Netiv Ha’avot and Israeli Sovereignty

Anyone – or almost anyone – who’s heard about the Netiv Ha’avot case is certain that the problem is a localized one that affects only residents of one particular neighborhood, or at the most, residents of Gush Etzion. This being the case, allow me to introduce you to Gush Etzion, and to the rest of Yehuda and Shomron (Judea and Samaria): It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.

Gush Etzion, Yehuda and Shomron are the historic heartland of Israel, to which the Jewish people returned 50 years ago, following our stunning victory in the Six Day War. War has rules, and one of the first and most unequivocal is – and has always been – that the victor decides the fate of the territory. Unfortunately, as a result of political wrangling, international pressure and a failure to see the larger, long-term picture, the Arabs of the region were allowed to remain in the liberated territory, and we allowed ourselves as a nation to be fenced in, both literally and figuratively, by a line that has dictated our internal and international policy ever since: “The Green Line.”

Netiv Ha’avot

Over the years, the area known today as “over the green line” has fallen under four different systems of law, expressing the sovereignty of successive occupying powers: Ottoman law, British law, Jordanian law, and finally, as it stands today, Israeli military law. Vestiges of the earlier legal systems are still used by various parties in order to make claims, sway judgments and establish facts on the ground.

It is somewhat strange, and quite puzzling, that to date no one has suggested in any serious forum that Israeli law be applied over the green line, an area of more than 5,000 square kilometers in which nearly half a million Israeli citizens live and work. Instead, this strategically, historically and ideologically crucial area remains under military government – a military, incidentally, that is an arm of the sovereign State of Israel. Strangely enough, in Israeli courts, in internal matters that pertain to Israeli citizens, there is a tendency to rely on documents and data drawn from foreign sources, such as the Jordanian Kingdom or the Ottoman Empire (which no longer exists, and whose legal system no longer holds sway even in modern Turkey).

Any sane, logical person would agree that if there are mounds of incontrovertible evidence, clear, black-and-white proof, we must rely on that evidence, even if its source lies outside our purview. So what’s the issue? What is the problem with Netiv Ha’avot, and how does it affect the rest of us?

Before we venture into the moral question of who the land belongs to we should look at facts, hard evidence, proof – and in the case of Netiv Ha’avot, either there are facts, or there aren’t and someone is fabricating them. One of the ways facts are created is the simple forgery of documents. In 2004, nine Arab residents of east Jerusalem were arrested for forging deeds and other ownership documentation for property in east Jerusalem, state-owned land as well as privately-owned property. This band of thieves sold land that did not belong to them and never had.

Another method is to ignore facts by simply making an ownership claim without bringing any proof of ownership. Anyone familiar with the Migron case has surely heard about the petition submitted to the court which claimed that land owned by Arab individuals had been stolen. In short, the residents of Migron made completely legal, above-board land purchases, but a group of Arabs, represented by the NGO Peace Now, claimed that this land was private property that had been stolen from the rightful owners.

The case made its way to the High Court of Justice, which, surprisingly, decided in favor of the Arab petitioners. But by definition, the High Court is not involved in evidentiary hearings; only magistrates’ courts consider evidence. The High Court considers theory, which means that its decision was regarding the theoretical possibility that the land in question was privately owned, and not whether it actually, factually, belonged to any given individual. Perhaps that is why the Peace Now petition to the magistrate court for compensation was withdrawn: in the lower court, they would have had to prove ownership.

In Migron, and in so many other places “over the green line,” facts, evidence and proof have become incidentals. What remains is to examine the larger moral question: who has the moral right of ownership of and sovereignty over this land? This is not a question we can hope to answer in one short article; some call us occupiers, while we consider ourselves liberators – but no one can argue that there was no “Palestinian nation” here before 1967, before 1948, or even 1,000 years ago.

If we ask, “Who was here first,” the answer is unequivocal: the Jewish people. Our historic claim to this land far outweighs that of the “Palestinian nation” that was invented in the past 50 years.

Once we understand this, the issue of land ownership becomes far broader than the isolated question of the Netiv Ha’avot neighborhood. It becomes an issue that has legal and moral ramifications for all of Gush Etzion, Yehuda and Shomron, for every citizen of Israel, and for anyone, anywhere in the world, who cares about Israel.

Once again, leftist organizations appealed to the courts, claiming that individual Arabs own the land. Once again, no proof whatsoever has been submitted to the court to substantiate this claim. The big lie of land theft has been recycled, and is grabbing headlines. The land in question is “survey land,” which is in the process of being officially declared state property – and as such, the residents who bought and paid for the land on which they have been living and for which they have been paying taxes for years are completely within their rights to remain there. (In fact, the demolition order issued for the homes of Netiv Ha’avot is based on minor building infractions, not on counter-claims of ownership).

Rather than expediting the regulation process that would declare the land state property, the court prefers to demolish and destroy. What a shame that the High Court of Justice has abandoned justice.

After all the criticism of the court, and regardless of whether one side of the case or the other was proven, we should not lose sight of the fact that the problem begins with us: the time has come for us to understand that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, that the Land of Israel belongs to the State of Israel. If we do not internalize this very basic truth, if we do not recognize and exercise our sovereignty, why should someone on Capitol Hill, or anywhere else, believe that we are the sovereign power here?

This year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the ancestral birthright of the Jewish people, of Hebron, the city where the founding fathers of our nation, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are buried. We will celebrate the liberation of the Shomron, the region in which the Holy Tabernacle at Shiloh stood. We will celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, where the Holy Temple once stood, and will one day stand again.

It is time to put an end to the ridiculous system of “military government.” It is time to extend Israeli law over all areas of the Jewish homeland. It is time to erase the green line, and to show the world, and ourselves, the Jewish people in the Diaspora and in Zion, who the true sovereign is here. Netiv Ha’avot is a symbol of this cause, not the cause itself.

[ Shlomo Ne'eman ]