Defense Ministry: Jews should be allowed to privately purchase West Bank land

Under existing Jordanian laws, non-Arabs can only buy land by forming a company; legal opinions by ministry, IDF say that can be changed, but army warns of international fallout

Illustrative: A picture taken from the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus shows a view of the illegal outpost of Havat Gilad on February 2, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)
Illustrative: A picture taken from the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus shows a view of the illegal outpost of Havat Gilad on February 2, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

Legal officials in the Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces have reportedly concluded that Israel could allow Jews for the first time to purchase property in the West Bank as private individuals, which would mark a significant achievement for settlers and make it easier for them to acquire land.

The legal opinions have been submitted to the office of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who is expected to approve them, the Haaretz daily reported on Sunday.

While the IDF legal adviser has warned of potential diplomatic repercussions over such a move, the Defense Ministry adviser called for implementing the recommendation, saying it wouldn’t mark a radical change from the current legal situation, the report said.

The current military laws in the West Bank — based on old Jordanian law from the time the Hashemite Kingdom controlled the region from 1949 to 1967, when Israel captured it in the Six Day War — only allow Jordanians, Palestinians or “foreigners of Arab origin” to purchase land.

Israeli Jews are only able to carry out real estate deals via a company and require approval from the head of the Civil Administration, an Israeli body belonging to the Defense Ministry which is in charge of civilian matters in the West Bank.

Such companies have been used by settlers since the 1970s to gain control of land, but this route poses bureaucratic hurdles that would be avoided if the government adopts the fresh legal opinions.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a ceremony for new Justice Minister Amir Ohana at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem on June 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We are convinced that it is possible to effectively cancel the existing distinction in Jordanian law between a person of Arab origin and one who isn’t,” wrote Maj. Zvi Mintz, head of the IDF’s legal consultation department for Judea and Samaria, according to the report. “The ban on real estate deals on the basis of ethnicity raises certain discomfort.”

Mintz mentioned that international law only allows Israel to issue decrees benefiting the local population in areas subject to military rule, the report said. However, he added, Mandelblit could approve a legal definition of West Bank settlers as part of the local population.

Even if that were not possible, Mintz questioned whether “benefit” legally means considering the local population’s opinion on the matter — a vast majority of Palestinians oppose the sale of land to Jews — or making a decision based on what “objectively” benefits them, “for example the economic benefit that will come with the liberalization of the land ownership laws.”

He also said Israel could justify the law change using a Geneva Convention article that allows for the cancellation of racist or discriminatory legislation.

However, Mintz also warned that the law change could be perceived by the international community as a violation of international law.

“That could lead to significant international criticism, and it would be correct for the leadership to also consider that aspect,” he wrote.

Illustrative: A member of the “hilltop youth” rides a donkey at an illegal outpost in the northern West Bank. (Credit: Zman Emet, Kan 11)

Defense Ministry legal advisers Hannah Weingott and Hanan Arbel reached a similar conclusion regarding the feasibility of the move, according to the report, writing that the current legal situation “justifies a law change that would cancel the distinction between those of Arab origin and those who aren’t, and enable land purchases in the region by any person.”

They rejected warnings of international criticism.

“The option to purchase land in the region by the way of forming a company has existed since the 1970s,” they wrote. “Fixing the language of the law in a way that resolves discrimination does not renew or change the existing reality. The change will make it past international criticism.”

While Mintz said land deals should continue to require the Civil Administration’s approval, Weingott and Arbel reportedly argued that that could be waived when approving “certain deals, for certain bodies and in certain areas.”

“The need to receive an approval is meant to prevent land purchases by hostile entities — a justification originating to the Jordanian rule,” they wrote. “That justification raises the question of the status of the entity filing a request for a permit, including an Israeli, and their perception as a hostile entity in circumstances where the Israeli military rule is the sovereign in the region.”

Mandelblit, the report said, will now have to decide between the two opinions.

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