As Israel's Knesset considers a bill which would retroactively legalise settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank, Israeli authorities have used both official and unofficial means to expropriate Palestinian lands for decades which has "devastated" the Palestinian territory, according to a report published by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem today.
In its latest report, entitled "Expel and Exploit: The Israeli practice of taking over rural Palestinian land", B'Tselem used a case study of Azmut, Deir Al-Hatab, and Salem – three Palestinian villages in the northern West Bank district of Nablus – to illustrate a number of official and indirect ways used by the Israeli government over the years to slowly isolate Palestinian communities from their lands.
"Dispossession of Palestinians was never a matter contingent on this legislation," B'Tselem said in its report, referring to the so-called formalization bill which seeks to legalise settlement outposts which are currently deemed illegal under Israeli law. "It has been integral to the settlement enterprise from its very inception and is one of the most consistent trends in Israeli policy over the decades."
There are an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 Israeli settlers residing in 196 illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in contravention of international law, and a further 232 settler outposts considered illegal both by international law and Israeli domestic law – despite Israeli authorities commonly retroactively legalising the outposts, according to the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ).
According to the rights group, Israel has been using a number of policies near Azmut, Deir al-Hatab and Salem since the establishment of the settlement of Elon Moreh on the villages' lands in 1980.
"The facts indicate that under cover of 'temporary military occupation,' Israel has been using the land as its own: robbing land, exploiting the area's natural resources for its own benefit and establishing permanent settlements," the report stated, estimating that Israel had dispossessed Palestinians from some 200,000 hectares (200 square kilometres) of lands in the occupied Palestinian territory over the years.
B'Tselem notably detailed Israel's declaration of village lands as nature reserves or "state land", only to later allocate such areas for the expansion of Elon Moreh and the establishment of outposts.
The establishment of Israeli-only roads linking settlements to one another and to Israel, as well as the construction of the separation wall, have further served as physical barriers contributing to the partition of the occupied Palestinian territory, the report added. Furthermore, B'Tselem argued that the 1995 Oslo II Accords – which divided the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, hastened the process of Israeli takeover of Palestinian lands.
Since then, Israel has imposed what B'Tselem described as a "virtually complete ban on construction and development in land designated Area C" – the 60 per cent of the West Bank under complete Israeli military control.
As a result, B'Tselem said: "Palestinians in the West Bank have been concentrated into 165 'islands' (Areas A and B) – non-contiguous enclaves that cannot thrive."
B'Tselem also highlighted the "key role" of Israeli settlers in further isolating Palestinians from their lands, either through the establishment of outposts officially unrecognized by the Israeli government, or through the regular use of violence or threats of violence against Palestinians.
B'Tselem argued that settlers acted as "envoys" of Israel in pushing land grabs in the occupied Palestinian territory, allowing the government to officially detach themselves from the settlers' violent and illegal actions, while avoiding or blocking any legal penalties that could be imposed on the settlers, except in the most extreme of cases.