Legalizing The Nakba: Israeli Land And Planning Law Regime

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Above: Destruction of Palestinian homes from I Acknowledge Apartheid Exists

We have covered the Nakba, or the Catastrophe, in Popular Resistance. We are giving it special emphasis as this week will be the 70th anniversary memoralizing the Nakba.  See below the article and footnotes graphs showing the Nakba by the numbers. KZ

The origins of the modern Israeli land and planning law regimes can be traced back to 1901, the year in which the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established. The JNF, which, as will be seen, still plays a dominant role in the Israeli land law regime, was originally founded for the purpose of acquiring land in Palestine. According to the memorandum of association of the English company into which the Fund was first incorporated, its object is to acquire land in Palestine “for the purpose of settling Jews on such lands.” The same memorandum of association also prohibits the JNF from selling any land it acquired. JNF land could be leased but only “to any Jews upon any term.”1

Leading figures in the early years of the Zionist movement had high ambitions for the JNF. Indeed a resolution was passed at the Seventh Zionist Congress rejecting “unplanned, unsystematic and philanthropic small-scale colonization” of Palestine.2 Notwithstanding such ambitions, the JNF, in its early years, was not successful in its mission to ‘redeem’ the land of Palestine. By May 1948 the JNF owned only 3.56% of the land of historic Palestine.3

The Confiscation of Palestinian Land in Israel

It was war which set in motion a more extensive process of land acquisition in what is today the state of Israel. The violence of 1948 caused the displacement of between 750,000 and 900,000 Palestinians.4 Up to 531 Arab localities were destroyed or depopulated in and around 1948, leaving vacant 20,350 km² of land.5

The newly established state of Israel made extensive use of emergency legislation in dealing with this land. For example, ‘Absentee Property Regulations’ were enacted to give control over ‘absentee’ property to a ‘Custodian of Absentee Property.’ The Custodian was entitled to seize such property and the burden lay on the landowner to prove that he or she was not an absentee. The term ‘absentee’ was defined very broadly. Not only did it include those Palestinians who had not fully fled the state of Israel, it also applied to both Jews and Arabs alike. However, an ostensibly race-neutral provision of the regulations exempted “absentees who left their home because of fear of Israel’s enemies or military operations, or were…capable of managing their property efficiently without aiding Israel’s enemies” – thereby effectively applying the law solely to Palestinians.6

The role of the Custodian was put on a more solid footing by the Absentee Property Law enacted in 1950. This law allowed the Custodian to transfer absentee land to a body, established in the same year, called the Development Authority. The Development Authority was in turn entitled to transfer this land to the JNF. Such a transfer in fact took place, involving nearly 2.4 million dunams (2,400 km2) of absentee land and more than trebling the JNF’s holdings as of 1941.7

It was not only ‘absentee’ land which was targeted during and in the aftermath of 1948, however. Many Palestinian Arabs who did not flee their homes were also forced from their land. For example, the Defense (Emergency) Regulations, 1945 (which were inherited from the British Mandate), were used to declare ‘closed areas’ in areas populated by Arabs, effectively denying them access to their land. In fact some land was confiscated without any legal basis at all. The Land Acquisition (Validation of Acts and Compensation) Law, 1953 was enacted to guarantee the ‘legality’ of the confiscation of land (both absentee and non-absentee) during and after 1948. It did so by retroactively legalizing the seizure of land on the basis of ‘security’ and ‘development.’ In the words of the then Finance Minister, its purpose was to “instill legality in some acts undertaken during and following the war.”8

So successful was this takeover of land that by 1951, the Israeli government held 92% of the land  within its borders (a figure including JNF land).9 This did not mean an end to efforts to acquire further land however. As Sabri Jiryis notes, the Israeli authorities merely turned to “searching for new categories of land to redeem.”10 This they achieved through a process of ‘settling title’ i.e. a process of determining the rightful owner of land in the eyes of the law.

