Israel’s Appropriation of Palestinian Property

Israel’s Appropriation of Palestinian Property
Cooking Up Laws for the Sake of Land Grab

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The Evacuation and Confiscation of Homes in the Old City of Jerusalem

The evacuation and confiscation of Palestinian homes by Israel is a five-stage process. The indigenous Palestinian owners are forced to leave, in the presence of the Custodian for Absentees’ Property and Israeli police. The house is then closed down and waxed shut. Israel confiscates the house and Israelis proceed to renovate and reconstruct it for their own use.

The Palestinian Museum Digital Archive, Layla Tarazy Collection

Even before it declared the establishment of the state on 14 May 1948, and as the fighting between the Zionist forces and the Palestinians was raging, the Zionist leadership established military and civilian committees to take control of lands and other properties emptied of their Palestinian inhabitants. As soon as the state was declared, the Israeli government embarked on consolidating these various committees and setting the legal instruments and administrative structures that would permit the “legal” seizure of Palestinian land. During the years and decades that followed, laws were enacted and amended as needed to ensure the expansion of lands to be seized.

On 24 June 1948, the Israeli government enacted the Abandoned Property Ordinance to control the property of Palestinians who were expelled or fled because of the fighting. Three days later, it adopted the Abandoned Areas Ordinance , which gave the state wider control over entire “abandoned areas” and not just emptied property. In July 1948, it created the Ministerial Committee for Abandoned Property along with a Custodian of Abandoned Property . This allowed the state to arrange for Jews to use the land. Some of the land was assigned to farming communities like the kibbutzim, while other land, including orchards, was assigned to companies to use. These various Jewish communities, companies, and individuals harvested abandoned fields of grain, picked fruit from abandoned orange and olive groves, mined stone out of abandoned quarries, and even sold cactus from wastelands to make alcohol. As to the houses in emptied villages, the Israeli government and army began as early as 1948 destroying homes and other buildings in hundreds of villages. (The actual number is estimated between 360 and 429, depending on how the source defines a “village.”) Between 1948 and 1953, the Jewish Agency then established 345 new Jewish communities in Israel, the majority of which were built on land belonging to Palestinian refugees. Homes in the cities often were used to house new Jewish immigrants.

The enacting of the Emergency Regulations Regarding Absentee Property of 2 December 1948 marked a significant change in Israeli approaches to the land and other property of the refugees. It shifted the legal focus from property to the refugee owner. Thus, instead of the earlier laws that had granted legal authority for state seizure of property abandoned in a particular place, this new law allowed the state to seize all property, wherever it lay, that belonged to a person who met the definition of an “absentee.” An absentee was defined as someone who on or after 29 November 1947 was a citizen of an Arab state, was in an Arab country, was in any part of Palestine not under Jewish control, or was “in any place other than his habitual residence, even if such a place as well as his habitual abode were within Israeli-occupied territory.” “Absentee” therefore was a sweeping term that allowed the Israeli government to confiscate the land and other property of a wide category of persons who were not refugees in the commonly understood sense of the word. In fact, the law permitted the seizure of the land and other property of a person who resided in Israeli-occupied territory, left his or her home and traveled even for a day to somewhere else within Israeli-occupied territory, and then returned. The government replaced the Custodian of Abandoned Property with the Custodian of Absentee Property.

On 14 March 1950, the Knesset adopted the Absentee Property Law , which was a modified version of the Emergency Regulations Regarding Absentee Property. One important new provision was to authorize, for the first time, the Custodian of Absentee Property to sell confiscated refugee land to a unique body to be created, the Development Authority . The latter was established by the Development Authority (Transfer of Property) Law , enacted on 9 August 1950. The law declared the Development Authority competent to sell land to the State and in particular to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a body whose lands are exclusively reserved to the Jewish people. Thanks to this “legal” mechanism of disowning the absentee, and throughout the early 1950s, the Custodian worked to register refugee land legally in new Israeli land registers and sold huge amount of this land to the Development Authority, which did not keep permanent control over all of it but sold it in turn to the JNF. In 1960, the state and the JNF agreed to place all the land they separately owned under the management of a public body called the Israel Land Administration .

