Few remember the brief period, spanning just a few months in 1948-49, when the cease-fire line between Israel and Jordan ran through the Little Triangle – a concentration of Arab towns in northcentral Israel, roughly bounded by Baka al-Garbiyeh, Taibeh and Tira.
Even the two families from Taibeh and Kalansua that own land there would have lived out their lives without ever remembering. That is, until they received a Kafkaesque reminder in 2017 when the Justice Ministry’s administrator general decided to seize the lands.
The agency justified the seizure under the Absentee Property Law. They argued that the owners had been absentees during those few months, decades ago, when the border ran through the area. Even though the families never left their homes and became Israeli citizens after the war, the Supreme Court upheld the decision.
The saga began in 2017, almost 70 years after the temporary border disappeared. The landowners (who asked that their names not be published) applied for a permit to fill in a large quarry and convert the area to agricultural land. With the request, the administrator general and official receiver suddenly remembered it considers the land state-owned.
In the ensuing legal battle, the families weren’t permitted to request that the land be returned to them, contrary to the wording of the law. Further, they were barred from seeing the maps upon which the state’s claim was based. The battle ended with these 7.5 acres in the state’s possession.
The Absentee Property Law of 1950 allowed the state to seize the property of Palestinian refugees who fled during the War of Independence. An absentee owner was defined as anyone who spent time in territory controlled by “forces that sought to prevent the state’s establishment” from November 1947. It ruled that absentees’ property inside Israel would be transferred to the administrator general. The law’s passage enabled Israel to seize a great deal of property belonging to Palestinians who had fled to places like Jordan, Syria and the Gaza Strip.
But in this case, the families neither fled their homes nor left their property behind. To understand the absurdity of the administrator general’s decision, it’s necessary to return to the war in 1948, when a temporary border was drawn between Israel and Jordan. This line separated the families from their lands for a few months in 1948-49.
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But in early 1949, after the Armistice Agreement was signed, the Triangle was transferred to Israel. Its residents received Israeli citizenship, and the temporary border was erased from the maps.
In the decades since, land in the area has been transferred from hand to hand with no problems and the administrator general never made any effort to claim it – until 2017, when it declared that since these lands had temporarily been on the other side of the border, it could seize them.
Following this upset, the case took yet another unexpected turn. The Absentee Property Law states that someone whose property was seized under the law can appeal the decision. But the administrator general, Ronen Baruch, refused the families’ request on the grounds that only the original absentees could put in such a request, not someone who had purchased the land from them.
The families’ lawyers, Nir Raber and Yonatan Morell of the Herzog Fox & Neeman law firm, said there’s no hint of any such provision in the law. Moreover, the families say it’s no longer possible to locate the dozens of heirs of the original owners in order to have them file the request for return.
In their petition to the High Court of Justice, the attorneys argued that a case in which, after over 70 years, the state suddenly “remembers” to claim land that “it does not and has never needed and that has already been sold to buyers who paid good money for it,” and then refuses to even let the families request its return, “is intolerable and patently unreasonable.”
The case was heard by three conservative justices – Noam Sohlberg, Alex Stein and David Mintz. Stein, who wrote the ruling, rejected all of the family’s arguments.
“It’s clear that the land belongs to the administrator and the Development Authority and that the petitioners have no claim against the administrator or the state,” he wrote. The fact that the administrator made no effort to claim the land until 2017 in no way detracts from its right to do so, he added.
The justices even ruled that the family must pay the state 30,000 shekels ($9,100) in court fees.
Following the ruling, the families asked the administrator general to see the maps of the temporary border so that they could consider their next legal moves. Their request was rejected on the grounds that revealing the maps could undermine the state’s foreign relations – a common pretense for refusing to divulge information.
In November, Haaretz reported that the administrator general was fighting a freedom of information request for a list of the assets it holds in East Jerusalem. In that case, too, the agency said revealing the information could undermine the state’s foreign relations.
The families recently asked the High Court to rehear their petition with an expanded panel of justices. They are awaiting Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut’s ruling on the request. In the meantime, one of the petitioners – the land’s original purchaser – had a stroke. He died two weeks ago.
The Finance Ministry, speaking on the administrator general’s behalf, said that since the issue is still in legal proceedings, it would offer its response in court.