Using Digital Orthophotos to Support Land Registration

Kari Mikkonen, Ian Corker


The Palestine Finland Land Management Project aims to improve land registration conditions in Palestine. Soil and Water Ltd. has been working in the pilot area, in Gaza, since March 1998. The project is funded by Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland.

One of the main tasks has been to register land on large areas (7000 hectares) where ownership has never previously been registered. To support field survey we have produced digital orthophotos. Field surveyors mark claimed parcel boundaries on orthophoto maps. In the office the information is digitized into an ArcView GIS database. Attached claim data is managed with an Access application.

Project background

The purpose of our project was to help the Palestinian Authority to improve land administration in Palestine and especially to perform new registration of large areas, altogether 7000 hectares, in the Gaza strip. The current land register is badly out of date. In large majority of the cases the most recent registration is from the 1920's or 1930's when the British were running the land register in the area. Our project areas were at that time occupied by Bedouins. Since the concept of individual land ownership was difficult for the Bedouins those areas were never registered. Today the land is inhabited by farmers, families that have occupied and farmed the land for several decades. In many cases land has also been privately sold and inherited although the transactions have not been official and have not been recorded in the land register.

Picture 2: Map of Gaza strip with the two project areas highlighted in yellow color

First registration is the legal process that studies the claims of land ownership, solves potential disputes and registers proven cases in the land register. First registration is very important because land ownership is truly secured only after registration of the land and loan from a bank can only be acquired against registered land.

Shortly described the process of first registration takes the following well defined steps:

  1. Publicity: a statutory proceeding of announcing the new registration process in newspapers, through village chiefs etc.
  2. Claim: claimants issue an official claim of ownership and present their evidence
  3. Demarcation: claimants demarcate boundaries of the land whose ownership they are claiming, survey of the claimed parcel
  4. Determination of schedule of claims. Provisional map and list of proprietors and interests published.
  5. Objections received, if any, parcels and interests not in dispute are registered.
  6. Adjudication: potential disputes are resolved, evidence is evaluated
  7. Adjudicated parcels and interests registered
  8. Appeal to High Court available for errors in law or fraud, subject to appropriate Statute of Limitations (normally 6 years).

Picture 3: The idea of demarcation of boundaries is being explained to a farmer by Project Manager Ian Corker (second from left), Ali Massri, Head of GIS Section at Ministry of Housing (left) and Omar Zaida, Director of Surveys at Ministry of Housing (second from right).

Legal framework

The legislation for land registration in both "Palestine" and Israel is the 1928 Registered Land Ordinance. In 1928 Palestine was under British control having been mandated after the First World War by the League of Nations, the forerunner to the UN.

British colonial land legislation was based on a model established in Australia. It varies significantly from both English and Scottish law and practice, being much easier to understand and the registration system being much more certain.

The most important point for our work was the assumption that all boundaries were "general" unless specifically fixed. The point about general boundaries is that "the exact line of the boundary has been left undetermined". When general boundaries are surveyed the map only indicates where the boundary may be found and later determined. The "boundary" lines shown on the map are therefore only indicative not definitive.

What also should be understood is that the registration system only regularizes and records existing tenure and boundaries. This is completely different from the situation in the early days of America and Australia, where the registration system was granting land from the state to new owners.

Although general boundaries are the assumption, land owners can decide to have their boundaries "fixed". With fixed boundaries the exact position of the boundary is determined and surveyed. The fact that the boundary is fixed is shown in the Registry Map. We know of no case where Palestinian boundaries were fixed. Perhaps the high cost and the fact that the applicant has to pay has some relevance.

To bring land into the registration system the adjacent land owners have to indicate the location of the boundary. As this is established agricultural land and most boundaries are agricultural boundaries, hedges, fences, tracks, edges of wadies, the indication of the boundary feature, not the precise location within the feature was sufficient. In other words, if we knew the boundary was a hedge this was sufficient. The precise location within the hedge was not needed, assuming that anyone had ever determined this precise location.

