Battle over lands: blackmail, extortion and murder
Palestine, Special Report, 10/14/1997
Battles over land never ceased between the Palestinians and Israel. They in fact date back to late last century with the start of Jewish immigration to Palestine. Despite the fact that some lands were sold to Jewish groups and individuals, the percentage of Arab land owned by Jews on the eve of the proclamation of the Jewish state was not more 5 percent
Most recently, the battle over land took a decisive route with American Jewish financier Irving Moskowitz pouring millions of US dollars in support for Jewish settlement groups that have taken over lots of property in East Jerusalem and are still planning to take over more, should the chance arises. It is the activity of people like Moskowitz that the Palestinians have always been very sensitive to over land issues. Most of the land currently in Israeli hands had been either taken over by force, bought through forged documents which had not even been brought to the attention of the real owners of the land or bought through proper deals that, Palestinians insist, were very few. Because Palestinian land brokers were used as middle men to conduct those illegal and forged deals, their presence among the Palestinian society has always been repulsive. People tried to isolate them from their societies. Israel tried to distance itself from them. And a few months ago, a new campaign was staged by Palestinian resistance groups to eliminate the activity of land brokers. In some of those activities, land brokers were killed and their bodies thrown in the street. The Muslim leaders and clergymen refused to accord them proper burial ceremonies and some of those land brokers were buried in remote graveyards, without any religious ceremonies.
The public outcry against selling land to Jews has increased lately, perhaps due to the intensified Israeli settlement thrust in the Palestinian territories. Muslim and Christian religious leaders spoke openly against selling any land to Jews. Mosques became major platforms for a large-scale campaign against land deals with Jews. In almost every Friday sermon during prayers, the sheikhs speak of the illegality of selling Arab lands to Jews. Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al Khatib one Friday told worshipers at the Al Aqsa Mosque that selling land to the Jews "is treason to God, to Islam and to the whole nation." The Sheikh even referred to a fatwa (religious ruling) that was issued dozens of years ago by religious leaders saying that those who sell their land to Jews "should be discommunicated and boycotted by their society."
The manhunt after those suspected of selling lands to Jews is as old as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Long before Israel was proclaimed in 1948, Palestinian Arabs who sold their land to Jews were seen as traitors. The Zionist movement used every means possible to take over Arab lands in Palestine, including use of fraudulent land deals. Without land brokers on the Palestinian side, forging documents was near impossible. Those land brokers served as bridges for Jews who purchased Palestinian lands. When a deal was impossible to reach directly with the Palestinian landlord, brokers would buy that piece of land and then sell it to Jews, be them individuals or organizations, mainly the Keren Kayment of the Jewish National Fund.
The law punishing by death those who sell land to Jews has been adopted by the PNA from the codex of Jordanian law, that had been in effect by Jordan until the eve of the June 1967 war when the West Bank fell under the Israeli military occupation. The PNA does not yet have a legal code of its own. The laws applied for the time being are based on those of Jordan in the West Bank, and Egypt in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Legislative council voted unanimously on a death sentence for land brokers who sell lands to Jews. Then Justice Minister in the PNA, Freih Abu Middein, announced that the death sentence would be applied to land sellers based on the Jordanian law which was authorized as Palestinian law. The Grand Mufti of Palestine, Sheikh Akrameh Sabri, announced a Fatwah (religious decree) Rpermitting the bloodı of sellers of land to Jews. The religious ruling (fatwa) was first issued 70 years ago and the grand Mufti renewed earlier this year. The fatwa determines that sellers of Arab land to Jews may be killed with impunity, that one must not pray for the dead, that his body may not be purified and that he may not be buried in a Muslim cemetery. When Bashiti was murdered, his family was denied permit to bury him at the Jerusalem cemetery and had to go to a remote filed outside Jericho to bury him, along with a number of other Palestinian collaborators.
