How Israel aims to ‘settle’ the remainder of Jerusalem

Arab 48  /  May 9, 2022

A new Israeli land registry in East Jerusalem could lead to the confiscation of vast swaths of Palestinian property. Ahmad Amara discusses the dire implications for the people of Jerusalem, and the future of the city.

Editor’s Note: The following article was re-published through a partnership agreement with the news website Arab 48. The original article was published on April 9, 2022.

The Israeli plan to register East Jerusalem lands, which was formally made into a government decision under the title “Decision 3790 Narrowing Socioeconomic Gaps and Promoting Economic Development in East Jerusalem” threatens the remainder of land in Jerusalem, as Israel plans to register all occupied East Jerusalem land through a committee supervised by the Ministry of Justice. The committee’s work is scheduled to end by the end of 2025.

Israel was to complete the land title settlement/registration process of 50% of East Jerusalem lands during the fourth quarter of 2021. However, as the process seems to be complicated, Israel expects that work will not pass quietly in all neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Thus, the committee in charge decided to begin in pilot basins in different areas. Additionally, the process was also slowed down by the spread of Covid-19 during the past year, which nevertheless continues.

A situation assessment published by Madar Research Center says that Israel claims the registration of East Jerusalem lands would increase the income of the Jerusalem Municipality by hundreds of millions of shekels, as well as the income of Jerusalemites who would be able to benefit from the registration, in addition to the allocation of some 550,000 dunums for industrial zones which would employ Palestinian work force.

However, the registration of lands could be, effectively and irreversibly, used to advance Israeli settlement, which would lead to the confiscation of vast land from East Jerusalem, which then would be officially registered as State land. 

Israel has already confiscated large areas of East Jerusalem in favor of major Jewish settlements, during the last half century of Israeli occupation and annexation of the city. Israel suffocated the natural expansion of Palestinian Jerusalemites, creating new realities within the area. Therefore, the registration of East Jerusalem lands, in accordance with today’s facts rather than on the eve of the 1967 occupation, would stabilize colonial changes in East Jerusalem and facilitate the sudden theft of more land, under legal pretexts. 

Arab 48 interviewed researcher, lecturer and lawyer Dr. Ahmad Amara, specializing in land law and international law, in this regard and its implications for the lands and people of Jerusalem, and the future of the city. Dr. Amara is a lawyer specializing in international litigation and Lecturer at New York University in Tel Aviv and researcher at the Legal Clinic of Al-Quds University. His research focuses on the intersection of law, history and geography with a focus on Ottoman Land Law in southern Palestine and Jerusalem. He recently published Emptied Lands – A Legal Geography of Bedouin Rights in the Negev, with Alexandre Kedar and Oren Yiftachel, and is currently working on research on land control and Judaization through various legal tools focusing on Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah.

Arab 48: Israel’s intentions to exploit all legal, administrative, and planning tools in favor of its settlement plans are clear, but please explain what the land title settlement/registration of lands is, and what the process is?

Amara: Mere land title settlement is practically the registration of land rights; that is the establishment of the owner’s rights in their land according to a demarcated land plot, survey of a specific area in centimeters, and registration certificate.

Land title settlement of land in Palestine was initiated by the British and the Ottomans before them. The Tapu [land registry] we are familiar with is an Ottoman procedure. During the period of Ottoman administrative and legal regulations and reforms, the Tapu Law was initiated in the mid-19th century at a time when the Ottoman Empire began its attempt to act as a centralized modern state, and sought to compile as much statistics and data as possible on the population and the land. The Ottoman Tapu Law was issued in 1860, while the Ottoman Land Law was enacted in 1958. This law has had a major role in the Israeli confiscation of Palestinian lands in the Negev, Galilee, the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Following the Ottomans, Britain came and established a new land title settlement/registration process based on accurate surveyed maps, and parcellation to blocks and parcels. The process was also part of the British policy to control state lands and to transfer some of these lands for Zionist settlements. Israel followed and applied the same land registration process.

As for the bureaucratic procedure associated with settlement/registration; the state makes a declaration concerning the registration, concerned applicants should submit their land application, and then the process is regulated through different rules and regulations leading to the publication of a table of land claims, and then a table of land rights. Thus, anyone claiming a right, their name would be registered and published to be examined by the land settlement officer.

Arab 48: What about land that no one claims, does it remain property of the state? 

Amara: The land settlement officer is obliged to inquire and investigate and state land rights, regardless of whether the state filed a claim to the specific land. The danger is in what Israel seeks to register in its favor as public or state land — Absentee Property and property belonging to Jews before 1948. The risk exists because in the settlement process Israel is the adversary and the arbiter.

As is well known, the land allegedly belonging to Jews before 1948 is administered by the “General Custodian”, while the property of those absent [Palestinians forced off the land] is managed by the “Custodian of Absentee Properties,” both are representatives in the land title settlement Committee, which also includes representatives of the Jerusalem’s municipality. These committees currently meet and operate. There is a company working specifically on surveying and mapping, and they have already started with pilot land blocks in Beit Hanina, Jabal al-Mukabbir, Sheikh Jarrah, and Beit Safafa, an operation supervised by the Israeli Ministry of Justice.

Arab 48: You pointed out that this land title settlement is a continuation of a process initiated by the British Mandate prior to 1948, which had LAO colonial purposes to control the land.

