A son of refugees has battled with the Palestinian Authority to create hundreds of plots with title deeds for Palestinians to own
Phoebe Greenwood in Farkha
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 March 2013 16.44 GM
Palestinian olive farms in the hills of the West Bank. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Ali and Sana Dabbagh were amazed at how easy it was to buy a piece of Palestinian land. Their parents fled in the 1948 war, leaving their homes forever. But more than 60 years later, it took just one click of a mouse for them to claim their own hilltop outside the ancient village of Farkha, looking out over undulating terraces of olive and almond trees towards Tel Aviv.
"It felt unreal. We"ve bought land elsewhere before but there"s an emotional factor when it comes to Palestine – it was hard for me to accept that I owned land there," Ali recalled. "It had also been pretty much impossible to buy land in Palestine and guarantee that you owned it until we met Khaled."
Khaled Sabawi, the Canadian-born son of Palestinian refugees, launched Tabo three years ago. Appropriating the Ottoman term for "title deed", the business was built upon a dream of his father"s to help Palestinians buy Palestinian land. It is a dream that most of the estimated 5 million scattered Palestinian refugees would consider impossible.
The conflict that Barack Obama flies into this week for the first time during his presidency is essentially an Israeli-Palestinian battle for land. It is a fight for ownership of the 10,000 sq miles (26,000 sq km) of historic Palestine claimed by both sides as a holy land and a homeland. In terms of "facts on the ground", it is a battle that Israel is winning.
In 1993, the international community witnessed Israeli and Palestinian leaders sign the Oslo agreement to divide the land into two states for two peoples. Yet, since 1996, more than 100 new Israeli outposts have been established in the future Palestinian state. The Palestinians have built one, Rawabi.
Many Israeli Jews believe they have a God-given right to settle anywhere in the biblical land of Israel. Others justify the defiance of international law on the grounds of national security or argue that Arabs cannot be trusted.
Many settlers have benefited from cheap mortgages and enjoy an enviable lifestyle. As Michael Sfard, a top Israeli lawyer advising the human rights group Yesh Din, puts it: "During the second intifada, at negotiations in Taba and Camp David, Israelis said you can"t negotiate peace in one room when there is shooting outside.
"By the same token, you can"t negotiate peace in one room while an unofficial land grab is being waged outside. Even if [Israeli prime minister, Binyamin] Netanyahu signs a peace deal today, this won"t stop Israel from expanding inside Palestine unofficially."
Sabawi and other critics of the Palestinian Authority would add that Israel"s ongoing success in the struggle for territory is aided by the Palestinian leadership"s failure to protect Palestinian land. Legal proof of ownership is almost impossible to come by in the West Bank, where 70% of land is unregistered and ancestral property is inherited by dozens of heirs.
Israeli settlements have thrived on this legal ambiguity. "The best way to protect Palestinian land is to create title deeds and we have created hundreds of parcels of title deed land that are now owned by Palestinians. But it was a laborious, arduous, exhausting process throughout which the bureaucracy of the Palestinian Authority – not Israel – has been the greatest obstacle," Sabawi said.
It took Tabo"s team of lawyers and engineers four years to register 100 hectares (250 acres) of Palestinian land. In each case, the process started from scratch. It involved negotiating with multiple heirs claiming ownership of a plot of land, agreeing on the borders of that plot, getting an official map of the land approved by the council and then applying for a title deed to legalise ownership.
The Tabo website invites prospective buyers in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the far-flung diaspora on a virtual tour of every plot of registered land with a 180-degree view from the site, its height from sea level and slope gradient. Plots are sold for $13,000 (£8,600) to $80,000 and can be paid off over three years.
The new high-rise development at Rawabi is Tabo"s closest counterpart in the affordable Palestinian housing market. The urban project benefited from major international support, primarily from USAid and Qatar, and Israeli co-operation.
Bashar al-Masry, the Palestinian businessman behind the private venture, was allowed exceptional privileges. The bureaucratic challenges Sabawi and other Palestinians face were pushed aside and title deeds for Rawabi land were granted in one bundle. Locals who owned land in three villages on the proposed site and refused to sell were forced to accept the market rate by the Palestinian Authority. A row about preferential treatment to well-connected individuals ensued.
In Farkha, where 90 plots of land have been sold through Tabo, the council is cautiously supportive of the initiative. Tabo has paved roads to their new master plans and plans to extended water and electricity networks to reach their plots of land.
The Dabbaghs still cherish an optimistic ideal of Palestine. Ali is an eye surgeon specialising in diabetes and plans to open a clinic in Farkha. The couple have hired an architect to design their home, even though they have yet to receive permission from the Israeli authorities to live in the West Bank. When Ali last flew to Tel Aviv, he was refused entry, despite a British passport.
"At least 10 of our friends and relatives have bought land through Tabo after we told them about it. Some don"t even plan to live there – they feel they are protecting the land just by owning it," Sana explained. Ali added: "For me it was just something I took for granted. I knew I was going to end up in Palestine. If, God forbid, I don"t get to, at least now I know my children can."