Khalid Abdullah Yassin had a clear response for the Israeli government when it offered him a huge sum of money to lease from him the land upon which Israeli settlers had illegally built. He replied that the only compensation he would accept would be “your complete withdrawal from all Palestinian land.”
A farmer from Dura, a village near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, Yassin owns no more than 11 acres of land. Yet this small patch of Palestine, and what happens to it over the coming weeks, could forecast Israel’s outright contempt and blatant disregard for not only international law, but also its own.
In 1995, the villagers of Dura — already living in the shadow of the Israeli settlement of Beit El — began to notice that settlers were regularly encroaching on their land. While at first the settlers built temporary structures in which to celebrate their various festivals, the structures began to take on a more permanent nature and severely disrupted the agricultural life of the village.
In response to this creeping colonization of their land, the villagers started to demonstrate, and it was during one of these demonstrations that a young man, Khair Abd al-Hafiz Qasim, was killed — becoming the first martyr of many of this particular form of resistance to Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing.
As the wall built by Israel to annex a large part of the West Bank cuts right across the hills of the village, it became impossible for Yassin to access his land and ascertain whether or not the settlers had begun to build there. Between 2006 and 2007, he started to build a legal case for the restoration of his land with help from many different friends and groups. After a year of painstaking research and consultation, in 2008 he filed a lawsuit against several different parties.
The defendants included Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister; Brigadier Hagai Mordechai, the commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank; Shlomo Kataba, Israeli police commander and the head of Israel’s eumphemistic “Civil Administration” (the occupation) in the West Bank; and the local councils of the settlements of Beit El and Kiryat Hishaba.
Setting a precedent
On 17 October 2008, after ten months of legal battles, the Israeli high court issued its decision that Yassin was entitled to his land and that all structures built by the settlers should be demolished.
This decision, the first of its kind since the 1967 occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has potentially far-reaching consequences, as the court effectively set a legal precedent in demanding that land stolen from Palestinians for Israeli settlements should be returned to its rightful owners.
This does not mean that the Israeli high court has suddenly become a beacon of democracy, dedicated to treating all citizens of Israel, and those Israel occupies, as equal before the law. The court has only ever been subservient to successive Israeli governments who have enacted policies of ethnic cleansing and apartheid against Palestinians. It has upheld the countless laws that discriminate against Palestinians and deny them their human rights, such as the Absentee Property Law which prevents Palestinians — uprooted when Israel was founded in 1948 — from returning to their homes.
The high court is entirely complicit in Israel’s crimes, but its decision represents an internal contradiction to Israel’s attempt to combine the charade of a “democracy” with the continued ethnic cleansing, colonization and occupation of Palestine. It therefore presents a problem for the Israeli government and exposes how the goals of Zionism as a colonial movement will always supersede the values of democracy and equality for all.
The court’s decision to dismantle Givat Ulpana — an “outpost” of the settlement of Beit El, east of Ramallah — created an obvious dilemma for the Israeli government. To comply with the high court’s decision would be to recognize that, even according to the colonial laws of the Israeli state, many of the settlements that are illegal under international law could well be considered illegal under Israeli law. To dismantle and demolish the illegal settlement built on Yassin’s land would set a precedent for all Palestinians who have had land stolen, either directly by the Israeli state or through quasi-governmental institutions like the Jewish National Fund.
The Israeli government, sensing the dangerous potential of enforcing such a ruling for Israeli colonial expansion on Palestinian land, defied the high court’s ruling, procrastinated and failed to carry out the demolition orders. Once again, on 21 September 2011, the Israeli high court rejected the Israeli government’s appeal against the decision, and reiterated its initial order to demolish the settler buildings on Yassin’s land.
With the demolition date set for 1 May this year, the Israeli government made an historic decision on 27 April to inform the high court that it would not enforce the court order to dismantle the six buildings built on Palestinian land. The reason for its refusal was internal pressures within the Israeli coalition government, particularly from some ministers of the Likud party.
Government above the law?
The Israeli government claimed that more time was needed to provide rehousing for the settlers. In reality it was an attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to circumvent the court’s order to demolish Givat Ulpana, after several of his ministers threatened to withdraw from the coalition if the court order was enforced. The true intentions of the Israeli government in refusing to abide by the court’s decision can be seen in Netanyahu’s establishment of a special ministerial committee to “legalize” other scattered settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank.
On 6 May, the high court rejected the Israeli government’s second appeal, ruling for the third time that Givat Ulpana was illegally built on Yassin’s land, that it should be demolished, and that all land should be returned to him. The court set 1 July as the deadline for the implementation of this order.
The court’s first ruling in October 2008 not only shook the Israeli establishment’s assumptions of legal invulnerability but also provoked a sustained and violent campaign against Yassin from some of the 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. He has received threatening phone calls, had two of his cars torched, had graffiti scrawled across his property, as well as numerous raids of his home by the Israeli army.
Despite the fact that this decision has still not been implemented, and it looks as if the Israeli government has not exhausted all possible ways to circumvent the high court ruling, Yassin has not lost hope that he will one day be able to return to the land that he farmed before the settlers built on his fields. He still carries, along with his identity papers, the high court’s 2008 decision, telling those he meets that he insists on the restoration of his land, despite the threats and harassment of the Israeli army and the settlers, even if it costs him his life.
In a bid to counter this legal threat to the continued colonial expansion on Palestinian land, which already sees half a million settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Israeli government offered to lease the land from Yassin in order to avoid carrying out the demolitions ordered by the high court.
While it remains to be seen whether this decision will be implemented, its lesson is clear: the Zionist colonial project in Palestine treats with contempt any threat, whether from international law or the decisions of the Israeli judiciary, to its complete control over all of the land.
Yassin and his compatriots, though, will not negotiate the sale of this land to those who seek to colonize and ultimately expel them. To negotiate and bargain with the oppressor and usurper of the land is not an alternative worth considering.
Aghsan Barghouti is researcher for the Palestinian organization Stop the Wall. This article was originally written in Arabic; it was translated to English by Eoin O’Ceallaigh, assistant outreach coordinator for Stop the Wall.