Areas with dense Arab populations such as the Galilee were targeted in this regard. Indeed, the head of the committee responsible for the settlement of title operations in the Galilee, Yosef Weitz, openly remarked that the goal of the operation was “the Judaization of the Galilee.”11 Israeli legal geographer Sandy Kedar has found, in this context, that the Israeli courts “applied the law in ways that restricted the scope of legal recognition of ‘borderline’ land possessed by Arabs.”12 So, for example, by the end of the 1960s, of the 8,000 disputed claims in the Galilee which were decided by the courts, 85% were decided in favor of the state.13 The wider settlement of title operation resulted in the transformation of tens of thousands of dunams from private or communal Palestinian property into property of the Israeli state.14

The Development of the Modern Israeli Land Law Regime

Two important measures were adopted in the early 1960s to ensure that Israeli state land would in practice become the preserve of Israel’s Jewish population. Firstly, the Basic Law: Israel Lands was enacted in 1960. It defined land owned by the Development Authority, the State of Israel and the JNF as “Israel Lands” and provided that such land could not be sold. Minister Zerah Wahrhaftigexplained the purpose of the law: “We want to make it clear that the land of Israel belongs to the people resident in Zion, because the people of Israel live throughout the world. On the other hand, every law that is passed is for the benefit of all the residents of the state, and all the residents of the state include also people who do not belong to the people of Israel, the worldwide people of Israel.” When asked why this was not stated explicitly in the law, Wahrhaftig responded, “we cannot express this.” He further explained, ‘there is [in the law] a very significant legal innovation: we are giving legal garb to the Memorandum of Association of the JNF.”15

Secondly, a covenant was agreed between the Israeli government and the JNF providing that the latter would be given nearly 50% representation on the Israel Lands Council (ILC). The ILC was established by the Israel Lands Administration Law, 1960, and given broad powers to make policies in relation to “Israel Lands.” That law also established the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) to implement these policies. According to a report of the Israeli state comptroller, participation of government representatives at ILC board meetings has been minimal compared to that of the JNFrepresentatives.16 Hardly surprising, therefore, is the ILA’s discrimination against the Palestinian population in Israel.

Discrimination Against Palestinians in Land and Planning Policy

That such discrimination has taken place is starkly illustrated by the figures relating to the leasing of agricultural land, or 85% of Israel Lands.17 For instance, the ILA’s Report for the Year 2000 indicates that of the 2.8 million dunams leased under long leases, none were leased to Palestinian citizens.18 The clear preference of the ILA is to lease land to Jewish collectives (such as kibbutzes and moshavs). According to Hussein and McKay, “some 90 per cent of all agricultural Israel Lands are leased to [such] Jewish collectives.”19 In this regard, Palestinians in Israel face a significant obstacle. Under the Candidates for Agricultural Settlement Lawof 1953, certain bodies may be recognised as bodies engaged in the establishment of agricultural collectives. No Palestinian organizations are, however, so recognised under this law.20 In this context, Israel admitted in 2001 before the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights that “new Arab settlements are not planned,” stating that this was “because of a policy of developing current settlements.”21

This is consistent with the wider Israeli approach to the establishment of new Arab communities. Since its foundation, no new Palestinian communities have been established in Israel other than a number of ‘townships’ established for the Bedouin community in the south.22 This is in stark contrast to the situation for the Jewish population, for which 700 new communities have been established.23 It also runs counter to the six-fold increase in the number of Palestinian citizens of Israel since 1948.24

Moreover, rather than representing an exception to Israel’s policies towards its Arab population, the development of the Bedouin townships amounts to an extremely harsh manifestation of that policy. Since the enactment of the Planning and Building Lawof 1965, the master plans drawn up under that law have not recognised the existence of a number of Palestinian localities, the majority of which are Bedouin communities in the southern Naqab desert.25 The ‘solution’ has been to build these townships in an area of the desert called the Siyag, where many Bedouin were forced to relocate after 1948.26 According to Human Rights Watch, these townships are part of a plan to “consolidate[e] state control over as much Bedouin land as possible while confining the Bedouin in the smallest areas possible and breaking up the contiguity of the Bedouin areas.”27

