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When you buy a house or a piece of land, the proof it's yours is a title. In the West Bank, Palestinians often buy and sell land without titles. That's because most of the properties don't have them. NPR's Emily Harris reports on a Canadian-Palestinian businessman who's trying to change that with a company that buys and resells land for development.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: I'm in a four-wheel drive, headed up a very steep road in the West Bank.
And up again?
HILNEY TALIB: (Foreign language spoken).
HARRIS: At the wheel is Hilney Talib (ph), an engineer with a Palestinian-Canadian investment company called UCI.
Now where are we?
TALIB: In the top of Carrowaee (ph).
HARRIS: This really looks like the top of the mountain.
Carrowaee (ph) is the name of one tract of land UCI bought. So far, it's a network of blacktop roads running through fields of white daisies and twisty-trunked olive trees. What you can't see is that this and other nearby UCI lands are divided into roughly quarter-acre plots all registered with proper title.
KHALED SABAWI: Title deeds are the building blocks of any economy.
HARRIS: Khaled Sabawi is UCI's general manager.
SABAWI: They solidify a person's assets. Therefore they can go take a mortgage on the land. They can take a loan on it and develop the land and build a business on it, et cetera. But when the land has no title deed, you can't even go about buying land.
HARRIS: Palestinians here do anyway. Land officials jokingly call it buying in air. It's a risk. A Palestinian economic institute says research suggests a quarter of all court cases between Palestinians are over land. Sabawi says UCI tries to tackle this problem.
SABAWI: We take land that's outside of the cities that doesn't have title deed. We do the due diligence on it to make sure all the documentation that's available is legitimate. We survey the lands. We draw the first borders. We go through the very long bureaucratic process of creating a title deed. And we divide it up into small parcels to make it more affordable.
HARRIS: They have to get neighbors to agree who owns what and track down potentially scores of heirs of family land. Sound cumbersome? Consider this - the World Bank paid for a Palestinian government effort to register land. It met only one-third of the goal. They are now seeking a private contractor instead to give it a try. The UCI company meanwhile has feuded with the government land agency and even sued and won over delays. Shawkat Barghouti, the land agency's director of registration, criticizes UCI, saying the company essentially flips land instead of adding value.
BARGHOUTI: (Through interpreter) When someone buys a huge amount of land like this, they should develop housing projects for people. They were buying huge pieces of land, dividing it, registering it and selling it at higher prices with no investment.
HARRIS: UCI says the company invested plenty just registering the land plus cutting roads. Electricity is on the way. And since most plots are sold, the company believes it's meeting a need.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
HARRIS: Last Saturday, the extended family of Taysier Dissi gathered to see the concrete shell of his new weekend home, built on land bought from UCI. The family lives in Jerusalem's cramped and politically volatile Old City.
TAYSIER DISSI: (Through interpreter) I wanted to change. I wanted to breathe fresh air.
HARRIS: Proper land registration was the company's idea, but it was important to Dissi, too.
DISSI: (Through interpreter) I did want a piece of land that was registered. I didn't want to face trouble later.
HARRIS: The Israeli military controls the West Bank and generally confines Palestinian development to just 40 percent. Palestinians see title deeds as protection against Israeli land claims. Nick Gardner, an advisor to the Quartet diplomatic group mediating the Mideast peace process, says more registered land could help attract investments.
NICK GARDNER: If we could do one thing that would make a massive difference to the economic development of Palestine, it would be to sort out the land registration - effective land registration.
HARRIS: Over the whole West Bank he means, not just the areas where the Palestinian administration can register land. For those parts, he calls the UCI project innovative, but a drop in the bucket. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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