After the West Bank fell under the military occupation of Israel in the June 1967 war, Jordan decided to impose a death sentence on anyone who sold land to Israelis. More than 200 death warrants were issued in Amman against land sellers in absentia but none of them had his sentence executed, simply because Jordan never managed to get its hands on these land dealers who continued to live either in the West Bank or inside Israel, enjoying full Israeli protection. During the years of the Palestinian Intifada, hundreds of collaborators were killed in the West Bank and Gaza, many of them known as brokers or sellers of lands to Jews. Three years ago, after the peace treaty with Israel, Jordan annulled the section which prohibited the sale of land to Israelis together with the cancellation of other Ranti-Israelı articles like the Arab boycott. Today, Israelis are allowed to acquire land in Jordan but with the Jordanian governmentıs permission.
Ali Mahmoud Aref, 32, lived in Shufat refugee camp near Jerusalem. He was suspected of involvement in selling an Arab house in the Abu Tor neighborhood in Jerusalem to a settlement group named El'Ad. Earlier this year, he allegedly bought the house from the Shawki family and later sold it to the Jewish group. The Shawkis issued a statement in the local press in which they stated they never knew that Ali Mahmoud Aref had been working with the settlers group.
A week before his murder, Ali Aref was summoned to Ramallah for questioning by the Palestinian police, his family said. They quoted him as saying upon his return that the Palestinian police found no incriminating evidence against him but had warned him that "certain elements might be after him and might try to take him out." A few days later, his body was found on the outskirts of Ramallah with two bullet holes in the neck.
Almost in the same week, Rashad Salameh, a land broker in north of the West Bank, disappeared and Israeli sources expressed concern that he might have been abducted by fellow Palestinians who suspected he was involved in land deals with Jews. Salameh in the past was partner to Ahmad Odeh, a land broker from the village of Bidya near Nablus who was killed a few years ago by Palestinian intifada activists. Odeh was said to be responsible for numerous fraudulent land deals with Jews in the northern part of the West Bank. Thousands of dunums of privately owned Palestinian land were illegally sold to Jews and became site of a cluster of Jewish settlements. Salameh, also a native of Bidia village, was reportedly involved in one of the large land deals in the West Bank in the early 1980s. After he received a number of death threats he moved to Petah Tikva in Israel and sought protection of the Israeli secret services.
Palestinian sources say a list was recently prepared of several hundred West Bank residents suspected of selling land to Jews or of brokering such deals. The PNA leadership has decided to investigate the suspects and bring them to trial. Colonel Jibril Rajoub, head of the Preventive Security in the West Bank, said recently that the PNA is acting lawfully against sellers of land to Jews "who will be brought to court and will be accorded adequate trial." Rajoub denied Israeli allegations that his forces were involved in murder cases in which two Palestinian land brokers were killed. Rajoub strongly criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who attacked the PNA and labeled its manhunt of land sellers to Jews as ³murderous and monstrous.² Said Rajoub: "I suggest that Netanyahu should not concern himself about the state of our morality. All Israel is trying to do is complicate things between the Palestinian National Authority and the people. Itıs about time an international commission of inquiry is set up to examine and investigate all the forgery and deceipt that has been going on in selling Arab land to Jews. In many cases the landowners themselves donıt know how their properties were transferred to Jewish ownership and settlements got built on them.²
A few months ago, Farid Bashiti of Jerusalem was found dead near Ramallah with signs of violence on his body. Israeli police claimed he was abducted by Palestinian security from Jerusalem and taken to Ramallah were he was killed. Other reports said he had a dispute with Palestinian land owners in Bethlehem with whom he had business. In Israeli custody, there are three Palestinians suspected of luring him from East Jerusalem's Ambassador Hotel to Ramallah. Jerusalem police sources said that Bashiti's murder case is near solved and claimed that Palestinian security servicemen had received orders to kill real estate brokers who sell land to Jews. Colonel Rujoub, however, stressed that none of the Palestinian security apparatuses was involved in the murder and confirmed that their role is to bring those land brokers to court.
