Israel’s Supreme Court will soon decide whether to grant the state an additional 90 days to revise its case on the pending order to demolish buildings in the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El.
Though labeled as an illegal outpost in most mainstream media, Ulpana is neither an outpost nor illegal. The community comprises 14 large and identical apartment buildings, well within the perimeter of Beit El, a large Jewish community established in 1977, with more than 1,000 families.
According to the Supreme Court ruling, five of the buildings are to be demolished while the other nine buildings are legal according to all interpretations. The five buildings in question are all within 100 meters of buildings the court deems legal.
The court’s verdict is predicated on the concept that the 30 apartments in these five buildings, unlike the nine adjacent buildings, are “built on private Palestinian land.”
In the case of Ulpana, the facts are not so clear. In 2000, the Beit El Development Company completed a land purchase agreement with the person it believed to be the rightful inheritor of the property, a grandson of the property holder according to Jordanian land records. Beit El, through an Arab intermediary, paid the local landowner 300,000 shekels ($79,000) for 30 dunams (7.4 acres) of land.
The money was essentially a gift to the landowner. The land in question is all within the boundaries of an existing community, in “Area C” under full Israeli control as determined by the Oslo Peace Accords. Due to the obvious security concerns to the residents, Beit El is protected by an electric-sensor security fence. No Jew may enter the neighboring Arab towns, and no Arab may cross into Beit El. In other words, the owner or previous owner has absolutely no possibility of accessing the property.
In 2007, seven years after the transaction, the NGO Yesh Din investigated the purchase, and identified the first cousin of the Arab seller as the rightful inheritor of the land. Simply put, it claims Beit El bought the property from the wrong grandson.
Yesh Din ran with the new cousin to a Palestinian Authority court, which ruled in favor of the petitioner, an easy ruling considering that selling property to a Jew is punishable by death in Palestinian law. Yesh Din then took that ruling to the Israeli Supreme Court to petition for demolition.
In the meantime, the Beit El Development Company sued the new cousin for fraud in the Magistrates’ Court. Though this case, which will determine actual ownership of the property, remains open, the Supreme Court opted to rule on the fate of the buildings together with several isolated caravan outposts across Samaria.
Those in favor of demolishing the buildings, and sending 30 families to find new homes in an inflated housing market, claim that the rule of law must be upheld in order to protect Israeli democracy.
The primary function of Israel’s Supreme Court should be to protect the democratic rights of those loyal citizens who are beholden to it. The squabbling Palestinian cousins abide by their own legal system, and not the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court.
If even the smallest possibility exists that the tax-paying Jewish residents are legally entitled to the land through a documented purchase agreement, shouldn’t the court go out of its way to assess all considerations of the case before ruling to demolish the structures? Shouldn’t the Supreme Court wait for a relevant ruling from its lower court before deciding the fate of Jewish homes?
And in a democracy, are buildings knocked down in land disputes, even if the builders are found culpable? In a free-market society, aren’t there monetary means of resolving such disputes?
Why does the Israeli Supreme Court rely on Jordanian land records when Jordan’s occupation of the West Bank was never internationally recognized? Further, Israel signed an internationally recognized peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, that ended all Jordanian claims to the territory.
According to Israeli law, property that has not been worked for a period of 10 years reverts to the state’s land authority. Why is this law not applied to land in Judea and Samaria?
More importantly, why is the Israeli Supreme Court in this case relying on a ruling from Palestinian Authority court? Can Palestinian courts arbitrate on land that is under full Israeli control?
Is a Palestinian court considered to be a fair and objective forum for solving disputes involving Jews? Or do their courts enforce anti-Semitic hatred, as do the Palestinian Education Ministry and government-run Palestinian television?
Clearly a Palestinian court would rule in favor of the new cousin as such a ruling could help liberate the property from Jewish landowners.
In the case of Ulpana, the petitioners to the Supreme Court are represented by Yesh Din, which receives much of its funds from foreign government donations. Many consider that such funding counter to the tenets of a sovereign democracy.
In this case, one could ask whether Israel’s justice system is acting democratically in the purist sense of the word. The court's ruling is to knock down buildings housing 30 families who for years believed they were living on land that was legally purchased.
When the details of the case and the ruling are presented, proponents of knocking down the houses routinely double back to the tired argument that the buildings should be destroyed anyway because they are built on land that will ultimately be handed over for a Palestinian state. What about the other nine legal Ulpana buildings or the 1,000 others in Beit El? Or the tens of thousands of other buildings across Judea and Samaria?
And is a Palestinian state in the West Bank an absolute given at this point? As Israel readies for elections, it is clear that neither Israeli nor Palestinian governments have a democratic mandate to reach such an agreement. We are no closer today to an elusive final status agreement then we were back in the 1990s. And at this point, realities well beyond these five buildings dictate that we may never get there.
It is widely assumed in this country that the Supreme Court is the ultimate protector of democracy, while the residents of Judea and Samaria trample the rule of law. We should know better than to stereotype. And the details of this particular case do not lend themselves to such easy conclusions.
Let’s use the Ulpana case as an opportunity to re-evaluate the policies of adjudicating Jewish land ownership in Judea and Samaria. At the very least, let’s recognize that the ruling to destroy the Ulpana homes is not as just as many believe.
Alex Traiman is a resident of the Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El. He is a journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker.