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WEST BANK: Palestinian courts scuffle over land sale to Israelis

November 23, 2010 |  9:27 am

In a struggle for Palestinian statehood in which every acre of land is a precious commodity, should selling West Bank property to an Israeli -- something viewed by many Palestinians as treason -- be punishable by death?

That’s the question now facing the Palestinian Authority and the budding Palestinian courts system as they attempt to rebuff the rising trend of Israeli buyers, often right-wing settler groups, offering exorbitant prices for West Bank land in an effort to strengthen Israel’s claim on the occupied territory.

A recent court case in which a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Bethlehem was charged with selling property to Israelis using forged documents highlighted the complexity and sensitivity of this issue.

A Palestinian court in Jericho found the Palestinian guilty of a felony and sentenced him on March 18, 2009, to five years in prison with hard labor. According to the court, the man was guilty of “attempting to sell property to the enemy in violation of Article 114 of the 1960 [Jordanian] punitive law and impersonating someone else.” The five-year sentence was the minimum the court could deliver, though it noted that the maximum penalty was death.

Since the West Bank was ruled by Jordan from 1948 until Israel occupied it in 1967, Jordanian law enforced during that period in the West Bank remained applicable during the Israeli military occupation and in the post-Oslo-agreement Palestinian Authority-ruled areas as long as there were no alternative Palestinian laws.

The convicted Palestinian first appealed to an appellate court, which on which on Dec. 3, 2009, upheld the lower court’s decision.

The Bethlehem resident then appealed to the cassation court, a lower branch of the Supreme Court. A three-judge panel said in an April 12 ruling that the offense the Bethlehem resident had committed should have been considered a misdemeanor under a different law, punishable with a minimum sentence of two years and no death penalty. The court argued that what happened wasn't an attempt to sell land to an enemy, but the conclusion of a commercial transaction with a member of an enemy state for personal gain or greed, and therefore it did not violate the national security of the state.

It sent the case back to a lower court for resentencing.

But the decision struck a sensitive chord in the Palestinian Authority. Worried that the ruling would make it possible for any Palestinian to sell his land to Israelis without serious punishment, Palestinian Atty. Gen. Ahmad Mughani asked the lower court to reaffirm its original decision.

Disregarding the higher court’s ruling, the appellate court did exactly that in September, reaffirming that the death penalty also could apply in such a case.

It said that “selling property or attempting to sell property to any foreign country is a felony punishable even by the death sentence.” It said “the court reaffirms its previous ruling, which considers such act as a serious crime in the effort to protect state land and the Palestinian national project, whose goal is to build and establish the Palestinian state.”

As the battle of the courts continues, a proposed Palestinian law, intended to replace the Jordanian law, also bans the sale of property to foreigners, including Israelis, and classifies the sale of property to Israelis as a felony but not punishable by death.

Under pressure from human-rights organizations, the Palestinian Authority has decided to abolish capital punishment.

In Israel, there are also strict restrictions on who may buy land, oftentimes limiting such transactions to Jewish buyers only.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

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