The Palestinian town of Teqoa is located on the southwest mountain range, and the Israeli Tekoa is to its eastern side, lower. Nokdim is separated from the opposite range by a deep wadi with a rocky mountain descending towards it on a steep slope. The desert on the east is the only thing it is open to, and it strives to reach it in a curvature created entirely by natural forces.
Assayag built his stone-covered home on half a dunam of land. In January 2015, he was summoned by the community's secretary, Shmulik Leizerovich, for an urgent meeting at his office.
"When I arrived, Shmulik turned his computer screen towards me and showed me an aerial shot of the community with blue markings. 'Look here.' he told me, 'This is your home. The new blue line leaves it outside, beyond the community's legal line. Only the grass in the back remains inside.' The new line has created a complete mess here. In the home of my neighbors, the Gali family, the new line ate into the children's room, and in the Boxer family's home to my left it removed part of the storeroom."
The community was established in 1982 and is situated in eastern Gush Etzion, at the foot of Herodium ("Herod's Palace"). Leizerovich, the secretary, says the state invested millions of shekels in the community's infrastructure of water, sewage, electricity, roads and pavements.
"It was all based on zoning and legal permits," he says. "All the houses were built on land that the state itself defined as its own. Suddenly the new blue line, which basically fixes the community's limits, says there are houses here which are beyond the line of state lands. In other words, that the land is private. The new line eats into the yard of (Defense Minister) Avigdor Lieberman's mother, who used to live in the house adjacent to his. The Yitzhak family's home was completely removed by the line. The line basically reduced our community by 11 houses."
A mapping project, which is being published here for the first time, based on the maps and database of the Civil Administration in the Judea and Samaria Division, demonstrates how the land ownership issue is eating into dozens of settlements, even the largest and oldest ones.
Aerial shots of the settlements have been marked with green dots in each community indicating permanent buildings, and red dots indicating mobile homes. All the dots have one common denominator: They are all located on lands which are not state lands, but are considered private lands. This fact makes these buildings illegal.
While US President Barack Obama declared last week at the United Nations that Israel "cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land," a look at these maps reveals just how complicated the situation on the ground really is – both legally and practically, as well as from a human point of view: Just like the 11 homes in Nokdim, where the defense minister lives, there are more than 2,500 housing units, residential buildings and commercial buildings which have been subtracted in recent years by the Civil Administration from the defined area of state lands in Judea and Samaria, or were not within the communities' blue line and were built on private land to begin with.
With of the upcoming eviction of the Amona outpost in about three months, all of the buildings are facing a state of uncertainty.
Those whose houses were removed outside the boundaries of state lands or were never included in them are mainly afraid of High Court petitions by left-wing legal organizations which help the Palestinians. In this case, it's not a few dozen families in an outpost, but about a much higher number than the number of families that were evicted from Gush Katif in the disengagement from Gaza in 2005.
"There will be many more Elon Morehs," late Prime Minister Menachem Begin declared on his first visit to the settlement of Elon Moreh. Now it turns out that there may definitely be many more Amonas are well.
A statutory mess
It's a complicated story requiring an understanding of the background of the establishment of settlements in the territories occupied in 1967. Until 1979, West Bank settlements were built for security purposes in order to control Palestinian communities and routes, even if the lands they were built on were private. The establishment of Elon Moreh at the entrance to Nablus on private lands belonging to Palestinians from the village of Rujeib led to a High Court ruling ordering the eviction of settlers from the area.
As a result, the Begin government decided that from that point onwards settlements would only be built on lands declared state lands – in other words, lands with no ownership claim or ownership registration. Attorney Plia Albeck, who served as head of the Civil Division at the Justice Ministry at the time, was tasked with marking the state lands.
Albeck traveled around the West Bank with maps and defined with a thick black marker areas which were untilled and had no Palestinian community on them. All the lands included within the lines marked by Albeck and her team were then declared state lands. The process lasted many years, until the early 1990s, when the Oslo Agreements were signed. The settlements established on the state lands were defined with a blue line and all the area within the communities' blue lines was meant to be state lands.
In the late 1990s, the Civil Administration appointed a team to present a more accurate picture of the state land declarations provided by Albeck. As technology became more and more sophisticated, the work of the Blue Line Team, as it became known, became more and more accurate. Albeck used a black marker pen on a 1:100,000 map, and the pen's thickness itself took away Palestinian lands in many places. Blue Line Team uses mapping systems based on satellites and aerial shots from the 1970s and 1980s. Any evidence of land tilling automatically turns it into private land.
On the one hand, the team's work marked extensive areas around the settlements as state lands and added them to the settlement enterprise, but on the other hand, in many places the new blue line took away lands which already had homes built on them. In fact, this marking made many neighborhoods and homes in the West Bank illegal.
In March 2016, the Blue Line Team finished drawing the line for Eli. The team's work added 596 dunams (about 147 acres) to the settlements, "all in areas attached to the community, rocky grounds with nothing on them," says Ido Meushar, chairman of the community's committee. At the same time, the new line subtracted 590 dunams from Eli, "and most of that area includes inhabited houses which were built by the state."
