Joshua Mitnick
The Jewish Week
July 3, 2008 - 4:23pm

The piles of rubble stand like a bitter monument on a distant hilltop that looks down on the entrance of this Jewish settlement.

It is the remains of the Amona outpost’s nine permanent houses, whose demolition by the government two years ago sparked clashes with Israeli security forces that left 300 injured and seared into Israeli memory the trauma of uprooting West Bank settlers.

Now, the embers of bitterness from Amona are being lighted anew as Ofra faces another legal challenge that may force the government to come back to carry out nine more building demolitions — this time within the Ofra boundaries.

Next week, the Supreme Court will hear a petition from Palestinians in the neighboring village of Ein Yabrud claiming ownership of the plots on Reuven, Dan, and Gad streets where the finishing touches are being put on brand new houses.

“People are upset, resentful and angry,” said Ruchie Avital, an Ofra resident and spokesperson for the settlement. “These so-called owners are just a fiction of  [Peace Now’s] wishful thinking. The fact is the yishuv has checked and the land is state land.”

The case is notable because it targets Ofra, the first Israeli community in the northern West Bank and home to many of the leading figures in the settlement movement. The petition could establish a troubling precedent because it relies on official West Bank land registries obtained from the government by Peace Now, which suggest that one-third of all settlement land is actually privately owned by Palestinians.

According to Dror Etkes, who helped get the land information as director of Peace Now’s settlement watchdog project and helped file the Supreme Court petition with Yesh Din, a human rights organization, some 85 percent of Ofra is built on Palestinian-owned land. The Civil Administration has issued 186 demolition orders in Ofra against illegal construction — including the nine homes in the court case — but most have been ignored.

“We believe there is contradiction between the rule of law and the settlement enterprise and these cases show that we are right,” said Etkes. “Israel must decide on the type of regime it wants: Are we a mafia state or are we a democracy where we respect property rights?”

Ofra was approved in 1975 by Shimon Peres, who was Defense Minister at the time. The core of the settlement is located on an old Jordanian army base, but the community of 2,700 has since expanded well beyond that.  

Pinchas Wallerstein, an Ofra resident who was a member of the Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, acknowledged that Ofra has never developed according to an officially approved master plan, but said that every neighborhood has been developed according to plans drawn up by Israel’s housing ministry. He accused Etkes’ Yesh Din as being funded by European governments who oppose Jewish settlements.

“There’s never been a single instance that an Arab has complained that the land belongs to him,” he said. “The consideration of this petition is not legal. Ofra is known as one of the leading settlements in Judea and Samaria, and the desire to injure it by people who are traitors to their people, unfortunately has always existed.” 

The contested buildings look all but finished, save for missing blocks of Jerusalem stone here and an empty window there. Ofra residents say that residents already inhabit some of the buildings.

Earlier this month, settlement Rabbi Avi Gisser issued a halachic ruling saying that construction work by Jewish-employed Palestinians could continue on the Sabbath in order to allow owners to move in before a decision comes down from the Supreme Court.

In an interview with Haaretz, Gisser cited a Talmudic ruling that says the commandment of settling the Land of Israel overrides the principle of not engaging non-Jews to work on the Sabbath.

The case many mean “the court is taking a more serious look at the chain of ownership in the territories. It may be a harbinger,” said Hebrew University Law Professor Yuval Shany.

The lines between privately owned Palestinian land and “public” real estate belonging to the government has sometimes been blurred, he said. In the 1980s, the government of Israel relied on antiquated Ottoman laws that restricted what could be defined as privately owned land to take possession of West Bank real estate, he said.

“The question is: how do you prove possession?” he said. “Part of the problem was that the land registry was very undeveloped before the Israeli occupation.”

In a response to the petition, Israeli Deputy State Attorney Avi Licht was clear about the status of the buildings. “The construction and populating of the locations is illegal. The building went ahead despite a stop-work and demolition order.”

The court case and the media attention have stoked violent reactions among Ofra residents toward journalists. A photographer for the pro-settler Makor Rishon newspaper who recently came to take pictures of the houses was punched in the nose when she refused to stop taking pictures.

Ofra Mayor Meir Nahliel condemned the attack, but warned a reporter who wanted to visit the settlement last week from angry reactions. “There might be hostility. Look, it’s a free country. But to be on the safe side, I recommend coordinating [the visit] with us.”

Residents say the court challenge is part of a “vindictive” effort by the Israeli left to “destroy” the lives of the residents like the Gaza settlers, who were uprooted in 2005 so Israel’s army could withdraw from the Palestinian territory.

“We’re not a bunch of hilltop youth here,” said Avital. “We’re a bunch of suburban families who want to live our lives in a place that the government told us was ours to live. There was never any hint that we were here temporarily.”

Gershom Gorenberg, the author of a settlement history titled “The Accidental Empire,” agreed that Israel’s government has historically been vague regarding the legal status of the settlements. He argued the Ofra case highlights the fact that illegal building in the West Bank didn’t start with the unauthorized outposts but is “built into the settlement enterprise since” its first years.

“If the government is issuing demolition for illegal construction at Ofra, and giving mortgage subsidies to move to Ofra, then there is a deep dissonance in government policy,” he said.

“What this case has the potential to do, if it is not swept under the rug, is resolvie that dissonance.”


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