From a long piece by Eyal Press in the New York Review of Books Blog, How the Occupation Became Legal:
In 1979, a group of Palestinian farmers filed a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice, claiming their land was being illegally expropriated by Jewish settlers. The farmers were not Israeli citizens, and the settlers appeared to have acted with the state’s support; indeed, army helicopters had escorted them to the land—a hilltop near Nablus—bringing along generators and water tanks. The High Court of Justice nevertheless ordered the outpost dismantled. “The decision of the court… proved that ‘there was justice’ in Jerusalem and that Israel was indeed ruled by Law,” exulted one Israeli columnist.
But the frustration of the settlers did not last very long. As revealed in The Law in These Parts, an engrossing new Israeli documentary making its American debut at the Sundance Film Festival, just hours after the ruling was handed down, Ariel Sharon, a keen supporter of the settlement project who was then Israel’s Minister of Agriculture, organized a meeting to discuss how to circumvent it. Alexander Ramati, then a legal advisor to the West Bank military command, raised his hand to tell Sharon about an Ottoman concept known as “Mawat land.” The Ottomans, who had controlled Palestine until World War I, had used the term to designate land far enough from any neighboring village that a crowing rooster perched on its edge could not be heard. Under Ottoman law, if such land was not cultivated for three years it was “mawat”—dead —and reverted to the empire. “With or without your rooster, be at my office at 8:00 in the morning,” Sharon told Ramati, who was soon crisscrossing the West Bank in the cockpit of a helicopter, identifying tens of thousands of uninhabited acres that could be labeled “state land” and made available to settlers, notwithstanding the Geneva Convention’s prohibition on moving civilians into occupied territory. In the years that followed, a string of new settlements was built on this territory, eventually prompting another challenge before the Israeli High Court. This time, the Court denied the challenge, ruling that settlement construction was permissible while Israel served as the temporary custodian of the territory. This provided a legal basis for land expropriation that has since enabled hundreds of thousands of Israelis to relocate to the West Bank.
Read the rest, which is about a new Israeli documentary on the legal justifications for the settlements, The Law In These Parts.