Court gives nod to settlement largely built on private Palestinian land
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Court gives nod to settlement largely built on private Palestinian land

While legal hurdles still remain, residents of Ofra hope dismissal of petition against master plan will pave way for retroactive regulation of entire town

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

A view of houses in the Israeli settlement of Ofra in the central West Bank on November 17, 2016. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)
A view of houses in the Israeli settlement of Ofra in the central West Bank on November 17, 2016. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Monday dismissed a petition against the legality of a central West Bank settlement’s construction master plan, in a move that residents hope will pave the way for the legalization of the entire community, which was largely built on private Palestinian land.

The petitioners, from the Palestinian villages of Ein Yabrud and Silwad, had argued that the master plan submitted by the neighboring Ofra settlement in 2014 covering approximately one-third of its area should have been dismissed due to its inclusion of nearly a dozen acres of land that had been registered to residents of their respective towns.

Rejecting the Palestinian claims, the panel of judges ruled that the majority of the master plan — roughly 60 acres’ worth — which had been a Jordanian military base before 1967 but was subsequently expropriated by Israel, could be used by the residents of Ofra.

Regarding the remaining 17 percent of the master plan, the state argued that while it had accidentally expropriated an additional 12 acres of private Palestinian land in its seizure of the Jordanian base, a legal mechanism should be employed in order to avoid nullifying the entire expropriation. Known as “market regulation,” the tactic relies on the notion that wildcat Israeli homes built on private Palestinian land were done so in good faith. Its use was first green-lighted by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in 2018.

A map showing the master plan (shaded in blue) submitted by the Ofra settlement to the High Court of Justice along with the areas deemed to belong to private Palestinian landowners. (Peace Now)

The court, however, declared that it would not rule on the issue of ownership of the more problematic 17% of the master plan, arguing that the passage of time since the establishment of Ofra in 1975 made it too difficult to determine with sufficient certainty to whom it belongs. Nonetheless, it determined that the Palestinian ownership claims over a small part of the master plan were not enough to disqualify the plan in its entirety.

Tawfiq Jabarin, the attorney representing the petitioners, criticized the court’s ruling, saying that his clients had filed their petition shortly after Ofra had submitted its master plan and “in accordance with Israel’s military law in the West Bank.”

The settlement issued a statement lauding the ruling and called on the government to use it as a springboard to legalize the remaining two-thirds of the settlement that was not covered by the master plan reviewed by the High Court.

Dror Etkes from the left-wing Kerem Navot settlement watchdog group said that while the court’s ruling was a “prize” for Ofra residents, it would not help the state to legalize the remaining two-thirds of the settlement. Those parts, Etkes argued, could only be legalized through the so-called settlement Regulation Law, which was passed in 2017 but has since been frozen by the court and is predicted to be overturned altogether.

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