To take land into the registration system First Registration, a well defined legal process, is adopted. This process is managed by The Commissioner of Lands, whose authority comes from the Head of State. In the Mandate Period this was the Governor General, today it is President Arafat.

The Commissioner of Lands first declares that an area will be registered, statutory notices are issued and local committees (to assist in registration) are formed. People claiming land are requested to make claims and to demarcate the boundaries of the land claimed. After survey and assessment of the claims by the local committee, the Commissioner of Lands makes his determination and publishes a map showing the parcels identified (and their general boundaries) and a list of claimants and the interests accepted.

These maps and schedules of claim are well advertised, and a statutory period, usually 60 days, given for objectors to come forward. If objections are made a further adjudication process and hearing are held. But at the end the Commissioner of Lands approves a final map and register and the registered proprietors become the full legal owner of their registered interests. The only legal objections to registration at this stage are in case of errors in law, or in cases of fraud.

Existing survey system

Geodetic reference to field survey has been a geodetic control network established by British Military Survey in the early 1920's. As explained below this network has proven to be unreliable. Most cadastral maps date back to 1920's and 1930's. The most usual field survey methods used at that time were chain and compass and plane table. 

Today cadastral survey in Palestine is organized under the Surveying Department of the Ministry of Housing. Before registration of cadastral transactions can take place the parcel needs to be surveyed by the Ministry of Housing.

Current field survey uses total stations. Old traditions are followed and precise boundary dimensions are always included on new parcel site maps that are produced in connection of land transactions.

Administrative system

The British colonial system was based on a single Lands and Surveys Department. In this system the Survey Section and the Land Registry were under the control of the Director of Lands and Surveys. Any dispute between sections could be resolved internally. After the Israeli occupancy of Gaza and West Bank in 1967 the Israeli administration divided the functions of Lands and Surveys. The Land Registry (Tabu) was put under the Ministry for Justice, and the Survey Section under the Ministry for Housing. This same system was maintained after the creation of the Palestinian National Authority in 1994.

Although many missions advising on land administration have recommended a return to a unified structure, possibly including the land taxation section of the Ministry of Finance. And even though the so called "Higher Council for Land Administration" has been approved by the Council of Ministers and the President. At the time of writing the Higher Council was still not functioning.

Inter departmental rivalry and the general problems of trying to operate a system that is over 70 years old with inadequate resources means that the administration of land in Palestine faces very significant challenges. Interestingly, however, the Israeli system faces almost the same problems.

Specific problems

Geodetic control

In the beginning of the project we faced the problem of a very unreliable geodetic network. The network dated back to British survey in the early 1920's. Most of the original points had been destroyed - deliberately or by accident. After considerable research and finder's fees we could find only one original control point in the Gaza strip and a few in the West Bank. 

A joint effort between the British Consulate and our project was agreed in order to re-establish and improve the geodetic network. The Finnish project purchased a kit of 4 Leica geodetic GPS receivers for the Ministry of Housing. British Consulate funded the mission of a GPS survey team from Ordnance Survey International. The survey was conducted in the spring 1999. The current geodetic network has excellent internal accuracy (in XY) and is firmly tied to international reference stations. Ministry of Housing surveyors were given intensive on-the-job training and they are today able to densify the network and conduct GPS field survey on their own.

Existing maps

Most of the cadastral maps are from 1920's and 1930's. The original maps are held by Israel. The maps available in Palestine are most often copies of copies (of copies). Their physical condition and quality is often poor. Palestinian surveyors have respected the old maps highly and regarded their parcel boundaries as result of very accurate survey. This is probably partly due to so little data being available and partly due to accurate appearance as parcel boundary dimensions are indicated on the maps by centimeter. In fact - in today's standards -  the geometric accuracy of the maps is very modest. 

In the start of the project there was no digital parcel data available.

