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Sunday, November 14, 1999

'Trespassers' on their own land

The civil administration told the Suleiman family they were "trespassing" on their land, and uprooted 41 dunams (about 10 acres) of trees. All because Israel did not let them register their land at the Land Registry

By Amira Hass

The soldiers came first, at about 8:30 in the morning. The jeeps that brought them parked at the top of the hill and the soldiers descended into the wide wadi, and spread out with their rifles between the sabra plants, the brush and the olive trees. Soon afterward a small bulldozer rolled down the hill, raised its toothed arm, and its screeching could be heard clearly in all the houses of Kfar Midya, huddled close together on the hilltop to the left, barely 200 yards away from the plowed and planted basin. Surrounding the bulldozer were several foreign workers, Africans.The morning of Wednesday, November 3, 1999: The workers employed by the contractor (who was hired by the civil administration just to uproot the trees), the soldiers, the policemen and the officials of civil administration, assembled on the property of the Suleiman family in Kfar Midya, in order to return to the State of Israel what they claimed belonged it. In the tiny town of some 1,000 residents, everyone knew where the soldiers were headed. On August 3, 1999, the Suleiman family had found an injunction stuck to the iron gate which divided their property from their neighbors'. The papers bore the insignia of the IDF and the Civil Administration for Judea and Samaria, regarding the "evacuation of government property ... in accordance with law concerning government property (Judea and Samaria) No. 59, 1967, I hereby declare that you are unlawfully holding the lands described herein." Underneath was hand-written, "Land in el-Midya that was declared State-owned land for Hashmonaim." Hand written under the heading "Description of the crime," was "the fencing of land and the planting of olive trees and sabra plants."

The second paragraph of the injunction was typed, and stated: "You are hereby commanded to remove your mark from this land and to return the land to its former state within three days of receiving this order."

Paragraph three: "You have the right to appeal this decision, if you wish to do so, to the appeals committee within 54 days of receipt of this order."

Beside the heading "Delivered by" was handwritten, "Michael Yachin, Co-ordinator of Supervision of West Ramallah, 3.8.99; Time: 02:61." It also noted, under the signature, "Affixed to the property's fence in the presence of Daniel Raf (a witness, apparently a soldier who was there also).

But other vital information was not detailed: it was not noted to whom the order was delivered, and on the top line, where the particulars of the "criminal" should have been, hand-written words in Hebrew read "the trespasser" - no first name, no father's name, no grandfather's name, no family name, no identity number, no address.

Peter Lerner, the spokesperson for the civil administration, explained that if no one is at the site when the inspectors arrive, they cannot know who planted the trees, and who is the trespasser. This does not invalidate the legality of the injunction, he said.

Doomed to failure The Suleiman brothers consulted a Palestinian lawyer two months ago, in the hope that he would help them submit an appeal. Now it turns out that the lawyer neglected their file. It is no wonder, say other lawyers who deal with similar cases. Rejection by the appeals board, which is often composed of settlers, but never includes Palestinians, is a foregone conclusion.

The property of the Suleiman family - six brothers and sisters (five others live in Amman) - is about 41 dunams (10 acres), and is located between the planted tracts of other families. The Suleiman family knows of no other family which received a similar evacuation notice. Apart from this plot of land, which has been claimed by the state, the family owns only four dunams (one acre).

The Suleiman family's tale of shrinking land holdings is characteristic of Midya and other Palestinian villages which are adjacent to the Green Line. Until 1948 the family owned hundreds of dunams. According to data from the British Mandate era, the whole village of Midya, in the Ramallah region, held 29,700 dunams (7,425 acres). In 1948 most of the village's territory (23,450 dunams) was conquered and transferred to the State of Israel. From then until 1967, the villagers worked the remaining 6,250 dunams of their land, 3,750 dunams of which was in ownerless territory. The Suleiman family had 57 dunams left. Over the years, most of this was expropriated or declared state-owned land, in favor of the nearby settlement of Hashmonaim, and the access road to the settlement.

"We're lucky that we still have land at all, there are some people who have lost everything, and all they have left is their house and the land beneath it," said one of the brothers, Mustafa Suleiman. In 1986 the villagers were forbidden access to areas which had once been ownerless. Thousands of olive trees that were planted there were uprooted. "We were told that this area was within the Green Line," says Suleiman, "even though there were permits (from the administration) to build 31 houses on that same tract of land."

The shrinking of the village's land holdings had a direct effect on the villagers. For every person now living in the village, four others are living abroad, mostly in Amman. The emigration began even before 1967, and increased after the Six Day War. Young people went away to seek employment abroad, and others moved elsewhere in Israel. The elderly, the women and the children were entrusted with watching over the land that remained.

The uprooting of the trees took about three hours on November 3. The bulldozer tore out the trees, and the African workers dragged them to a waiting truck. Residents of Midya who work in Hashmonaim related that the contractor later burned the trees. Some of the sabra plants were also uprooted or were crushed. The soldiers prevented the women from entering the area. They shouted and cursed at the soldiers, but they were pushed back. One of the children was struck in the face. "Do you know how much work we have invested here?" the women asked. Plowing and planting and watering and trimming and harvesting for years. After the uprooting of the olive trees, they stayed on the tract of land for days, afraid that the contractor would come back and take what was left.

Saplings or mature trees? Mustafa Suleiman said that two years ago over 150 of the family's trees were uprooted. This is the second time their groves have been destroyed. Both times, first in 1997, and again now the uprooting was done in accordance with a 1991 declaration that the land belonged to the state. After the declaration, the family submitted a petition to the appeals board, and a ruling was handed down that a few small areas were not "State-owned land", but the rest of it was, and the trees must therefore by uprooted.

Lerner says that this is a matter of trespassing on state land and it was not trees that were uprooted, but 96 saplings which were only a few months old, and that a few days after November 3, there were still some torn, crushed olive branches hanging onto the nine fenceposts which surrounded the area. They did not look like the branches of saplings, but of mature trees. There were also some thick roots on the ground, which the workers had not managed to load onto the truck. Mustafa Suleiman said that the trees were between 10 and 15 years old. The sabra plants, which form the traditional border of the groves, look very old. Suleiman made a film of the event with his home video camera, which also proves that the trees were not saplings. When the contractor came, Mustafa Suleiman hid a short distance from the area, and filmed the workers dragging large trees. If some of the trees were small, says Suleiman, it is because they were planted on rocks and developed slowly.

The Suleiman family finds it difficult to understand why Israel suddenly remembered in 1991 that the land belongs to it, and what is the difference between the Suleiman family's land and that of their neighbors.

In 1967 Israel halted the registration of land in the Land Registry, a process that had been started by Jordan. All the residents of Midya did not stop registering the lands which had been in their possession for generations. According to Lerner, the designation of the land as state-owned "is not done in situ. Land that is not worked, ... land that is stony, is state land. To the best of our knowledge," he added, "in the other planted areas it is not a matter of trespassing on state land."

But in Midya people are asking themselves what the state is planning to do with its property. Maybe it wants to build a small settlement, or to lease the land for a gas station or a motel. If so, will "the good of the public" demand that a road be paved to reach it, and then the state have no choice but to expropriate another few dozen or few hundred dunams from workers who "as far as the civil administration is concerned" are not included in the definition "trespassers on state-owned lands?

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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