Israel has declared its intention to take away the compensation given to a Palestinian woman whose Israeli Arab husband was killed in a car accident, claiming that her inheritance belongs to the state by virtue of the Custodian of Absentee Property Law.
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The law has been used for decades to oversee the assets of Arabs who left or were forced to leave Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.
The office of the custodian of abandoned property in the Finance Ministry determined that Raba’a Ali Satal, from the West Bank city of Qalqilya, was an “absentee” and therefore the state was the owner of the compensation the court had awarded her. The amount, about 600,000 shekels ($162,000), was given to her as a result of the death of her husband, who was killed when a truck ran into him as he was fixing his car by the roadside.
Ali Satal, 30, said: “I learned from my lawyer that the state intended to take away the money the court awarded me. That surprised me and my family very much. It seems to me to be very difficult to understand and unjust.”
Ali Satal said she had been married to her husband, Anwar, who was from Jaffa, for four years. “It was a very happy time. His death was a terrible shock. I hope things work out and I’ll be able to receive the compensation I deserve.”
As part of her compensation insurance claim, adjudicated before the Kfar Sava Magistrate’s Court, a request was submitted to the registrar of inheritances in the Justice Ministry to recognize her as her husband’s heir. In May 2016, the registrar determined that Ali Satal was entitled to half her husband’s estate, and that the other half would be divided among his three daughters from a previous marriage. However, next to Ali Satal’s name in the order, the word “absentee” was written in parentheses.
Ali Satal and her attorney, Pesach Stamler, were not the only ones surprised by the parenthetical note. So was the Kfar Sava court, which asked the registrar of inheritances for clarifications. The registrar turned the matter over to the office of the custodian for absentee property. In June 2016, the head of the custodian’s office, Ronen Baruch, responded that Ali Satal was a “resident of the military government in Judea and Samaria, and thus according to the law she is considered absentee with regard to her portion of the deceased’s estate.” According to Baruch, “any part the abovementioned lady has in the estate, including the compensation in the legal proceedings, is entirely the possession of the custodian for abandoned property.” Baruch added that if Ali Satal wanted to receive the money, she had to submit a “release request,” which would be handed according to procedure.
Stamler, together with Hisham Shabaita of the Tel Aviv University Law Clinic, appealed the custodian’s decision at the Jerusalem District Court. In response, attorney Michal Shalem of the State Prosecutor’s Office wrote that as a resident of the West Bank, Ali Satal was “absentee in relation to the asset, which is within the boundaries of Israel.” According to Shalem, the basis for declaring Ali Satal absentee is a clause in the Custodian of Absentee Property Law stating that an absentee was a person located in “any part of the Land of Israel outside the area of [the State of] Israel.”
Attorney Shabaita wrote in his brief to the court: “According to the state’s interpretation, Ali Satal – and in fact all residents of the territories – do not have rights to assets of any kind originating in Israel, including inheritance and compensation.” Shabaita added that the decision meant that not only would the state deprive Ali Satal of the insurance money the court awarded her, but also of 10,000 shekels the court ordered the truck driver who killed her husband to pay her in criminal proceedings.
Shabaita wrote that such an extensive interpretation of the Custodian of Abandoned Property law had never been applied before, “certainly not with regard to personal compensation awarded by a court in Israel to a resident of the territories.”