[News] Israeli Land Sale

Anti-Imperialist News 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



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 
inside Israel.

"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 
their properties.

"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.

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