[News] Israeli Land Sale
news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Aug 17 11:19:07 EDT 2009
August 14-16, 2009
Privatization to Subvert Palestinian Hopes of Restitution
Israeli Land Sale
By JONATHAN COOK
Amin Muhammad Ali, a 74-year-old refugee from a destroyed Palestinian
village in northern Israel, says he only feels truly at peace when he
stands among his ancestors' graves.
The cemetery, surrounded on all sides by Jewish homes and farms, is a
small time capsule, transporting Mr Muhammad Ali -- known to everyone
as Abu Arab -- back to the days when this place was known by an
Arabic name, Saffuriya, rather than its current Hebrew name, Tzipori.
Unlike most of the Palestinian refugees forced outside Israel's
borders by the 1948 war that led to the creation of the Jewish state,
Abu Arab and his family fled nearby, to a neighbourhood of Nazareth.
Refused the right to return to his childhood home, which was razed
along with the rest of Saffuriya, he watched as the fields once owned
by his parents were slowly taken over by Jewish immigrants, mostly
from eastern Europe. Today only Saffuriya's cemetery remains untouched.
Despite the loss of their village, the 4,500 refugees from Saffuriya
and their descendants have clung to one hope: that the Jewish
newcomers could not buy their land, only lease it temporarily from the state.
According to international law, Israel holds the property of more
than four million Palestinian refugees in custodianship, until a
final peace deal
determines whether some or all of them will be allowed back to their
400-plus destroyed Palestinian villages or are compensated for their loss.
But last week, in a violation of international law and the refugees'
property rights that went unnoticed both inside Israel and abroad,
Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, forced through a
revolutionary land reform.
The new law begins a process of creeping privatisation of much of
Israel's developed land, including refugee property, said Oren
Yiftachel, a geographer at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva.
Mr Netanyahu and the bill's supporters argue that the law will cut
out a whole level of state bureaucracy, make land transactions
simpler and more efficient and cut house prices.
In practice, it will mean that the 200 Jewish families of Tzipori
will be able to buy their homes, including a new cluster of bungalows
that is being completed on land next to the cemetery that belonged to
Abu Arab's parents.
The privatisation of Tzipori's refugee land will remove it from the
control of an official known as the Custodian of Absentee Property,
who is supposed to safeguard it for the refugees.
"Now the refugees will no longer have a single address -- Israel --
for our claims," said Abu Arab. "We will have to make our case
individually against many hundreds of thousands of private homeowners."
He added: "Israel is like a thief who wants to hide his loot. Instead
of putting the stolen goods in one box, he moves it to 700 different
boxes so it cannot be found."
Mr Netanyahu was given a rough ride by Israeli legislators over the
reform, though concern about the refugees' rights was not among the
reasons for their protests.
Last month, he had to pull the bill at the last minute as its defeat
threatened to bring down the government. He forced it through on a
second attempt last week but only after he had warned his coalition
partners that they would be dismissed if they voted against it.
A broad coalition of opposition had formed to what was seen as a
reversal of a central tenet of Zionism: that the territory Israel
acquired in 1948 exists for the benefit not of Israelis but of Jews
around the world.
In that spirit, Israel's founders nationalised not only the refugees'
property but also vast swathes of land they confiscated from the
remaining Palestinian minority who gained citizenship and now
comprise a fifth of the population. By the 1970s, 93 per cent of
Israel's territory was in the hands of the state.
The disquiet provoked by Mr Netanyahu's privatisation came from a
variety of sources: the religious right believes the law contravenes
a Biblical injunction not to sell land promised by God;
environmentalists are concerned that developers will tear apart the
Israeli countryside; and Zionists publicly fear that oil-rich sheikhs
from the Gulf will buy up the country.
Arguments from the Palestinian minority's leaders against the reform,
meanwhile, were ignored -- until Hizbollah's leader, Hassan
Nasrallah, added his voice at the weekend. In a statement, he warned
that the law "validates and perpetuates the crime of land and
property theft from the Palestinian refugees of the 1948 Nakba".
Suhad Bishara, a lawyer from the Adalah legal centre for Israel's
Palestinian minority, said the law had been carefully drafted to
ensure that foreigners, including wealthy sheikhs, cannot buy land
"Only Israeli citizens and anyone who can come to Israel under the
Law of Return -- that is, any Jew -- can buy the lands on offer, so
no 'foreigner' will be eligible."
Another provision in the law means that even internal refugees like
Abu Arab, who has Israeli citizenship, will be prevented from buying
back land that rightfully belongs to them, Ms Bishara said.
"As is the case now in terms of leasing land," she explained,
"admissibility to buy land in rural communities like Tzipori will be
determined by a selection committee whose job it will be to frustrate
applications from Arab citizens."
Supporters of the law have still had to allay the Jewish opposition's
concerns. Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that only a tiny
proportion of Israeli territory -- about four per cent -- is up for
But, according to Mr Yiftachel, who lobbied against the reform, that
means about half of Israel's developed land will be available for
purchase over the next few years. And he suspects privatisation will
not stop there.
"Once this red line has been crossed, there is nothing to stop the
government passing another law next year approving the privatisation
of the rest of the developed areas," he said.
Ms Bishara said among the first refugee properties that would be put
on the market were those in Israel's cities, such as Jaffa, Acre,
Tiberias, Haifa and Lod, followed by homes in many of the destroyed
villages like Saffuriya.
She said Adalah was already preparing an appeal to the Supreme Court
on behalf of the refugees, and if unsuccessful would then take the
matter to international courts.
Adalah has received inquiries from hundreds of Palestinian refugees
from around the world asking what they can do to stop Israel selling
"Many of them expressed an interest in suing Israel," she said.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel.
His latest books are
and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the
Middle East" (Pluto Press) and
Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair" (Zed Books). His
website is <http://www.jkcook.net>www.jkcook.net.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National
(<http://www.thenational.ae>www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.
522 Valencia Street
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