church of the nativity .
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dozens of Christian families from the Bethlehem area are about to discover that their homes and lands have been "sold" to Muslims without their knowledge, Palestinian Authority security officials said Thursday.
The officials told The Jerusalem Post that members of a local Muslim gang have been arrested on suspicion of stealing land and property registration documents from the Bethlehem Magistrate's Court.
Bethlehem Governor Salah Ta'mari confirmed that an investigation was under way to determine who was behind the theft. He said most of the stolen documents belonged to families living abroad.
A Christian businessman told the Post that most of the victims were Christian families living in the US and Latin America. "They are stealing our homes almost every day," he said. "We believe the suspects have been receiving help from some Palestinian security officers here."
The scam was uncovered when court officials complained that many files relating to cases involving ownership of property had disappeared, a security official said.
Initially, police thought thieves had broken into the court and stolen the files, he added. However, further investigation revealed that the theft was an inside job. Three court employees and five land dealers were later arrested in connection with the case.
The official refused to reveal the land brokers' identities, but sources in the city said some of them were not real land dealers.
"These are people with close ties to the Palestinian security forces," the sources said. "We have written to the Palestinian Authority demanding a full inquiry. This is one of the biggest scandals in Bethlehem and many families are very worried that they may lose their property."
"The phenomenon of forging land registration documents has existed in Bethlehem for nearly 15 years," Ta'mari said. "We have resisted attempts to hinder the investigation and we are determined to fully pursue our efforts."
Ta'mari said one common method of land theft was as follows: Someone forges ownership of a piece of land and registers it under his name. Then an accomplice pretends he has illegally seized the land.
The first person sues the accomplice, using the forged documents. The court then rules in favor of the first person, turning him into the "legal" owner. The proceedings take place without the knowledge of the real owner, who usually lives abroad.
This is the first time the PA has acted against land thieves in Bethlehem. The arrests have aroused hope within the local Christian minority that the investigation will lead to the restoration of their land.
In January, it was first reported in the Post that Muslim gangsters, including a number of top PA security officers, had illegally seized Christian-owned property in Bethlehem and its surroundings.
In an interview with the Post, an elderly Christian couple, Fuad and Georgette Lama, complained that the gang had laid its hands on their six-dunam, or 1.5 acre, plot in the Karkafa suburb south of Bethlehem. "A lawyer and an official with the Palestinian Authority just came and took our land," said 69-year-old Georgette.
Senior PA security officers subsequently offered to help them kick out the intruders. "We paid them $1,000 so they could help us regain our land," she said. "Instead of giving us back our land, they simply decided to keep it for themselves. They even destroyed all the olive trees and divided the land into small plots, apparently so that they could offer each for sale."
When her 72-year-old husband, Fuad, went to the property to ask the intruders to leave, he was severely beaten and threatened with guns.
"My husband is after heart surgery and they still beat him," she said. "These people have no heart. We're afraid to go to our land because they will shoot at us. Ever since the beating, my husband is in a state of trauma and has difficulties talking."
The Lamas said they decided to go public in the hope that the international community would intervene with the PA to halt the land-grab. "We will fight and fight until we recover our land," said the husband. "We will resort to the courts and to public opinion for help.
"Unfortunately, Christian leaders and spokesmen are afraid to talk about the problems we are facing. We know of three other Christian families - Salameh, Kawwas and Asfour - whose lands were also illegally seized by Muslims," Fuad Lama said.