Bill stripping High Court’s power to adjudicate West Bank land disputes advances

Bill stripping High Court’s power to adjudicate West Bank land disputes advances

Ayelet Shaked views top legal body as overly concerned with international law; Jerusalem District Court would be new address for such petitions

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (r) and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut on February 22, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (r) and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut on February 22, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

A key legislative committee on Sunday advanced a bill that aims at stripping the High Court of Justice of its jurisdiction to hear cases regarding West Bank land disputes.

The proposal, approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, would require Palestinians who claim ownership of land that has been built on by Israeli settlers to first petition the Jerusalem District Court.

According to a statement from Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who introduced the measure, the legislation seeks to accomplish three goals.

The first is to normalize the legal system in the West Bank, where the High Court rules on land disputes, entry permits, and Freedom of Information Law requests, as compared to Israelis living within the Green Line, who petition administrative courts on such matters.

A bulldozer demolishes a woodshop at the illegal Netiv Ha’avot outpost, November 29, 2017 (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The second goal is to address what Shaked views as the discrimination that settlers face in the High Court. The justice minister argued that the burden of proof in High Court petitions is on the defendant rather than the plaintiff — a hierarchy that would be flipped in cases heard before a district court.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, a Justice Ministry official explained that Shaked views the High Court as “overly concerned with international law and with protecting the rights of the ‘occupied’ population in Judea and Samaria.”

The Jerusalem District Court, however, is often more concerned with the testimonies of the specific case at hand, focusing less on broader geopolitical implications, the official explained.

Shaked explained that the legislation’s third goal is to lighten the load of the High Court, which receives roughly 2,000 petitions a year, and “is forced to deny many off the bat.”

Certain land ownership petitions would still be able to be heard by the High Court, but they would have to go through the district court first.

Illustrative: The High Court of Justice in session. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Justice Ministry official added that the legislation comes against the backdrop of High Court decisions to demolish outposts such as Migron, Amona and, most recently, Netiv Ha’avot, due to their construction on private Palestinian land.

“The expectation is that the District Court will be more flexible with such cases in the future,” he explained.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s green-lighting of the bill means it will have coalition support when it is brought to a vote in the Knesset in the coming months. That makes its passing much more likely.

The pro-settlement Regavim NGO welcomed Sunday’s approval of the bill in a statement, claiming that the High Court in recent years “has become a tool exploited by Palestinian construction offenders.”

The group argued that the High Court has long handed down punishments for illegal Israeli construction in the West Bank, while failing to crack down on equivalent Palestinian construction in the same manner.

“This fact attests to the high politicization that exists in the Supreme Court,” Regavim said.

For its part, the Yesh Din rights group blasted the ministerial committee’s approval, arguing that its “whole purpose is to promote the annexation of the West Bank and to try to present the occupied territories as part of Israel.”

The left-wing NGO vowed to “continue fighting for Palestinians whose land has been stolen and whose rights have been violated before any court, whether it be the High Court, the district court or the magistrate’s court.”

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