British Mandate-era law enables Arab land grab in Jerusalem

An old law called the “Mukhtar Procedure” that Arabs have taken advantage of to build in Jerusalem came under fire at a recent meeting of the Knesset Interior Committee.  

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The Knesset Interior Committee held a hearing last Monday, Oct. 29, on a little-known rule dating back to the time when the British ruled Palestine called the “Mukhtar Procedure.” It allows Arabs to build on land they may not own in Jerusalem and other areas.

Opponents say the rule is too easily abused.

In order for Arabs to build on land in Jerusalem, they present a letter to a planning committee from a mukhtar, or Arab communal leader, declaring that he knows the person who wishes to build and that person owns the land in question.

The Mukhtar’s word is accepted even though no legal deeds are provided. The committee only ensures that the proposed house or addition is architecturally sound.

With such a low bar for proof of ownership, Arabs fabricate claims to take over large areas of the city, critics say, particularly as 90 percent of land in Arab areas of Jerusalem are unregulated, according to one municipal source.

Deputy Attorney-General for Civil Matters Erez Kaminetz defended the need for the Mukhtar Procedure, which he said is necessary when land isn’t officially registered. If there’s no legal avenue to building, then people will build illegally, he argued.

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“The Mukhtar Procedure addresses the need to enable a reasonable fabric of life, within the boundaries of planning and licensing. We want [houses] to be built safely,” Kaminetz said. “The permit does not grant [the builder] a legal right of ownership.”

“A person who builds after receiving a building permit will be difficult to remove even if it is proven later that the land is not his,” Kaminetz admitted, but he says efforts have been made to improve the process.

“Today, [building] requests will also be transferred to the Custodian General and to the Custodian of Absentee Property,” in an effort to confirm ownership. The latter hold documents that can indicate ownership even from pre-state days, he said.

If there are contradictory claims on a property, “the procedure demands a halt, not a green light,” he said.

Unfair rule

But the Mukhtar Procedure’s opponents say that it is wrong to have different criteria for different people. Eldad Rabinowitz of B’Tzedek, a nonprofit that promotes Jewish values, said the rule creates an unfair situation.

When Jews want to build they must really prove land ownership, he says. If the court decides their proof isn’t sufficient, it will reject their request. If they’ve already built, the court will often order the structure destroyed.

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The rule also opens the door to bribery and land theft, and – in contradiction to the claim made by the deputy attorney general – it does allow the squatters to have rights they shouldn’t, Rabinowitz said.

Rabinowitz said the rule was created by the British “to buy quiet” from the Arabs by giving their leaders the right to decide who owned what.

In a document he sent in September to the Finance Ministry, Rabinowitz wrote that, “The use of the mukhtars’ authorization … remains a central element in the proof of an ownership relationship [to the property].”

Slow pace

The pace of reform is too slow, according to critics of the rule. Outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said at the hearing, “Things aren’t progressing. There is a freeze.”

However, all acknowledge that the task is a massive one, with thousands thousands of buildings in the eastern part of the city that were constructed illegally on private land – belonging both to Arabs and Jews.

Interior Committee Chairman and Likud MK Yoav Kish requested a progress report in six months. “My concern is that in the meantime, state land continues to be stolen.” he said.