Shiloh construction may bring criminal probe

Defense Ministry plans to legalize 119 homes there; Peace Now claims construction is unlawful.

Shiloh settlement in West Bank 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Shiloh settlement in West Bank 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The State Attorney’s office is weighing the possibility of ordering a criminal investigation into illegal construction in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh, even as the Defense Ministry has said it plans to legalize the building.
At a hearing on Monday, the Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, said it would decide whether to order the state to make up its mind within a set time frame.
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The panel of three justices – Miriam Naor, Esther Hayut and Neal Handel – heard a petition filed by Peace Now over alleged illegal construction of residential housing units in Shiloh, northeast of Ramallah.
Peace Now claims the construction, on three areas of designated state land, is unlawful because the Binyamin Regional Council has not received appropriate planning permits from the Defense Ministry.
Monday’s hearing came after the state informed the High Court on Sunday that the Defense Ministry has decided to retroactively approve building plans in Shiloh, a move that will legalize 119 residential units in the settlement.
The state’s decision will likely result in the court ruling to delete Peace Now’s petition, in what would be a blow to the human rights organization’s strategy of asking the High Court to intervene in cases of illegal construction in the West Bank.
Peace Now had asked the court to order the Defense Ministry to explain why it had not taken all necessary actions to prevent the houses’ construction and to investigate and to prosecute those members of the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council responsible for the building.
The organization also asked for interim injunctions ordering the state to prevent settlers moving into the houses and to prevent their connection to the sewage and electricity networks.
The petition relates to three different areas in Shiloh, one of which was officially zoned as agricultural lands, and which cannot be used for residential building.
In order to legalize building on that land, the state must now undertake a public process, during which members of the public will be allowed 60 days to voice any opposition to the zoning changes.
The other two areas are already zoned as residential, but Peace Now argues that the houses built on that land were constructed without a proper permit.
In its response to the court on Sunday, as well as stating its intention to retroactively approve the building plans, the state said Peace Now had contacted the Judea and Samaria regional police and the deputy attorney-general asking for a criminal investigation into alleged illegal construction by the Binyamin Regional Council.
However, the state said in its written response that such an investigation was “not a simple matter.”
In Monday’s High Court hearing, attorney Michal Friedlander, for the state, said that that a decision has not yet been made regarding the criminal investigation.
“That’s something that the state attorney’s office is looking into,” said Friedlander, who told the court that “senior officials” were currently checking the issue.
Naor responded sharply, criticizing the state for coming to the court without giving an answer regarding the investigation.
“The state did not explain, and says it is complicated or it’s difficult, but doesn’t say what its position is regarding opening a [criminal] investigation,” said Naor.
At the end of Monday’s hearing, attorney Friedlander said that a decision would be made on the matter within several weeks.
Attorney Michael Sfard, for the petitioners, also said that Peace Now had attempted to approach the Binyamin regional council for answers about the construction, but had not received any response.
“We came to a situation in which three justices have to deal with this matter. The court intervenes in these matters out of lack of choice,” said Sfard. “Our request is a modest one.
In December we asked for an investigation to be opened.”
After the hearing, attorney Akiva Sylvetsky, for the Binyamin Regional Council, told The Jerusalem Post he was optimistic the court would decide not to intervene in the matter of the housing construction.
Regarding the police investigation, Sylvetsky said it would be “difficult to start an investigation in a place where the process of legalization has already started,” and that any investigation would not necessarily result in indictments being filed.
According to Sylvetsky, the state’s move to legalize housing construction in Shiloh is part of a trend that has developed over the past yearand- a-half in reaction to petitions like this one, filed against building on state (public) lands in the West Bank.
The petitions have given the state the impetus to legalize settlement construction on state lands, which lacks the necessary permits.
The land is considered public and there are no Palestinian private land claims against it, Sylvetsky says, because the High Court has forced the state to give an answer about the land.
“Peace Now’s petitions have been having the opposite affect to that intended,” he added. “In several places, the state has legalized construction because of petitions, whereas if the settlers themselves had asked for legalization it would never have happened.”
Sylvetsky pointed to legalizations that have taken place in the Eli settlement and the Shevut Rachel outpost, where he says petitions were filed against construction carried out without the necessary building permits.
In some cases, such as in Shevut Rachel, the state itself authorized the construction and sale of houses.
“The state was forced to either correct its mistakes by legalizing construction, or destroy the houses,” Sylvetsky said.
The state can legalize the houses because they are built not on private Palestinian land but on so-called “state lands,” land considered public property under Ottoman law.
According to that law, which was in force when Israel took the area from Jordan in 1967, land in the West Bank is considered state land unless an individual has occupied, cultivated and paid taxes on it for at least 10 years.
Meanwhile, also on Monday, the High Court of Justice decided to postpone a hearing of a petition by civil rights watchdog Yesh Din into alleged illegal construction on private Palestinian land in the Kochav Ya’acov settlement.
The decision came after the state agreed to carry out a land ownership survey. Lawyers Michael Sfard, Shlomy Zecharya and Avissar Lev filed the petition on behalf of Ali Barakat, head of the village council of Akeb, whose constituents allegedly own the land.