When Israel compensated Germans for land in Palestine

5 June 2013

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A German colony in Palestine received compensation from the Israeli government when settlers were forced to flee during the Nakba.

(Library of Congress)

Last month marked the 65th anniversary of the Nakba — the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, during which Israeli forces expelled some 800,000 Palestinians from their homeland and seized their properties. In total, 536 cities, towns and villages — 78 percent of the land of historic Palestine — were taken during the 1948 war.

The Nakba is not just a historical event, however. It remains an ongoing trauma.

Palestinian human rights are assaulted daily; Palestinians still live under occupation or are barred from their homeland. Meanwhile, Israeli land and water confiscation continue — particularly in the West Bank and the Naqab (Negev) desert.

Palestinians worldwide remain excluded and uncompensated, despite Israel’s admission to the United Nations in 1949 being preceded by its expressed willingness to abide by Resolution 194, calling for the Palestinian refugees’ repatriation and compensation.

Little known, however, is that four communities in Palestine have received carefully evaluated and internationally arranged compensation for their losses. The four villages — Sarona, Wilhelma, Betlehem (not the famed Bethlehem) and Waldheim — belonged to a Christian German group called the Templers.

Model for settlers

Sarona near Jaffa was one of the first modern agricultural settlements in Palestine (1871) and was a model for Jewish settlers. Wilhelma (1902) near Lydda, and Betlehem (1906) and Waldheim (1907) in the upper Galilee were prosperous communally-owned German agricultural settlements.

The Templers maintained their German citizenship in Palestine. Although they established a Nazi party branch in Palestine during 1933, only approximately 17 percent of the Templers were Nazi sympathizers, according to Israeli scholar Yossi Ben Artzi. Still, most able-bodied Templer men were conscripted to fight in the German army in 1939.

During Second World War, the British Mandate government interned the German nationals in their rural villages. Some of the Templer families were then deported and interned in Australia. Others became part of three British-German prisoner exchanges of Palestine-Germans for mainly Dutch Jews from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.

After the war, the British military guarded the four Templer villages to protect the Germans from Jewish extremists. Nevertheless, in April 1948, a Zionist attack killed at least two persons in Waldheim and resulted in many Templers fleeing. (This pattern of attack and killing to terrorize villagers and force them to leave was perpetrated on hundreds of Palestinian Arab villages by Zionist forces during the 1948 war.)

Fate diverges

The displaced Templers remained in Cyprus until they were admitted to Australia and became citizens (see Suzanne D. Rutland, “‘Buying out of the Matter’: Australia’s Role in Restitution for Templer Property in Israel,” Journal of Israeli History: Politics, Society, Culture, 24:1, 2005, pp 135-154).

Here is where the fate of the Palestinian refugees and the German Templer refugees diverge. The governments of Australia and West Germany worked together for ten years before the State of Israel agreed in 1952 to pay restitution to the German refugees for their four rural villages, as well as the Templers’ urban property holdings in Acre, Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem. A leading agricultural economist from Stanford University valuated the Templer holdings, including all real estate, their homes and farm buildings, orchards, forest and vineyards, down to the chicken coups and pigsties.

In 1962 — ten years later — the government of Israel paid 54 million Deutsche Marks to West Germany for the “German Secular Property in Israel” belonging to the displaced and dispossessed Templers, part of which was transferred to the Commonwealth of Australia (see Australian Treaty Series 1966 No 3).

Energetic campaign

How did the German Templers obtain compensation from the State of Israel for their expropriated property in Palestine?

The Australian and German governments mounted an energetic and determined international diplomatic campaign to secure compensation from Israel for the Templers’ assets. The Australian officials were persistent and convincing. They needed the capital inflows from restitution to assist in resettling the refugees.

Australia also assumed its obligation to protect its new citizens’ property rights. For their part, the Templers actively represented themselves through documentation, presenting evidence at international forums, and persistently demanding and claiming their rights before the Australian, German and Israeli governments.

The Templers lobbied their governments, showed up at international conferences to press their case, and advocated for themselves.