“Admissions committees” provide a further obstacle to the inhabitation of agricultural land by Palestinians. These committees operate in 695 agricultural and community towns, which together account for 68.5% of all towns in Israel and around 85% of all villages.28 While originally introduced by the ILA, the institution has recently been enshrined in Israeli law with the passage by the Knesset in March 2011 of the Admissions Committee Law. This law requires anyone seeking to move to any community with fewer than 400 families in the Naqab (Negev) and Galilee regions (both of which are home to relatively high proportions of Palestinians) to obtain approval from such a committee.29 Under the law, these committees can reject candidates who, among other things, “are ill-suited to the community’s way of life” or “might harm the community’s fabric.”30

Palestinians also face heavy discrimination under the Israeli land and planning regime with regard to their existinguse of (predominantly urban) land. Only 2.5% of land in Israel is under the control of a Palestinian controlled planning authority.31 Moreover, in spite of a sixteen-fold increase in the built-up areas of Palestinian communities since the British Mandate, the average area of jurisdiction of Palestinian cities and local councils has, in that time, decreased by 45%.32Therefore, as Bimkom  has stated, most Arab localities are dependent on decisions made by planning commissions which are, for the most part, devoid of Palestinian representation.33

Plans drawn up for Palestinian localities by Jewish dominated planning bodies “often do little more than define existing areas of development.” By contrast, even “the smallest Jewish localities…have detailed building plans and regulations regarding land use.”34 As three leading experts on Israeli planning policy have summarised the situation: “Israeli space has been highly dynamic, but the changes have been mainly in one direction: Jews expand their territorial control by a variety of means including on-going settlement, while Arabs have been contained within an unchanged geography.”35 Hardly surprising, therefore, is the fact that while today the Palestinian population makes up 18% of the total Israeli population, it occupies only 3.5% of the land.36

An obvious consequence of such containment has been the increase in the population density of Palestinian localities. Population density levels in Arab villages are nearly four times higher than those in Jewish villages.37 As a result, Palestinians in Israel have, out of necessity, been forced to build without the required planning permission.38 This phenomenon is, according to Bimkom, fought by the Israeli planning authorities “with the full force of their legal power,” while similar practices among the Jewish community are treated “very tolerantly.”39

Recent Developments

In August 2009, the Knesset passed the Israel Land Administration Law which introduces a number of reforms to the Israeli land law regime. One significant aspect of the law is its effectuation of an agreement between the Israeli state and the JNF providing for a land swap between both institutions. The majority of the lands transferred to the JNF lie in the Galilee and Naqab regions with high Arab populations.40 The agreement provides that these lands will be administered “in a manner that will preserve the principles of the JNF relating to its lands.”41 The land swap is also central to another key element of the 2009 reforms, namely the privatisation of 800,000 dunams of state lands, including JNF lands. Among these lands are lands which were confiscated from Palestinian refugees. As the civil rights group Adalah has stated, this privatisation “will frustrate any future possibility of returning [these] lands to their original owners.”42 The 2009 law also guarantees the JNF nearly 50% representation on a reorganised Israel Lands Council.43

Recent developments in the Israeli land law regime therefore amount to a continuation of the confiscation of Palestinian land, the ‘Judaization’ of that land, and the resulting containment and concentration of the Palestinian population in Israel as described above. These policies are in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under International Human Rights Law. They are also contrary to the Apartheid Convention which prohibits measures “designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups” as well as “the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups.”

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Gerry Liston is a former BADIL intern, trainee solicitor and member of Ceartas – Irish Lawyers for Human Rights, an organisation recently set up to promote the enforcement of international law, and in particular international human rights law, through the innovative use of law.

  1. Lehn, W. and Davis, U. The Jewish National Fund, London: Kegan Paul (1988), p. 30 – 32.

  2. Lehn, W. “The Jewish National Fund,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Summer, 1974), p. 94.

  3. See Lehn and Davis, note 1 supra,p. 74.

  4. Jaradat Gassner, I., Haddad, T., Mazzawi, R., Akram, S., Al Azza, N., Jaradat, M., and Gado., Y (eds.) Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, 2008-2009, BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights (2009), p. 10.