Harbi Abu-Sara, 60, a resident of Ein Yabrud village north of Ramallah, was found murdered by a gunshot to the head in Ramallah. He allegedly was involved in land sales to Israelis. Residents in his village said he was a known collaborator who sold land to Jewish settlers. Later, Israeli sources said after his murder that Abu Sara worked with the Israeli General Security Services, Shin Bet. A senior source in the Israeli police command in the West Bank claimed that a number of Palestinian land brokers had turned to Israel asking for protection. The Council of Jewish Settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip set up a hotline telephone system for Palestinian land brokers who seek protection.
"Murder is never justified but let us not forget what some of those land brokers did to Palestinian land owners," said Mahmoud Issa, from Bidya village near Nablus. He was referring to a series of crimes against land owners who were all attributed to land brokers in the eighties. Recently, the PNA has opened an intensive investigation into cases of land sold illegally to Jews. In so doing, the PNA had come across a number of cases that date back to the seventies and eighties in which murder, forging documents and impersonation of land owners were only part of the modus operandi they adopted. And in a society where the elderly owners of land are illiterate, their legal documents were always stamped with their finger prints as opposed to written signatures, thus making it easier for land brokers to forge documents and conduct fraudulent land deals without the knowledge of the original owners and in many cases against their will.
Files of the PNA are now full of incidents that date back to the mid-eighties when land brokers became very active in their quest to illegally sell Palestinian land to Jewish settlers. Early one morning in 1984, Ibrahim Ismail Arabasi went out to work his fields near the village of Siniria, southeast of Qalqilya. He never returned home. His relatives spent the whole night looking for him but to no avail. The next morning, a woman found his mutilated body in a nearby valley. A post-mortum examination showed that his fingers were cut off and were used to stamp a power of attorney that was used to sell his land to settlers. He was 83 years old. Six months later, the body of Zarifeh Hadeidoun, also from the same area, was found dead in her fields. Marks of stamp ink were found on her fingers and a few months later, her land was sold to Jewish settlers.
Mahmoud Mousa Mohammed Younes, of Siniria village too, was 86 years old in 1984 when he woke up early in the morning and headed to the mosque next to his house for his routine dawn prayers. As he headed towards the main gate, three men broke into his house and tried to stamp his finger print for a land deal involving his property. He yelled at them. His wife, who heard the scuffling outside, started screaming and the brokers fled away
The same year, Mohammed Yousef Abdulla, today 97, was working his land when four armed men came to him and tried to forcefully have his finger print on a land deal document. He lifted the ax he was working with and threatened "to chop off the head of whoever came closer." Mohammed recalled: "I told them I was ready to die for my land and that I was not afraid of their weapons. At that moment, my wife showed up with my lunch and the men ran away."
Another method used by land brokers was to forge identity cards of Palestinian land owners and then head to the Israeli registrar office in Petah Tikva in Israel for registration. The real owners would in this case be surprised to find out that ownership on their land has passed to Jews without their knowledge. A man from Siniria village, Mahmoud Hussein, lost his land to Jewish settlers after a land broker forged his identity card and went to the registrar in Petah Tikva where he finalized the transaction documents.
When the owners are women, wives of land brokers would also become involved in the conspiracy. One wife would impersonate a land owner after she obtains a forged identity card and goes to the court to officially register the deal. Lately, Fatima As'ad Taha who lives north in the West Bank almost lost her land this way but the Palestinian National Authority, while investigating cases of land deals between Palestinian brokers and Jews, managed to blow up the deal and the broker's wife was taken to court where she admitted her role in the fraudulent land deal.
Abdul Rahim Al Aqra' of Bidya village near Nablus used to work in Petah Tikva in the eighties. One day, as he was on his way to work, two land brokers who had put him under surveillance offered him a glass of orange juice, which was later found to have been mixed with poison. The man fainted. The land brokers took his finger prints and ran away. He later was found and rushed to Rafidya hospital in Nablus where doctors managed to save his life. But the court judge could not save his property. His land had already been sold to Jewish settlers immediately after he was poisoned.
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