Burqa, West Bank - When Israel withdrew its settlers from the Gaza Strip and from four small West Bank settlements under its 2005 “disengagement plan,” the villagers of Burqa near Nablus thought they would finally take back land originally confiscated from them 35 years ago.
But only last week was a decision made by Israel's Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to allow Palestinians access to their land, and to reiterate that settlers would be forbidden from entering the area.
The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, which originally petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice to demand the return of the property said in a statement, “We hope that the law will now be enforced and Israelis present in the area will be removed, so that the Palestinian landowners may safely access their land and begin the work of rehabilitation.”
Imad Seif, a council member of this village of 4,000 people, expressed some hope that his family may be able to go back to the land it lost in 1978, parts of which was used to erect the settlement of Homesh.
“We are very happy with this decision,” Seif said. “There is nothing for the settlers here. There are no archeological ruins; nothing they can use to [claim] this place.”
In total, about 1,950 dunams (1,950,000 square meters) of land were confiscated, according to Seif. The area was first used as an Israeli military base. Soon after, settlers began to pour in and Homesh was created. And even though the settlement was destroyed after then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon carried out the unilateral “disengagement plan”, the land remained under the grip of the Israeli military.
Court rulings ignored
In 2011, Burqa's villagers turned to Yesh Din to try and regain access to their land. Only four months ago, the Israeli state nullified the land seizure order but that still did not allow Palestinians back into the area, which was designated a closed military zone.
Despite the recent decision by Israel's Attorney General - which technically removes the ban placed on Palestinians to access their land - Burqa's residents are somewhat apprehensive considering how long and convoluted the legal process has been. Seif is hopeful following the decision, but he's well aware that Israeli court rulings are often ignored by the Israeli army.
“We don't know when we will go back to the land,” he said.
Jihad Shuaibi, who heads the village council, is also apprehensive.
“We are still waiting for the official papers,” he repeatedly said. “Even though the decision has been made, we still can't go back to the land. When the settlers were here, we couldn't access the area, and now we still can't access it. So technically nothing has changed.”
Yesh Din's legal advisor Michael Sfard said there is still work to be done.
“We are left with the issue that settlers are still there,” Sfard said. “We would now need to campaign for the army to secure safe access [for] the owners to their land and the removal of the trespassers, the settlers...It is possible that we will need the aid of the Supreme Court once again if the army will not [fulfil] its duty to protect the owners once they go back to their land.”
This proves that it is possible: that the erection of a settlement on Palestinian land is not irreversible.
Settlers have persistently tried to regain access to the area since 2005. Supported by right-wing activists and even high-profile politicians, Israeli settlers have held many events, some religious in nature, to make their presence felt. In some cases, they had even gained temporary permission from the Israeli army to hold such events. In 2009, Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon, visited the area when he was deputy prime minister, to call on the government to allow Homesh to be re-settled.
In response to a query by Al Jazeera, an Israeli army spokesperson would not say what kind of measures are being taken to ensure Palestinians have safe access to the area.
“The decree that established Homesh, a community located in northern Judea and Samaria that was evacuated as part of the Disengagement Plan, was nullified several months ago as a result of an appeal brought to the Supreme Court by the community's former residents,” the army spokesperson said.
“In addition, the closure order that restricted the access of Palestinians to the land was lifted, and the representatives of the petitions were notified. It should be noted that as an outcome of the Disengagement and an order by the IDF commander of Judea and Samaria, Israelis' access to Homesh without a permit is prohibited.”
A precedent is set
Sfard believes this is the first time - except in the case of Gaza - that an area used for a settlement is being given back by Palestinians.
“This proves that it is possible: that the erection of a settlement on Palestinian land is not irreversible,” he said.
He is hopeful that the latest ruling will give a boost to talks being held by the Israelis and Palestinians, which had been on hold since 2010.
“Psychologically it gives a boost to the peace camp, where people stopped believing or become very skeptical about possibility of reversing policy of settlement,” he said.
Hassan Ashqar, who lives in Burqa and owns 400 trees in the area, isn't so sure.
“I would like to go and grow [cultivate my land] again,” he said. “But in the future I don't know what's going to happen.”
Ashqar, who came back to the West Bank in 1999, was hopeful he would bank on the relative calm created after the Oslo Accords were signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel.
“The situation for me, my kids, my family...you don't feel [safe] here...The political situation is not ok,” he said.
All those involved agree that the latest decision taken by Israel's Attorney General does not mean Palestinians can return to the land they lost immediately.
“It can take a month, a week, a year but eventually we will win in the sense that this will not [just] be a victory on paper,” Sfard said. “These lands will [eventually] be cultivated by the Palestinians.”
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa