Palestinian court rules selling land to Israelis capital offence

The punishment of death will be meted out to those who sell land to Israelis, a Palestinian court in Jerusalem ruled on Sunday.

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JERUSALEM // The punishment of death will be meted out to those who sell land to Israelis, a Palestinian court in Jerusalem ruled on Sunday. In an apparent effort to counter Israeli encroachments on land that Palestinians want for their future state, Judge Ta'et at Twil ruled that selling, or attempting to sell, land to a "foreign country was a criminal offence which could result in the death penalty", the Palestinian news agency Maan reported.

The ruling came in response to an appeal from the Palestinian public prosecutor Ahmed Mughani. Mr Mughani told the Associated Press that the current law, which says courts can choose from either life in prison or death, was not tough enough. His office released a statement after the ruling that said the move represented "a consolidation of the previous legal principle", and which "aimed to protect the Palestinian national project to establish an independent Palestinian state".

Land sales are a highly contentious issue that have led to vigilante attacks by Palestinians angry that their neighbours had sold properties to Israeli tenants. Palestinians want the land that forms the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be their state, with East Jerusalem as their capital. However, since conquering the West Bank and Gaza in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Israel has built on them settlement communities that are not recognised under international law and decried by Palestinians as illegal land grabs.

In 2007, the body of a man who had days earlier sold his apartment building in the Abu Tur neighbourhood of Jerusalem was found tortured and burnt near the West Bank city of Jericho. The sale of his apartment was the first of its kind to a Jewish landlord in the Arab neighbourhood. "We are under occupation and the issue of who controls the land has been a serious one," said Issa Samandar, the West Bank co-ordinator for the Land Defence Committees, a grass-roots organisation that helps Palestinian farmers defend against such Israeli land purchases.

Although he called the ruling "excessive", he sympathised with the rationale behind it. "Settlers are known for tricking ignorant people into signing papers, telling them it's their permission papers for going to Jerusalem," he said. "But in reality, what they've signed is a document that hands over the title of the land to the settler or settlement." Mr Samandar speculated that the harsh penalty for such land sales was intended to serve as added deterrent to landlords who secretly sell property.

"A homeowner will often sell the house to a settler and not announce it," he said. "And then they'll move to America or Israel, without telling anyone. The only way anyone knows about it is when a bulldozer comes and the settler who is driving it shows that he has the ownership deed."