Gvaot: Whose Land Is It Anyway?

Last week, the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria declared that some 1,000 acres in the area of Gush Etzion was public (state) land. This step was taken in accordance with decisions of the Security Cabinet following the kidnapping and horrific murder of three boys three months ago in Gush Etzion.

As expected, the extreme left-wing NGOs in Israel, led by Peace Now, exploded with an intensive campaign against this step, and shortly thereafter, the US, the UN and certain European countries began to condemn the move and demanded that Israel repeal its decision.

In a malicious manner intended to throw sand in the eyes of the international community, and to blacken the name of Israel, Peace Now purposely misrepresented this step – which was simply the formal completion of a well-known process – as expropriation of land, and another example of “occupation, expulsion and theft.”

However, an accurate analysis of this declaration and its basis in law completely disproves the claim that Israel has taken over privately owned land. The opposite is actually true – this entire process, implemented by the government, of surveying and officially declaring land to be state land, is intended to ensure that no private property rights will be harmed and that new or expanded communities will be established only on land that belongs unequivocally to the sovereign power according to international law, and not to a private individual.

What is the process of survey and declaration? In 1978, Prof. Aharon Barak, who was then the legal adviser to the government, declared, “The basic assumption in determining ownership of land is that all land is public land, except if it has been acquired by an individual.

Thus, any land which is desolate and against which no private ownership claim has been registered is assumed to be public land.” This mirrors land law in all western countries where there is only public land or private land.

If all land not privately owned belongs to the state, why is it necessary to declare that it is public land? In order to prevent any potential injury to private ownership rights, the government ruled that as a necessary condition, prior to the expansion of existing communities or establishment of new communities, there must be an official survey of the land and then a declaration, processes put in place to ensure both legally and factually that this is, without a doubt, public land.

The survey includes professional research of the land, analysis of historical aerial photographs and maps, taking into account any signs of work on the land, as well as exhaustive measurements and legal opinions. Upon completion of the survey, the declaration is made, which includes publication in neighboring villages, and in Hebrew and Arabic newspapers, stating that the land has been found to be public land and that anyone who believes he has a claim to ownership of part of that land should present it. Of course if such claims are proven, that area will be removed from the final declaration.

In the recent case in Gush Etzion, these steps have all been implemented to the letter of the law, and if there were even a slight concern that there were private property rights on the land in question, that land would have been removed from the declaration.

So what actually happened last week? Last week the Civil Administration announced that the professional survey had confirmed that without any doubt, these 1,000 acres were not private land, and thus were declared officially to be public land. In the announcement, the Civil Administration invited anyone who believes they have a claim to land in that area to present the claim within 45 days.

At present, there are approximately 3,500 of state land in Judea and Samaria. It is important to point out that throughout Judea and Samaria, there remains about 700 of state land in which the survey process has been delayed for many years (primarily for budgetary reasons). We call on the government to instruct the Civil Administration to renew the survey process with full force, not as retribution for terrorist attacks, that are ongoing, but in order to continue developing communities and give a Zionist answer to the systematic and organized attempts of the Palestinian Authority and its collaborator NGOs to take over vast areas of Judea and Samaria and deprive the Jewish people of their legal right to live there.

About the Author
Ari Briggs is Director of the International Department of Regavim, the non-profit advocacy group for Israel’s national lands. As director, Briggs works to ensure responsible, legal & environmentally friendly use of national lands, and to educate about proper and legal land claim issues through aerial photography, maps and historical documentation.