According to reports in the media, in response to a petition filed by Adalah to the Supreme Court of Israel, Attorney General (AG) Menachem Mazuz ruled yesterday, 26 January 2004, that the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) cannot discriminate against Arab citizens of Israel in the marketing and allocation of the lands it manages, even lands belonging to the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The ILA has managed JNF-owned land since 1961. Until now, ILA bids for JNF-owned lands have been open to Jews only.
In the petition, filed in October 2004 against the ILA, JNF and others, Adalah argued that the ILA’s policy is incompatible with the principle of equality, discriminates against the Palestinian minority in Israel on the basis of nationality, and will lead to the further creation of racially-segregated, Jewish-only areas if it is not cancelled.
Adalah’s position is that there are two sides to the AG’s ruling. Adalah Attorney Suhad Bishara, who filed the petition, said that, “On the one hand, the decision is positive, since the AG concurred with Adalah’s argument that the ILA’s policy of marketing and allocating JNF-owned lands through Jewish- only bids is discriminatory. However, on the other hand, the AG also decided whenever a non-Jewish citizen wins an ILA tender for a plot of JNF-owned land, the ILA will compensate the JNF with an equal amount of land. This allows the JNF to maintain its current hold over 2.5 million dunams of land, or 13% of the total land in Israel.
Adalah opposes this process, as it involves the transfer of state-owned lands to the JNF - an institution which publicly acknowledges that its land policy is discriminatory.”
As the JNF declared in response to Adalah’s petition and a further petition filed against the ILA’s policy by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, its loyalty is only to the Jewish people and not the general public in Israel, and it operates only for the benefit of Jewish citizens.
The JNF attempted to justify this position by claiming to have purchased the lands within its ownership using money donated by Jews from around the world for the purpose of buying land in Israel and its distribution among Jews. However, as Attorney Bishara argued in the petition, 80% (close to 2 million dunams) of the JNF’s lands were transferred to it by the state in 1949 and 1953, giving the JNF a special status under Israeli law.
The ILA rationalizes its policy of restricting bids for JNF-owned lands to Jews by citing the agreement signed between the state of Israel and the JNF in 1961. Under this agreement, the ILA is obliged to respect the objectives of the JNF, which include the acquisition of land “for the purpose of settling Jews.” However, Adalah argued that the agreement does not permit the ILA to be a sub-contractor for discrimination on the basis of nationality: as a public agency established under law, the ILA is not authorized to adopt positions or pursue goals which are contrary to the principles of equality, just distribution and fairness.
The AG is due to officially release his decision next week, following which Adalah will argue before the Supreme Court that the state cannot transfer land to any entity which does not respect fundamental rights and the Basic Laws of Israel. Adalah will further contend that, although the AG’s decision prevents the exclusion of Arab citizens from bidding for JNF-owned lands, it will create additional legal scenarios involving discrimination against them.
Bids for JNF-owned lands in the North and the Galilee have been frozen since 20 October 2004, when the JNF announced the freezing of new and existing tenders in these areas, pending a hearing date or the issuance of a further decision by the Supreme Court.