How Israel Legalized Theft

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The disputed land, this month. The residents never left their homes or abandoned their property at any point.
The disputed land, this month. The residents never left their homes or abandoned their property at any point.Credit: Amir Levi

The Absentee Property Law was enacted in 1950 to create a quick, easy way to nationalize the vast amount of property left behind by hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees when they fled or were expelled in the Nakba. This is an extraordinary and unreasonably sweeping law. It states that anyone who spent any time in an enemy country or “in any part of the Land of Israel that is outside of the area of Israel” is an absentee whose property is automatically transferred to the state, with no compensation.

Effectively, this law is so sweeping that according to the literal meaning of the words, any settler or soldier who lives or is stationed in the West Bank could be defined as an absentee, since they are in a part of the Land of Israel that is outside the State of Israel. But the settlers obviously don’t need to worry. This law has served as a discriminatory and destructive constitutional weapon against the Arab population in Israel and the territories.

The latest example of this law’s destructiveness was the ruling by Supreme Court Justices Alex Stein, Noam Sohlberg and David Mintz upholding the seizure of 7.5 acres from residents of Taibeh. In defiance of both the spirit of the law and its rationale, this land was seized even though Taibeh’s residents were never refugees and in fact became Israeli citizens shortly after the state’s establishment.

The pretext for the ruling was that for a few months during Israel’s War of Independence, a temporary border separated Taibeh from lands to its west which were owned by Taibeh residents. This fact sufficed to define these lands as absentee property, since during that brief period, Taibeh residents lived in a part of the Land of Israel that was outside the rule of the State of Israel.

Consequently, in 2017, almost 70 years after the war and decades after the land had switched hands without any problem, the state’s administrator general suddenly remembered this fact and expropriated the property. The justices confirmed this move, and even ordered the petitioners to pay 30,000 shekels ($9,300) in court costs.

It must be hoped that when an expanded panel of justices holds an additional rehearing of the case, following a request from the families, justice will be done and the theft restored. But either way, this is further proof of the crying injustice of the Absentee Property Law. MK Mossi Raz (Meretz) recently submitted legislation to repeal it. Every Knesset member with a conscience and every Israeli ought to support his bill.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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