Thus, the vast majority of refugee lands and buildings that still exist today are registered either to the Israeli state, the Development Authority, or the JNF. As such they remain under the control of the Israel Land Authority Council (ILAC), the new name of the Israel Land Administration (as designated in the Israel Land Administration Law of August 2009). However, that law also allowed the ILAC to sell (i.e., privatize) a certain amount of ILA-controlled land. Part of this process involves the JNF trading urban land it controls for rural land; the urban land would then be sold to private individuals. Thus, some Palestinian refugee land now can be sold to private persons.

The confiscated lands were used for the construction of Jewish towns, creating new fields for agriculture, and so forth. Some refugee land remains unused and uninhabited until today. On some of these village lands abandoned Palestinian homes and other buildings are still standing. In other places – cities like Jerusalem , for instance – these buildings can command very high prices today. A number of abandoned mosques still stand throughout Israel; some remain abandoned while others have been turned into restaurants and art galleries. A number of abandoned cemeteries still exist, the most famous of which is the Mamilla cemetery in Jerusalem.

As to moveable property, Jewish civil and military authorities began using some of it almost immediately, placing it in warehouses, selling or leasing it, or destroying what they felt could not be salvaged. Furniture found in abandoned homes sometimes was used to furnish homes for new Jewish immigrants. Sometimes household goods simply were stolen; looting was widespread. By law bodies such as the Custodian of Absentee Property were required to keep records of monies received from the sale or lease of refugee property under the name of the refugee who owned it, ostensibly to return the amount to the latter. However, these monies were quickly spent or went to the Development Authority to be used for the settlement of new immigrants. While most moveable property has been sold long ago, the Custodian of Absentee Property still maintains control today over some items. For example, it controls approximately 8,000 books that were taken from Palestinian homes in 1948 and are now at the Israeli National Library .

The foregoing raises the broader issue of Israel’s attitude toward restituting property to their owners and/ or compensating them. Israel has always refused to consider restitution of property (i.e. returning the property to its legitimate owner), even when the owners actually returned and attempted to claim it. As to compensation, it has attached to it a number of restrictions. First, it has refused to pay compensation for moveable property, whether looted during the war or inventoried—household items, vehicles, farm animals and equipment, factory machinery, goods in shops and businesses, and so on—even though it profited from the sale of such property. Second, on Palestinian immoveable losses, Israel has insisted that it was liable to pay compensation only for individually owned properties, thus excluding public land, and in particular village commons land. Third, Israel has insisted that a compensation program be part of a wider formula for Arab-Israeli peace.  

Over the years, an Israeli Special Committee for the Return of Absentee Property made quiet deals to pay compensation to individual Palestinians living outside the country. For their part, most of the refugees have refused to consider compensation, wishing instead to return to their lands. In June 1973, Israel enacted the Absentees’ Property (Compensation) Law that provided for the possibility of compensating applicants who resided in Israel, including Palestinian residents of annexed East Jerusalem , but at the same time denied them the right to claim the release of their property. In fact, one of the aims of the law was to justify reclaiming property that had been owned by Jews in the eastern part of the city before 1948.

Selected Bibliography: 

Falah, Ghazi. “Israeli ‘Judaization’ Policy in Galilee.” Journal of Palestine Studies 20, no.4 (Summer 1991): 69-85.

Fischbach, Michael R. Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press, The Institute for Palestine Studies Series, 2003.

Golan, Arnon. “The Transfer to Jewish Control of Abandoned Arab Land During the War of Independence.” In S. Ilan Troen and Noah Lucas, eds., Israel, The First Decade of Independence, 403-440. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. 

Golan, Arnon. “The Transformation of Abandoned Arab Rural Areas.” Israel Studies 2, no.1 (Spring 1997): 94-110.

Nakkara, Hanna Dib. “Israeli Land Seizure under Various Defense and Emergency Regulations.” Journal of Palestine Studies 14, no.2 (Winter 1985): 13-34.