Restrictions on use of aerial photography

Because of the political situation only Israeli companies are allowed to fly aerial photography in Palestinian territories. The aerial photographs are reviewed by the Israeli military that censors areas and immediate neighborhoods of Israeli settlements and borders. Plans for aerial photography need to be accepted by the Israeli military.

We faced also other practical problems when preparing for aerial photography of our project areas. We had agreed photography on a certain day and had arranged signals to be laid on the ground on the previous days. Part of the signals were almost immediately stolen or destroyed by the local Palestinians. The Israeli company flew the photography one day earlier than was agreed because the Israeli military had supposedly announced to "close the sky" on the scheduled flight day. Since we did not have the planned amount of signals on the ground and thus missed photogrammetric reference and tie points we had to do quite a lot of extra work to identify sharp natural features clearly visible on the photos and have them surveyed.

Resistance from surveyors

The surveyors at Ministry of Housing found it hard to regard orthophotos as a sufficiently accurate, scientific and practical survey method. It did not feel right that accurate results could be achieved without bringing survey instruments to the field. It did not seem technically convincing that ortho images did not display parcel boundary dimensions. The best way of buying  the confidence of the surveyors was to explain that in fact each pixel of an orthophoto has already been surveyed in advance. We also needed to develop a script that generated boundary dimensions as labels on the digitized parcel theme in our GIS.

We taught our Palestinian GIS operator to capture data of claimed parcels by heads-up digitizing using the field hardcopy orthophotomap and the digital ortho images. The field surveyors wanted to check the accuracy of the digitized parcel boundaries by surveying a few of the digitized parcels using total stations. They produced parcel maps on Mylar and overlaid the map on a plot from the parcel database. The maps matched perfectly. It took two days from the team of two surveyors and their assistants to produce their map, our Palestinian GIS operator produced his data and map in less than two hours. 

Picture 5: Our GIS operator (today Head of GIS Section at Ministry of Housing) Ali Massri is heads-up digitizing parcel boundaries

Legal and administrative objections

The biggest problem with the project was the time it took to get a Commissioner of Lands in place and in action. The project started in March 1998 and the final and agreed Inception Report was produced in June 1998. This clearly indicated the need for a Commissioner of Lands (although the need had been identified in Steering Committees well before). It took to December 1998 for a Commissioner to be appointed, but he could not start work until the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting), February 1999. Due to various problems he was unable to work and a Vice Commissioner was not appointed until September 1999.

The biggest objection to the system proposed was the belief that the lines shown on the existing Registry Maps defined the boundaries between parcels. This was based on a failure to understand general boundaries, but also the more general problem of putting too much trust on old documents (the irony, given that this is where the Bible was written, was not missed by the authors).

There was also a problem due the translation of the 1928 Ordinance. In the original (English) version the land boundaries have to be demarcated (mapped) but in the Arabic version the boundaries have to be marked (physically marked). As the law was originally English the English version takes precedence, but this clearly demonstrated the need for very high standards of translation.

By far the most serious objection was on who was responsible for registration, Ministry of Justice or Ministry of Housing. Although the Law is clear, the responsibility is that of the Commissioner of Lands, and his authority comes direct from the Head of State, not via a minister, this did not stop the arguments.

Land owners' role in registration

Land owners sometimes have their own agenda that differs from the objectives of registration. Sometimes you may find that people don't want to register land because they want to avoid taxation. 

Sometimes the farmers don't have the same concept of tenure as the register system. Land actually belonging to a family and shared between a family may be registered in the name of one person, usually head of the family. This can cause big problems in the future. 

Although most often the parcels were agricultural, in some cases parcels have been divided into apartments (subdivided horizontally). Neither the British colonial land administration system nor the GIS system used could adequately represent these horizontal subdivisions.

Surveying options

The options for surveying the boundaries of claimed parcels are field survey using total stations and capture of the boundaries from orthophotos.

