A legal right and a moral imperative

Israel holds legal title to all land that is not privately owned in Judea and Samaria.

The ‘state lands’ of Gvaot in the Etzion Bloc (photo credit: REUTERS)
The ‘state lands’ of Gvaot in the Etzion Bloc
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 IN INTERNATIONAL diplomatic parlance it is customary to term the areas of Judea and Samaria “occupied territories.”
Few people bother to ask the obvious follow-up question: Occupied from whom? Ever since 1967, the term has been used as a knee-jerk mantra to excoriate Israel. Its recent designation of 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) as “state land” to pave the way for a new city to be called Gvaot has sparked yet another worldwide chorus of denunciation and rebuke. The criticism, however, bears little relation to legal and historical realities.
In 1967, Israel became the sovereign authority in Judea and Samaria and, as such, holds legal title to all land that is not privately owned. Turkish (Ottoman) land registration in force at the time and inherited by Israel recognized three main categories of land ownership: private land, state-owned land and a third category, miri – a type of rental agreement where one could purchase a deed to cultivate state land and pay a tithe to the government.
Israel does not dispute private land claims and does not touch privately owned properties. On the other hand, to whom do “state lands” belong? Neither the predecessor Turkish nor British governments claimed ownership; and, for its part, the immediate predecessor Jordanian government relinquished all claims of ownership in the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Furthermore, a close examination of resolutions by the UN and international bodies, which preceded it, shows that these lands were designated for the Jewish state-in-the-making.
Today, the land in question is under full Israeli administrative and security control based on the 1993 Oslo Accords. As long as there is no agreement or peace treaty between Israel and the Arabs who live in Judea and Samaria, it should be clear to them and to the international community that we will continue to build and strengthen our presence in the area.
Although Israel has never exercised its historic and legal right to annex Judea and Samaria (with the exception of the eastern neighborhoods around Jerusalem), that decision was based on political and diplomatic considerations, not legal constraints.
It would be appropriate for those who criticize Israel to at least acknowledge the legal foundations of this complex issue before voicing their condemnations. The government spent decades investigating the legal status of the land around Gvaot to make certain that the 4,000 dunams currently under discussion were indeed ownerless. Even now, individuals who believe they have legal claims in this area are invited to come forward and submit them.
In 1948 the Arabs launched a brutal assault, mercilessly destroyed the Jewish settlements in the Gush Etzion (Etzion Bloc) area and massacred the residents, even though the Arabs had no claim to the land, which had been legally purchased by the Jews. It was not until 1967 that the children of parents murdered by the Arabs returned to Gush Etzion, rebuilt the original communities and added new towns. Since the reestablishment of Kfar Etzion in 1967, “the Gush,” as the region is colloquially known, has grown, developed and flourished at an amazing rate.
The city of Efrat and the settlements of Gush Etzion play a vital strategic role in protecting the southern gateway to Jerusalem. The development of Gvaot will provide additional housing for young couples who want to build their lives close to their families al - ready living in the area; it will create hundreds of jobs for Jews and Arabs alike; and it will also help to create territorial contiguity between the Judean Hills and the coastal plain.
The mountain range of Judea and Samaria reaches a height of 1,050 meters and dominates major Israeli population centers.
Should a belligerent force gain control of this high ground, it would pose a very tangible threat to millions of Israelis. The terror and fear that has become “routine” for Israelis in the Gaza area – more than 14,000 Palestinian rocket attacks since 2002 – would become the daily staple for Tel Aviv and the surrounding metropolitan area should Judea and Samaria be ceded to the Palestinians.
Having determined that building on these unused lands does not infringe on any private person’s rights, or on neighboring Palestinian communities or towns, we must build as many housing units as possible, as quickly as possible. In contrast to Arabs who build illegally in Judea and Samaria (not to mention other areas in Israel), we Jews have been limited by a very strict building code.
Developing Gvaot will be an important step toward righting this discrimination.
The world can repeat the false mantra of “occupied territories” over and over again, but Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria is both a legal right and a moral imperative.