Israel’s legal mechanisms for stealing Palestinian land

by Yaniv Reich on November 19, 2009

The Israel Land Administration (ILA) is the kind of government agency that would attract very little attention in most countries. In Israel/Palestine, however, this relatively innocuous sounding organization plays a pivotal role in the conflict. Why is it so important? Established in 1960, the ILA manages a full 93% of Israeli land, including land owned by the Israeli government and that owned by the Jewish National Fund (the JNF was established in 1901 to finance and otherwise facilitate Jewish settlement in Palestine). In Israel, land ownership did not, until very recently (see below), entail full property rights to the land, but rather a long-term leasing relationship with the ILA.

The ILA is prohibited by law to lease land to non-Jewish foreigners. For this reason, a recent Haaretz investigation into ILA policy in Jerusalem found that, contrary to Netanyahu’s claims (Jewish fundamentalists like to claim Jews should be allowed to live anywhere in Palestinian East Jerusalem they wish and to deny this “right” is racist), Palestinian residents of Jerusalem were not allowed to purchase land in West Jerusalem. Further, the 13% of land in Israel owned by the Jewish National Fund (and administered by the ILA) may not be sold to non-Jews, despite a series of High Court cases that challenged this discriminatory policy. To the best of my knowledge, the current status of this policy is that the ILA is no longer technically allowed to discriminate, and if a non-Jew wins a tender then the ILA is compensated with other land for the “loss”.

On August 3, 2009, however, right-wing Israeli MKs pushed through a new bill called the Israel Land Administration Law, which represents a radical restructuring of this agency with far-reaching consequences for Palestinians. According to Adalah, an Palestinian-Israeli civil rights NGO, the bill’s provisions include: “broad land privatization; allowing land exchanges between the state and the JNF, the land of which is exclusively reserved for the Jewish people; allowing lands to be allocated in accordance with “admissions committee” mechanisms and only to candidates approved by Zionist institutions working solely on behalf of the Jewish people; and grants decisive weight to JNF representatives in a new Land Authority Council, which would replace the Israel Land Administration (ILA).”

Adalah argues the new law “will lead to the transfer of title to private owners in real estate properties which were expropriated by the state from the Palestinian Arab population. The law will also lead to privatization of property of some of the lands of destroyed and evacuated Arab villages, as well as many properties belonging to Palestinian refugees, which are currently controlled by the state’s Custodian of Absentee Property and the Development Authority. This privatization policy will frustrate any future possibility of returning the abovementioned lands to their original Palestinian owners, in violation of their constitutional right to property and in contravention of both domestic Israeli law and IHL.”

This is just one more way that Israel uses its political power and legal institutions to undermine Palestinian rights.

For more information on this, see the Adalah press release of August 3 and a Guardian (UK) op-ed on the matter.

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