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State Business: Israel’s misappropriation of land in the West Bank through settler violence

Summary, November 2021

Israel has built more than 280 settlements in the West Bank, which are home to more than 440,000 settlers. Of these settlements, 138 were officially established and recognized by the state (not including the 12 neighborhoods Israel built in the areas it annexed to Jerusalem), and some 150 are outposts not officially recognized by the state. About a third of the outposts have been built over the past decade, most of them referred to as “farms”.

West Bank settlements dominate hundreds of thousands of dunams [1 dunam = 1,000 square meters] to which Palestinians have limited access or none at all. Israel has taken over some of these areas using official means: issuing military orders, declaring the area “state land,” a “firing zone” or a “nature reserve”, and expropriating land. Other areas have been effectively taken over by settlers through daily acts of violence, including attacks on Palestinians and their property.

The two tracks appear unrelated: The state takes over land openly, using official methods sanctioned by legal advisors and judges, while the settlers, who are also interested in taking over land to further their agenda, initiate violence against Palestinians for their own reasons. Yet in truth, there is only one track: Settler violence against Palestinians serves as a major informal tool at the hands of the state to take over more and more West Bank land. The state fully supports and assists these acts of violence, and its agents sometimes participate in them directly. As such, settler violence is a form of government policy, aided and abetted by official state authorities with their active participation.

The state legitimizes this reality in two complementary ways: 

A.     Legalizing land takeover 

The state allows settlers to live, farm and graze livestock on land violently taken from Palestinians. Dozens of outposts and “farms” – settlements for all intents and purposes, which were built without formal authorization by the government and without plans that enable construction in them – receive support from the Israeli authorities and remain standing. Israel has ordered the military to defend the outposts or paid for their security, as well as paved roads and laid down water and electricity infrastructure for most of them. It has provided support through various government ministries, the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization and regional councils in the West Bank. It has also subsidized financial endeavors in the outposts, including agricultural facilities, provided support for new farmers and for shepherding, allocated water and legally defended outposts in petitions for their removal. 

In the past, the state announced its intention to enforce the law on outposts in the future and evengave the international community assurances to that effect. In March 2011, the state announced it would, from now on, make an official distinction between outposts built on land recognized as privately owned by Palestinians and land Israel considers “state land” or “survey land” (land that can be declared “state land”, although the declaration has not yet been issued). The state claimed it had only intended to  remove outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land.  This distinction, which has no legal basis, was accepted by Israel’s Supreme Court. At the end of the day, nearly all the outposts remain in place. 

Havat Ma'on - land Israel has blocked to Palestinians using settler violence

 

B.     Legitimizing physical violence against Palestinians 

Violence committed by settlers against Palestinians has been documented since the very early days of the occupation in countless government documents and dossiers, thousands of testimonies from Palestinians and soldiers, books, reports by Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations, and thousands of media stories. This broad, consistent documentation has had almost no effect on settler violence against Palestinians, which has long since become part and parcel of life under the occupation in the West Bank.  

The violent acts include beating, throwing stones, issuing threats, torching fields, destroying trees and crops, stealing crops, using live fire, damaging homes and cars, and, in rare cases, homicide. In recent years, settlers in so-called farms have been violently chasing Palestinian farmers and shepherds away from their fields and from pastureland and water sources they used for generations. They initiate violent altercations on a daily basis and intimidate flocks belonging to Palestinians in order to scatter them.

The military avoids confronting violent settlers as a matter of policy, although soldiers have the authority and duty to detain and arrest them.  As a rule, the military prefers to remove Palestinians from their own farmland or pastureland rather than confront settlers, using various tactics such as issuing closed military zone orders that apply to Palestinians only, or firing tear gas, stun grenades, rubber-coated metal bullets and even live rounds.  Sometimes, soldiers actively participate in the settler attacks or look on from the sidelines. 

Israel’s inaction continues after settler attacks on Palestinians have taken place, with enforcement authorities doing their utmost to avoid responding to these incidents. Complaints are difficult to file, and in the very few cases in which investigations are in fact opened, the system quickly whitewashes them. Indictments are hardly ever filed against settlers who harm Palestinians and when they do, usually cite minor offenses, with token penalties to match in the rare instance of a conviction. 

The report presents five case studies that illustrate how continuous, systemic violence meted out by settlers is part of Israel’s official policy, driving massive takeover of Palestinian farmland and pastureland. In the testimonies collected as part of the research, Palestinians describe how this violence undermines the bedrock of Palestinian communities’ lives and diminishes their income. Residents describe how without protection, under the pressure of violence and fear and with no other choice, Palestinian communities abandon or scale back traditional vocations such as sheep and goat farming or various seasonal crops, which allowed them to make a dignified living and live comfortably for generations. Palestinian residents stay away from pastureland and water sources that once served their communities, and limit cultivation of farmland. At that point, the state can take over their land for its own purposes. 

State violence – official and otherwise – is part and parcel of Israel’s apartheid regime, which aims to create a Jewish-only space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  The regime treats land as a resource designed to serve the Jewish public, and accordingly uses it almost exclusively to develop and expand existing Jewish residential communities and to build new ones. At the same time, the regime fragments Palestinian space, dispossesses Palestinians of their land and relegates them to living in small, over-populated enclaves. 

The Um Zuqa farm is one of six “farms” set up by settlers in the northern Jordan Valley in the past five years. The farm was built in 2016 on a site that housed the Palestinian village of Khirbet al-Mzoqah, which Israel demolished after occupying the West Bank.According to a calculation prepared by Kerem Navot at B’Tselem’s request, settlers from Um Zuqa “farm” have taken 14,979 dunams – roughly twothirds of the nature reserve. Settlers from the farm are already cultivating 99 dunams of this land. Photo by
The Um Zuqa farm is one of six “farms” set up by settlers in the northern Jordan Valley in the past five years. The farm was built in 2016 on a site that housed the Palestinian village of Khirbet al-Mzoqah, which Israel demolished after occupying the West Bank.According to a calculation prepared by Kerem Navot at B’Tselem’s request, settlers from Um Zuqa “farm” have taken 14,979 dunams – roughly twothirds of the nature reserve. Settlers from the farm are already cultivating 99 dunams of this land. Photo by Eyal Hareuveni, B'Tselem.

The apartheid regime is based on organized, systemic violence against Palestinians, which is carried out by numerous agents:  the government, the military, the Civil Administration, the Supreme Court, the Israel Police, the Israel Security Agency, the Israel Prison Service, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and others. Settlers are another item on this list, and the state incorporates their violence into its own official acts of violence. Settler violence sometimes precedes instances of official violence by Israeli authorities, and at other times is incorporated into them. Like state violence, settler violence is organized, institutionalized, well-equipped and implemented in order to achieve a defined strategic goal. 

The combination of state violence and nominally unofficial violence allows Israel to have it both ways: maintain plausible deniability and blame the violence on settlers rather than on the military, the courts or the Civil Administration while advancing Palestinian dispossession. The facts, however, blow plausible deniability out of the water: When the violence occurs with permission and assistance from the Israeli authorities and under its auspices, it is state violence. The settlers are not defying the state; they are doing its bidding.