TEL AVIV -- A West Bank settler leader denounced an Israeli settlement watchdog group that said yesterday that government maps indicate 40 percent of land incorporated into West Bank settlements is owned by Palestinians.
The report by Peace Now is an embarrassment to Israel's government, which has claimed throughout the years that the settlements had been established on public lands.
The finding that as much as 80 percent of some settlements lie on private property could make it more difficult to hold onto these settlement blocks in any negotiated settlement.
It's also likely to further erode public support for the settlers.
Pinchas Wallerstein, chairman of a regional settlement council in the West Bank, countered the Peace Now report by insisting that ownership of the land in dispute had been legally transferred to Jewish hands.
"The next stage is that Peace Now will come and say that all of the kibbutzes are built on Arab land," he said. "Peace Now, the PLO and Europe see the state of Israel as a conqueror without rights to the land of Israel and therefore, everything is private land."
The report comes at time when settlement activity is expanding throughout the West Bank despite Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's original platform of unilaterally withdrawing from dozens of West Bank settlements.
Israel promised the United States that it will not build beyond already built-up neighborhoods in existing settlement. It has also waited three years to implement a promise to dismantle dozens of unauthorized hilltop outposts.
Over the decades, Israel's army has routinely requisitioned Palestinian land, citing security reasons. The report says the use of requisitioned land for settlement activity defies a landmark Israeli Supreme Court decision from the late 1970s.
Peace Now said the sanctioning of the land expropriation constituted "theft in broad daylight" of Palestinian land.
Peace Now said its information was based on leaked maps belonging to the army's West Bank Civil Administration, but which have never been made public. Government officials declined to comment on the report.
"We don't have any illusions that because of the findings, the Supreme Court will tell the settlers to evacuate 40 percent of the outpost," said Peace Now spokesman Yariv Oppenheimer. "We hope that from now on it will be much harder to continue to build even one road" in the West Bank.
The fourth Geneva Convention forbids an occupying power from building on captured territories and encouraging their citizens to move in -- making the entire Israeli settlement enterprise illegal under international law.
The report is the most detailed -- and most damning -- account of how government policy allowed West Bank settlements to incorporate land belonging to Palestinians, despite a court ruling that forbade it, said one settlement analyst.
"Each additional piece of information adds to the weight of public opinion," said Gershom Gorenberg, who authored a book about on the first decade of settlement activity.
"The great irony is as the settlements continue to grow their support among the public continues to shrink. I would assume that at some point the tension between two things will set off a political shift."