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Fifty Years of Dispossession



1997 has marked a turning point in Palestinian expectations of the Oslo accords. Concerns are growing among a majority of the Palestinian public that continuing participation by its leaders in talks like those of the last four years will prove fatal. The prospects of recovering territories vital for the building of the country, far from increasing, have demonstrably decreased with the Oslo process. The issue of land tenure provides an essential yardstick by which to measure these prospects.

Just before the turn of the year an official Palestinian report was published and submitted to Yasser Arafat, with the latest comprehensive figures of how much land on the West Bank and Gaza Israel has expropriated (1). The report's figure of almost 3,000 sq km, half the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967, deserves to be taken seriously, and can be confirmed by independent computer calculated checks. Particularly alarming was the report's contention that a full 10% of that amount has been seized over the past four years of Oslo. This is an amount comparable to the current autonomous area in Gaza. Most of it is sited near the thirty biggest Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

To assess its impact, we must distinguish three main traditional categories of Palestinian land. The first is privately-owned land of which people have some form of documentary proof, and most of which is cultivated or built-up land. The second is publicly or communally-owned land, most of it without individual documentary titles (2), uncultivated and used for grazing. This category has permitted different governments (Ottoman, British, Jordanian, Israeli) to create a third category: “public”, “government” or “state” land. Much like any other country, such land is usually put to public use, for instance as a nature reserve.

The British Mandate which governed from 1917-47 placed a large part of the country into this category. In itself, this need not be problematic, since a country's citizens can be considered as its public owner. In 1947 two-thirds of the total population was Palestinian Arab. But when the sovereign rights of that population are challenged, as happened half a century ago, problems arise.

The Palestinians have seen a dramatic reversal in their land holding and corresponding sources of livelihood over the last fifty years. In 1947 the indigenous Palestinian Arab population owned - privately or publicly - 93% of the country (with the Jewish community owning only 7%). Today Palestinian private land has decreased to around 15% of the total land area, of which about 10% is in the West Bank and Gaza. This can largely be attributed to the dramatic events which live on in the Palestinian memory as the nakba (the catastrophe). On 29 November 1947 the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 partitioning Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states. Already it was a bizarre application of the principle of national self-determination. For a full 86% of the land allotted to the proposed Jewish state was Palestinian-inhabited and owned land, predominantly public, with the state's Jewish citizens in a slight, but distinct, minority position.

The aftermath of the UN decision is well-known. It led to the flight and displacement of two-thirds of the Palestinian Arab population and to the Israeli conquest of an extra 25% of territory allotted to the projected Arab state (to the Green Ceasefire Line), on top of what had been reserved for the Jewish state. Only the West Bank (annexed by Jordan) and the Gaza Strip (under Egyptian administration) escaped Israeli control. In Israel, it meant that only relatively small segments of Palestinian private land, in the Galilee and the “triangle” north-east of Tel Aviv, remained free of state control.

The second historic stage of Palestinian dispossession began 30 years ago when Israel conquered the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967. As the de facto administering sovereign authority, Israel was now in a position to continue the process of designating mainly uncultivated areas as “state land”, following the example of the previous British and Jordanian rulers. But, this time, far in excess of the established pattern.

Considerable sections of private Palestinian lands were also brought under Israeli control, mainly above the Latrun salient, in East Jerusalem and in parts of the Jordan Valley. These were the first West Bank areas that were put directly to Israeli public use, such as the construction of suburban settlements in East Jerusalem, or irrigated agriculture in the Jordan Valley. Later Israeli settlements nearly all emerged on Israeli or Jordanian-declared state land. Although they form a major political and strategic category, settlements are marginal in extent (no more than 5% of the area of the West Bank and Gaza), and they cannot prejudice the rights of an indigenous population to a “state domain” - the term itself refers quite clearly to those rights.

The accord of 13 September 1993 once again put the question of sovereignty over these lands - in the West Bank and Gaza - on the political agenda. Responsibility shifted from the international community to the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. Both sides committed themselves to reaching a negotiated common agreement on the final status of the disputed Palestinian territories. It is important to note the crucial difference with the situation of 1947.

