Peace Now wants Baker removed from outpost committee

Group takes issue with former Foreign Ministry legal adviser's connection with a pro-settler group.

By
February 2, 2012 04:51
4 minute read.
Settlers gather for prayer in Ramat Gilad

Settlers gather for prayer in Ramat Gilad_311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

 
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Peace Now on Tuesday asked Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein to bar former Foreign Ministry legal adviser Alan Baker from the West Bank “outpost committee.”

The group took issue with his connection with a pro-settler group, the “campaign for the outposts,” for whom he published a legal opinion in support of continued settler use of private Palestinian property in some instances.

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On Monday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu named a three-person panel to examine issues relating to land status in the West Bank.

But it is widely believed that this panel, nicknamed the “outpost committee,” will specifically examine issues relating to West Bank outposts constructed on private Palestinian property.

Right-wing politicians hope that it will supplant the 2005 work done for the government by private attorney Talia Sasson, who penned a report on the West Bank outposts. An Israeli official noted that the committee’s mandate had not yet been published.

But Netanyahu has already named three panel members: Baker, former Supreme Court justice Edmund Levy and former deputy president of the Tel Aviv District Court Tchia Shapira.

In a letter written by its lawyers Michael Sfard and Shlomy Zachary, Peace Now said it believed that conflict of interest issues made it impossible for Baker to serve on the committee.

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Peace Now specifically noted that after the committee’s work was completed in three months, Baker would likely work as an attorney specializing in outpost and settlement issues.

His future work will rely, in part, on the government’s legal opinion, which as a committee member, he will now be involved in constructing, Peace Now said. The organization noted that it was important in this kind of situation to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest issue. Baker could not be reached for comment.

The Prime Minister’s Office also refused to respond.

An Israeli official noted that the committee had not yet been finalized. The official added that the panel members had been chosen for their legal expertise.

Last week Baker, along with lawyer Harel Arnon, published a legal opinion that examined the powers vested under military legislation and international law in the Custodian of Absentee Property in the West Bank.

In their opinion, they said that leasing absentee property, including for residential purposes, is permitted.

Settlers and right-wing activists who support authorizing the outposts have argued that some of the land now classified as belonging to private Palestinians is abandoned property and thus can be legally used by the settlers.

Arnon and Baker note that the Custodian is granted authority under the 1967 Order regarding Abandoned Property in Judea and Samaria, according to which ownership rights to absentee property are vested in him; however the Custodian must care for the land on behalf of its owner and cannot sell the property.

Baker and Arnon argued that under certain circumstances the Custodian may lease absentee property or grant land rights to third parties, if the leasing improves the property value and does not affect the absentee landlord. They explain that their argument follows a 1997 opinion from the Civil Administration’s legal adviser, which said that “since absentee property is private property, the Custodian’s affinity to it is temporary and is only for maintaining the property...the Custodian must not make any transaction regarding the property that would be contrary to his duty and especially to return the property to its owner, should he return to the area.

Arnon and Baker’s legal opinion further states that according international law, as understood by the Supreme Court, Israel’s control of the West Bank is a military occupation and as such the Hague Conventions of 1907 apply. They argue that there is no impediment to the Custodian’s leasing abandoned land under certain conditions.

Their opinion also raises the issue of whether certain articles of the 1907 Hague Conventions, entitled “Military Authority over the territory of the hostile State,” can be considered to apply in the West Bank, “in circumstances where there is no dispute that this is enemy territory, but territory that is at worst controversial and perhaps even ‘no man’s land’ with respect to international law.” Arnon and Baker also argue that there is no legal impediment under either military or international law to leasing property under certain circumstances.

If and when the absentee landowner returns and proves ownership he can benefit from the land improvements, the two attorneys argued.

“Even if there are claims that the current legal situation in the West Bank does not allow for the Custodian to lease abandoned land, either because of the Order on Abandoned Properties or because of the Hague Conventions, there is no obstacle in terms of internal Israeli law to making a regulatory amendment that would allow it explicitly,” the opinion argued.

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