West Bank’s Wadi Fukin big loser in newest Israeli land grab

More than 25% of the land newly confiscated in the West Bank belongs to the village of Wadi Fukin. Residents fear the likely outcome of being completely surrounded by Israeli settlements while gearing up to fight this expected loss of land, property and livelihood.

Ahmed Sokal, mayor of the West Bank village of Wadi Fukin, has no doubts as to the goal of Israel’s recently announced expropriation of 4,000 dunams of land from the West Bank’s Bethlehem area. “Israel’s plan for Wadi Fukin is clear”, Sokal told the AIC. “It aims to step by step surround our village so that it becomes a prison, trapped between settlements. It wants to drive out our residents. We are already surrounded by Tsur Hadassah to the west, with Beitar Illit and Hadar Beitar to the north. Now our land to the east has been taken from us, and a new settlement will be built”.

Wadi Fukin, located 10 kilometers southwest of Bethlehem, had already lost some three-quarters of its lands to confiscations following Israel’s 1967 occupation for the construction of two settlements – Beitar Illit and Hadar Beitar – in addition to bypass roads and the Separation Wall.

Israel plans to construct a major settlement, Gvaot, in the expropriated land. However, these lands will also serve to link the area’s Gush Etzion settlement bloc to Jerusalem and its environs.

Israel’s announcement Sunday of what Israeli settlement watch group Peace Now has declared the largest land expropriation in thirty years, was strongly denounced by the international community. A senior U.S. official is quoted as saying that “Israel didn’t update us in advance and surprised us with this decision”, and reports note that Secretary of State Kerry is pressuring Israel to retract this decision.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, is understood to be expropriating this land in order to deflect criticism from the right concerning his conduct of the Gaza attack. Netanyahu is accustomed to barren criticism from the international community of Israel’s human rights violations, while he further assumes Palestinians are too tired after Gaza to put up significant resistance.

Over one quarter of the 4,000 dunams of newly expropriated land belong to Wadi Fukin. Since sixty percent of village residents earn their livelihood from agriculture, this is a crippling blow to the area’s already struggling economy.

Wadi Fukin residents told the AIC of their fears that the village’s sole entrance – a narrow road – could easily be cut off by Israel to strangle the village surrounded by Israeli settlements.

Israel has five methods for land seizures in the West Bank: seizure for military purpose, declaration of state lands, seizure of absentee property, confiscation for public needs and initial registration. Israel has been able to take over 50 percent of West Bank land though these processes, whilst 90 percent of West Bank settlements were established on land declared as state land.

Palestinians are given 45 days to submit objections to declarations of state land. Appealing a declaration is costly and proof of ownership is based on the Ottoman Land Code of 1858. For an individual to gain possession over land they must either provide documents demonstrating it was registered to them, or the land must have been cultivated for the previous 10 years.

West Bank land land registration was not common during Ottoman and British rule as land rights could be exercised without it. Israel stopped any form of land registration after 1968, at which point only 33 percent of all West Bank land had been registered. Since then Israel has declared 900,000 dunams to be state land.

Wadi Fukin council members and local villagers already gathered on Monday to discuss plans for appealing the land confiscations. Some individuals possess land registration documents, while Mayor Sokal says the council will assist those without the requisite papers to prove their land has been cultivated. One of the obstacles they face, however, is that much of the land is rocky terrain and thus not arable. But the land is still used for such economic activities as grazing.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, called on Israel to cancel the land grab. “This decision will lead to more instability. This will only inflame the situation after the war in Gaza,” Abu Rudeineh said.