The Makings of History / Who Owns This Country?

There are few things that are more complicated than land ownership in this country.

Not long ago I was thinking of buying an apartment in Tel Aviv. The deal seemed to be moving forward, but then the real estate agent mentioned, as if incidentally, that the land on which the place was built belonged to "Miri." Who is Miri, I asked. Turns out this is a term that originated, if I understood correctly, during the period of Ottoman rule. I typed "Miri lands" in Wikipedia and was referred to the entry "state lands." And I didn't understand a single word of what was written.

There are few things that are more complicated than land ownership in this country. Thus, I read with great interest a petition related to this subject, submitted to the High Court of Justice last week by three Knesset members against the state and a number of official bodies - among them the Knesset itself. The plaintiffs, Shelly Yachimovich (Labor), Aryeh Eldad (National Union) and Nachman Shai (Kadima) were asking the court to revoke the sweeping national land privatization reform approved by the Knesset last summer. Among the petitioners are a number of youth movements identified with the Zionist left, plus the right-wing association Professors for a Strong Israel.

Submitted by attorneys Gilad Barnea and Nadav Argov, the petition is astonishing both in its clarity and for the rich historical background it presents. Indeed, it deserves a place with the books dealing with the most basic elements of life in Israel. The main question that arises is: Who owns this country?

"Since the beginnings of history," write the attorneys, "disputes over land have led to violent conflicts between tribes, nations and states. In the name of land ownership and of historical rights to various territories, human beings wage war with one another to kill and be killed, sometimes in huge numbers, and therefore a rather mystical aura is associated with land. In our language, we are familiar with the expressions 'holy land,' 'blood-soaked land' and 'Mother Earth.'"

The Book of Leviticus (25:23) states: "The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine." This was the guiding principle of the Zionist movement from its inception. And I learned from the petition that David Ben-Gurion was in fact among those who supported private ownership of land.

The issue has come up for discussion frequently in the government and the Knesset. MKs have often spoken about how land should not fall into "alien" hands. Usually, however, they aren't referring to foreign investors, but rather, mainly, to Arabs.

It is not clear how privatization of a large part of the state's lands will affect that sector of the population: Maybe it will make it easier for Arabs to buy land; maybe it will strangle development in the Arab locales. Privatization of property expropriated from the Palestinian refugees of 1948 is liable to exacerbate a phenomenon that exists at present mostly in the cities, where Jews assume ownership of dwellings belonging to Arabs.

In previous governmental discussions, it was often said that there should be no increase in the number of Israelis holding private titles to lands of Palestinian refugees.

The situation doesn't look good. The petitioners argue that privatizing state lands will benefit the wealthy, and present a long list of flaws in the legislative process surrounding the land reform.

The Knesset, as everyone knows, is sensitive to revocation of its legislation by the High Court of Justice. Now yet another formative struggle is brewing between the legislative and judicial authorities. This struggle involves many economic and political interests, as well as conflicting basic perceptions of justice. Judging by past experience, this is too tall an order for the Knesset. Such issues had best be decided in the Supreme Court.