Bil'in villagers: Land taken from us illegally

The petition by the head of the West Bank local council of Bil'in against the route of the separation barrier has reopened old wounds and raised new demands on the part of the villagers, it emerged during a High Court of Justice hearing on Wednesday. The petitioners' attorney, Michael Sfard, asked the court for an interim injunction to halt construction of the barrier along a three-kilometer stretch which cuts the villagers off from farmland on the "Israeli" side. Sfard also asked the court to issue a show-cause order paving the way for a thorough discussion of the construction of the barrier in that area. Supreme Court President Aharon Barak told the petitioners and the state that the court would decide on the requests in the next few days. The state's representative, Attorney Aner Hellman, asked the court to reject both petitioner requests. Hellman said the three-kilometer section of the barrier was already completed and all that was left to do was to fill in some breaches. He also asked the court to reject the petition out of hand because of how late it had been submitted, and because the petitioner, Bil'in council head Ahmed Yassin, had already agreed to a large part of the fence route during talks with the army in the context of a previous petition. Afterwards, Bil'in villagers huddled around Sfard to hear an explanation of what had happened during the hearing, and to make it clear that the route of the fence was only a corollary of their real grievance. According to the villagers, Bil'in had a total of just over 3,000 dunams of privately owned land up until 1990. In that year, the state declared that about 1,500 dunams of that land belonged to the state. But that declaration remained on paper for many years, and the villagers continued to cultivate the soil. In the meantime, the Housing Ministry and the Modi'in Illit Local Council planned a new neighborhood on a large portion of that land. It was only when the villagers saw the beginning of the construction of that neighborhood, known as Matityahu East, that they came to understand that it had been taken over by Israel. Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry and the army began construction of the security fence in the vicinity of Bil'in. The fence cut the villagers off not only from the roughly 1,500 dunams of disputed land, but also from 700-800 dunams of land which the state acknowledged belonged to them. The petition is based on two premises: The first is that the route of the fence was determined for purposes of settlement expansion rather than security needs, because it surrounds Matityahu East even though almost no one lives there yet. The second is that the villagers should not be cut off from the 700-800 dunams of land they indisputably own. However, the villagers regard all of the 2,000-2,300 dunams of land on the "Israeli" side of the barrier as their own. In court, Sfard explained how the land came to be allegedly owned by the state. It was allegedly purchased by a Jewish individual or group from a Palestinian who claimed to own all of it. But since a Palestinian caught selling land to Jews was subject to the death penalty according to Jordanian law and Palestinian decree, the military government agreed to declare that the land belonged to the state. This was done on the understanding that the Palestinian seller would not protest very hard, even though he could supposedly prove that he owned the land. After the proclamation went into effect, the military government leased the land to the Jewish purchaser. This three-way deal was conducted in secret. The Bil'in villagers claim today that they own all of the land and did not sell it to a Jewish buyer. Peace Now activist Dror Etkes told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that this kind of three-way deal was used frequently to obtain land from Palestinians until, at some point, the civil administration refused to participate in it any longer. Although the alleged Bil'in land deal took place 15 years ago, Etkes said he wanted to reopen the issue and obtain the documents connected to the transaction. He described the under-the-table arrangement as a crime.