Eli's establishment is backed by a government decision from April 1984. The 2,781 dunams the settlement is situated on were recognized as state lands. But like what happened in several locations, modern technology created a new order.
"We have 190 houses outside the blue line, entire streets," says Meushar. "Harakefet, Halilach and Hanurit Streets were all built by the state, and some of the houses there remain outside the line, meaning that the land they were built on is allegedly private, according to the Civil Administration. So on the one hand, the state invested millions of public funds in the massive development of water and sewage infrastructures, roads, electricity, communication, public buildings and educational institutions, and on the other hand an arm of the state is now saying, 'Excuse me, some of the lands we built on are not exactly state lands. We suspect there was plowing or sowing there, some kinds of tilling.'
"This isn't Amona. There are 4,000 people living here. The GOC signed an order approving the community's establishment. This isn't a community of settlers with windproof jackets and Uzi submachine guns who decided to climb up the hill one day. All activities of the government's ministries in Eli are documented in writing. In the Neveh Shir neighborhood, for example, 34 homes were approved and built by the Housing Ministry. They are all beyond the blue line now."
"There are 11 High Court petitions against us because of this statutory mess. Throughout the years, the state did not swallow the settlements in Judea and Samaria and did not throw them up. On the one hand, it invested, funded, encouraged people to come live here, and on the other hand it did not put a final legal seal on this place."
But the blue line is subject to interpretation too, depending on which side of the board one is located. "The numbers you have about Eli are inaccurate, to say the least," says Attorney Shlomi Zecharia of the Yesh Din organization, who filed some of the pending High Court petitions against the community. According to Zecharia, the Blue Line Team added some 60 housing units to Eli and subtracted only about 10. The rest of the homes which were located outside the blue line to begin with were not included in the community – in other words, they were built on private lands.
"the Blue Line Team's goal is to bypass the procedures of announcing state lands and evade the diplomatic repercussions," says Zecharia. "We filed a High Court petition attacking the legality of the team's work in all cases in which it added lands to settlements about two years ago. This petition is still pending."
Ovad Arad, director of field operations at the Regavim movement, which is affiliated with the Israeli Right and monitors and documents illegal Arab activity on state lands, says the number 190 is completely solid. "Thirty-eight houses which were on state lands have been redacted beyond Eli's new blue line, including 31 homes that were built with state funding and seven in which the state funded the infrastructure. These homes join 152 houses which were built beyond the blue line by the state."
'How did they let us buy houses on private land?'
From Eli we traveled to Ofra, where we found a very nervous Shuki Moriah. He is 52 years old, owns a dry cleaning company, and bought a 200-square-meter home 16 years ago on half a dunam. He purchased the home from the community's cooperative society, which initiated the construction with the Amana company.
"At the time I had returned from a long stay in the United States and did not know about the Land Registry Bureau. I understood one thing at the time, that it was all fix, all glatt kosher. About a year ago, I heard people talking about a High Court ruling on the demolition of nine houses in the community. Those nine houses are my neighbors, a few minutes' walk from me. I began asking questions and realized that my house was not better off than those nine houses. I suddenly discovered that there was a demolition order against my house too, an order I never knew about and no one informed me of."
Ofra is an example of a community which was built on expropriated private land. The land was expropriated by the Jordanians in order to build a military base on the territory. Ofra's establishment was essentially based on the Jordanian expropriation. In the past year, Palestinians have raised ownership claims over the lands the Ofra founders' neighborhood was built on, in the heart of the community. A Civil Administration examination showed that the Jordanian expropriation procedures were not done properly. Now, the future of 45 dunams, which dozens of homes have been built on, is unclear. Ofra is in general an odd story: Seven hundred houses have been built in the community, and 530 of them are situated on private land.
According to Moriah, in his neighborhood alone there are some 100 houses with demolition orders against them.
"Let's assume I want to sell my house today. I can't. No one will buy it because the bank won't give them a mortgage. No bank will give a mortgage for a house on land that belongs to someone else. Today I realize that the banks did not know the truth about the land ownership either. Imagine how many such houses there are in all the communities in Judea and Samaria. How many mortgaged houses are on private lands? Dozens? Hundreds? Let's assume that some of the people are unable to keep paying the mortgage payments. Can the bank use the property?
"I'm telling you that these houses have lost most of their value. I wanted to take a loan to expand my business. I went to the bank. They asked me if I had a property to mortgage. I said, 'Of course, I have a great house.' They checked where, what, who, and laughed at me. They said, 'You house isn't worth a penny.'
"I'm telling you, people are living in a dream world. They don't understand that we're stuck in the mud. We have nothing in our hands. We bought houses with all our money and were left with air. I was sold a house that stands on air, and I paid all the mortgage payments. All my neighbors are walking with their heads in the ground, ashamed that we were fooled. They cheated us just like that, without even blinking!"
