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West Bank Farmers Cannot Access Land

Palestinian Christians George Hamah, 65, left, and Yousef Lutfi, 73, walk near the Israeli–erected barrier that divides their olive groves near Bethlehem, West Bank, 22 Dec. The Israeli government, which will not allow them to cross the barrier, has de clared them absentee landowners.The growing Israeli settlement Har Homa is seen in the background. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)  

30 Dec 2011 – by Judith Sudilovsky

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.

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