Unlike the Templers, diaspora Palestinians holding other citizenship have not been successful in obtaining compensation and restitution for their properties in present-day Israel. In 1949, educator Khalil Totah appealed repeatedly to the US State Department to assist him in obtaining compensation for his orange grove and lands in historic Palestine. “As an American citizen resident in the United States,” he wrote, “to whom should I turn for redress except to you?”

No public records exist of the US government attempting to obtain compensation for Totah’s or other American citizens’ property or assets seized by Israel during the 1948 war or after.

It is tragic and ironic that United Nations members remain complicit in the suppression of the Palestinians’ human rights. Even while some states applied significant diplomatic pressure to obtain compensation for displaced European settler communities in Palestine, which included a small but significant minority that sympathized and even fought for Nazi Germany, diplomatic pressure has not been expended for the indigenous Palestinians’ rights to Nakba compensation and restitution guaranteed under international law.

Rosemarie M. Esber is the author of Under the Cover of War: The Zionist Expulsion of the Palestinians. She is an independent researcher and international development consultant based in Washington, DC.

Comments

This is a statement of the true values of my country. I used to put out the American flag on my birthday, June 14th. No longer. I served in the Us Army for 3 years. Even duty in Viet Nam. I cannot believe the atrocities we sustain in Palestine without a just decision. If the US followed it's so called Christian doctrine, there'd be no apartheid to protest!

The US has little influence over Israel. Been that way for generations. Israel jealously guards her sovereignty from all foreigners.

Remember how Israel provided top of the line F-16 and radar technology to China over strong US objections and US sanctions? This is because Israel values the Israeli-Chinese relationship and believe China will soon have the world's largest economy.

Remember how alone in the world, Israel gave significant help to India in India's war against what the world now calls Taliban in 1999?

Israel similarly courts the world's other great superpowers.

Justice for the Palestinians, in my view will not come from Beijing, Washington, New Delhi, Tokyo or the world's superpowers. It will come in the form of a long term peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinians and the friends of Palestine need to reach out to the heart of Israelis and inspire Israelis to express Israeli goodness, values and compassion through action. Inspire Israelis to do right by their Palestinian brothers and sisters. The first step to doing right is for Israelis to understand Palestinians.

My belief is that most Israelis know little about the injustice and suffering of Palestinians and the Israeli role in it. Israeli civilians are far too busy studying, working in their start-ups, inventing new products, going to the beach, spending time with their families and otherwise enjoying life. Palestinians are out of sight, out of mind. The only Palestinians they regularly interact with are successful Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent. Many of these Palestinians are highly educated, rich, and successful. Most Israelis have no idea about the suffering of Palestinians.

What kind of restitution were you hoping for?

What about the people who lived in Israel prior to the 20th century or the 19th, 18th, no matter the religion - how many were restituted by those who invaded their land? Let's think about fairness.

There was no Israel "prior to the 20th century or the 19th, 18th." When Hebrew tribes invaded Canaan there wasn't anything resembling a "nation state." Compensation is fine if that is what refugees want, but real fairness must include being able to exercise their right to return to their homes and properties, just as Jews from LA and the Bronx have the "right of return.". The Palestinian refugees cannot be forced to sell out for "compensation" if that is not their personal desire.

I'm well aware that there was no land called 'Israel' prior to the 20th century. If you want to be pedantic about it, I can use that same logic to say that Palestinians did not live in a nation-state either, but as part of a larger structure of an empire. The fact that Palestinians were influenced to believe that they had a distinct identity vis-a-vis other Arabs who lived in other areas was more a reaction to Western actions than an innate understanding of themselves as a separate nation.

Are Syrians a separate nation-state? How about Iraqis? There are some examples of states in the Middle East where boundaries correspond to ideas of nation-states, such as Egypt, Iran, and a few other cases. The majority are relatively recent boundaries on a map.

