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Bil’in: Land Grab thanks to the Wall

Bil’in is a small village located six km east of the green line, west of Ramallah. The village rests on 4,000 dunams (about 1,000 acres) and is home to 1,700 residents, whose livelihood depends on agriculture and work outside the village. Most of the villages land lies between two streams (the Modi’in stream in the south and the Dolev stream in the north); the western tip of the lands of Bil’in are covered with the houses of the Kiryat Sefer section of the Israeli settlement Modi’in Illit.

The barrier Israel is building confiscates about half of the lands of the village. According to the Israeli government, 1,700 dunams of Bil’in’s land will remain west of the wall. In addition, the route itself – whose width is between 50 and 150 meters – takes about 250 dunams. In sum, the wall confiscates from Bil’in at least 1,950 dunams (the actual figure is expected to be even higher). It stretches near the last house of the village, surrounding it from three sides.

A Real Estate Wall under the Guise of Security

The Modi’in Elite settlement outpost is currently under construction

As in other villages, the Israeli government argues that the route of the wall in Bil’in was determined purely for security reasons. However, a brief visit to the village shows this to be false. The fence is mostly down the hill, in a topographically low point, easily allowing shooting above it. It goes six km east of the Green Line and 1.8 km east of the built and populated area of Modi’in Illit. The route crosses two streams, which necessitated complex and very expensive engineering work.

Had the aim of the fence been to defend the residents of Israel, it would have been put along the Green Line. Had its aim been to protect the present residents of Modi’in Illit, it would have been erected in superior topographic conditions near the built and populated area of the settlement.

The only reason for the route chosen is the expansion plans for Modi’in Illit. Right now, two new sections are being built in the settlement: the Matityahu East (also known as Heftsiba and Green Park) area, on 870 dunams of the lands of Bil’in west of the barrier; and the Neot Ha’Pisga area, on 560 dunams belonging mostly to the nearby Palestinian village Kharbata, but also confiscating some land belonging to Bil’in north of the Dolev stream.

In Matityahu East, 3,008 housing units are being built, while in Neot Ha’Pisga, 2,748 flats are planned. According to the plan, the Matityahu East section will reach the route of the fence itself so that its outermost houses will be located meters from the barrier! A master plan prepared by the Israeli Ministry of Housing allocates the remaining 600 dunams of the lands of Bil’in west of the fence, between Matityahu East and the Dolev stream, for another new section in Modi’in Illit, in which 1,200 housing units will be built.

Hence, the route of the wall in Bil’in was determined in light of the various construction plans of the settlement Modi’in Illit. Recently, the Israeli Government admitted, in response to a High Court of Justice petition, that “the route of the fence on the lands of Bil’in was designed, among others, to safeguard two new neighborhoods of Modi’in Illit, one which is already in advanced building stages… and the other… where building, on the western side, already began.” In other words, the route of the fence was designed to protect the future settlers who will live in the future areas to be built on the confiscated lands of Bil’in west of the barrier.

From a Small Settlement into a City

The story of Modi’in Illit started in 1992, when the small ultra-orthodox settlement Kiryat Sefer was established on the lands of the villages Kharbata, Deir Qaddis and Ni’lin, as well as on the western tip of the lands of Bil’in. In 1996 the name of the settlement was changed into Modi’in Illit, and it began to expand. At present Modi’in Illit is a 5,800-dunam (more than 1450 acres) settlements, all located east of the Green Line.

According to the master plan prepared by the Ministry of Housing, 150,000 settlers will live in the area by 2020 – most of them in Modi’in Illit itself. The Central Bureau of Statistics reports that in September 2005, 29,300 people lived in Modi’in Illit – 12.7 percent more than in 2004. Modi’in Illit is the second largest settlement (with respect to its population) in the West Bank, following Ma’ale Edomim, and will soon become the most densely populated settlement.

Unlike most settlements, Modi’in Illit is not an ideological one. Its ultra-orthodox residents came here only since the Israeli government offered them cheap housing. In many respects, the residents of this settlement are a victim of the policy of the government, which decided to bring them here and to inevitably create a conflict between them and the Palestinian land owners. This process was greatly enhanced recently, with the expansion eastward of Modi’in Illit, outside the boundaries of its built area. This expansion also violates an explicit commitment, given by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to U.S. President George Bush on December 2003. According to that agreement all building outside the already built-up areas of the settlements will cease.

Matityahu East: the Largest Illegal Outpost in the Territories

In the midst of procedures at the High Court of Justice, it was revealed that the Matityahu East section – the main reason for the route of the fence in Bil’in – is being constructed in violation of Israeli planning laws and without legal permits. In addition, the section violates international law in general, and the Fourth Geneva Convention that forbids the settlement of the occupying population in the occupied areas in particular.

The Matityahu East section is being built according to plan number 210/8/1, which was not approved yet by the Israeli planning authorities in the West Bank. The section has an approved building plan from 1999, plan number 210/8. However, the later allows only 1,532 housing units to be built (compared with 3,008 according to the new plan), and the division of lands therein (public areas, streets etc) is different than in the new plan. In reality, the construction in Matityahu East is being done according to plan number 210/8/1, which has no validity under Israeli law. According to the Israeli government, 750 housing units have already been illegally built in Matityahu East.

A letter written by the Comptroller of the Local Council Modi’in Illit in March 14, 2005 shows that the Comptroller sent warnings against the illegal building in Matityahu East already in January 2004, to both Council members and the Ministry of the Interior – but nothing was done to stop it. Following the complaints of the Comptroller, the local Council decided to fire him rather than address the violations.

While the authorities allow large-scale illegal building to continue in Matityahu East, the Civil Administration was quick to issue a warrant against building in the Bil’in Center for the Joint Struggle for Peace – a small building, sized seven square meters, which the residents of Bil’in and Israeli peace activists erected near Matityahu East on December 25th, 2005. Just a few hours after the walls of the building were completed, a warrant was delivered to the people of Bil’in forbidding any further building there and summoning them to a hearing at a planning committee of the Civil Administration. In addition, the army forcefully evacuated two caravans put in the place – one on December 22nd and the second on December 25th. This is a clear example of double standard in the enforcement of the law in the West Bank.

The High Court Petition

The issue of the fence in Bil’in is now in the High Court of Justice, where a hearing on the subject is to be held on February 1st, 2006. A petition against the fence was issued in September, by attorney Michael Sfard; it includes an extensive discussion of the future building plans of Modi’in Illit, some of which were only recently exposed.

In the petition, attorney Sfard claims that the route of the fence in Bil’in was not determined by security considerations, but rather by the interests of the settlement and of real estate companies. The route carefully follows the existing and future construction plans of Modi’in Illit, and was designed to allow unscrupulous real estate developers operating in the settlement (among them the companies Heftsiba and Green Park) to collect huge profits, on the backs of the people of Bil’in, whose lands are being stolen from them before their very eyes.