Israel's Absentee Property Law Exposes an Absence of Morality in Jerusalem

Upholding a 63-year-old law allowing Israel to confiscate "absentee" properties of Palestinian-owned homes in Jerusalem sends a dangerous message and puts up a road block to peace.

Anyone who works in real estate in Jerusalem will tell you what constitutes one of the most desirable properties in town: an old Arab house. Not in East Jerusalem, but in the West Jerusalem neighborhood where I live. In fact, the pre-1948 Arab houses of Baka are unabashedly listed this way: Buy a “Beit Aravi,” like the one in this video, which comes with accompanying mood music and the broker’s boast of authenticity.

Few but the most liberal of Israelis take note of this irony – Arab house equals charm and character – and are willing to acknowledge the fuzzy moral territory of the Jerusalem we now find ourselves in today.

But 1948 is so long ago and peace so far away, and so we don’t like to think too hard about how these lovely “vintage” homes got here. Tuesday, on the other hand, that’s not so long ago at all. On Tuesday, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said in a legal opinion that a 63-year-old law allowing Israel to confiscate "absentee" properties may continue to be applied to Palestinian-owned homes in Jerusalem.

As Haaretz reported, this isn’t simply about leaving on the books a law that passed in 1950, when the Jewish state’ survival seemed less secure and Israelis feared droves of Palestinian refugees returning to claim the homes they left behind. Today, this is about Palestinians who live in the West Bank – and sometimes, meters from their property in Jerusalem – and had their homes confiscated because they’re now “absentees,” ie. no longer Jerusalem residents. In other words, we’re not talking about the homes of Palestinians who are already spending a second or even third generation in Jordan or Lebanon or somewhere much further afield – we’re talking about people who still live in the vicinity, under Israeli rule, but now find themselves on the wrong side of the line for maintaining their property.

Which line? Well, that depends. For years the law wasn’t applied to East Jerusalemites. More recently, it is. The addition of the separation barrier a decade ago has made it more difficult for Palestinians to get to their property inside municipal Jerusalem turning people into new “absentees.” So the wall, combined with the law, has made it easier to declare additional pieces of property as absentee – even if the owners are just down the road. The result: groups seeking to settle Jews in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem are having an easier time doing it.

Ir Amim notes in its in-depth 2010 study on the issue that 20 years ago, the Klugman Committee -- headed by Haim Klugman, the director general of the Ministry of Justice at the time -- strongly criticized the "grave conflict of interests" that characterized the declaration of absentee property and its transfer to right-wing organizations in East Jerusalem. Then-Attorney General Yosef Harish ordered the use of the law to stop, the paper notes.

It’s not fully clear why Weinstein decided otherwise, ruling that “the properties located in East Jerusalem, with their owners residents of the Judea and Samaria region, were absentee properties.” The four families with the strongest cases are appealing to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to deal with the issue at a hearing in September. Presumably then we’ll get a fuller picture of Weinstein’s thinking.

But beyond these four cases, there is a perhaps a more damaging trend at stake: The message that upholding this law sends to Palestinians at a time when there ought to be a shred of hope, however slim, of returning to peace talks. In his commentary on the issue, Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab writes in Al-Monitor that it puts up a major roadblock to peace.

“If the Israeli high court, which is hearing a case involving the issue, will rule in favor of recognizing the absentee law, the consequences to Palestinians and their East Jerusalem properties will be enormous. The Israeli custodian of absentee properties has routinely turned over properties under its control to settler and settler-related projects,” Kuttab writes. He also crystallizes why the law is so morally flawed. An Israeli who moves to a West Bank settlement will never be told that he has forfeited the apartment he owns in Jerusalem.

“The irony of the Israeli discussion about absentee properties in Jerusalem is [that it is] applicable only to Palestinian Arabs,” he adds. “There is no similar application of this law to Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and owning properties in Jerusalem or Israel.”

A quick peruse of the Israeli press shows that aside from Haaretz, the issue was hardly covered. Turkey and Syria? Fascinating. The fate of Nochi Dankner’s IDB? Riveting. But the upholding of a law that helps deprive Palestinians of their real estate and perpetuates the conflict? Yawn. Do we really need to know?

A few new voices say we do. A new group calling itself “All That’s Left: Anti-Occupation Collective” went out this Wednesday, June 5 – the day Israel wrested control of Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967 – and began re-painting the Green Line across the city. Or rather, they painted a wide green line onto cardboard, so as to not deface the celebrated Jerusalem stone. The video is worth a look, if only for the odd cheeriness of it – if only for the irony.

JC Tordai