Israel has sold off around 900 properties in the past eight years that were seized from Palestinian Arabs who fled or were exiled as a result of the 1948 war, an investigation by Arab lawyers based in the country has found. The Israel Land Administration sold 77 homes belonging to Palestinian refugees in the past year and more than 800 properties between 2007 and 2014, according to Suhad Bishara, an lawyer at Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Palestinians argue that Israel’s ongoing sale of their property contravenes international laws, but Israelis counter that it is permissible under Israeli legislation. The sales raise questions about the status of Palestinian refugees’ property as cultural heritage.
After decades of feeling that Palestinian cultural heritage has not been properly preserved, a wide consortium of Palestinians is now creating the largest Palestinian heritage project to date. The Palestinian Museum, which is scheduled to launch in the West Bank in spring 2016, has been collecting objects belonging to Palestinian refugee families across the world. These pieces will feature in the museum’s inaugural show to remember and document Palestinian Arab heritage.
Palestinian refugee property in Haifa; Israel; with "for sale" sign in Hebrew © Adalah
In 1950, the UN Relief Works Agency registered around 750,000 Palestinian refugees who had fled Israel or had been exiled during the 1948 war. Israel demolished many of their 400 villages and claimed the remaining buildings in cities such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Nazareth, Lod, Akko, Beit Shean and Beer Sheva, leasing them to Israeli residents. The Palestinian owners, many of whom still hold the deeds and keys to these properties, have not been allowed to return since the war, and income from the rental and sales of these properties remains in Israeli hands, Palestinian officials say. Many of these pre-war buildings are now among the most expensive real estate in Israel.
The question of refugees’ properties was supposed to be settled in a peace agreement, but two decades of on-off negotiations have not helped to resolve the dispute. International laws, resolutions and norms prohibit Israel from selling properties belonging to those who have been “dispossessed or displaced” by war; it is “a violation of international law and in violation of the Geneva Convention”, says the Palestinian diplomat Mustafa Barghouti.
Regulation 46, annexed to the 1907 Hague Convention (IV) Concerning the Laws and Customs of Wars on Land, bans the confiscation of private property, and Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the extensive destruction and appropriation of private property, Suhad Bishara says.
Israel has long cited security concerns rather than human rights issues when discussing Palestinian refugees. From a legal perspective, Israel also argues that its sales are permissible, based on its own laws and precedents.
In 1950, Israel passed legislation allowing the fledgling state to seize uninhabited buildings as “absentee property”. The law states: “Every right an absentee had in any property shall pass automatically to the custodian at the time of the vesting of the property; and the status of the custodian shall be the same as was that of the owner of the property.”
Israel passed this law in the wake of the United Nations’ resolution 194, which proposed: “Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date and… compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.”
Israel’s finance ministry has told The Art Newspaper that Israeli law allows the custodian to sell absentee properties to Israel’s Development Authority. The legal connection between previous owner and property is void from the moment the owners became “absentee”, it says in a statement.
Lawyers at Adalah argue, however, that it is possible to define the sales as illegal even under an interpretation of Israeli law. “Israeli law describes the custodian of absentee property as a temporary position until the refugee issue is resolved,” Bishara says.
Adalah made this argument in 2009, when it asked Israel to cancel further announcements of sale. Israel’s attorney-general’s office on civil legislation replied in writing. This letter, seen by The Art Newspaper, states that buyers of “absentee” properties have full ownership of them and that this does not represent “an expropriation. The absentee has the right to the income, and with that, his connection to the property is void.”
When Israel’s finance ministry was asked if the money is held for Palestinian property owners, it replied that “income from the sales belongs to the custodian, who is not the trustee of the absentee”.
In many countries across Europe and in the US, conservators evaluate property confiscated from war zones to see if it has “cultural heritage” value, looking beyond age and financial worth to consider social and political factors.
Under Israel’s Antiquity Law, “antiquity” means “any object, whether detached or fixed, that was made by man before the year 1700”. Much of the built heritage in Israel was created much more recently, and the state does not always consider the social and political value of properties, especially when it comes to Palestinian heritage, says the Israeli professor Shmuel Groag, the head of the conservation unit at the Bezalel Art Academy’s Architecture Department in Jerusalem.
Cultural heritage “denied”
“The value of Palestinian cultural heritage in Israel is a contested issue and part of the conflict. All pre-war Palestinian villages and buildings should be valued as part of Israeli cultural heritage,” Groag says. “In the general discourse, nobody considers it as absentee property but as valuable real estate. The idea that Israel moved from taking Palestinian properties and calling them absentee properties [to] selling them is part of a general denial. There is a denial of Palestinian cultural heritage in Israel.”
At the same time, Israel actively promotes research regarding pre-war Jewish cultural heritage in other countries, Groag says. “There is a big issue of heritage in the same period where groups are searching and documenting the lost communities [in Holocaust-era countries and Arab and Muslim countries].”
The archaeologist Lynn Dodd, a Middle East heritage expert at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, says: “Cultural heritage may not be defined by dates, but by what a person or community defines as a place where significance and meaning reside. Look at another 1940s site, Auschwitz, as but one example.”
At a Holocaust assets convention in Prague in 2009, 46 countries agreed that the seizure of Jewish properties between 1933 and 1945 was illegal; and in a recent opinion piece in an Israeli newspaper, the Lebanon-born Israeli researcher Edy Cohen argued that “decision-makers around the world are well aware that there will be no solution to the Palestinian problem as long as they do not find a solution to the problem of Jewish refugees [who fled or were exiled from Arab and Muslim countries after Israel was founded].” But Palestinians argue that Israeli government policy, and even the weight of public opinion, does not extend the same arguments to dispossessed Palestinians.
For their part, these refugees have long argued that they originate from pre-war Palestine and that they were not involved in or connected to the Holocaust or to the Arab and Muslim countries where Jews lost property. They say that the issue of their own heritage is separate from these considerations.