Ashraf Aziz Hamed received an unexpected phone call some time back in 2005. On the line was an investigator from the Israel Police. He asked Hamed, a resident of Beitin, a village north of Ramallah, whether his family owned land in Section 4, Lot 132. At his family's small carpet shop in El Bireh last week, Hamed told Haaretz about the conversation with the officer: "Of course, I answered him. My father, Aziz, bought it in 1980 from another resident of Beitin, along with residents of the village of Turmus Aya. We have 18 dunams [some 4 1/2 acres], they have 27. I have the title deed. This was an investment for the family's future."
The policeman informed him that all 45 dunams had been "sold" with forged documents. "According to the documents your father sold your plot of land in 2002 or 2003," he said.
Hamed laughed: "If so, then he must have been resurrected, because he passed away in 1995."
On the land – a gentle hill south of Beitin – the family sowed wheat, and they planned to plant olive trees there. They knew very well that the Civil Administration and the Israel Defense Forces would not allow them to put up any structure on it, not even a chicken coop. But in May 2001 mobile homes of the unauthorized outpost Givat Assaf were placed on the land and since then they have only multiplied. Even two years before the forgeries took place, according to Hamed, every time the owners tried to approach their land in order to cultivate it, a guard or a soldier chased them away, threatening them with a rifle.
"In Arabic we say about cultivated land that it is 'laughing' land," says Abed al Rahman Ashur, 70, from the village of Silwad, who is one of the 10 petitioners together with Peace Now against the unauthorized Jewish outpost Amona. Back at the start of the 1980s, nine dunams he owns, planted with fig trees and grapevines, stopped laughing by force of various military orders preventing access to them. Thirty-two dunams stopped laughing after the outpost of Amona was established at the end of the 1990s on private lands belonging to inhabitants of the villages of Silwad, Dir Jarir and Taibeh.
This has been the settlements' method ever since they were first established: a built-up nucleus on privately owned Palestinian land and around it a much larger ring bounded by broken-in tracks (in one process or another involving paving, fences, threatening dogs, armed Israeli civilians, guards and IDF patrols). Thus it becomes impossible for Palestinian farmers to enter the perimeter of the ring in order to continue to cultivate their lands.
"Going out to work in the field is always accompanied by fear," admit the council heads of the four villages we visited in recent weeks: Silwad, Beitin, Burqa and Dura al Qar'a. Often those who are posing the threats go beyond the perimeter and into the precincts of the villages: In Burqa, near Migron, a mosque was set on fire recently, in Dura al Qar'a abusive slogans were spray-painted in Hebrew – not for the first time – and two cars were torched near the village spring, while in Beitin unknown persons set fire to a house and five cars.
Dror Etkes – on whose research and findings Peace Now petitions against the outposts are based – locates the laughing lands in aerial photographs from before the establishment of Amona, Givat Assaf, Migron and Jabel Artis (Pisgat Ya'akov): small plots of carefully plowed land, in each of them the furrows going in a different direction; or rich-looking, scrupulously weeded crumbled earth standing out between rows of trees; or meticulous terraces.
"The settlers are always coming back with the nonsense that the lands were not cultivated," says Etkes, who today is continuing independently to research the Israeli takeover of Palestinian lands in the West Bank.
According to Etkes' measurements, at the Pisgat Ya'akov outpost (which is itself an offshoot of the Givat Haulpana outpost of the settlement of Beit El), the nucleus of buildings takes up 30 dunams belonging to inhabitants of Dura al Qar'a and Ein Yabrud, and within the impenetrable "ring" are 640 dunams of their privately owned lands.
Etkes emphasizes that Amona and its "mother" Ofra, which is built entirely on private lands, is famous for the huge chunk of private Palestinian lands amounting to thousands of dunams to which they do not allow the Palestinian owners access. And Migron, which is built on lands belonging to inhabitants of the villages of Burqa and Dir Dibwan, subsumes 360 dunams inside the ring road while the buildings stand on an area of about 76 dunams.
Hamed from Beitin, Ashur from Silwad and inhabitants of the other villages who have lost their cultivated and privately owned lands to the outposts in the Ramallah area are keeping close watch on the government's activities to legitimize the outposts built 14 or 10 years ago on their lands, and are expecting worse developments.
In fact, in the Ramallah area the process of organizing the listing of holdings in the land registry was completed even before the West Bank was occupied in 1967. However, all of Ofra and large parts of Beit El are built on privately owned Palestinian lands.
At every municipality and village council there is a thick, heavy volume of the original land registrations and the names of the owners and their heirs. The petitions to the High Court of Justice and the maps appended to them are based on these precise records, which the state cannot dispute. The inhabitants of the villages are following the internal Israeli discussion about the settlers who refuse to be evacuated, and according to Ahmed Barakat, a member of the Burqa village council on whose lands Migron sits, "This discussion is going on as if we, the owners of the land, don't exist."
