Saturday, December 31, 2011

Christian West Bank landowners can't get to their land

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) -- Jamal Salman stood on one side of the double chain-link fence, on land belonging to his family. On the other side of the Israeli-erected fences, only a few hundred yards away but beyond his reach, was more family land with a grove of olive trees.

In November, Salman and more than 180 Bethlehem landowners were informed that Israel had placed their olive groves -- more than 1,700 acres of land located beyond the barrier -- under the Guardian of Absentee Property, deeming the owners of these lands as "absentees." This is the last step before formal confiscation.

"I stand here ... and I can look onto my land over the fence as an absentee (property owner)," Salman said, pointing across the fences to the trees. The last time he was permitted through the barrier to work his olive grove was 2009.

The 73-year-old is leading a campaign of mostly Christian landowners in an attempt to prevent yet more of their land from being confiscated. They are considering challenging the absentee decision in the Israeli Supreme Court, he said.

The expropriation of land is not a new story here, said Salman, a Catholic and the former town manager of Bethlehem.

After Israel built the separation barrier in 2002, farmers were not allowed to cross through the fence to the valley to reach their olive groves. Salman was left with only 360 square yards of land, while the other 1,560 square yards of his property was confiscated and now lies on the other side of the barrier, he said.

"These lands used to earn us and our families a lot of money," from the olive oil produced from the olives, he said. "We also got our own olives and olive oil from there. We lost everything."

After the farmers' case was taken to the Supreme Court by Israeli human rights lawyer Danny Seidmann, the court ruled that gates be built into the series of double fences and special permits be issued to the farmers during harvest time so they could to have access to their property.

In addition, said Seidmann, in 2004 he was given a written understanding from government officials that the landowners would be given access to their land. A year later the attorney general's office also ruled it illegal to use the Law of Absentee Property against West Bank residents whose land was located on the Israeli side of the barrier.

But the reality was different. The gates were opened only at specific times, and the farmers were issued permits to access their lands only three times since 2005, said the landowners.

The permits were given only to the person to whom the land is registered, all of whom are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s. No other members of the families were allowed to enter to help with the harvest, said Jallal Hanouna, 61.

Salman said that, since Israel took control of the West Bank from Jordan in 1967, Palestinians have been prevented from transferring ownership of property even to their children, so they were unable to transfer land deeds to younger members of the family.

"It is impossible for us to cultivate the land ourselves," said Salman. "They don't allow any other relatives or members of our family to help us. They didn't give us authority to go to our lands, and now they are saying they consider us absentee from our lands, which we can see with our own eyes. I am not absentee. I am right here."

One year, when the farmers were permitted onto their land, they arrived on their property to discover that all the olives had already been harvested by someone else, said Hanouna.

Seidmann said it was unclear whether the decision to claim the land under the Law of Absentee Property was simply an attempt by the government to try something illegal during a U.S. election year when the attention in the United States is directed elsewhere, or if has become a government policy.

The Israeli Civil Administration responsible for issuing the permits did not respond to requests for comment.

Hanouna said the land not only represents their future in terms of income from the olive harvest, but it also symbolizes their ability to provide a future for their children in Bethlehem. Other property parcels threatened are the last remaining land where the city, and specifically Christian residents, can expand, since Bethlehem is surrounded on all other sides by Israeli settlements, he said.

"We feel abandoned by the whole world. We are all Christians. This is 99 percent Christian land," said Hanouna. "This land was the hope for the Christian people, for our sons to expand. That is all we own."

If there is no room for their children to build their own homes, the exodus of young people from the city will continue and increase as they seek to make lives for themselves somewhere where they do not feel imprisoned, he said.

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