'Land means life': Palestinians vow to battle illegal Israeli confiscations
Tayseer Ataya stands leaning on his cane and gazing at his plot of land on Risan hill, west of Ramallah. The 65-year-old man has been forbidden from accessing his property for close to a year.
In August 2018, Israeli settlers built homes for themselves on parts of Ataya's 104 dunum (10.4 hectares) of land in the village of Ras Karkar.
He says that from that moment onwards he knew his dreams of passing on the land to his children and grandchildren were crushed.
It is this struggle that I'll be passing on to my children, who will never give up
- Villager Tayseer Ataya
His plot is just one parcel of close to 100 hectares of land that Israel first laid its hands on in 1983. A military court then froze a land confiscation order, and that remained the case for the past 35 years.
Over the past year, however, settlement construction intensified.
On 16 August, a new agricultural settler outpost was built in just two days. Livestock and water tanks were brought in, a new road was paved to serve the Jewish-only community, and Israeli army reinforcements arrived to provide protection.
Speaking to Middle East Eye, Ataya says that the confiscation order is not limited to the 100 hectares, but will extend further than that under the pretext of security.
"I've tried to access my land several times, but every time I approach it, soldiers surrounded me and prevent me from walking over to it," he says.
Ataya inherited his land through his paternal grandfather. "I will not give up on my land. Even though I have difficulty walking, I try to access my land every week, and I will not stop trying to retrieve it," he says.
"It is this struggle that I'll be passing on to my children, who will never give up."
Next to Ataya stands 52-year-old lawyer Wadi' Nofal. He holds a stack of papers that proves the ownership of 75 heirs within his family of about 4 hectares of land on Risan hill.
"Many Israeli judges live in the settlements built on our private land, so we do not expect them to rule in favour of our cases, in spite of all the papers and proof we carry," says Wadi'.
He explained that the land was seized based on the 1858 Ottoman law which Israel has been using since 1980 to expropriate private Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.
In 1968, a year after Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, it stopped the land registration process in the newly occupied territories.
Until 1980, Israel had been using military orders to confiscate private Palestinian land and build settlements on them, while claiming security needs.
In 1979, however, Palestinians whose land had been confiscated petitioned Israel's High Court of Justice (HCJ), arguing a violation of international law, and won.
But the case was rare; the court could not rule that the establishment of the settlement would serve military needs because settlers testified they intended to live there for religious and political reasons.
Facts on the ground
Following the court's ruling, Israel began rewriting provisions within the Ottoman Land Code and applying its own interpretation, to declare private Palestinian property as state land.
Between 1979 and 2002, Israel declared increasing amounts of land as state land to the extent that the latter now makes up 22 percent of the entire West Bank.
"They are creating facts on the ground, by taking over land and expanding into the surrounding territories," says Wadi'.
He explained that the 100 hectares of land of immediate concern are owned by Palestinians from surrounding villages of Ras Karkar, Khirbetha Bani Hareth, and Kufr Ni'ma.
Wadi' arranges the stack of paper in his hands and grips it tightly lest the papers are blown away in the wind.
"It's extremely painful that I am standing here, just a few metres away from my land, and not able to reach it. It is painful for me to be a lawyer and not have the ability to defend my rights."
'Consequences for the entire region'
Abdullah Abu Rahma, from the Palestinian Authority's National Committee to Resist the Wall and Settlements, tells MEE that the outpost is merely a prelude to the establishment of a large settlement on Risan hill under Area C of the occupied West Bank.
Abu Rahma explains that the goal, aside from taking over land, is to link the nearby settlements west of Ramallah with one of the major settlements in the area - Modi'in Ilit - where some 70,000 Israelis live.
The latter has been built on lands belonging to the Palestinian villages Nilin, Safa, Deir Qaddis and Khirbetha Bani Hareth.
Linking settlements together, says Abu Rahma, translates into more loss of land for Palestinians, as infrastructure is built to serve the Jewish communities.
"This plan won't only affect landowners. It will have consequences for the entire region of the West Bank and Jerusalem,” he continues, explaining that it will obstruct the territorial contiguity of Palestinian villages and their natural expansion.
'Land means life'
Naser Nofal, 63, owns one hectare of land on Risan hill, which he inherited from his great grandfather.
"Anyone who comes to this area, and sees it, will know very well that Israel's claims are false," says Naser. "Our lands are cultivated and rich with 400-year-old trees. We have always tended to our lands."
He knows that it is a strategic area for Israeli settlers. The hill has a view of the country's coastline, as well as the Jordanian hills, and the holy city, Jerusalem.
"By using false claims and forced laws they are taking over the hilltops, and stealing Palestinian lands, which are a source of daily sustenance," continues Naser.
"Land means life. I will continue to defend my land until I die, and I will not let Israelis take it over."
Radi Abu Fakhida, head of Karkar village council, tells MEE that another petition was filed against the confiscation decision, but that Israeli courts had rejected the appeal.
A court ruling, however, was issued in favour of land owned by one of the residents, Ibrahim Abu Fakhida, upon which a 700-metre long road was built to serve the Israeli settlement.
"If we succeed in retrieving [Ibrahim's] land, we would be able to block the road to the new settlement and halt the movement of settlers into this area," says Radi.
"The Israeli army has prevented us from doing this so far, and claims there is no alternative road to the settlement."
Ras Karkar village lies about 15km west of Ramallah city, and has a total area of about 700 hectares.
It is surrounded by six Israeli settlements built on parts of the village's land.
Radi, the head of the council, says that some 200 hectares of property have been confiscated so far for the building of settlements and settlement infrastructure.
Settler attacks against the village, he continues, have escalated intensively since August 2018.
At least 130 ancient Roman olive trees have been cut down, anti-Palestinian, racist slogans have been scrawled on vehicles, and farmers are continuously prevented from reaching their lands.
"The families of Ras Karkar have not surrendered in the face of settler assaults. They go to their lands and farms on a daily basis and harvest their crops," says Radi.
Defending the land
Israeli confiscation orders have also hit the nearby village of Kufr Ni'ma, which extends onto Risan hill.
Khaldoun al-Dik, head of Kufr Ni'ma village council, explains that Israeli authorities confiscated more than 65 hectares of property belonging to families of the village.
A road serving the settlement took up some an additional 25 hectares of village land.
Families who had their land stolen tried all available, non-violent methods, to retrieve their lands, says al-Dik. They petitioned Israeli courts and held sit-ins on their properties.
"This is Palestinian land and we have the documents to prove it," says al-Dik.
"Confiscating these lands and building settlements on them means that the security of the area will be greatly affected, and the colonial policies will extend onto more village land."
Since August 2018, Risan hill has been a hotspot for confrontations between Palestinians, hailing from the various surrounding villages and attempting to reach their lands, and Israeli occupation soldiers, in rejection of colonial policies.
The families tend to hold Friday prayers on the hill as an act of protest. Israeli soldiers respond with tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets.
Back in Ras Karkar, Ataya says that more Palestinians need to protest against discriminatory Israeli policies.
"We need thousands of Palestinians to come here and defend this land with us," he says.
"What was taken by force can only be retrieved by force," says Ataya, quoting the late pan-Arab Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.