The seizure of 1,000 acres of Palestinian land has become an abstraction in The New York Times. It is not theft, in the newspaper’s telling, it is “an emblem of an elementary conflict” and a sign of “the distance between the Israelis and the Palestinians.” Above all, it is a matter of legal interpretation, something for Israeli jurists to ponder and ultimately decide.
Under this smoke screen of theorizing, Isabel Kershner obscures the effects of Israel’s colonization on the indigenous Palestinians of one village, Wadi Fukin. She takes a look at Israel’s recent announcement that it is confiscating 988 acres near Bethlehem from the viewpoint of this agricultural community, which is threatened on three sides by the intrusion of Jewish-only settlements.
Readers hear nothing about the hardships imposed on the residents—the costs of losing agricultural fields, grazing land, water sources, access and livelihoods as well as the effects of harassment from Beitar Illit settlers, residents of the city now looming over the community. They are not told that the village has already lost three-quarters of its land to settlements since 1967 and now stands to lose even more.
Kershner does inform us that the latest seizure could lead to a new Jewish settler city in the area, and she admits that “Palestinians and most of the world consider all Jewish settlements in the occupied territories illegal.” Note that she uses the word “considers,” as if this is an opinion, perhaps a matter of global politics, not a well-established legal finding.
She then goes on to make a curious statement: “Israelis said the choice of the 1,000 acres seemed to have been calibrated to cause the least physical damage to the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state.”
Which Israelis? And how do they justify this claim? Kershner never tells us, but an Israeli settlement watchdog group, Peace Now, has spoken out to express the opposite conclusion: “Building [in that area] would ensure territorial continuity between the Green Line and the settlements of Beitar Illit, Kfar Etzion, and Gevaot, and would help link West Bank settlements such as Gush Etzion directly with Jerusalem, cutting off Palestinian access in the process.”
Another Israeli group, the human rights monitoring organization B’Tselem, has stated that the settlements are a “systematic infringement of the Palestinians’ human rights” and that Israel has tried to give the settlement enterprise a “cloak of legality” that is “aimed at covering the ongoing theft of West Bank land.”
In her story, Kershner has joined hands with Israel in providing this cloak of legality. Israel is not confiscating or taking the land, as she tells it, it is “laying claim” to the territory, and she makes much of the fact that the state is giving Palestinians 45 days to register objections. This will be the beginning of “what is likely to be a lengthy appeals process in the Israeli courts,” she writes.
Kershner refers to the seized acres as “newly declared state land” and says that Israel claims the land “was never privately owned” but was “land whose status was to be determined.” Her story goes on to discuss the difficulties of proving ownership and the “legal ambiguity” of unregistered land.
Her story does quote critics who charge that Israel manipulates old Ottoman-era laws to justify its seizure, but in doing so she stays within the Israeli-centric debate, ignoring the consensus of international law and Israel’s self-serving rejection of these laws.
She also leaves readers with the impression that Israeli courts provide a level playing field for Palestinians. Her final paragraph introduces a farmer who fought for 16 years to prove ownership of 85 acres, battling with bureaucracy along the way. He won the case in 2011, Kershner writes.
Much is missing here. The farmer, Maher Taher Sokar, may have won a battle in the courts, but he still might lose his land. “On occasion the [Israeli High] Court has found in favour of Palestinian petitioners,” a United Nations report states, but even “where judicial rulings have favoured the Palestinian petitioners, there is a consistent lack of enforcement of them.”
In other words, the military may not allow Mr. Sokar to access his land for arbitrary reasons, or it may declare it a “closed military zone” in defiance of the court and do so with impunity.
Although Kershner closes her story with an apparent Palestinian victory in the courts, she fails to say just how rare this victory is. In a report released last year, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem revealed that Palestinians have a miniscule chance of winning such cases.
“In practice,” B’Tselem reported, “the Civil Administration rarely allocates land declared as state land to Palestinians. Since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, of the lands in Area C that had been declared state land, the Civil Administration has allocated to Palestinians only 0.7%.”
This is precisely the situation in Wadi Fukin. Nearly 93 percent of the village lies in Area C (under full Israeli military control), and it was the military’s West Bank bureaucracy, the Civil Administration, that notified the residents their property was now state land.
The Times gives us a look at Wadi Fukin villagers urgently consulting with lawyers and preparing to take to the courts, but it fails to say just how Israel has stacked the cards against these beleaguered farmers. The chances of them actually winning are negligible, and even a “win” may be illusory.
But Kershner and the Times are bent on maintaining a fictional narrative, letting us believe that justice is at hand, that the courts will do their job, that Israel is a true democracy and that the land is not under military occupation. In this twisted view, the 1,000 acres of newly declared “state land” are nothing but a symbol, a “new emblem of an elemental conflict.”