  5. Dajani, S., Ruling Palestine – A History of the Legally Sanctioned Jewish-Israeli Seizure of Land and Housing in Palestine (2005), p. 33 – 34.

  6. Forman, G. and Kedar, A. “From Arab land to ‘Israel Lands’: the legal dispossession of the Palestinians displaced by Israel in the wake of 1948,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol 22 (2004), p. 81.

  7. See Lehn, note 2 supra, p. 85.

  8. See Forman and Kedar, note 6 supra,p.820.

  9. Ibid. p. 823.

  10. Jiryis, S, The Arabs in Israel London: Monthly Review Press, (1976), p. 111.

  11. Kedar, A. “The Legal Transformation of Ethnic Geography: Israeli Law and the Palestinian Landholder 1948 – 1967” New YorkUniversityJournal of International Law and Politics (2001) Vol. 33, p. 951.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid.  p. 952.

  14. Abu Hussein, H. and McKay, F. Access Denied: Palestinian Land Rights in Israel, London: Zed, 2003, p. 133.

  15. See Lehn and Davis, note 1 supra, p. 107.

  16. See Hussein and McKay, note 14 supra, p. 177.

  17. Ibid. p. 182.

  18. Ibid. p. 183.

  19. Ibid. p. 182.

  20. Ibid. p. 191.

  21. State of Israel, Second Periodic Report ot the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (July, 2001), Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, p. 100.

  22. See Hussein and McKay, note 14 supra, p.199.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Kedar, S., Khamaisi, R., and Yiftachel, O., “Land and Planning” in After the Rift: New Directions for Government Policy Towards the Arab Population in Israel (Ghanem, A., Rabinowtiz, D., and Yiftachel, O. eds), p. 17.

  25. “Off the Map: Land and Housing Rights Violations in Israelʼs Unrecognized Bedouin Villages,” Human Rights Watch, March 2008, Volume 20, No. 5(E), p. 14.

  26. Ibid., p. 20.

  27. Ibid., p. 43.

  28. Hesketh, K. (March, 2011), “The Inequality Report: The Palestinian Arab Minority in Israel,” p.32. Available at http://www.adalah.org/upfiles/Christian%20Aid%20Report%20December%202010%20FINAL(1).pdf (accessed 28.12.2012).

  29. Human Rights Watch (30/3/2011) “Israel: New Laws Marginalize Palestinian Arab Citizens.” Available at http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/03/30/israel-new-laws-marginalize-palestinian-arab-citizens (accessed 28.12.2012).

  30. Ibid.

  31. Kedar, S. and Yiftachel O., “Land Regime and Social Relations in Israel,” p. 144. Available at http://www.geog.bgu.ac.il/members/yiftachel/new_papers_eng/Kedar%20and%20Yiftachel.pdf (accessed 28.12.2012).

  32. See Hussein and McKay, note 14 supra, p. 217.

  33. Groag, S. and Hartman, S., “Planning Rights in Arab Communities in Israel: An Overview,” p. 5. Available at http://www.bimkom.org/dynContent/articles/PLANNING%20RIGHTS.pdf (accessed 28.12.2012).

  34. See Hussein and McKay, note 14 supra, p. 228.

  35. See Kedar, Khamaisi and Yiftachel,note 24 supra, p.17.

  36. Ibid.

  37. [See Groag and Hartman,note 33 supra, p. 3.

  38. Hussein and McKay, note 14 supra, p. 233.

  39. See Groag and Hartman,note 33 supra, p. 4.

  40. Bishara, S. and Hamdan, H., “Critique of the Draft Bill – Israel Land Administration Law (Amendment No. 7) 2009,” Adalah Position Paper (21 July 2009), p. 9. Available at http://www.adalah.org/newsletter/eng/jul09/Position_Paper_on_Land_Reform_Bill_july_2009.pdf (accessed 28.12.2012)

  41. Ibid.

  42. Ibid. p. 2.

  43. Ibid. p. 17.

The Nakba in numbers: Displacement of the Palestinians and destruction of their villages