Then, UN Resolution 181 provided for international recognition of Arab sovereignty over almost half of Palestine, which has remained valid for the West Bank and Gaza. When the PLO signed the Oslo accords, it implicitly recognised an equal sovereign claim of Israel to territory in the West Bank and Gaza. This superseded the first international recognition and lay the base for another “equal” division of the Palestinian territories in question. This, despite the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian population in these territories (87%) and the pattern of predominantly Palestinian land-use, independent of their status.

After four years of halting talks, the die is cast (3). Beyond uncertainty over the exact result of final status talks, Israel's politicians, whether they are Likud, Labour or one of the centre parties, know what to expect. Crucial planning decisions taken by Ariel Sharon, the minister for infrastructure, at the start of the year gave clear clues to the territorial division that Israel has in mind.

The first indication was the implementation of the next stage of the development plan for the settlement of Maale Efrayim in the Jordan Valley, doubling its size (its final stage provides for a six-fold increase). Another was the decision to construct a commuter railway from Tel Aviv to the settlement of Ariel, south of Nablus. According to the Israeli Metropolitan Plan of 1995, this is to be followed by another such railway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem via the settlements of Kiryat Sefer and Givat Zeev. Mr Sharon also gave the green light for a new motorway along the proposed rail track. These transport links are instrumental in extending the rapidly emerging combined metropolis of Greater Tel Aviv-Jerusalem deep into the West Bank, along the guidelines of Israel's overall national master plan for roads, industry and housing. With this continued, if not accelerated, expansion of most of the thirty main settlements and the completion of the network of bypass roads skirting round the Palestinian areas, all the pieces on the territorial board seem to be in place.

Politically, too, 1997 is a turning point. In January an agreement was reached between Michael Eitan, head of Likud's parliamentary group, and Yossi Beilin, a high-ranking Labour official and a minister in the Peres government. This “national agreement concerning the negotiations on the permanent settlement with the Palestinians” appeared close in concept to a previous agreement between Mr Beilin and Palestinian negotiator Abu Mazen (Mahmud Abbas) in March 1996. This had extracted a crucial concession from the Palestinian side, in accepting that Israel could incorporate settlements housing 70% of its settlers, leaving 94% of the West Bank under a Palestinian authority which would have the trappings of a state. East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty but Palestinian could proclaim their capital, Al Quds, in Abu Dis, a suburb east of Jerusalem.

Palestinian recognition that settlements were not incompatible with territorial compromise may have acted as a stepping stone for a drastic scaling down of Palestinian territorial aspirations in the Beilin-Eitan agreement, according to which Israel would not redeploy from more than half the West Bank and all the settlements would remain intact.

Only a month later, a newspaper revealed the contents of a map called “Allon plus” (4), that Mr Netanyahu had reportedly shown to Bill Clinton in Washington, showing territory he insisted should remain with Israel for security reasons. There is little doubt the the “Allon plus” map is a faithful reproduction of the final status map envisaged in the Beilin-Eitan agreement. It would leave “West Bank land equally divided about half and half between Israel and Palestinian control. Towns and cities and about 99% of the population would be under Palestinian rule” (5).

With minor adaptations (around the settlements of Elon Moreh and Eli-Shilo), the dividing line on the “Allon plus” map runs closely along most of the land expropriated by Israel since the Oslo accords, leaving Kiryat Arba and Talmon as the only principal settlements surrounded by Palestinian territory (although “bypass” road links to these places are practically completed). Palestinian spokesmen have expressed fears that the stage is now set to inflict a last round of land expropriation along the lines of the “Allon plus” plan, in all its catastrophic proportions.

* Geographer, Amsterdam-Jerusalem.

(1) Figures given in the e-mail edition of Palestine Report, 13 December 1997.

(2) The private property of the Bedouin tribes, officially recognised and covering over 350 sq km, were mostly expropriated by Israel after 1949.

(3) See Alain Gresh, “Paix piégée au Proche-Orient”,
Le Monde diplomatique, December 1995, and Geoffrey Aronson, “Pendant la négotiation, la colonisation contiue”, Le Monde diplomatique, November 1996.

Haaretz, 5 June 1997. In July 1967 the deputy prime minister, Yigal Allon, proposed settling part of the West Bank for “reasons of security”, this mainly in the Jordan Valley. He advocated a partition of the territories with Jordan as part of a peace agreement.

(5) A.M. Rosenthal, “Israel's Red Line Map”,
New York Times, 18 February 1997.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1997 Le Monde diplomatique.

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