For the first time, Israel has embarked on a plan to sell the land of the 1948 Palestinian refugees (92% of Israel) to Jewish individuals. Clearly this is in violation of international law. It will also make the refugees' return and compensation more difficult technically. The UN should appoint a Custodian of the refugees' land in Israel.
The great Israel Land Grab is not a headline of a Palestinian newspaper or a title of a Palestinian memorandum to the UN. It is a headline of an article published by an Israeli newspaper (Ha'aretz, February 1, 1998) decrying the riches which have been amassed by the Israeli farmers who sell Palestinian land. Israel is now embarking on a dangerous and far reaching plan to sell to Jewish individuals Palestinian land from which the owners were uprooted and made refugees. This plan would put obstacles in the path of their return. Although these obstacles can be removed, it would make the task technically harder.
Imagine tenants living in a large apartment building and paying very low rent. The caretaker of the building proposes to each tenant that, since the caretaker made sure the owner is kept away and will not be allowed to return, the caretaker and the tenant would share the apartments between them. Each tenant would be allowed to register in his own name 25% of the apartment against compensation provided that he forfeits the right to the lease of the rest for the caretaker's own use and sale. What would you call this? Plain robbery and fraud. Unfortunately this could work as long as the owners is kept a refugee abroad. That is what Israel's policy was and is today.
For 50 years Israel kept the Palestinian land it took by force in 1948 (18,643 sq. km. out of 20,325 sq. km., or 92% of Israel's area) under the Custodian of the Absence (Landowners) property. Through a legal maze designed to remove the accusation of land robbery and the responsibility before international law, the Custodian transferred this property to a 'Development Authority' which can exploit the land to the benefit of Jews only, even though they may not be residents of Israel. In an agreement between the Government and the Jewish National Fund (JNF), Palestinian land and JNF holdings are to be administered by Israel Land Administrations (ILA) under JNF rules, i.e., exploitation by Jews only.
The great majority of Palestinian land is leased to the Kibbutz and Moshav for 49 years (i.e., expiry date is 1998). The Israeli 'farmers' number today about 154,000 Jews (2.7% of Israel's population) and control the land of 4,500,00 refugees. In the period 1948-1967, Israel left these lands with minimum interference pending a peace settlement with the Arabs. Following the 1967 War, Israel felt emboldened and introduced a set of laws (e.g. expropriating 'mewat' land as State land) which made the recovery of these lands more difficult according to Israeli law. Now, with the ill-fated Oslo Agreement and the evident weakness of the PNA, a frenzy of land grabbing, engineered by Sharon and Eitan, using the vehicle of the Ministry of National Infrastructures, started in earnest.
With the abject failure of the Kibbutz as an ideology and an economic engine, Kibbutz farmers were allowed to own and build on a portion of the land leased to them. In return for the use of 'their land', they would be compensated generously for not less than 20% of the land. Ordinance 533, later replaced by 611, which was enacted when Sharon was minister of housing, gave the farmers the best deal. As Russian immigrants began pouring in, housing was needed, and it was convenient to direct them to the near empty Southern District and mainly Arab Northern District. The farmers were given an extra incentive. They were allowed to buy back the land for 15% of the compensation value they received for it. They were thus transformed from bankrupt farmers with outdated ideology to rich 'farmers' who owned a lot of real estate. The sudden wealth of the farmers aroused criticism of old Zionists, such as the JNF, who insisted that Palestinian land should be the property of 'the Jewish People everywhere in perpetuity.' Sale to individuals, they say, may encourage some to sell land back to Arabs. Recently, Jewish extremists at Lydda terrorized a Jewish neighbor who sold his villa to a Palestinian Israeli family.
To resolve this dispute, a series of ordinances were passed (640 and 727) and finally a committee headed by Prof. Boaz Ronen was formed to determine the land percentage, the mechanism and procedure of selling Palestinian land leased by ILA to Kibbutz farmers. In June 1997, the recommendations of the committee were approved to the obvious pleasure of Sharon. As a result, 'ownership' of 600,000 apartments shall be transferred from the State Custodian to the tenants.
The Israeli government, through the ILA, earned $700 million in 1997 alone for its share in the proceedings. (This sale of a small portion of Palestinian land shows the fallacy of Israel's argument that the whole of Palestinian land and property are not worth more than $300 million if compensation is to be paid). In 1997, National Infrastructure Minister Sharon planned to build 50,000 housing units; 30,000 have been sold, 3,130 remain unsold, the rest are at various stages of tendering. It is noteworthy that the first stage of construction is designed to break the Palestinian monolithic continuity in Israel by building around Arab towns such as Amr and Taibah. Moreover, construction of the long planned 399 km $2 billion Trans Israel Highway has started. In February 1998, a contract was signed with a large Canadian-Israeli consortium to build it. This highway runs inland parallel to the coast. It starts in Galilee and ends in Beer Sheba. It cuts across the Palestinian population concentrations in Galilee, the Little Triangle and Negev. It is part of the 'Star' plan concocted by Sharon to break and expropriate Arabs lands, to prevent Israel's return to the 1967 Armistice Line and to provide housing for Russian immigrants in Arab areas in Israel. All these activities are contrary to international law. Property of 'Absentee' (i.e. expelled) owners should not be fragmented or sold to Jews anywhere in the world. It should remain in custody as the property of all those to whom the (Palestinians') Right to Return applies. In order to prevent this plain unabashed robbery of property-in-custody, the UN should send a commission to Israel. Bodies such as the UN Palestine Solidarity Committee, and the Arab League, and last but least the PLO should press for its formation. The mandate for this commission could be:
- To determine and document the present status of Palestinian land (Israel minus Jewish land in 1948).
- To obtain copies of all records of Palestinian land kept by ILA. (The Purchase, Ownership and registration Division and the Information Division, Database).
- To recommend to the UN the appointment of a Custodian of Palestinian Land and to propose measures to prevent its unlawful disposition.
Salman Abu Sitta is a Palestinian researcher with special interest in Palestinian refugees. He is a former Member of the Palestine National Council and holds a Ph.D from the University of London. He resides in Amman.