If you believe that Palestine is a nation-state that is occupied by a foreign colonial power, I would ask that you outline exactly the boundaries that reflect what you should believe its sovereign territory. What you would outline would simply be the state of Israel plus Gaza and the West Bank, a reflection of the sovereignty already claimed to the surrounding land by Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt rather than drawn on an historic idea (and I emphasize that term) image of a Palestinian state. Why should East Jerusalem be the capital of a future Palestinian state? Was it ever a capital of any Palestinian state? If not, then think about validity in claims, historic grievances, historic entitlement, and the consequences of war. I am not saying that Palestinians do not deserve a state, to be treated fairly and justly, and to be compensated for any crimes committed against them. I only ask that you critique your own assumptions before attacking others. Specifically, the idea that Palestinians are somehow an exceptional case in the history of that land. I would point to the many empires who claimed that territory and ask how many have paid compensations to those they conquered.

Nick, you are probably well aware that your comment is not relevant to my post but you do bring up important points; 1) the majority of the boundaries in the Arab world are fantasies of a European pen; and 2) that the indigenous population of the area that has been referred to as Palestine for several centuries have successfully held onto to their homes and properties through millennia of foreign occupations.

" The fact that Palestinians were influenced to believe that they had a distinct identity vis-a-vis other Arabs who lived in other areas was more a reaction to Western actions than an innate understanding of themselves as a separate nation."

Wrong, as Rashid Khalidi proved in " Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness ", a book that ignorants like you never heard about ,albet it's a basic reading when it comes to Palestinian history.

Another zionist attempt failed.

What's most outraging is not that you call me ignorant, but that you believe that because I do not believe in Rashid Khalidi's ideas that I have never read his work. A resounding YES I have read that book and have outlined and presented his ideas in presentations while doing a Masters degree in Middle Eastern relations at a prestigious university in London.

This is a typical response of the Zionist lobby machine, and of course a diversion of the true matter in this case: by compensating the German families, the Zionists recognize it expelled these families. So why compensating the one and not the other for the same wrongdoing to them. Not about things happened with one or two centuries in between, but at the same time and action: the Nakba!

BTW, do you know that only 11% of the great and good Palestinian people happened to be from the great Jewish religion in 1918?

What do you think about the idea of dual citizenship . . . or many people being patriotic citizens of both Palestine and Israel . . . as part of a long term peace agreement?

This might be a way to solve the settler issue. The settlers become patriotic citizens of the Palestinian state and live in Palestine. All settlements become desegregated with Palestinians being freely able to buy or rent property in them.

Israel can pay compensations to Palestine for absorbing the settlers.

Similarly many Palestinians could become patriotic citizens of both Israel and Palestine.

The expulsion of the Palestinians took place in 1948/49. After WWII international laws were enacted to prohibit these kind of expulsions and wars to take over other people's land. It is not relevant whether the Palestinian Arabs were a nation state in 1948 or not. What matters is that they were living and working the land in the same place in Palestine since time immemorial. It is true that Palestine over many thousands of years was invaded by many empires. But none of them expelled the indigenous population as the Zionist armies did in 1948.

"The governments of Australia and West Germany worked together for ten years before the State of Israel agreed in 1952 to pay restitution to the German refugees..."
The date, 1952, appears to be an error.

By accepting compensation and resettlement, the Templers no longer can claim to have the right of return. I make no value judgement on this decision, but you can't ignore this aspect.

This article by Rosemarie Esber about the compensation paid to German settlers in Palestine, is very interesting. I recall that some of these German colonists took part in the defense of Jaffa in April/May 1948 against the Zionist onslaught by Etzel, because their possessions were under as much threat as were those of the Palestinian Arabs.
I read Rosemarie Esber's book "Under the Cover of War. The Zionist Expulsion of the Palestinians" (2008), which is one of the best histories about the Palestinian Nakba. She uses two primary sources: her original collection of 130 oral testimonies from Palestinian refugees, who witnessed and were victims of the civil war. The second primary source is documentation from the US, British, and UN archives, particularly underutilised military records. The documentary record is mutually supportive of and corroborated by the oral testimonies of the refugees. Esber reviews all these sources against a broad array of secondary Israeli historical studies that are based on archival sources. The result is an excellent study. I recommend this book to all, who want to learn more what happened to the Palestinians in 1948.