cus·to·di·an (kəs-ˈtō-dē-ən) n. 1. One who has charge of something: caretaker
– The Heritage Illustrated Dictionary of the English Language, International Edition, 1973
The office of Ronen Baruch, the current Custodian of Absentee Property for Israel, is in an ancient Arab home at 8 Yoel Salomon Street in Jerusalem. A house of this type is not unusual in this part of Jerusalem, and this one has few markings to indicate its function. Even its mail is delivered to the main building of the Ministry of Finance in another part of the city.
Searching the Internet will not yield this information unless you read Hebrew, and even then not much else. Much more is available about the Mossad, but perhaps only because it is bigger and more interesting. Information about the Custodian is not necessarily secret, just possibly of little interest to journalists. However, it has no website and does not advertise its contact information. It is almost as if Israel would prefer that no one knows it is there.
Despite this, the office plays a pivotal role in the existence of Israel. Most Israelis live and work on land that was once in the charge of the Custodian of Absentee Property, an office created less than two months after the Israeli state and existing to this day as part of the Ministry of Finance.
Who or what is the Custodian of Absentee Property?
To many of the indigenous nations of North America, the European notion of land ownership was strange. The role of humans was to be custodians of the land and for the land to be the custodian of its human inhabitants. Similarly, the rulers of Makkah and Medina have historically referred to themselves as custodians, not owners, of the holy shrines.
Thus, when Israel created the Office of the Custodian of Absentee Property in July, 1948, to take charge of property belonging to refugees that fled or were expelled, was its intention for the custodian to be a steward and trustee for the property of these refugees while they were away? Certainly, the title of the office implicitly acknowledges that the property belongs to the absentees, not the Custodian, which land registry documents in fact confirm.
Of course, land and the structures on it – some dating back a thousand years or more – were not the only property that came into the charge of the Custodian. Many millions of dollars of gold, jewelry, antiques, cars and other items made their way into the inventory. However, real estate was by far the most important and valuable. The absentee owners were almost all Palestinian Arab refugees and exiles, both rich and poor. A few were Jews, and their property was quickly returned to them. Not so for the rest, except a tiny fraction that were able to prove that they had not fled at all.
How much of the territory within the 1949 ceasefire line did the absentees leave behind? Prior to the proclamation of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, some 6% of Mandate Palestine was Jewish property (Sami Hadawi, Village statistics: 1945). Considering that Zionist forces seized 78% of Palestine, however, the proportion within those areas would have been closer to 8%, excluding Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In addition, the remnant of the Palestinian Arab population that was not expelled retained some of their lands and homes, currently estimated to be less than 3% of the same areas. Roughly half of the captured territory was state land of the government of Palestine, mostly the Naqab (Negev) desert.
It is likely that all the rest, roughly 39%, was declared absentee property, and placed under the control of the Custodian. This figure agrees with an inventory made by the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) of 7,069,091 dunams. If the Custodian also took charge of state lands, the total would have been 89%. This information has not been released, but a statement by Jacob Manor, the Custodian in 1980, to journalist Robert Fisk (Pity the Nation, p. 45) indicates that the higher figure may be more accurate.
Of course, Israel had no intention of respecting the legal records of land ownership. The Absentee Property Law of 1950 made clear that the job of the Custodian was to “release” the property in its custody to other agencies, which would use the land without regard to the registered owners.
Thus, in effect, the Custodian of Absentee Property became Israel’s largest “fence” for stolen property. Under the powers authorized by the Absentee Property Law, the Custodian “released” the land to the Israeli state, the Development Authority and the Jewish National Fund (JNF), with the combined lands (93% of the state of Israel) under the management of the Israel Land Administration (ILA). The ILA thus became the largest recipient of stolen property in Israel, notwithstanding the international racketeers and blood diamond traffickers that have found a safe haven there.
Curiously, however, the ILA has until recently been prohibited from offering the land for sale, but rather to lease it to users, although in 2009 plans were made to begin granting title. This policy was promoted in the 1950s allegedly as an enlightened socialist program of collective ownership borrowed from the institution of the kibbutz. Was it instead a means of protecting individual Israeli citizens from the accusation of receiving stolen goods? If so, it constitutes another implicit admission that the property legally belongs to expelled Palestinians and not to either the Israeli government or its citizens.
The Absentee Property Law is in fact contrary to the Fourth Geneva Convention and the International Declaration of Human Rights, both of which were constituted less than two years earlier and to which Israel became a signatory. This discrepancy came to light in the case of the Jerusalem residence of the Consul General of Belgium, which has been located since 1948 on absentee property known as the Villa Salameh. In order to be in compliance with international law, Belgium elected to pay rent to the exiled Palestinian owners of the property rather than to any Israeli authority or to Israeli businessman David Sofer, who claims to have “bought” (leased) the property from the Israeli government since 2000.
Surprisingly, Israel has been one of the strongest proponents for the restoration of absentee property to its original owners or their rightful heirs. One of the best examples of this is the HEART (Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce) Project, established in 2011 with more than $2.5 million per year funding from the Israeli government, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel. Its purpose is to seek restitution for Jewish property seized by the Nazi government in Germany. Other victims of the Holocaust, such as Slavs, Poles, Romanies (Gypsies), disabled persons, non-Europeans, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others are apparently ineligible for this service, as well victims of the 1948 Israeli ethnic cleansing project known to Palestinians as the Nakba (catastrophe).
Although the extent of past Israeli property theft is well known to students of such matters, popular awareness is lagging. Current activists are likely to consider the more recent thefts of Bedouin property in the Naqab (Negev), confiscation of Palestinian property in Jerusalem and West Bank land seizures, house demolitions and village eradications as the major problem without taking into account the much larger scale of earlier crimes. They might be shocked to learn, for example, that the land stolen from Palestinian owners prior to the 1949 ceasefire is equal in size to more than the total area of the West Bank and Gaza combined.
The issue is sometimes raised when defining “Arab land” in the Palestinian context. If, for example, “Arab land” is defined only as that which was seized in the June 1967 war, it disregards the enormous amount of property that was confiscated without compensation from “absentee” Palestinian refugees and exiles in 1947-49 and soon after.
Is the Custodian of Absentee Property awaiting the return of the absentees to reclaim their property? In a sense probably so, though not with a sense of joy. Rather, all who are responsible for the theft of the property and for the ethnic cleansing and other crimes committed in furtherance of that theft know that a day of reckoning always awaits those who think they are above the law.