claims based on
gifts and alleged agricultural use are not property deeds. How, then, did this
confusion about “private Palestinian land” come about?
uninhabited land is a universally recognized method for claiming it, unless
contested. Until the modern period, land registration, especially in sparsely
populated areas like the Middle East, Africa and North Africa was not widely
With the rise of nation-states and the development of
bureaucracies this changed.
According to international agreements such as
the San Remo Accord (1920) and the League of Nations (1922), the Mandate for
Palestine was intended as a “Jewish National Home.” This anchors the rights of
the Jewish people and Israeli sovereignty in law. It has never been
Administering the Mandate, Britain organized land surveys in
Palestine, primarily to collect taxes and create an orderly system of land
ownership and transfer. According to Dr. Dov Gavish, who wrote the only
extensive study of this topic, Survey of Palestine
, 1920-1948 (2005), maps were
drawn based on where inhabitants were found and on verbal claims, usually by
(chiefs) and sheikhs, not on documents or land
Based on aerial photos and evidence of cultivation,
villages were arbitrarily divided into 60-hectare (about 148-acre) blocks, which
were then sub-divided among local peasants. Highly inaccurate, these fiscal maps
nevertheless became the basis for taxation. They did not and do not
reflect legal ownership.
As Gavish notes, the registration process lacked
legal procedures for determining proper (actual) ownership, the investigators
often had little professional training, surveyors who drew boundaries relied on
inaccurate methods (such as vague geographical markers), and were hampered by
constant Arab violence.
Maps held by Turkish and Jordanian governments
are unavailable, and many maps held by the British Mandatory government were
accidentally destroyed. The Israeli Civil (Military) Administration also has
aerial maps which are used to determine land use, and surveys which are not
necessarily reliable or accurate documentations of private
These questionable maps and documents, however, are used to
sanction Arab claims and charge Jews with stealing “private Palestinian land.”
Although these lands could have been registered, most were not. Moreover,
land which was not used, or not passed on by inheritance reverts to the original
owner, the state, by law.
Most of what is called “private Palestinian
land” is claimed – and some registered – based on policies that legitimized
squatting after the fact and by counting land as “owned” when in fact it had
been leased, or simply used.
During the Mandate period, most of the land
that was registered by individuals was called “Miri
.” Leased, not privately
owned, “Miri” land remained property of the state.
Although land that was
not used for 10 years should have reverted to the state, large areas of such
unused land remained under local Arab control.
Another category of
ownerless land, called “waste land” (“Mewat
”), is known throughout the Middle
East and recognized in international law. Dr.Ya’akov Meron’s authoritative
article, “Waste Land (Mewat) in Judea and Samaria,” (Boston College Int’l &
Comparative Law Review, 1981) notes that this land was not included in state
land and could be claimed by whoever used it, Jews or Arabs.
on which most settlements are built is not agriculturally useful, Arabs did not
claim ownership until recently, when anti-settlement NGOs asserted that these
lands belonged to Arabs, individually and/or collectively based on hearsay, maps
and documents that are grossly inaccurate and often false.
NGOs and Arabs that land is privately owned, however, even when approved by
politically motivated government and judicial officials, including the State
Prosecutor’s Office and Civil Administration, are not necessarily true. Although
these claims may be blindly accepted by the High Court, they are not valid until
they have been examined and authenticated by lower courts. This has led to much
confusion about what constitutes “private Palestinian land.”
Israeli Jews of “stealing private Palestinian land,” condemning “settlements” as
“illegal,” “violations of international law” and “the occupation” are powerful
weapons in the war to demonize and delegitimize Israel.
and taken for granted, these charges are used to justify Arab terrorism
(“resistance”) and subvert Israel’s moral right to exist. Such allegations are
inaccurate and feed anti-Israel propaganda. Who needs them?
The author is
a PhD historian, writer and journalist.