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How Palestinian Property Was Seized

Author: Henry Siegman, Former Senior Fellow and Former Director for the U.S./Middle East Project
January 27, 2005
International Herald Tribune


According to reports in the Israeli media, a ministerial committee of the Israeli government met last July 8 and adopted a resolution -- neither publicly announced nor published in the official government gazette, but "legal" nonetheless -- to confiscate thousands of dunams of land (by some estimates, nearly half the land in East Jerusalem) from its Arab owners.

The state of Israel has become the official owner of these vast holdings, without its real owners being able to appeal the decision or entitled to so much as one shekel in compensation.

The government of Israel committed this injustice by applying to Jerusalem the Absentee Property Law that was enacted by Israel in 1950 to enable it to confiscate the property of Palestinians who had fled or were expelled from the new state in the period between November 1947 and September 1948.

The 1950 law categorized Arabs who were "outside the territory of Israel" (i.e. in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or elsewhere) as absentees whose property would be transferred to a "Custodian of Absentee Property," with no appeal or compensation.

When Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the 1967 war, it enlarged it from its previous 38 square kilometers to 108 by incorporating 28 Arab villages and towns that had not been part of the city. Technically, according the 1950 law, Arab residents of Bethlehem -- parts of whose lands were now in East Jerusalem while their adjoining houses remained in Bethlehem -- could be considered "absentee landlords." However, Israel's attorney general noted in 1950 that it is impossible to designate as absentee landlords people who can come across the new municipal boundary of Jerusalem "at any moment and attest they exist and claim their property."

But fully half a century after the law's enactment, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided that what was impossible for its predecessors is possible for them, and surreptitiously applied the 1950 law to Jerusalem and to Palestinians who are separated from their land only by Israel's decision to redraw Jerusalem's municipal boundaries.

They are now considered absentees who have abandoned their property and whose whereabouts are unknown, even if they live only a few yards from their confiscated lands.

I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1930, a few years before Germany's government was taken over -- constitutionally -- by the Nazi Party. In the mid- and late '30s, this government "legally" deprived Germany's Jews of their professions, livelihoods and property. These injustices provoked not much outrage on the part of the German people.

Like the measures taken by the German government in the '30s, Israel's theft of Palestinian property in East Jerusalem occurred within the law, and provoked no outrage from Israelis -- either from the right, or from Sharon's new Labor partners.

Many of these same Palestinians recently had part of their property confiscated by Israel for the construction of the separation fence. When the fence was completed, these Palestinians found themselves cut off from the rest of their property.

Now, as they petition Israel's courts to be given access to their lands across the fence, many of them are being told it actually is no longer their land at all, nor will they receive any compensation for it.

It sounds too unjust, too evil, to be true, particularly for a Jewish state that considers its very existence a living reproach to the German people, and to the world, for the injustices and suffering inflicted on the Jewish people. But the details of Israel's manipulations of the legal system and its theft of Palestinian lands are described in the Israeli media for all to read and see.

Predictably, Israel is invoking security to justify its behavior, as it has invoked that elastic concept to justify other injustices -- as if robbing people of property and possessions that have been in their families for generations can be seen as enhancing Israel's security. In fact, it is being done for political reasons, and out of sheer greed.

As reported by the Israeli media, certain Israeli real-estate interests long ago started work on plans for large new housing projects in East Jerusalem that will replace these stolen Palestinian homes, farms and orchards.

In addition to enriching themselves as they impoverish the Palestinian owners, they will also sever East Jerusalem from its Palestinian hinterland, thus precluding the possibility of a capital of a future Palestinian state in any part of East Jerusalem. This would make any peace process with a new Palestinian leadership -- even one that is democratic, reformed, and committed to nonviolence -- a complete non-starter. One does not have to be a cynic to suspect that is precisely what the Sharon government intended.

Henry Siegman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former head of the American Jewish Congress.

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