Abed Al Muni'm Me'atan of Burqa, one of the six residents who together with Peace Now filed the petition against Migron, sees the outpost from the roof of his house. He fumes when he hears the story spread by the Migron lobby to the effect that the owners cannot prove their ownership. Through Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights, the owners of the land have filed a suit against the state for civil compensation for the use of their lands.
The suit was filed in 2008, while the Peace Now suit from 2006 was pending. The respondent (the state) argued in its defense brief that "substantive documents have not been appended to the suit" [filed by Yesh Din]. The Yesh Din lawyers replied that the documents in question (title deeds and writs of inheritance) are the kinds of evidence that are not submitted at the stage of filing the suit, and in any case they are under the respondent's control and completely under its management. The fact is, they noted, that the state cannot point out any gap or contradiction between the complaints and the land registration listings held by the Civil Administration. The
suit for compensation was withdrawn last year, the moment the High Court of Justice ordered the evacuation of the outpost but, according to Yesh Din, the settlers who are battling to keep it in situ continue to quote the state's deceptive defense brief.
The maintenance of the outposts' well being has also dictated far-reaching changes in transportation. Although the inhabitants of Burqa do not have lands in Givat Assaf, no less than Migron this outpost has been making their lives miserable for 10 years now. Because of Givat Assaf, the direct road linking Burqa to Route 60 and the village of Beitin has been blocked. A trip of a few minutes between the two neighboring villages has become a long, circuitous journey.
For 11 years now the eastern entrance to Ramallah has also been closed (except to VIPs ), in order to clear the road for inhabitants of Beit El and its outposts. Ramallah has become about 20 kilometers further from the villages of Beitin, Burqa and Silwad. Instead of NIS 1, it costs NIS 8 to get there. This is a heavy burden, not only for the many unemployed people and those who have lost their only source of income – their land.
The price of land
At Migron, Amona and Pisgat Ya'akov there have also been attempts to forge land sales. Only at Givat Assaf have the attempts led to an indictment, which was filed in 2007 against two inhabitants of East Jerusalem, S.A., defendant number 1, and G.G. defendant number 2. According to the indictment: On June 3, 2003, attorney Doron Nir-Tzvi submitted to the Civil Administration for the Judea and Samaria Region headquarters officer Application No. 22/03 for a license for a real-estate transaction. The application was submitted in the name of the Keren Leyad Midreshet Yisrael Ltd. (henceforth the company). This concerned the purchase of 45 dunams of land, located near the village of Beitin in the Ramallah area. The land is registered and listed in the lands registry books as belong to six owners. One of the six is Aziz, Ashraf Hamed's late father.
The indictment continues: "At a date unknown to the accuser during the course of 2002-2003, the accused conspired [with another Palestinian resident] to sell the land to the company, while falsely representing that the land had been purchased by the accused from the owners." A separate indictment was filed against the other Palestinian.
The deliberations were held in camera and the man was acquitted, as the Justice Ministry has informed Haaretz. S.A. was convicted of forging the signatures of the six owners of the land on durable powers of attorney authorizing attorneys Moshe Glick and Nir-Tzvi to carry out the transfer of the rights to the land from its six owners to the defendants. Later he had attorney Zalman Segal of Karnei Shomron notarize authorizations confirming the signatures on the powers of attorney.
In five cases the notarization was done at Atarot, an industrial zone between Jerusalem and Ramallah, "with the submission of false evidence" (which the indictment does not specify exactly) as though the signatories to the powers of attorney were present before Segal and had signed in his presence. In the sixth case – that of the late Aziz Hamed – the signature of notary Segal was forged, "though the truth of the matter is that at that time [November 2003] he was lying unconscious in the hospital in a vegetative state after having been injured in a serious traffic accident in July 2003," as written in the indictment. Later S.A. signed a power of attorney that transferred all his rights on the land to the Keren Leyad Midreshet Yisrael.
Following the investigation of the forgery, the application to register the land in the company's name was refused, the indictment against defendant number 2 was dropped, and in October 2009 Jerusalem Magistrate's Court Judge Shulamit Dotan convicted defendant number 1 and sentenced him to 15 months imprisonment. In her decision, she wrote: "The move was intended to transfer lands owned by Arab residents to the ownership of Jews. The success of the conspiracy by the accused and his colleagues was liable, with very great likelihood, to have aroused hostilities between population groups in this context that could have been considered land theft."
The accused were to have received payment of NIS 2,000 for every forged power of attorney they signed. The indictment, like the ruling, does not indicate who was supposed to have given them that paltry sum in return for land that is so dear to the settlers' lobby.