'Settlements control 42% of West Bank'

After releasing report, B'Tselem accused of trying to mar PM’s trip.

The settlement of Ofra with the outskirts of Ramal (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The settlement of Ofra with the outskirts of Ramal
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Human rights group B’Tselem purposely released a report accusing Israel of stealing Arab land in the West Bank on the day of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington in order to ruin his meeting with US President Barack Obama, critics of the organization charged Monday.
The report on government settlement policy and settlement growth was sent to news organizations with a request to embargo its publication until Tuesday.
RELATED:US lauds Israel’s list of items to be blocked from Gaza'Gaza economy collapsing under siege'B’Tselem’s critics compared the move to Peace Now leaking the approval of Jewish construction in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood an hour ahead of Netanyahu’s last meeting with Obama in March.
“The fact that B’Tselem decided to publish it on the day of Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama to try to make it go badly reveals the organization’s face as a systemic harmer of Israeli interests,” said Dani Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.
NGO Monitor president Gerald Steinberg added that “B’Tselem claims to be a human rights organization, but they write blatantly political reports that are timed to have the most negative impact, such as when Netanyahu is visiting Washington.”
B’Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli responded that the release date for the report had been set about a month and a half ago, long before the date of the Netanyahu-Obama meeting in Washington was known.
“We decided not to change the release date, because we have an obligation to inform the people about Israel’s obligations,” Michaeli said. “We hope that human rights issues, including the implications of the settlements, will be on the table at the meeting.”
According to the B’Tselem study, the Jewish settlements are in control of 42 percent of all the land in the West Bank, even though the built-up areas constitute only 1% of it.
The municipal boundaries of the settlements are on average 10 times larger than their built-up areas, the report says.
B’Tselem also reports that the settler population has tripled since 1993, from 110,000 to 301,200.
The organization accuses the government of violating the commitment it made to the US as part of former president George W. Bush’s 2003 road map. According to the plan, Israel promised to freeze all settlement activity.
“Israel was supposed to begin implementing its road map obligations in May 2003,” the report says. “Since 2004, however, due to extensive construction in the settlements and the generous incentives Israel offers settlers, the settler population (not including those in east Jerusalem) grew by 28%, from 235,263 to 301,200 persons by the end of 2009.
In 2008, the annual growth of the settler population was three times greater than the natural growth of the population inside Israel – 5% as opposed to 1.8% respectively.”
Furthermore, according to an analysis based on a database collected by Brig.-Gen. (res.) Baruch Spiegel, there is potential for the construction of 50,000 apartments in the settlements under existing plans.
The report goes on to explain how the government amassed the 2.39 million dunams of land in the West Bank since it took control of the territory in 1967.
The most effective means was declaring a large swath of it state land.
The criteria for determining what constituted state land were based on the 1858 Ottoman Land Law.
Most of the land declared state land by the government was taken over between 1979 and 1992. This included 913,000 dunams (almost 20%) of the entire West Bank. Since then, another 5,114 dunams have been declared state land.
The report adds that the government announced last year in the Arab-language newspaper Quds that it was going to declare another 138,000 dunams state land.
All of this must be added to the 600,000 dunams of land already designated state land during the years of the British Mandate and the Jordanian government.
The government has also requisitioned private Palestinian land on the basis of security needs, an action that is in keeping with international law. However, according to that law, the military may not give the land to anyone else and must return it at the end of the occupation. According to the report, though, the army has requisitioned 31,000 dunams of land and given it to 42 settlements since 1967.
The government also effectively annexed privately owned Palestinian land, the report says. Between 1994 and 2006, it defined and expanded the jurisdictional areas of 92 settlements.
The new boundaries contained Palestinian-owned land that was not officially annexed but which effectively fell under settlement control because the Palestinian owners were not allowed to access it.
The report concludes that the settlement enterprise “has caused continuing cumulative infringement of the Palestinians’ human rights, including the right of property, the right to equality and due process, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to freedom of movement and the right to self-determination.”
Dayan, however, responded that many of the numbers in the report were incorrect and many of its claims were distortions. For instance, he said, the percentage of land in Judea and Samaria controlled by Jewish councils was 9%, not 42%.
“The organization has been taken over by a group of anti-Israel supporters of the most extreme Palestinian groups and the Palestinian right of return,” Dayan said.
Steinberg said that a lot of the report was based on legal interpretations without regard for historical realities.
“It claims the government manipulated the law, but land ownership is so complicated that any decision is interpreted,” Steinberg said. “It can just as easily be said that B’Tselem manipulated the law to score political points. In this report, there is no historical context of decades of Arab hostility, the 1967 war and unreciprocated Israeli peace efforts. Instead it artificially blames everything on Israel.”