updated 11/21/2006 4:46:47 PM ET 2006-11-21T21:46:47

Nearly 40 percent of West Bank settlements are built on private land seized from Palestinians, an Israeli watchdog group said Tuesday — challenging the government’s long-standing assertion the communities were built only on unclaimed territory.

Citing leaked Israeli military documents, Peace Now unveiled a report it said showed settlements were built on Palestinian property seized by the army long after Israel’s Supreme Court outlawed the practice in 1979.

“We are talking about an institutional land grab,” Dror Etkes, a settlement expert with the group, told reporters in Jerusalem.

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, Israeli troops killed a top Hamas commander in an operation against Palestinian rocket squads. Two other Palestinians, including an elderly woman, also were killed, hospital officials said.

In apparent Palestinian infighting, a former Fatah Cabinet minister, Abdel Aziz Shahin, 62, was shot and wounded in Gaza City after criticizing the ruling Islamic Hamas on a radio show, hospital officials said.

Information leaked from military
Peace Now said its information was leaked from the Civil Administration, the Israeli military department responsible for civil affairs in the West Bank, which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war. It said at the government’s request, the Supreme Court delayed a scheduled May hearing on Peace Now’s petition to have the data released under freedom of information laws.

In its 174-page report, Peace Now said the Civil Administration database showed 38.8 percent of the area currently occupied by Israeli settlements, settlement outposts and industrial zones in the West Bank was privately owned Palestinian land, illegally expropriated by Israeli authorities.

Most notable was the city of Maaleh Adumim outside Jerusalem — with a population of 30,000, the West Bank’s biggest settlement — where Peace Now said 86.4 percent of the real estate was in fact Palestinian-owned.

Israel has agreed to freeze settlement construction under an internationally backed peace plan, but says the fate of the settlements should be left to future peace negotiations.

The court ruling of 1979 ordered the Defense Ministry to stop seizing private Palestinian land for military use and turning it over for settlement construction. Peace Now said the practice continued, and 31.3 percent of the land built into settlements since the ruling is owned by Palestinians.

No comment from officials
Civil Administration spokesman Shlomo Dror said he had not had an opportunity to study the report and could not comment on the figures.

“I can say that in general we have a clear directive not to build on privately owned Palestinian land,” he said. He added that West Bank property records, passed down through successive Ottoman, British and Jordanian rulers, were incomplete and that some people listed as holding property titles had died and their heirs were unknown.

“I’m not sure that all the land Peace Now says is Palestinian, is Palestinian,” he said.

Bentsi Lieberman, head of the settlers’ council, insisted the settlements were built on public land. Speaking on Channel 2 TV, he said much of the land is claimed falsely by Palestinians.

Nearly 244,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank. In the summer of 2005, Israel evacuated all 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip, along with its military bases.

Since then, Palestinian militants in Gaza have been pounding southern Israel with homemade rockets. A woman in the town of Sderot, a frequent target, was killed in a volley last week.

Palestinians fire rockets
Palestinian militants fired at least three rockets into Israel on Tuesday, one of which critically wounded a man in Sderot as the top U.N. human rights official toured another part of the town.

In Tuesday’s raid, ground troops, backed by helicopters and tanks, surrounded the Gaza City home of Ayman Hassanin, 26, a local Hamas leader, witnesses said.

Gunmen streamed to the area as troops called on loudspeakers for Hassanin and his brother, Ibrahim, to surrender, according to the militants’ mother, who identified herself only as Umm Mahmoud. A gunbattle erupted, and Ayman Hassanin was killed.

A 70-year-old woman also was killed in the battle, and a 20-year-old man was killed elsewhere, Palestinian medical officials said.

The army said troops fired at the house only after militants fired bullets and mortars at the soldiers.

Also Tuesday, two Italian Red Cross workers in Gaza were kidnapped by militants, the agency said, the latest in a series of abductions of foreigners in the territory. In the past, hostages have been released unharmed after a relatively short time, though two Fox journalists were held for two weeks.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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