This isn’t Israel’s first ‘land theft law,’ it won’t be the last

Israel has a long and rich history of using the law to dispossess Palestinians of their land. Anyone willing to see what’s taken place over the past 70 years shouldn’t feign outrage at the latest ‘land theft law.’

The Shepherd Hotel in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which was seized under Israel’s Absentee Property Law, is demolished in order to build a Jewish apartment complex, January 9, 2011. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
The Shepherd Hotel in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which was seized under Israel’s Absentee Property Law, is demolished in order to build a Jewish apartment complex, January 9, 2011. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Congrats to the Israeli Knesset for passing the settlement “regulation law” (also known as the “normalization law” and the “formalization law”) earlier this week. The law retroactively legalizes the theft by Israeli settlers of land privately owned by Palestinians, largely land on which those settlements Israel calls “illegal outposts” were constructed — because their existence is illegal even under Israeli law.

To be honest, I don’t really understand the outrage of the “Jewish and democratic” crowd at the legislation and its passage into law. The new law stays true to the long-standing Israeli tradition of “formalizing” or “regulating” the theft of Palestinian property by legal means; it doesn’t introduce any tricks we haven’t seen before.

The tradition began in the State of Israel’s earliest years with the Absentee Property Law of 1950, which “regulated” the expropriation of Palestinian property of any Palestinian who fled or was driven from his or her home during the 1948 war and who ended up in one of the surrounding Arab states “or in any part of Palestine outside the area of Israel” between November 29, 1947 and May 19, 1948.

What the Absentee Property Law did was to declare that as far as property and land was concerned, the books were wiped clean in 1948 — for property owned by Palestinians, that is. Palestinians have no legal avenue for reclaiming property left behind in 1948. Jews, on the other hand, are able regain property they owned prior to 1948, in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Shiekh Jarrah for example, and Israeli authorities are more than happy to help them by evicting the current Palestinian residents of those properties.

Israeli police enter a Palestinian home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem that was taken over by Jewish settlers, September 30, 2014. Israeli settlers took over seven homes in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem the same day. (Activestills.org)
Israeli police enter a Palestinian home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem that was taken over by Jewish settlers, September 30, 2014. Israeli settlers took over seven homes in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem the same day. (Activestills.org)

After 1967 the practice got even more complicated. When Israel annexed East Jerusalem, it also applied its system of laws to the newly occupied neighborhoods and villages, including the Absentee Property Law. That effectively turned all of the property belonging to East Jerusalem residents into absentee property because during the period defined by the law they were residents of an enemy state, Jordan, which controlled East Jerusalem at the time. That legal situation was too absurd even for Israeli authorities, however, and Palestinians living in areas later annexed by Israel were exempted from the law.

But what about Palestinian residents of the West Bank who weren’t living in East Jerusalem but who own property there? Numerous Israeli attorneys general have insisted that applying the Absentee Property Law to those people was fundamentally unacceptable, but Israeli authorities decided to ignore them. Instead, starting in the 1980s, authorities began using the law in a massive push to relieve Palestinians of their property and hand it over to Jewish settlers.

In other words, the Israeli position is: property that belonged to Jews prior to 1948 and is located in Israeli territory — ours; property that belongs to Palestinians who were expelled or fled in 1948 — ours; property belonging to Palestinians who never left their homes but which is on land that was later annexed to Israel — ours. And we haven’t even talked about all the land inside Israel that was declared “state land” in order to dispossess Palestinians or the shenanigans of the Jewish National Fund or the manipulative ways land was “acquired” prior to the establishment of the state.

The law passed earlier this week was only the next logical step in a decades-long legislative and legal effort to seize Palestinian land. As of this week, land belonging to Palestinians who never even left their homes, in territory that was never annexed to Israel and which is not inside the state of Israel – also ours. So to all those people who haven’t been paying attention until now, keep rolling your eyes and acting outraged and yanking out your hair at this perversion of Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” balancing act. Anyone who has been paying attention for the past 70 years, however, understands that this new law follows the one and only path along which Israeli Zionism has strolled since its earliest days.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.