Amara: The process is more than a mere confiscation. The British land title settlement, which began in 1928, aimed to sort and control “state lands” and to facilitate its allocation for Jewish settlement, as outlined in Section 6 of the British Mandate on Palestine.

The second goal was to respond to the Zionist leadership’s demand for land registration to facilitate the purchase of land and to better protect the buyer’s rights. In this context, we notice that even though the British had registered only 20% of the territory of Palestine until 1948, registration was mainly in areas where Jewish settlements were located, that is mainly in Galilee and the coast, and we do not find such registration in the West Bank for example. 

As is well known, the conversation between Zionist leaders involved three ways to seize control of land in Palestine: the first being by force, as all colonial powers did (conquest), the second was via authoritarian laws and decisions to confiscate lands, which was not possible under the absence of sovereignty, whereas the third was to purchase and register land, thus registration was very crucial to them.

The first thing that the British did when colonizing Palestine was to close off the Tapu (land registry) offices, and the next was to form the Abramson Commission, which recommended the issuance of two ordinances, the Land (Mahlul) Ordinance in 1920 and the Land (Mawat) Ordinance in 1921. Between 1928 and 1948, the British Mandate was able to register 5.2 million dunams of land out of a total of 26 million dunams of Palestine, and if we observe the registration map, we see that there is a significant similarity between the registration map and the Palestine partition map.

Arab 48: So, land title settlement was in the service of Zionism even before Israel was created. How is it going to look like under Israeli sovereignty, and in Jerusalem in particular?

Amara: The Zionist movement had contributed to the drafting of British land laws. Bills were sometimes sent to the Jewish Agency for commentary and it was important that the land be settled and registered in the friction areas where the land is purchased, to establish the rights of Jewish settlements there.

As for the current land title settlement in Jerusalem, past experiences in the Galilee and the Negev suggest that Israel has changed many British and Ottoman laws and regulations, particularly with regards to establishing rights and evidentiary rules, including the role of local village committees, weight of oral testimonies confirming that a certain person owns the land, and the fact of land possession.

The experience after 1948 was quite different than what was before. Although just over 2 million dunums, less than 5% of the land, was purchased by Zionist institutions before 1948, the state of Israel now controls 95% of the land. This was carried out via a series of laws and procedures such as the Absentee Property Law, the Land Acquisition Law, and the Land (Acquisition for Public Purposes) Ordinance. 

The first land title settlement after 1948 began in west Jerusalem in the villages and neighborhoods of Ein Karem, Deir Yassin, and al-Talibiya, and the aim was to legitimize the Israeli control of the lands of these areas, knowing that Jerusalem was classified as Corpus Separatum under the UN Partition Plan. 

However, in the 1950s and 1960s, the settlement process began in the Galilee and was linked to the imposition of sovereignty and the facilitation of the Jewish settlement process in the face of fears of the region’s independence from Israel or the threat of its annexation to an Arab state. Of course the policy of Judaization of Galilee played a major role in the process too.

Arab 48: We often hear about Ben-Gurion’s statement at the time, in which he said, following a tour in the Galilee, that he felt as if he were in an Arab country?

Amara: The land title settlement in the Galilee is connected with the Judaization of this area, which is also happening in Jerusalem today, but what concerns us from this experience is how Israel implemented the land title settlement process at that time. Israeli authorities denied all oral testimonies that had been relied upon during the British settlement/registration, and denied tax registrations as evidence of ownership. Thus, unjustly confiscating large areas of land.

The data here indicates that following this settlement and the resulting confiscation, 8,000 appeals were brought to the Israeli courts by Palestinian landowners, 85% of which have been rejected.

In Negev, the settlement was announced in 1974 in the areas where most of the Bedouins were relocated and concentrated, and after the announcement, 3,220 land claims were filed as part of the settlement. However, Israel chose to freeze these claims and to negotiate mainly monetary compensation with the claimants. Yet, as of 2004 only about 15% of these claims had been settled.

After 2004, Israel began filing counterclaims against Arab families in Negev, and to date there are 500-600 court cases, 300-400 of which have been ruled in favor of Israel. To date, the Israeli judiciary has not recognized any property claim by Arabs in the Negev. In our book on the Negev, Emptied Lands, we show how Israel is emptying land of its indigenous population and history by arguing that these lands are dead “mawat” lands, and thus “state lands”, and the Bedouins are trespassers on these lands.

Arab 48: So, you are saying that the settlements Israel made in different Palestinian areas were previously aimed at confiscating and controlling the land, and this is what will happen in East Jerusalem?

Amara: The irony is that immediately after its occupation of East Jerusalem, Israel halted the land title settlement initiated by Jordan, during which 30% of the West Bank lands were registered. 

During the past 50 years of occupation, Israel has confiscated 24,000 dunums, which make up 38% of East Jerusalem land, based mainly on a 1943 British law which authorizes land confiscation of land for the purpose of public interest.

Hence, we believe that the announcement of settlement means bargaining with the people for what is left of the land, we know that the institutions seeking to further control Palestinian lands are represented in the committee, such as the “General Custodian” and the “Custodian of Absentees Property” and others, and are ready to seize more Palestinian land under various Israeli pretexts and laws. In fact, the “Keren Kayemet” (Jewish National Fund) alone announced that it will open 17,000 land ownership files from its archives for registration, including 2,050 files of land plots in East Jerusalem.

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translated by Nina AbuFarha