Ali and Sana Dabbagh were amazed at how easy it was to buy a piece of Palestinian land. Their parents had fled in the 1948 war, leaving their homes forever. However, 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. It looks out over undulating terraces of olive and almond trees to 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,” Sabbagh 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 word 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 US President Barack Obama flew into this week for the first time during his US presidency is essentially an Israeli-Palestinian battle for land. It is a fight for ownership of the 26,000km2 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 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 inside 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 Benjamin] Netanyahu signs a peace deal today, this won’t stop Israel from expanding inside Palestine unofficially,” he adds.
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 percent 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 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 a local council and then applying for a title deed to legalize ownership of it.
The Tabo Web site now 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 between US$13,000 and US$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 US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Qatar — and Israeli cooperation.
Bashar al-Masry, the Palestinian businessman behind the private venture, was allowed exceptional privileges. The bureaucratic challenges Sabawi and others 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 has ensued.
In Farkha, where 90 plots of land have been sold through Tabo, the local council is cautiously supportive of the initiative.
“The newcomers will probably help our economy and it’s better that the land is not in the hands of settlers. But Sabawi is not buying our land because he likes our blue eyes. He’s got a good business going,” said Hassan Abdullah Hajaj, a council leader for 16 years.
Most villagers sold their land to Tabo for US$5,000 or less out of economic necessity, he added.
Unlike Hajaj or Sabawi, the Dabbaghs still cherish an optimistic ideal of Palestine. Ali is an eye surgeon specializing in diabetes and plans to open a clinic in Farkha. The couple has hired an architect to design their home, even though they are yet to receive permission from the Israeli authorities to live in the West Bank. Last time Ali flew in to Tel Aviv he was refused entry, despite his 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 said.
“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,” Ali added.