USAID proposes Palestinian company ‘caretaker’ for Gush Katif lands

One of the major questions facing Palestinians as the time nears for Israel to evacuate 17 Gaza Strip settlements and four more in the northern West Bank is the manner in which they will be transferred to Palestinians. Israel has so far refused to transfer the properties directly to the Palestinian Authority, and has not finalized which assets - houses, infrastructure and greenhouses - will remain. Palestinians have requested that Israel demolish all assets that do not fit into their planning needs, but Ministry of Planning officials admit that the Palestinian Authority itself is lagging terribly behind in developing scenarios for the withdrawal.

The World Bank, meeting with both parties, sketched out several crucial issues in a December 2004 study. First, in order for the PA to wield jurisdiction, the lands must be legally converted to areas under control of the Authority. Israel has already indicated that it will not do this in the northern West Bank.

Once the lands have been transferred, the question of property ownership remains. The World Bank notes that while Israeli and donor studies describe most of the land of the Gaza settlements as formerly public land, the PA describes three out of four of the settlements as sitting on privately-owned land. (The discrepancies may be explained by an Ottoman law that affords private land rights to those who work agricultural land for more than 10 years.) The World Bank recommends that the Authority establish clear and public mechanisms for determining property rights, and then either return the lands or offer owners compensation.

The World Bank goes on to warn that while Israel wants productive assets such as industrial estates and farms to be turned over as going concerns, this will likely be impossible as prospective investors risk purchasing illegally sold property. The agency ultimately proposes that Israel hand the lands and assets to the PA, to be protected from looting by its security forces, and then to be administered according to PA plans and newly-drafted legislation. While the international agency has at times been at odds with Palestinian objectives, the Authority was pleased with its recent recommendations.

Enter USAID, the funding arm of the United States government. In January, USAID distributed to international contractors a tender document for a project aimed at developing the agricultural and fishing sector in the Gaza Strip. The second portion of the project, budgeted between $56 and $59 million, describes a plan for transferring control of Gush Katif greenhouses valued at some $80 million. In general, the Palestinian Authority supports attempts to maintain these assets for continued use.

According to the tender, the selected international contractor will choose a Palestinian agribusiness firm to “take control” of the greenhouses upon the departure of the Israeli military, using its own or hired security. The firm “must be acceptable to the Government of Israel, including Israeli security forces, and Palestinian authorities.” The firm would then restore and operate the greenhouses as “caretaker”, until the lands are transferred to “the ultimate owners.” The document says that titling the properties can take place much later. In the meantime, damaged greenhouses will be fixed and new greenhouses built. Indeed, the project has a three-year span and expects to create as many as 7,000 new jobs. Implicit in the proposal is the idea that Palestinian firms would work with Israeli firms to upgrade their agricultural practices.

The USAID plan first made its way into the public eye on January 26 when Al Quds newspaper republished an article that appeared in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, misreporting that USAID was seeking to “buy” the lands of Gush Katif from Israel. USAID says that it subsequently distributed an amendment to the tender, on whose basis contractors entered bids. This amendment was not available at press time.

Palestinian officials had already seen the original document, however. Subsequently, they met with USAID and submitted a detailed complaint to the agency. Palestinians objected to American facilitation of Israel’s refusal to deal with the Palestinian Authority, the idea that Israel has a say in who manages the lands and assets after its departure, the omission of any Palestinian or international legal framework for the reclamation of occupied land, as well as the implication that funds for developing the area must be used for Israeli-Palestinian collaborative projects.

The PA’s position on the Katif lands is that 95 percent of them were state-owned before Israeli colonization. Still, it reserves the right to administer the lands and determine their ownership. While Palestinian officials say they accept USAID’s initial explanation that it was simply trying to move the process forward, they are still expecting a response.

USAID says that its plan for transferring the assets were drafted in consultation with the Ministries of Agriculture and National Economy, and reviewed for compliance with US law (not the status of assets under international law) by USAID’s lawyer in the West Bank and Gaza mission.

By way of explanation, USAID writes: “This document does not contemplate taking control of the assets. After Israel and the PA come to agreement on the assets, USAID wishes to be ready to provide assistance to the PA to ensure a rapid hand-over of productive assets as going concerns. When the tender mentions ‘securing’ the assets, we simply mean providing security for assets during the handover phase, protecting them from looting or other things that might harm their value to Palestinians.” It is USAID’s understanding that Palestinian concerns about the tender have been met.

This article was originally published 16 February 2005, by Palestine Report, found at www.palestinereport.org. Also in this week’s edition: PR analyses how Palestinian local elections rebound on Bush’s professed philosophy for the Middle East and reports on efforts in Fateh to put its house in order.

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