If a historical conflict is solved by the return of 5 million refugees to their homes in accordance with international law, what is the price of this huge achievement?
The 160,000 moshav and kibbutz residents who would be affected may decide to stay and rent land (this time from the owner, not from the ILA, by a simple change in the lease contract). Or they may decide to relocate.
The kibbutzniks have always been considered the pioneers of Zionism and the elite of Israeli society. A high proportion of army generals and Knesset members are kibbutzniks. They were usually granted the most fertile (Palestinian) land. However, this has dramatically changed. While 90 percent of Jewish immigrants joined a kibbutz in 1917, today only 3 percent of Israelis live on a kibbutz. There are constant desertions and very few new recruits. Most of the kibbutzim are near bankruptcy, with only 26 percent of them producing 75 percent of total kibbutz agricultural output.
The area of irrigated fields cultivated by the kibbutzim decreased from 213,628 acres (acre = one fourth of a dunum) in 1987 to 189,564 acres in 1991. The economic return of these vast resources is meagre and diminishing, which put the kibbutz in debt. Out of $5 billion accumulated debt borne by the kibbutzim, the government has written off $2 billion, rescheduled $2 billion and encouraged the private sector to contribute $1 billion.
Following the Gulf War (1990-1991), a major change in government policy affecting kibbutz and moshav land further undermined the rights of the Palestinian owners. Until recently this land was officially held by the ILA and leased to the kibbutzim and moshavim. In the early 1990s Ariel Sharon, as Minister of Infrastructure, and Raphael Eitan, as Minister of Agriculture, introduced regulations permitting the rezoning of this agricultural land to residential construction to accommodate Russian immigrants and to build commercial outlets, shopping malls and private apartments. The kibbutzniks would then be compensated for this transaction at 51 percent of its value. This made the bankrupt farmers very rich overnight by allowing them to pocket the value of (Palestinian) land they never owned in the first place. This angered urban taxpayers, the vast majority of Israel's population. Two committees, one in 1997 and another in 2000, reduced the compensation to 25 percent of the land value. Thus has "sacred spiritual property" been transformed into commercial real estate.
In 1997, ILA started to sell refugees' land. The proceeds for such sales added to the coffers of the treasury about $1 billion a year, excluding compensation to the kibbutzniks. One dunum in the centre of the country sells for $1 million. In 1998, 110 kibbutzim were allowed to expand their residential area (that is, change the zoning from agricultural to residential), which can be sold to others, by 115 percent. "Others" may include any Jew living anywhere in the world. 150,000 residential units were planned in the kibbutz, out of a general plan for 500,000.
Sharon, who expropriated for himself a farm of several thousand dunums near Iraq Al Manshiya (Qiryat Gat), said:
"The only way to absorb the immigrants was by taking land from the kibbutz... I knew the (economic) hardship they are experiencing… it is better they build on the land and sell houses…"
In June 2000, fifty-two members of the Knesset submitted a bill to rezone 4 million dunums, or 80 percent of the land registered with the UN Conciliation Commission on Palestine (UNCCP), from agricultural to residential land–in other words, to transfer the registration of Palestinian refugees' land from land leased to the kibbutz to land sold to a developer in order to build and sell apartments to Israelis and Jews of any nationality.
ILA recently went further by selling plots by open tender for private construction in moshavim and kibbutzim directly without interference of those agricultural organizations. Deals are cut by direct contact with the lessee (so-called farmer) according to ILA fee scales. ILA and the 'farmer' receive the price of the sold Palestinian land, a land they do not own. The buyer has to sign a declaration that he will not sell or lease to non-Jews.
Now, the government of Israel is about to pronounce the death of the kibbutz, "closing a chapter of Zionist history". The Kibbutz is to be dissolved, privatized or transformed into commercial real estate.
An interesting intervention was made by the impoverished Sephardic community, who did not share in the extravagant benefits showered on the kibbutzim. The Sephardim formed a group, Hakeshet Hamizrahit, which petitioned the High Court against sale of kibbutz land, stating that:
the land in question was largely expropriated from Palestinians and thus transferring property rights to the inhabitants of the rural communities means negating forever the Palestinian refugees' right of return.
Thus, the end of the historical conflict by the return of the refugees is sacrificed for the sake of a dying elite and a bankrupt movement, abandoned by the Israelis themselves.