Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Vice PM: Ofra settlement built on private Palestinian land

According to a new report in Haaretz, Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon has admitted that Ofra, a major settlement established in the late-1970s in the occupied West Bank, was built on privately owned Palestinian land. Although Israeli authorities have consistently denied it until now, the land was expropriated from Palestinians in violation of international law and of a well-established Israeli supreme court ruling in 1979 forbidding the expropriation of private Palestinian land for settlement construction under the guise of "security necessity." The party line until now was that major settlements were built only on "state land," which, under the former Jordanian and British authorities in the West Bank, was never considered privately owned Palestinian land. Ramon's comments have exposed this as nothing but a fabrication.

It is not clear why Ramon's admission, which he made in February, was not reported until now, nor why he felt free to admit to such longstanding official mendacity. When asked, Ramon claimed that his information came from military sources; one may speculate that his admission was a gambit for winning compromises from the Gush Emunim settler leadership for the removal of settlement "outposts."

Peace Now, which, despite official declarations to the contrary, recently claimed that 32% of settlement outposts and 24% of settlement bloc land was privately owned by Palestinians, has said that Ramon's comments may have legal implications for Palestinian demands for compensation. While the Haaretz story below and the Peace Now statements refer only to financial compensation, the government's admission theoretically (and, for now, only theoretically) opens the door to legal and policy remedies of other kinds, including settlement removal or land exchanges.

The most immediate impact of the new admission will be to put more pressure on Israel to dismantle illegal settlement outposts. Referring to these outposts, Ramon claimed that settlement expansion has nothing to do with "natural increase" of the settler population. He acknowledged that "the pressure to enlarge Ofra and other settlements does not stem from a housing shortage, but rather is an attempt to undermine any chance of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians." Peace Now pointed out as recently as last summer that 90% of settlements stray outside their official boundaries, even though they are only using 12% of the land the government has allocated to them. While the unlawfulness of the settlements is obvious to most observers, what is less obvious is the extent to which settlement expansion is now proceeding without even the usual recourse to legal pretenses.

A deal is presumably in the works between the Israeli military and the settlers to close down some of the newly established outposts -- there are about 100 outposts in total, containing 7000 Israeli settlers. Such a deal will be counterproductive if it simply serves to guarantee the stability and preserve the growth patterns of existing settlements. The destructive settlement juggernaut will continue until governments, organizations, and individuals exert sufficient pressure from outside Israel to make clear that peace cannot be achieved unless the settlements are finally removed or the Palestinians are given suitable new land in exchange. --Lincoln Shlensky


Last update - 11:44 08/04/2008

Vice PM: Ofra settlement homes built on private Palestinian land

By Akiva Eldar

All 450 homes in Ofra, the "mother of settlements" in Samaria, were built on privately owned Palestinian land, Vice Premier Haim Ramon said during a session at the Knesset State Control Committee two months ago.

This is the first time such a senior government source has admitted in an official forum that the first settlement in Samaria was built on private Palestinian land.

In response to an inquiry by Haaretz, Ramon's office said the vice premier's statements were made based on information from the defense establishment.

Present at the committee session were some of the West Bank local council heads, including the director of the Yesha Council of settlements, Pinhas Wallerstein, one of the first people to move to Ofra. None of the guests challenged Ramon's statements regarding the property ownership.

Sources involved in settlement affairs said Monday that even though Peace Now has argued that Ofra is built mostly on private land, Ramon's official statement has both political and legal implications. This may include compensation demands by the Palestinian property owners.

Wallerstein responded Monday that to the best of his knowledge, the facts are not in line with Ramon's statements. He recalled that Ofra began as a work camp in 1975, established with the authorization of Shimon Peres, then defense minister in the first Yitzhak Rabin government, on the grounds of a former Jordanian military camp.

Peres even participated in planting a tree in the new settlement.

According to the transcript of the February 25 meeting, which addressed the outposts and the implementation of the Sasson Report, committee chairman MK Zevulun Orlev asked Ramon: "To add 20 more homes in Ofra has political implications? I want to understand the point." Ramon responded: "From many standpoints Ofra is not a good example for you, because all of it is build on private Arab land, private Palestinian property."

Ramon said the pressure to enlarge Ofra and other settlements does not stem from a housing shortage, but rather is an attempt to undermine any chance of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.

"Construction in Judea and Samaria, especially the illegal outposts, stems from a wish to establish political facts that will make it difficult for the Israeli governments to adopt a policy different from that of the persons building the illegal outposts. They declare this, and therefore this construction has an open political and ideological nature. People say, we will build without permission so that if the majority in Israel wants to return part of this territory [to the Palestinians], it will be impossible or it will be much more difficult," Ramon said.

Ramon, who chairs the ministerial committee on implementing the outpost report, added, "If it were up to me, everything would be allowed within the settlement blocks and nothing would be permitted beyond those [areas], and anything inside the fence would be approved and everything outside the fence not only would not be authorized, but I would be content if it were evacuated."

Eitan Broshi, an aide to the defense minister on settlement matters, said there are about 100 illegal outposts where 7,000 people live.

He told the State Control Committee that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had sent former Defense Minister Amir Peretz a letter listing which outposts should be evacuated first. Broshi said on February 25 that "in the coming weeks," there would be agreement with the Yesha leadership on the fate of 26 illegal outposts

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Alistair Welchman
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