The Israeli left gets very worked up about an issue that to most of us seems little more than a distraction: which settlements are built legally? The government colludes in this debate, distinguishing between legal settlements and illegal outposts, because it helps create an Israeli consensus about the large settlements, which are well established.
This debate makes sense to Israeli Jews (but to no one else) because since a 1979 ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court it has been “legal” for Israel to build settlements only on “state land”, and not on private Palestinian land. After the ruling, Israel, of course, immediately started declaring vast areas of the West Bank “state land”. It did this by (mis)using old Ottoman legal codes.
For example, it claimed as state land any common land (ie that not privately held). Under Ottoman rule, such land was available for the Sultan to distribute for the future needs of the communities it lay close to. But, in Israel’s Orwellian parlance, “state land” in the West Bank means, as it does in the 93 per cent of the land nationalised inside Israel, land for the exclusive use of Jews and held in trust for Jews all around the world. (I discuss these issues at length in my book Disappearing Palestine.)
This Haaretz article contains some useful information about how the system has worked in practice – forced out into the light by a Supreme Court case.
Unlike the Ottoman Sultan, Israel has allocated just 0.7% of “state land” in the West Bank to Palestinians over the past 33 years, almost all of it in the Jenin area – land that appears to have been transferred to the PA, presumably as part of a dubious deal.
Remember that, as the occupying power, Israel is required – much like the Sultan – to care for the needs of the occupied population. In that regard, Israel appears to have allocated just 1 dunam (a quarter of an acre) in those three decades, to allow for stone quarrying.
Meanwhile, 38% of the land has been given to the settlers, chiefly through the World Zionist Organisation; some of it to Israeli mobile phone companies (ripe for boycotts!); some to Israeli utility companies; and the rest, such as forests, nature reserves, and army bases, continue under state control.
Almost as an aside, it also emerges that Israel has regularly broken its own “legal” restrictions by declaring as state land private Palestinian land under cultivation. This has occurred whenever the settlements have needed to expand.
None of this should surprise us. But it is another piece of documentary evidence to show how Israel did not simply follow as the settlers led. Israel created the settlements as a pretext for a giant land-laundering exercise to Judaise the occupied territories. There was never an intention to hand the land back; the goal was always theft.