Daily Star – 4 February 2005
The latest legal maneuvers by the Israeli government to confiscate Palestinian land in East Jerusalem have rightly caused outrage, even among senior Israeli officials.
Last summer, it emerged that the government secretly resurrected a 55-year-old piece of legislation drafted in the immediate aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Using the 1950 Absentee Property Law, Israeli officials have the right to seize the holdings of any Palestinian landowner they define as “absent.”
The renewed application of the law came to light only after an Israeli lawyer pressed the army for a promised entry permit into Israel for his client, Johnny Atik, a Bethlehem farmer who needed to reach his fields. His land lies on the Jerusalem side of the “security barrier.” The permit never arrived; instead Atik received a letter advising him that his land had been passed to the office of the Custodian of Absentee Property. His fields now declared state property, he is ineligible for compensation.
Atik is not alone. Many other Palestinian residents of the West Bank have been receiving similar letters – an Israeli policy that can only be characterized as a huge land grab. According to Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, as much as half of east Jerusalem could be confiscated in this manner.
The injustice of this legal sleight of hand is so apparent that, uncharacteristically, the Americans have put pressure on Israel to end the policy. Despite evidence that the Attorney General Menachem Mazuz oversaw the government decision last year, he now claims never to have been consulted. He has ruled that the decision be cancelled, although Israeli legal experts say the government could still press ahead as it is acting within the law. Mazuz’s objection to the new policy is not driven by concerns of justice, legality or morality; rather he fears it may damage Israel’s interests by reminding the international community of the true purpose of the construction of the “security barrier” on Palestinian land.
As Mazuz wrote to Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu this week, the decision could “have grave diplomatic repercussions on the separation fence, which has drawn strong criticism from the International Court of Justice at The Hague.”
Judging by past experience, however, the government will simply ask its chief law officer to devise another, quieter means of achieving the same goal: transferring Palestinian land to Israeli state ownership. Options could include declaring areas “security zones” or offering nominal compensation to owners unable to access their lands.
An editorial in the Haaretz daily newspaper has already denounced the confiscation decision as “an act of state stupidity of the highest order,” adding that “it is impossible not to deem the cabinet’s decision theft.” Harsh words – except that the Haaretz editors failed to extend their criticism to the original intent of the law, which, following the birth of the Jewish state, was to sanction theft from the Palestinian people on a far grander scale.
Despite the agonizing over the current use of the Absentee Property Law, Israelis of both the right and left have lived quite comfortably for more than half a century with the original mass dispossession of the Palestinians engineered by that very same law. In 1948 almost all the territory on which Israel was established was Palestinian-owned. But using the draconian 1950 law, millions of acres of land, as well as hundreds of thousands of homes, bank accounts and other properties worth many billions of dollars in the prices of the day, were transferred from some 800,000 Palestinian refugees to the Custodian of Absentee Property.
The land was used to settle Jewish immigrants and the money to finance their entry into Israel. By the early 1950s, Israel’s rural economy depended on the plundering of Palestinian refugees’ farmlands, whether olive trees, vineyards or Jaffa orange groves. The waqf – the Islamic religious endowment in Palestine – had two-thirds of its land taken by the new state.
No compensation was, or ever has been, offered to the refugees or the millions of their descendants, many of whom today languish in poverty in refugee camps across the Middle East. Nor has Israel settled accounts with the absentees who live inside the Jewish state: A quarter of a million Arab citizens of Israel are today deprived of all rights to their original property, having been declared, in truly Orwellian language, “present absentees” (present in Israel but absent from their property for a day or more in 1948).
According to the Custodian’s office, more than two-thirds of Israel is comprised of “absentee” property. Statistics compiled by the United Nations in 1956 suggested an even higher figure – nearer to 80 percent. One Israeli academic, Don Peretz, has observed: “Abandoned property was one of the greatest contributions toward making Israel a viable state.”
All this may sound of historical interest only, but it isn’t. The issues raised by the original “theft” (in the words of the Haaretz editors) of Palestinian property reverberate to this day, both for the refugees and, as is much less well understood, for Israel’s Arab minority. In Israel, more than one million Palestinian citizens, or a fifth of the population, are deprived of the right to live on most of the 93 percent of the land owned and managed by the state, the great majority of it “absentee” property based on the 1950 law.
The cornerstone of the country’s discriminatory land policy is the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which owns 13 percent of the territory of Israel, almost all of it in the country’s most coveted locations, for commercial development and housing. According to its charter, the JNF has a duty to advance Jewish interests only and, therefore, unlike the state, trumpets its policy of banning Arabs from leasing its land. The JNF also determines much of the land policy in Israel through its domination of the main planning bodies.
Human rights and legal groups in Israel, notably Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, are finally trying to challenge in the courts the JNF’s role in perpetuating the country’s restrictive policies. However, this is being almost universally denounced by Israelis raised on the myth that the JNF bought its lands fair and square before the birth of Israel.
One columnist, Caroline Glick, writing in The Jerusalem Post, summed up the feelings of many Israelis and Jews when she wrote that if the JNF’s special status was removed it would be tantamount to seizing “the property of the entire Jewish people – in Israel and throughout the world – who have for the last 120 years been putting their dollars, rubles, francs and pounds into the blue boxes of the JNF.”
In reality, the JNF purchased only a tiny proportion of the land of Palestine before the creation of Israel. Most of its current holdings were transferred to it by the state during subsequent decades, drawing on the great reservoir of land confiscated from Palestinians using the Absentee Property Law.
As Israelis begin their ritual hand wringing over the excesses of their current government in its policies towards Jerusalem and in relation to the separation wall, they would do well to look back a little further into their history.