The Yesh Din organization, an Israeli leftist advocacy group, said on Friday that it was starting a campaign to help Palestinians sue the state of Israel for its use of their privately owned lands for Jewish settlements in the West Bank (photo, from aljazeera.net).
The campaign fights for the rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories. It follows the publication Friday in the Haaretz newspaper of classified government data regarding the extent of construction in officially recognized settlements that is illegal by Israeli standards.
Violations include private and public building carried out without appropriate permits or outside of approved plans, but also the construction of whole neighborhoods on private Palestinian lands in blatant violation of Israeli policy and law.
The publication of the information coincides with President Barack Obama’s special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, first visit to Israel and the West Bank, though individuals involved in the campaign said the publication was not especially timed to match with Mr Mitchell’s trip.
After the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, Mr Mitchell, as chairman of an international fact-finding commission, was the first foreign official to make an equation between Israeli security and settlement building, calling on Israel to freeze all settlement construction in return for Palestinian efforts to rein in the violence.
As Yesh Din estimates that the extent of claims against the state could “amount to hundreds of millions of shekels”, the leaked government date and any subsequent law suits could prove embarrassing and costly for Israel.
On Friday, Yesh Din’s legal counsel, Michael Sfard, said : “many Palestinian households now have a valid legal claim against the state of Israel.” He added that they could go to court in order to demand the removal of buildings from their property and reparations for the years the lands could not be used. And if Israel does not compensate the victims, Mr Sfard said that they would eventually turn to foreign courts.
All Israeli construction in the territories conquered in the 1967 Middle East war are considered a violation of international law by much of the world. According to Israel, the settlement enterprise does not violate the law against transferring populations into occupied territories, but represents a voluntary return of individuals to places where they or their ancestors once lived.
About 285 000 Israelis currently live in some 120 recognized settlements in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. Negotiations with the Palestinians will eventually decide their fate, says Israel. Settler leaders routinely say the settlements are built on areas defined as state land. Israel also says it carries out exhaustive checks to ensure that there is no building on private Palestinian land.
However, there are numerous examples in the official data published Friday showing that Israel has not enforced its own laws.
The information gathering started in 2004, when Israel came under increasing international pressure to carry out a settlement freeze. Baruch Spiegel, a retired brigader general was tasked, by the defense minister at the time, Shaul Mofaz, with compiling a detailed database that would give the government an accurate picture of Jewish settlement construction.
A pattern of building violations emerged, not only in the unauthorized outposts that have sprung up in recent years, but also in many of the “official”, established towns and villages that make up the bulk of the settlement enterprise.
Even though Peace Now, another leftist advocacy group, made numerous requests, the Defense Ministry has refused to make the Spiegel database public, arguing that the information is sensitive and could harm Israeli security and foreign relations. For two years, a petition to require the state to publish all the information has been pending in the Tel Aviv District Court.
But non-governmental groups, among which were the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times, have already obtained some of the data and published them. Mr Sfard says that with the leak of all the official information to Haaretz, the details are now “uncontested”.
An Israeli defense official refused to comment on the issue publicly but dismissed the Haaretz report as “political” and “nothing new”.