The Custodian of Absentee Property is a powerful government agency. It was created by the Finance Ministry in 1950 to be the arm through which the state nationalized the vast amount of property left behind by the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948.
The Absentee Property Law is an incomparably broad and draconian law. It allows the custodian to seize the property of anyone who was in territory belonging to an enemy country during a state of emergency. But since the state of emergency originally declared during the War of Independence never ended, in principle, the state can seize the property of anyone who ever set foot in such a country, even a soldier sent by the state or a settler living in the West Bank.
But of course, the law isn’t used against such people. In recent decades, it has been used mainly against hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. Almost every family in the capital’s eastern section includes someone who once lived or is living in an “enemy country” such as Kuwait, Jordan before the peace agreement was signed or even the West Bank.
The law turns every real estate deal in East Jerusalem into a high-risk deal, because the custodian could suddenly pop up and demand his share of the property. The law also prevents these Palestinians from registering their property in the Israeli land registry, which exacerbates the planning chaos, increases black-market activity and contributes to the housing shortage in Palestinian neighborhoods of the city.
Now, thanks to a freedom of information petition filed by lawyers from the firm of Tal, Kadari, Shamir and Co., we have learned that the state doesn’t even know which properties the Custodian of Absentee Property holds – or, alternatively, it does know but doesn’t think the public is entitled to receive this information. It depends on which of the state’s briefs you choose to believe. The state, via the Foreign Ministry, even claimed that revealing this information would undermine Israel’s foreign relations.
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Regrettably, Jerusalem District Court Judge Einat Avman-Muller accepted these lame explanations. Instead of asking whether the threat to Israel’s foreign relations lies in divulging this information to the public or in the very existence of this draconian law and its selective enforcement, she chose to keep the information hidden and even punished the petitioners by making them pay court costs.
Like other bureaucratic fossils – Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and the World Zionist Organization, for example – the only reason for leaving this agency in place is the fact that it grants legal cover for the continued abuse of and discrimination against non-Jewish residents of the country. Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman must order the custodian’s office to release information about the properties it controls. Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar must announce that land registration proceedings in East Jerusalem won’t be used by the custodian to seize new property. And the government must work to repeal this anachronistic, discriminatory law.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.