Israel Begins Sell-off of Refugees’ Land

Privatisation to Subvert Palestinian Hopes of Restitution

TZIPORI — 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 privatisation.

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, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.

18 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. balkas b b said on August 14th, 2009 at 9:53am #

    now that i have read this, i am running to pray to my crow which visits our patio and which i feed sausages, chese, meats, fish.
    to look at a crow or an owl, one cannot look at anything that looks saner than an a crow or an owl.
    and my prayers to an owl brings me peace. I forget all about ‘jews’! tnx

  2. Annie Ladysmith said on August 14th, 2009 at 11:34am #

    Dear balkas, are you senile or just plain nuts? The crap you write is incomprehensible. I know you are an old man but your rantings about fowl have nothing to do with this acticle, did your doctor not give you some pills to take for your oral incontinence?

  3. Annie Ladysmith said on August 14th, 2009 at 11:42am #

    Dear Jonathon, this is about peace and justice and the Palastinians are an example of the poor and the powerless being ground to dust.
    There are many ways to ruin a people,they may be bombed outright, or slowly tortured to death. The Palastinians are being slowly ground to dust. It has been stated that the very children have lost their will to live. Peace and justice are for everyone regardless of origin or race. Thanks for explaining some of the politics behind this tragedy.

  4. mary said on August 14th, 2009 at 1:12pm #

    Please stop insulting people. I know what Bozh means. He sees no corruption in a creature like an owl or a crow whereas it is very evident in some of the members of the species of homo sapiens.

    And by the way the Palestinians are not giving up any time soon. Have you not heard of their word for steadfastness – samud? They are stoics in the face of the Zionist oppression.

  5. balkas b b said on August 14th, 2009 at 1:14pm #

    whatever a person says or writes- and no matter how syntacticly and gramatically wrong the writing may be- i think your obligated morally to treat the writer humanely.
    please, don’t behave like a fascist; for facists do that; all are worst enemy of man and nature.

    praying to an owl or god is about equally ineffective. You appear to have not understood this simplicity.
    next time you get lost ask for directions. I your next response is not a humane but priestly-politico- editorial, i will not read anything u say nor respond to u.
    i had enough of that from MSM.
    i already have at least one inhumane poster. Even that is too many. tnx

  6. Don Hawkins said on August 14th, 2009 at 1:24pm #

    “A wise old owl sat on an oak; The more he saw the less he spoke; The less he spoke the more he heard; Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?”

  7. balkas b b said on August 14th, 2009 at 1:27pm #

    marie, thanks,
    as i was replying to annie, your post popped up. I am very glad that u understand what i meant.
    yes, i desperately want to forget the ‘jews’ and their cultishness. And as u say crow, owl, sparrow, are not evil. I see wisdom and calm in their eyes.
    the reason i mention owl as worthy of praying to is because priests who came in contact with the indigenes taught them that their religion was pagan or of lower quality because of their reverence for animals, etc.

    it turns out, as far as i am concerned, that their religion was by far more civilized and humane than chritianity.

  8. balkas b b said on August 14th, 2009 at 1:30pm #

    hey, don,
    that was butiful, bellissimo!

  9. mary said on August 14th, 2009 at 2:53pm #

    On the subject of wise old owls and very off Jonathan’s topic for which apologies

    2 Y’s U R
    2 Y’s U B
    I C U R 2 Y’s 4 me

    We used to write that in each other’s autograph books, decades before the new text language!

    eg from
    Some texting acronyms that make use of number substitution for sound include: gr8 to mean Great, 4ever to mean Forever, 4nd to mean Friend, 2nite or 2nt to mean Tonight, M8 to mean Mate, L8r to mean Later, and simply the number 2 for the word To or Too, as in 2b or nt 2b?.

    Other texting acronyms use single letters to substitute for entire sounds, either replacing the word of phoneme that the sound represents, such as the letter c for the word See, or else an approximation of the sound, such as the letter n for the word And. Examples of this include: ne1 for the word Anyone, r for the word Are, y for the word Why, and IC to mean I See.

  10. Annie Ladysmith said on August 14th, 2009 at 3:39pm #

    Dear Don, the ‘wise’ old bird never shuts up in this case.

  11. Annie Ladysmith said on August 14th, 2009 at 3:42pm #

    Mary, that’s very quaint but is this not a universal site or is it your own personal club. If you intend to write to each other then make it private. Cheers.

  12. brian said on August 14th, 2009 at 5:14pm #

    the irony here is the jews expect to be compensated for lost or stolen ww2 property, while palestinians lose land and are never compensated….

    jewish exceptionalism? the ‘international community’ (aka western govts)seem to think so

  13. Danny Ray said on August 14th, 2009 at 5:34pm #

    Annie, may I call you that ? The question I need to ask is just who in the hell are you, Mary and Bozh are here always and have shared more wisdon with us in one day that you will ever. ( not that any of it ever took on me)

    maybe you should get the fuck off of your high horse and listen to some of these wise old birds.

  14. B99 said on August 14th, 2009 at 5:41pm #

    Thanks Brian for bringing the conversation back to the Palestinians. What was there, a dozen mystical posts about birds? The original poster may mean well, but those kinds of posts only function as diversions – which see above.

    Basically, the article shows that the struggle for Palestinian is both within Israel and without. It shows that Zionism is indeed racism.

    Annie is right.

  15. opeluboy said on August 14th, 2009 at 5:50pm #

    They “will be prevented from buying back land that rightfully belongs to them.”

    I hate these thugs.

  16. B99 said on August 15th, 2009 at 5:53am #

    Yes – it’s a one-way process beginning with established works regarding “Land Policy in Palestine.” The idea was to purchase cheap or purchase dear – but to purchase, purchase, purchase. Of course, the Jews only managed to purchase about 6% when all is said and done – so they have had to steal almost all the rest. Now, Israel dresses up some of these thefts with documents to give it the cover of legitimacy – but the goal is the same – to transfer land from non-Jew to Jew – and never shall it return. Jews, of course, cannot sell land to non-Jews. In this way, Zionism is racism.

  17. Matt said on August 15th, 2009 at 11:30am #

    My favorite part is the bit where “foreigners” are prohibited from buying the land unless they are eligible under the Law of Return. Note that it doesn’t appear to require that they actually RETURN, just be eligble. So one law of Jews, and one law for everybody else. Yeah, that’s not a little racist or anything…

  18. kalidas said on August 15th, 2009 at 5:12pm #

    There they go again.

    These squatter impostors and their abettors, insane and sickened with an incurable affliction, a relatively unknown (unspoken) condition known as ponerology, keep on insisting on a bogus right of return (ha ha) to Palestine, Jerusalem etc.
    However, their current victims hope and pray they return to their obvious places of origin which is clear enough to see, for anyone not stricken with this disease.

    PALEestine, Poland and New York City.