Palestinians enjoy land victory in Israeli courts
DURA AL-QARA, West Bank
DURA AL-QARA, West Bank (Reuters) - More used to enduring eviction orders than enforcing them, Palestinians are relishing the Israeli government's discomfort as it struggles to evacuate five settler buildings in the occupied West Bank.
Israel's supreme court upheld a petition by a group of Palestinian landowners last month, mandating a demolition order by July 1 against the apartment blocs that sit on Ulpana Hill above the Palestinian village of Dura al-Qara.
But Israel's leaders are studying every way to avoid the political fallout of sending in the bulldozers, and tentatively plan to uproot the massive, red-roofed homes and move them by rail to safer legal ground.
"I've seen this only in movies," laughed one of the plot's owners, Harbi Hassan of Dura al-Qara. "It would be like watching the Pharaohs of Egypt, dragging huge blocks across the desert."
"They can do what they do in East Jerusalem, and make the residents pay to demolish their own homes," Hassan said, referring to the way Israel bills Arab locals after knocking down their property built without legal permits.
"That way they can save the state 30 million shekels," the 72-year-old said.
The case has inspired a flicker of hope among private Palestinian landowners that 45 years of progressive encroachment by Israel on West Bank lands can be successfully challenged through the Israeli's own courts.
While most Western states deem all Jewish settlements in the West Bank to be illegal, Israel disputes this and has sanctioned 120 official settlements, most of them built on land which had no registered owner when it was seized in the 1967 war.
There are also some 100 outposts that were not sanctioned and that even Israel says are illicit. In all, some 350,000 Israelis live in the West Bank against 2.5 million Palestinians.
Israeli activist group Peace Now estimates that as much as 32 percent of settlement land is privately owned and is helping some of the dispossessed Palestinians fight their case in court.
The high-profile legal ruling on Ulpana has surprised many Dura al-Qara locals, including the petitioners themselves.
"The court of justice earned its name. Who am I for them to have ruled in my favor? Just an average person. The judges respected our cause," said 70-year old Abdul Rahman Qassem.
The hilly tract Qassem inherited from his father was taken by Israeli authorities a quarter century ago and bulldozed flat. The gray shells of condominiums under construction on his plot of land were also condemned by the high court.
Wearing a traditional white headscarf cinched with a black circlet, Qassem recounts how he rejected an offer to sell his land to the settlers -- a sale that would be punishable by death under Palestinian law -- for $28 million.
"The land is from my father and for my children," he said he told the man by telephone. "It's more valuable than any gold."
Settlers cite biblical and historical links to West Bank land. Since taking the territory in 1967, the Israeli state has laid the legal groundwork for their claims by designating large swaths "state land" or "absentee property", though some settler homes push beyond even these boundaries.
A bill sponsored by far-right Israeli parliamentarians to legalize all settler homes on private land was opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and voted down on June 6.
But on the same day, Netanyahu approved the construction of 851 new apartments throughout the West Bank to placate the settlers for the 30 to be lost on Ulpana Hill in the Beit El bloc, and to burnish the government's settler credentials.
"There's a special injustice associated with building on someone else's land," said Michael Sfard, legal advisor to the Israeli rights advocacy group 'Yesh Din', Hebrew for "there is law", which handled the Dura al-Qara residents' case.
"These specific clients of mine have gained some confidence in the Israeli legal system," Sfard said, adding that the Ulpana dossier was one of more than 30 his office was pursuing. "There remains a lack of confidence in the Israeli political system."
After two quashed uprisings and years of deadlock in peace negotiations with Israel, Palestinians hoping to wrest control of their lands from settlements say they have little recourse but to petition the Israeli courts.
"What else can we do? Fire off artillery? Call in the air force? This is the only option open to us," Qassem shrugged.
(Editing by Crispian Balmer)