There was a sense of respite, but not relief, as this town bordering Jerusalem learned Tuesday that Israel's attorney general had thwarted one of the biggest Israeli seizures of Palestinian land since 1967. The seizure could have included about a third of Beit Jala property remaining from previous expropriations.
"It's a good sign, but I can't be sure what will happen over time," says Mayor Raji Zeidan of the decision. "They could use other methods in the future to take the land."
Although thwarted, critics say the land maneuver offers a window into the intentions of the Sharon government regarding the future of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, even as it readies to withdraw from Gaza.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says Attorney General Menachem Mazuz's decision shows that "the government of Israel is a government of the rule of law." He denied charges by leading Israeli legal scholar David Krezmer that the land seizure was a form of "theft."
Mr. Zeidan says about 4,000 dunams(1,000 acres) of land owned by Beit Jala residents would have been transferred to the Israeli government, according to a decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government made in secret in June, had Mazuz not intervened. The plan was revealed by Haaretz newspaper two weeks ago.
The move would have defined the West Bank landowners as absentees for living outside Israel, even though they had not moved anywhere. Beyond that, it was Israel that had expanded the border of Jerusalem to include their land in an annexation widely rejected as illegal by the international community.
That land and thousands of acres of other territory owned by West Bank Palestinians - all inside the East Jerusalem area occupied and annexed to Israel in 1967 - was to be transferred to Israeli state ownership. In theory, at least, it could then have been sold for purposes including building Jewish settlements in Jerusalem, considered by Israelis to be neighborhoods of their capital.
Critics say the move would have enabled Israeli seizure of up to half of Palestinian private property holdings in East Jerusalem, thereby helping to foreclose the possibility that East Jerusalem could become a viable capital of an independent Palestinian state.
But Mazuz said the government committee, including minister Natan Sharansky, had no authority to apply a 1950 absentee-property law used to confiscate thousands of homes of Palestinians who fled or were expelled during Israel's War of Independence. Citing last year's ruling by the International Court of Justice against the West Bank separation barrier, Mazuz added that doing so was liable to harm Israel's standing internationally. He said he had not been apprised of the decision until recently.
The intended land seizure, along with settlement activity, the route chosen for Israel's West Bank separation barrier, and other moves reveal "a policy of creating facts on the ground that would make a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian national seat a virtual impossibility," says Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who represents Palestinian landowners. "This government is trying to make East Jerusalem as Israeli as downtown Tel Aviv."
According to the international peace blueprint known as the road map, Jerusalem's status is to be determined through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be visiting the region this weekend in a bid to revive peace diplomacy.
Mr. Regev says that Israel "has agreed that the status of Jerusalem will be determined in final status negotiations as set out in the road map. We will deal with the issue when we get to the third stage of the road map.... [W]hen we get [there] our position will be that Jerusalem will re- main the united capital of Israel. This is not a secret."
In Beit Jala, which neighbors two settlements built on previously expropriated land, town engineer Nadim Hadweh recalled for the first time being turned back by soldiers when he tried to harvest his olive trees in November, just inside the Israeli-defined Jerusalem municipal border. It was only through the media two weeks ago that he learned he was an absentee and his land no longer belonged to him, he says. "Twenty years from now, you won't be able to find a single parcel of land in Beit Jala on which to build for your children," he says.
Samia Khalileh, the town architect, who also owns land inside the Jerusalem border, called the land-seizure bid, "humiliating to the mind. Do they think we are stupid? We are not absentees. We have been living here all the time. They are trying to find legal ways to steal the property."
Zeidan, the mayor, says the land that was to be seized is the only reserve for the Christian Palestinians. "It means there would be no possibility to expand the town," he says. "People will immigrate, and our relatives from overseas won't be able to come back and establish their businesses."