BURKA, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian farmers on Thursday reclaimed lands they had lost decades earlier to an Israeli settlement, celebrating a rare legal victory their lawyer said illustrates that Israel's settlement enterprise is reversible.
In the 1970s, Israel had seized several hundred acres from residents of the West Bank village of Burka to build the Israeli settlement of Homesh. The settlement, along with three others in the West Bank, was razed in 2005, in connection with Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip at the time.
However, Palestinians were not allowed to return to their lands after the 2005 demolition of Homesh because the military did not rescind the land seizure order and prevented access to the area, said attorney Michael Sfard.
After more than two years of court petitions, the military agreed several months ago to rescind the seizure order and last week lifted access restrictions, said Sfard of the Israeli rights group Yesh Din.
The military confirmed it had acted in line with the petitions.
On Thursday, farmers returned to their land for the first time. "I feel as if I was dead and now I am alive again," said Fathallah Hajjeh, 64. "I never felt such joy. We are rooted to this land."
About 500 acres of land were reclaimed, said Emad Saif of the Burka local council.
The return of the land shows that "the settlement project is reversible," said Sfard.
Since capturing the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in 1967, Israel built and expanded dozens of settlements that are now home to more than half a million Israelis.
Palestinians hope to establish a state in those territories, but say settlement expansion makes it increasingly difficult to draw borders between Israel and a future Palestine.
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the terms of a Palestinian state resumed in late July, but gaps remain wide and expectations are low on both sides that a deal can be reached.