Who cheated you?
"Everyone. (Ariel) Sharon, (Yitzhak) Rabin, (Shimon) Peres, Zambish (Ze'ev Hever, secretary general of the Yesha Council's Amana company and one of the most influential figures in settlement construction), the Israeli government, whoever approved this thing. They said, sign here, sign there, but hid the truth from us. How did they let us buy houses on private land? This isn't mine. I'm not ashamed to say it, the whole business here is built on nonsense. Either they arrange this or move us out of here."
Like pawns on a chessboard
The key word right now is regulation. That's what Amona's residents, who are slated to be evicted this coming winter, want. It's what the rest of the property owners in the settlements, whose houses were subtracted from the state lands or were never on them, want too. They are afraid of a domino effect. Amona will be evicted in December, the nine houses in Ofra will be demolished two months later, and the Netiv Ha'avot outpost in Gush Etzion is scheduled to be evicted and razed in a year and a half, according to a High Court ruling. The big question is - which community or neighborhood will join this list.
Attorney Doron Nir-Zvi refers to this situation using the terms of a second disengagement with a legal engine. "These are the numbers," he says. "It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand what we've got here. So it's an issue that must be resolved through legislation.
"There is a dispute among us, in the settler public. The old guard believes we must continue working with the Civil Administration and the other government authorities, and build another community instead of Amona with the old pragmatism. People from my generation, on the other hand, are saying that they must stop putting out fires and using people like pawns on a chessboard, moving families with children from place to place because of mistakes made by the state. We are saying that the entire issue must be solved from its roots and all the settlements considered illegal must be regulated under the law."
The need for regulation presented by the settlers is backed by a ruling from the state's response to the High Court in the Amona case, which reveals the great fear of the future and the magnitude of the mess created by the settlement construction.
Under the headline, "Across-the-board ramifications," on the decision to evacuate the outpost, the state wrote: "The ramifications of the decision to evacuate all the buildings located on private lands even without a specific petitioner may exceed the boundaries of this petition. There are thousands of additional buildings on private lands across Judea and Samaria due to different combinations of circumstances, including thousands of buildings located in recognized and regulated communities which have existed for decades."
This is a critical decisive point which everyone understands. The settlers are asking the state to contain the settlements in the territories in practice, through a legislative procedure. Attorney Avichai Boaron, head of the Amon resident's action committee, points an accusing finger at the state's leadership.
"(Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu is terrorizing the political system, saying that the international community will eat him up alive if the 'Amona Law' passes. We are saying that the prime minister, Lieberman, (Bayit Yehudi Ministers Naftali) Bennett and (Ayelet) Shaked must enter a controlled conflict with the international community in favor of the agenda they were elected for. If they are in the political right, they must lead an agenda of a political right.
"The settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria is suffering from a malignant disease. The metastases have spread all over the body. The entire legal infrastructure of the settlements has been fundamentally undermined. This disease breaks out in a different community each time. Once it's at Givat Haulpana in Beit El and once it's at Migron and today it's in Amona and tomorrow in Ofra, and later on in dozens of places with an illegal status.
"And the political echelon, which was elected with the national camp's votes, is afraid to deal with the actual disease. It prefers to cut off organs where the disease has broken out. To move communities, ruin neighborhoods, evacuate citizens from houses they have lived in for decades – just so they don’t have to deal with it. It's time for the government, which is allegedly the most right-wing and national government possible, to be brave and regulate the communities built by the state through legislation. Even the international community will eventually understand that thousands of families cannot be transferred."
Is it a lost cause in Amona's case?
"Of course not. We definitely expect the government and its leader to regulate Amona through legislation. If they decide to evacuate us after all, we will launch the battle of our life over our home. We are certain that we will be joined here by tens of thousands of people who believe in us and in our way and won't accept the injustice and the distortion that have been created. There will be a popular and justified protest here, which says that legal complexities must be solved with legal tools and through legislation, without ruining people's lives. Enough is enough."
These emotional comments are rejected by Attorney Michael Sfard, who is responsible for many High Court petitions against the illegal construction in the settlements. According to Sfard, the ‘Amona Law’ is in fact an illegal expropriation of lands.
“It will lead to a huge international crisis. In any normal country there are defined, clear rules for expropriation. Expropriation is always for public purposes. You don’t expropriate from one person in order to give to another person. That is simply robbery, disinheritance.
“Expropriation in an occupied territory is possible under international law only for the occupied public’s needs. If the state would decide to renovate the road between Ramallah and Nablus in favor of the Palestinians, it would be able to expropriated lands in order to build the road. That’s legal. Expropriation in favor of settlement construction is illegal. The last thing Israel has left is the appearance of a civilized state. Netanyahu understands how dramatic this is for Israel.”
In any event, we were told both by the IDF Spokesperson’s Office and by the spokesperson of the coordinator of the government’s activities in the territories, this is a political and diplomatic issue.