Absent Bethlehem landlords, many Christians, spark land review

The scheme began at the beginning of 2010 to prevent the theft of land belonging to the increasing number of residents who have left the town in which Jesus was born.

“The municipality has embarked on a process of [settling land registration] in order to avoid any problems of land theft,” said Sari Dallal, director of public relations for Bethlehem.

Preparations for setting up the appeals process began two years ago at the request of Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas following numerous complaints of property thefts from landowners living abroad, said Dallal.

He explained that even though many of those affected by the illegal sales of property are Christians, because many Christians have emigrated from Bethlehem, the problem is not divided along religious lines. Muslim land has also been sold illegally.

“There were more problems with Christians because more Christians are abroad,” Dallal noted.

Tax records kept during the period of Ottoman rule in Bethlehem show that Christians made up about 60 percent of the city’s population in the early 16th century. Now their proportion of the city’s 25,000 population is believed to be 20 percent or less.

Following the outbreak of an uprising against Israel, known as the second Intifada eight years ago, the rule of law in Bethlehem has been weakened and many parcels of land belonging to residents living abroad are said to have been illegally sold. In such cases, people were able to falsify ownership papers or otherwise illegally claim ownership of land.

Still, the authorities in Bethlehem say that in recent years the police have regained their authority.

“Before, we have had some problems with people claiming they are the original owners. There are some mischievous ways of claiming [ownership of] the land, selling the land and building on other people’s property,” said Dallal. “If the landowner is abroad, people can come on the land and build a cottage, and then build it up bit by bit.”

He called those involved in such activity a “land mafia,” and noted that several cases were now being reviewed in court.

Dallal said most residents have welcomed the new process, and so far ten people had come forward to appeal the registration of their property.

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