JERUSALEM, Jan. 23 -- Israel has quietly seized large tracts of
Jerusalem land owned by Palestinian residents of the West Bank after they
were cut off from their property by Israel's separation barrier, attorneys
for the landowners said.
The land was taken after the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
decided several months ago to enforce a long-dormant law that allows Israel
to seize lands of Palestinians who fled or were driven out during the
1948-49 war that followed the establishment of the Jewish state.
The new policy, first reported in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, could
affect hundreds of Palestinians who own property in Jerusalem and intensify
the dispute over the city, which Israel and the Palestinians both claim as
The affected landowners live in the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and
Beit Jalla, just south of Jerusalem. Their land was taken in August, after
the West Bank separation barrier cut them off from their land in the city.
The land was transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property, a body
formed by a 1950 law that allowed the seizure of property of Palestinians
who had left Israel during the war, according to documents from Israel's
Finance and Justice ministries.
Johnny Atik, a Bethlehem resident, said Sunday that he lost eight
acres of olive groves within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries as a result of
the new policy. The land is 100 yards from his home, which sits on the other
side of an electronic fence and patrol road that are part of the separation
Atik said land belonging to 40 families in his neighborhood had been
Hundreds of other Palestinians are now at risk of having land seized,
according to Daniel Seidemann and Mohammed Dahla, attorneys representing
several of the landowners.
Atik said he planned to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Finance Ministry declined to discuss the policy, and a spokesman
insisted he would only respond to written questions. The ministry's written
response did not address how much land had been taken and whether landowners
would be compensated.
Israel's absentee land law was first used in the 1950s. At least
20,000 Arab homes in the western part of Jerusalem were taken under this
law, said Moshe Amirav, a former member of the Jerusalem City Council.
In the 1967 Middle East war, Israel captured the eastern half of
Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, then expanded Jerusalem's municipal
boundaries and annexed the area.
Sharon's office declined to comment, except to confirm the
government's decision that the Custodian of Absentee Property has the
authority to "transfer, sell or lease" lands in East Jerusalem that belong
to absentee owners.
The Finance Ministry said the properties of the Bethlehem-area
landowners were transferred to state custody after the 1967 war. Asked what
the state would do with the land, the ministry said the question was "not