Ramallah, occupied West Bank – AbdulLatif Simrin is no Jesus, but according to a lease presented by Jewish settlers as evidence to an Israeli court, the Palestinian man who died in 1961 sold them his land 50 years after his death – even by Holy Land standards, Simrin’s resurrection is beyond miraculous.
First came cellular company towers, followed by caravans that started mushrooming atop the hill opposite Burqa, where the illegal outpost of Migron was established on Simrin’s and a few other Palestinian families’ private lands in 2002.
One of nearly 100 illegal outposts dotting the West Bank, established by Jewish settlers without Israeli government authorisation, Migron soon became one of the largest and most developed outposts at the time.
Representatives of AbdulLatif Simrin and others took their case to the Israeli Supreme Court, demanding the eviction of more than 50 Jewish families residing illegally on their lands.
During the trial, settlers presented a document allegedly signed in 2003 by AbdulLatif Simrin, who lived in California, selling them five acres of his land for $90,000.
The issue was that the illiterate farmer who used his thumbprint instead of a signature died without ever leaving Palestine, decades before he could have signed the document. In 2011, the court deemed the document forged and ordered the evacuation of Migron, since it was established on private Palestinian land.
However, Palestinians had little reason to celebrate. Not only did the settlers relocate to a nearby hilltop, a mere two kilometres away, creating a new settlement, but they also presented another document claiming they purchased a new plot from Burqa’s Yusef Nabbut in 2012, hindering the demolition of the outpost.
Nabbut’s son, 57-year-old Mohammed, insists his father could not have made the sale to the settlers or the alleged middleman.
“They got papers with his name written there and my father was an 85-year-old man who used his thumbprint,” Nabbut said. Moreover, there are no records of the alleged middleman. “They made up names and IDs,” he added.
In Ramallah, Mohammed Nazzal’s desk is a mess. The man who’s been in charge of the settlement file for the Palestinian government for nearly four years is always busy. He says his department is currently fighting in Israeli courts to prove Palestinian ownership of hundreds of acres of land across the occupied West Bank.
“The problem is that most Palestinian lands are not officially registered,” Nazzal told Al Jazeera. “Even in cases of registered lands, forgery would take place and Palestinians won’t even realise it until they approach the Israeli Civil Administration for the documents – if they want to build on the land, or they see structures on it.”
|Settlers forge documents “signed” by Palestinians that allocates land for their use [Rania Zabaneh/Al Jazeera]|
For the vast majority of unregistered lands, comprising more than 60 percent of the occupied West Bank, any registration needs to be published in local papers in accordance with the law before it becomes final.
Palestinian experts say those ads often appear in internal pages, in small fonts and are published during holidays. Even if they want to challenge them, the procedure is often very complicated for Palestinians, bearing in mind the lands in question are often under settlers’ control.
According to Nazzal, many acquisitions are conducted by development companies with Arabic names. “It’s part of the deception process,” he said. The process, according to Nazzal, often includes the use of middlemen who either do not exist or are already on the run for selling lands to settlers. “They want the courts to believe they buy lands in good faith,” Nazzal told Al Jazeera.
Settlers like David Haivri refute those accusations. Haivri said that Palestinians do sell lands to settlers, but because they fear for their well-being, “it makes sense to hear people retracting after they’ve made deals”.
However, Palestinians and their advocates maintain settlers’ stories often do not hold water. “The frauds sometimes are ludicrous – someone who’s dead sold the land, the spelling of the last name is not correct,” Reut Mor, the spokesperson for the Israeli NGO Yesh-Din told Al Jazeera.
Back in Burqa, Nabbut has been busy making shuttle visits to Israeli police centres for the Migron investigation. Despite the hustle, he’s persistent. “My father is dead and can’t defend himself,” he said. “Land and honour are the same; we won’t give up on either.” His visits finally paid off, as the Israeli police recently deemed the last document submitted by settlers as another forgery.
Neither Nabbut’s cry of foul play, nor settlers presenting such leases at legal crunch time is unique. On the contrary, presenting alleged purchases right before an evacuation is becoming more common, which begs the question: Why do settlers hold off on presenting proof of ownership until the very last minute?
The answer is simple, according to Mor: “It works.” If the Israeli court is to decide on evacuation, it will exclude the structures on the plot in question. Regardless of the authenticity of the presented documents “that usually buy settlers quite a lot of time”, she explained.
Although the whole settlement enterprise is illegal under international law, the Israeli legal system has managed to provide a fig leaf to the occupation by ordering the evacuation of outposts built on private Palestinian lands, while dealing with settlements as legal structures. As settlers secure a foothold in strategic West Bank places, they keep Palestinians away from their lands longer. That, in turn, makes it easier for Israel to declare private lands as “state” land, technically confiscating it and often to the benefit of the settlers.
Meanwhile, although it admits outposts are illegal, the Israeli government leaves them to flourish under its nose by providing them with basic services as well as protection. A 2005 report shows the Israeli Housing Ministry spent millions of dollars on outposts, including around $1m in Migron.
To further complicate an already complicated situation, a recent Israeli report recommended the “legalisation” of most outposts in the occupied West Bank, even those built on private Palestinian lands, as the Levy report of 2012 concluded settlements do not breach international law because the West Bank is “not under military occupation”.
In recent years, six illegal outposts were “legalised”, by being turned into settlements, while eight more are in the process, according to Yesh-Din.
In total, settlements and the related infrastructure leave Palestinians with less than half of the West Bank.
Burqa lost two-thirds of its land to settlements and outposts. Although the Israeli authorities promised to remove the structures from Nabbut’s land by May 21, he remains wary.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.