Land based surveys

When large areas need to be surveyed land based survey using total stations is an expensive and slow survey method. The method is popular because it is well understood and considered accurate. In fact in many cases land based survey can be quite inaccurate. In the field the surveyors typically capture (precisely) corner points of a parcel and assume that the boundary between the points is a straight line. When the registration system is based on general boundaries the boundaries are quite often not at all straight. In Gaza the most extreme example is an edge of a wadi. Even boundaries that first appear straight (edge of road, hedge, fence, ditch) often bend or curve at a closer look. Heads-up digitizing from ortho images captures the actual boundaries often more accurately than field survey that only captures individual points with good precision.

Data capture from orthophotos

For large areas aerial photogrammetry and data capture from orthophotos is a quick and economic solution. Purchase of orthophotos requires a rather high initial investment but in the long run it pays back well. The resulting maps and digital images are usually useful for other organizations as well; there is often a good chance for sharing costs. One should be prepared to meet some resistance in the beginning. In our project good results have convinced the surveyors and there is today a big demand for new orthophotos, to support survey on other areas.

Use of orthophotomaps for registration 

Production of orthophotos

Reference points were surveyed and signalized by Ministry of Housing Survey Department. Aerial photography was flown by the Israeli company OFEK in April 1999. Photography was done in scale 1:5500. OFEK scanned the photos, orthorectification and production of orthophotos was done by Soil and Water Ltd using Leica Helava photogrammetric workstation. Images were produced in both TIFF and MrSID format. Resolution of the ortho images is 15 cm. Features can be identified and captured from the images with 50 cm or better positional accuracy. 

Use of orthophotos

Survey of boundaries of the claimed parcels was contracted to two private survey companies. The companies surveyed one cadastral block at a time. They were given a large printed hardcopy orthophoto map that covered the whole block. They drew on the site the demarcated boundaries on the map, very often in front of the claimants. The claimants who probably would not have been comfortable reading an ordinary map had no problems in understanding the orthophoto that showed their house, field, orange trees, fence etc. The data collection in the field proceeded much faster than we had expected.

The ortho hardcopy with drawn boundaries was brought to the office. Our GIS operator studied the map while heads-up digitizing the parcel boundaries on top of the ortho image. Digitizing was done using ArcView GIS. Digitizing and editing of a block of 100-150 parcels took usually half a day. 

The only attribute data captured at this point was block and parcel number. Lots of other relevant attribute data was given by the claimant on the official claim form. That claim data was stored using a tailored MS Access application. Block and parcel numbers were also stored and can be used as key to link the parcel polygons to the parcel records.

Picture 7: The orthoimage has 15 cm ground resolution. Boundaries have been digitized on top of the image.

The private companies were paid per area surveyed. Area of the block, queried from the block and parcel data, was used in determining their fees. Because there were two competing companies, jealous at each other, clear statistics of the sizes of surveyed blocks was needed to convince them of a fair distribution of the work between the companies.

In adjudication the claimants are interviewed by a local committee that reviews their claims. The local committees are chaired by the High Commissioner of Land, other 4-5 members are people who live in the area. The Commissioner has a large printed orthophoto hardcopy on his wall. In the beginning each interview his assistant points the claimed parcel on the map. The orthophoto map has been easy enough for the farmers to read, there have been no problems in verification of the location of the claimed parcel.

Lessons learnt

By far the biggest problem was with the appointment of the Commissioner. In future projects this step should be a condition precedent for the start of the project or at least release of funding.

The other problems were with the introduction of new technology and the fact that we had no examples which could be used to demonstrate the approach.

The third problem was the perception that by removing the need for survey instruments we also removed the need for surveyors. In fact we probably increased the need for surveyors, but we did reduce the need for survey assistants, instrument carriers and the like.

Printing of A1-A0 size hardcopy orthophoto maps from rather large raster images requires heavy processing. The plotter used for this job should be equipped with maximum memory to facilitate the work. Purchase of a pre-press software such as ArcPress is an investment that pays back very quickly.


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