A privatized Nakba

18 November 2010

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The 2009 Land Administration Law allows for further theft of Palestinian land inside Israel. (Silan Dallal/ActiveStills)


Palestinians describe the Israel Land Administration Law (ILA) quietly passed by the Israeli Knesset in 2009 as the final stage in the 62-year process of displacement from their homeland. The legislation is expected to have a long-term, disastrous impact on Palestinian lives and precludes the possibility of a negotiated resolution to the conflict.

This legislation builds on a gradual transition from a welfare-based government to one based on neoliberal policies that began in the 1980s. Recently, the evolution took a dramatic step, as Israel enacted laws that privatize its historically state-owned land. While very little media attention has been given to this development, this law has profound implications for Palestinians.

In contrast to most countries, Israel has retained state control over and ownership of the bulk of its land. During the establishment of the state in 1948, Israel expelled more than 700,000 Palestinians from approximately 400 villages and cities — what Palestinians call the Nakba or catastrophe. Since then publicly-owned lands have accounted for 93 percent of the state’s territory.

“The state nationalized all the land in 1948 in order to facilitate the misappropriation of Palestinians and the reallocation of land in favor of Jews,” Shir Hever, an economist for the Alternative Information Center, commented to The Electronic Intifada.

Israel has operated a system wherein Israelis and Palestinians leased their property from the state. However, in August 2009, the Knesset made the first move to end this system by enacting the ILA, also referred to as the Land Reform Law. This law allows the state to transfer ownership of all developed land to an individual, private company or corporation. With egregious disregard for international law, Israel’s Land Reform Law applies not only to land within Israel proper, but also to occupied East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in violation of international law in 1981.

The passage of this bill has grave consequences for internally-displaced Palestinians living in Israel and Palestinian refugees everywhere. Palestinians have long maintained a legal claim to return to the land from which they were forcefully evicted from and have held on to the hope to do so.

“This is the last phase”

“This is the last phase. You confiscate, you use it for whatever you want; the last phase is to sell it,” Suhad Bishara, an attorney for the Israeli human and civil rights organization Adalah, said.

A significant portion of Israel’s state-owned land was acquired through expropriation and confiscation of Palestinian property during and immediately following the 1948 dispossession. Through subsequent laws, most extensively through the Absentee Property Law (1950) and Land Acquisition Law (1953), Israel was able to systematically prevent the return of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes in 1948.

These confiscations have continued until the present day. For example, in order to obtain a building permit, one must enter into a lengthy, bureaucratically arduous and very costly process that presents an insurmountable obstacle for Palestinians to build “legally.” This gives Israel the excuse to wantonly demolish Palestinian homes and confiscate their land.

As the seemingly endless peace negotiations continue into their 17th year, Israel has been quietly making plans to sell this very land.

“Privatizing all of these lands is basically ending this whole story. The state is not a stakeholder anymore. You have third parties — who are individuals and companies — who will have a say. Because they are the stakeholders, they are the owners of the land,” Bishara added.

Economist Shir Hever explained that by redrawing property lines and changing the registry of the land, Palestinians will have an even more difficult time to assert their claim to the land or ask for compensation for it.

“The land reform will mainly affect Palestinians living inside Israel, and Palestinian refugees, because the re-drawing of property lines and the changing of the registry of land may be used as a tool to conceal the evidence for the previous Palestinian ownership of the land, and make it harder for refugees to demand their property back, or a suitable compensation,” Hever said.

“This means you cannot ask for the properties back at any stage, once privatized,” Bishara said.

Neoliberalism and ultra-nationalism

“The timing of the reform [bill] coincides with the very deep shift within Israel from a republican, strong-state model of an ultra-nationalist welfare state, into a new model of neoliberalism, while still keeping the ultra-nationalism,” Hever said.

The stated intention of the Land Reform bill is to improve efficiency by decreasing government bureaucracy and its intrusion into free market activity. However, Hever refutes this as merely a guise. He explains that the decision to privatize land now is rooted in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to appeal to the upper class and real estate capitalists of the country in anticipation of an economic downturn within Israel that will mirror the western world’s current economic woes.

“There are many ways to deal with inefficiency, and the ‘free market’ approach is only one out of many. It favors the rich and gives them the ability to manipulate the market by creating local monopolies. [For example,] once a real-estate tycoon has taken over all available land in a certain area, he or she can set the price for everyone who wishes to live there. That is the real reason for the reform, in my opinion — Netanyahu needs the support of wealthy people who also fund his campaigns,” Hever said.

The city of Jaffa provides a prescient example of the havoc that private development can wreak on the lives of the indigenous Palestinian population. Here, one can see how the neoliberal scheme can in itself be used as an ethnic cleansing device. Beginning in the 1960s, ILA sold the land of Jaffa to the highest bidders. This resulted in the proliferation of elegant and expensive condominium complexes and housing units along the desirable coastal land, pushing out the indigenous population to overcrowded and under-served neighborhoods.

According to Dr. Yosef Rafiq Jabareen, a senior lecturer at The Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, the privatization of land in cities throughout Israel would spell the final stage of the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland which began in 1948. With privatization, the property of Palestinians would go on sale to capitalists and developers.

According to Adalah, “The legislation would eventually lead to the transfer of ownership, even without payment, to Jewish leaseholders and to a “clearance” sale of what remains of Palestinian property in many cities in Israel, such as Jaffa, Ramla, Lod, Beer Sheva, Tiberias, Beit Shean, Haifa and Acre, as well as the Palestinian property in West Jerusalem. Thus, the Palestinian Nakba would be completed in these cities in the future when the Palestinian space that has existed for many generations would be finally eliminated and it would become a case of privatized real estate for the enjoyment of Jewish developers, tycoons and individuals” (“The Geo-Political and Spatial Implications of the New Israel Land Administration Law on the Palestinians” Adalah’s Newsletter, Volume 62, July 2009).

However, the Land Reform Law goes beyond this prototype that uses free market competition as a tool to drive out Palestinian residents. Within the bill and a previous agreement with the Jewish National Fund (JNF), Israel has ensured that the organization will be a dominating and guiding influence on how land sale transactions will be carried out from now on.

Ensuring that land sales will go primarily to Jewish buyers, the Land Reform Law has restructured the ILA so that it yields considerable control to the JNF. The Land Authority Council will become the new government body that oversees the sale of state land. The JNF, an organization whose charter directly prohibits it from leasing any of its land to non-Jewish residents, will now hold 6 out of 13 of the membership slots of the Land Authority Council.

With the JNF solidifying power over the process of privatization, it is impossible to characterize this reform as devoid of a political agenda. Israel’s plan to sell the land of Palestinian refugees as well as land in the occupied Golan Heights and East Jerusalem belies any of its feigned gestures toward engaging with the international community on a real solution for peace.

Charlotte Silver is a litigation assistant at the American Civil Liberties Union, Immigrant Rights Project and was active in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement at Stanford. She lives in San Francisco and can be reached at charlottesilver A T gmail D O T com.