Peace Now on Tuesday submitted a complaint to Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz accusing the government of conducting a "systematic and institutional land grab" in the West Bank by building most of the settlements on land owned in part by individual Palestinians.
The complaint followed publication of a report by Peace Now entitled "Breaking the Law in the West Bank," in which the organization charged that about 40 percent of the land occupied de facto by the settlements was privately-owned Palestinian land.
"We demand that you begin an investigation whose aim would be to discover which elements were responsible in the past and which elements are responsible today for this criminal conduct, which undermines and mocks the rule of law in Israel," wrote the Peace Now officials who published the report, Dror Etkes and Hagit Ephron.
Meanwhile, the government, in an apparent indication that it was taking the Peace Now report seriously and not dismissing its conclusions out of hand, began to put together an inter-ministerial committee to study the findings. Government officials said there were many "grey areas" when it came to West Bank land issues and that the committee would investigate the Peace Now claims. The committee is expected to be made up of officials from the Defense Ministry, the Prime Minister's Office and the Justice Ministry.
The Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza denounced the report as baseless.
"There is nothing new in it," the council said in a statement released to the media. "Since 1979, the state has not established settlements on private land."
Council head Benzi Lieberman said his organization plans to produce its own report to refute the Peace Now allegations. The council is likely to hold its own press conference in the coming weeks to expose the inaccuracies in the Peace Now report, Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post.
"We are talking about a total lie," he said.
At a press conference in Jerusalem, Etkes said the facts included in the report had been leaked to Peace Now by an official in the Civil Administration after the Civil Administration refused to provide the information to Peace Now openly.
Peace Now had filed a petition with the Jerusalem District Court stating that the Civil Administration was obliged to do so according to the Freedom of Information Act. In response, the Civil Administration told the court that it could not release the information in order to protect Israel's security needs and its foreign relations. The case is still pending.
According to the report, Palestinians own almost 40% of all the land on which the settlements were built. This includes 86.4% of Ma'aleh Adumim, 44.3% of Givat Ze'ev, 47.7% of Kedumim and 35.1% of Ariel.
There are four types of land ownership in the West Bank - state-owned land, "survey" land, whose ownership is in dispute between the state and Palestinians, land owned privately by Palestinians and land owned privately by Jews.
Until now, the common understanding has been that since 1979, when the High Court of Justice overruled a military order to seize land for military purposes in order to establish the civilian settlement of Alon Moreh, all subsequent settlements were to be built on state-owned land.
Etkes told reporters, "for the first time, we can prove this isn't true. The truth is that Israel is taking private Palestinian land [for settlements]. The information that Peace Now alleges to have received from the Civil Administration came in the form of digitalized maps showing how much of the land in each Jewish settlement is owned by one of the four possible landowners."
Etkes said he and Ephron had examined only the built up parts of the settlements, plus roads and other infrastructure serving the Jewish civilian population. Had he examined all of the land within the official jurisdiction of each settlement, the proportion of Palestinian-owned land would have been greater, he added.
According to the findings, there are 162 Jewish "entities" in the West Bank, an entity being defined as a settlement, an outpost or a settlement having outposts within its built up area. Of these, 80.25% occupied some privately-owned Palestinian land. Only 27 entities did not.
Overall, 38.8% of the land of these entities was owned by Palestinians, 54.3% was state-owned, 5.7% was "survey" land and 1.2% belonged to Jews.
Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories, said that many years ago regulations had been enacted determining that privately-owned lands were not to be used for settlements.
"Defining what is privately owned is problematic in many cases," he continued. "In some cases a Palestinian may have sold his property but for some reason still claims ownership."
Ariel Mayor Ran Nachman told the Post, "there is no private land in Ariel."
He said all land within the city's municipal boundaries was public land.
"The creation of Ariel was authorized by the government in 1977," Nachman continued. "If Peace Now has a problem with it, they can go to [then-Defense Minister] Shimon Peres, who signed all the government decisions."
Herb Keinon and Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.