Thursday, October 01, 2020

Israel to expand settlement bloc in West Bank ‘in response to terrorism’

By Lynda Franken - September 10, 2014
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Bethlehem] [steadfastness]

The land where hundreds of the Nassar family’s grape and apricot trees were bulldozed by the Israeli military in May 2014.
“Building is our answer to murder,” said Naftali Bennett during his visit to the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank on 1 September. Bennett, the Israeli Minister of Economy and Trade, was referring to a government proposal to annex 400 hectares of land south of Bethlehem which was presented the day before. He linked the land-grab to the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah earlier this summer in the same region, suggesting the land-grab to be a measure of retribution. 
The recent declaration of state land is meant to strengthen the small settlement of Gva’ot, which was established in 1984 and hosts about ten families at the moment. It is also a way to connect the surrounding settlements of Beitar Illit, Neve Daniel, Rosh Tzurim and El’Azar to South-Jerusalem, said Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now. Peace Now closely monitors and protests the growth of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The organization called the recent confiscation in the Gush Etzion region the largest land-grab since the 1980s. 
The Gush Etzion region is already home to several thousand settlers. More than 45,000 settlers live in the settlement of Beitar Illit alone, even though the United Nations declared the city, like all of the settlements throughout the West Bank and East-Jerusalem, illegal in 1979.
Yoav Mordechai, head of the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which is part of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, disputed the illegality of the land claim. He argued that thorough research had been done into the land’s ownership and that Palestinians that claim to own the confiscated land have 45 days to appeal the decision. 
An expensive legal battle 
For Daoud Nassar, 43, the story hits very close to home, both literally and figuratively. The Nassar family owns about 100 acres of land in the Gush Etzion region, near the Palestinian village of Nahalin. Standing on the hilltop of his farm, Nassar can see the settlements of Gva’ot, Neve Daniel, Beitar Illit, Rosh Tzurim and El’Azar. Nassar’s land was declared state property in 1991 and the legal battle of ownership has been ongoing ever since.
The Israeli Civil Administration initially dismissed as evidence the family’s official ownership documents, which were drawn up in 1924, during the Ottoman Period. After appealing the decision, the family was left empty-handed in 2002 when the court decided their land would be taken without further explanation.
The Nassars appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to force the Military Court to provide an explanation. After several extensions of the Supreme Court’s deadline, the State Attorney justified its decision by arguing that the satellite photo of the Nassar farm taken in 1991 did not exactly match the map drawn up in 1924 and that one of the four boundary names had been changed.
Eager to prove that the documents were authentic, the family hired Josef Kraus, an Israeli land surveyor from the Civil Administration. He travelled to Istanbul and London to verify their documents and presented his report in 2004. In this report, he directly tied the Nassars to their land, but at a heavy financial cost of $70,000.
The Israeli State Attorney’s Office did not deny the facts of the report, but rather decided to give the Nassars the opportunity to reregister their land. This process, which started in 2007, is still ongoing. In the meantime, the family has spend an astonishing $145,000 on legal costs and forced land surveys.  
“They (the Israeli authorities) keep postponing the case, until today. We are still trying to reregister,” Daoud Nassar told Palestine Monitor. He is prepared to go “all the way legally.” 
“I have faith in what we do, but that does not mean things will be achieved here (on short notice). We hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” he said.
And on 19 May things got worse indeed, when hundreds of the family’s grape and apricot trees were bulldozed by the Israeli military, only weeks before the harvest.  The damage is an estimated $15,000 according to an engineer from the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture that surveyed the land on Nassar’s request.
“We found (demolition) papers on the land late March, saying the trees were planted on state land. We appealed to the court and our appeal was accepted and signed by the military authorities on the 12th of May,” explained Nassar. He added that because the case was pending, the destruction of the trees is considered illegal according to Israeli law. The family appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, so that  “this illegal action (would not) go unpunished”. The Israeli military authorities are set to respond to the accusations by 15 September. 
"We Refuse to be Enemies"
Irrespective of their seemingly endless legal battles with the Israeli authorities, the Nassar family stays positive. They built 'Tent of Nations’, an educational farm, which hosts people year-round to educate them on the situation of Palestinians under occupation. Last year, around 7,000 people visited the farm to volunteer for a couple of days, weeks or months, Nassar told Palestine Monitor. Rather than changing the situation on the ground, he calls it a way of non-violent resistance. 
 “We are not having peace, because we cannot have peace while living under occupation. But we are trying to widen people’s perspective. […] We do not want to blame people, but we want to say: “look, this is the situation and this is what life looks like for a Palestinian under occupation,” Nassar said.
When at Tent of Nations, life under occupation is sensible in every aspect. Because of its 'illegal’ status, the family is not allowed to build on the land. Volunteers therefore sleep in tents or caves. Already existing buildings are threatened with demolition. “At the moment, we have 13 demolition orders for property on the farm,” said Nassar. He started separate court cases for every single one of them, knowing that as long as the legal process is ongoing, the Israeli military has no legal right to carry out the actual orders. 
Because the farm has been deemed illegal by Israeli authorities, it cannot access the Israeli water or electricity network. Running water comes from cisterns that collect rain water while solar panels provide electricity. Saving water is key, which is why the farm does not have flush toilets – they’ve built compost toilets. Interestingly enough, these were designed by an Israeli who used to live in a settlement and visited the farm years ago. 
- “This Israeli man learnt about the situation from the other side. He realized there are people, non-Jewish people, who have connections to the land and are trying to protect the land they inherited. He realized that (…) he was living as an occupier in a settlement. He joined a peace group, left the settlement, and helped us with building the compost toilets,” Nassar recalled with a smile. 
Exceptional cases like this are one the reasons why Daoud Nassar still believes justice will prevail. Explaining the motto of Tent of Nations  - 'We Refuse to be Enemies’ – Nassar told Palestine Monitor: “We refuse to be victims, we refuse to hate the human, but that does not mean we have to accept the bad actions they do. […] Our goal is to invest our frustration in a constructive way, and the best way is to educate about the occupation.”

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