Bureaucratic dispossession

An Israeli soldier walks alongside a group of Israeli settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron, 24 July 2007. (Mamoun Wazwaz/MaanImages)

On 20 August 2007, a story appeared in the Israeli daily Haaretz about the disputed ownership of a piece of land in East Jerusalem. The “land in question,” the report said, is “an olive grove called Kerem Hamufti” and part of the “Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.” [1] According to Haaretz, the “Israel Lands Administration (ILA) is working together with the Ateret Cohanim association to wrest from Palestinian landowners control of 30 dunams (7.5 acres) of land in East Jerusalem and to transfer it to the association without a tender.” Petitioning the High Court, the land’s owners, the Palestinian Arab Hotels Company, described the purpose of this expropriation as “extraneous, illegitimate, racist and discriminatory.”

But who are these groups responsible for the attempted robbery, the ILA and Ateret Cohanim? The latter, is a religious, ultra-nationalist organization, whose main objective is “Judaizing” Jerusalem. Coincidentally, they had in fact already hit the headlines earlier in the month, when one of their private security guards shot dead a Palestinian who, it was claimed, attacked two guards in the Old City before being overpowered and killed. [2] The juxtaposition of these two stories is striking. Unintentionally or otherwise, the alleged shooter, Ahmad Khatib, struck out at a para-state organization whose symbiotic relationship with the powerful colonizing state embodies the agent of his people’s Catastrophe.

Ateret Cohanim are represented in the US by the Jerusalem Reclamation Project (JRP), who sponsored a dinner in May celebrating the 40th anniversary of “the reunification of Jerusalem.” [3] The work of the JRP includes “purchasing and renovating buildings for young yeshiva families, renovating destroyed synagogues, and by supporting nurseries, playgrounds, and children’s recreational facilities.” All of which would be great, if it wasn’t for the fact that East Jerusalem is both illegally annexed, and, more pertinently, already populated with Palestinians — a classic example of how Zionism attempts to render invisible the indigenous population of Palestine.

Allegations of illegal construction work and forgery against Ateret Cohanim had been previously documented by Haaretz, and in their editorial on the Sheikh Jarrah affair, the paper likewise sharply criticized the “underhand manner” in which a government body like the ILA had sought to take over Arab property in cooperation with a “national-religious” NGO. [4] As well as noting that “governmental bodies such as the National Housing Company of Israel (Amidar), the Custodian of Absentee Property, the ILA, certain ministries and the Jewish National Fund have issued funds” to ultra-nationalist groups, the editorial bemoaned how “the practice of placing the settlers above the law … has reached East Jerusalem.” [5]

But what of the other guilty party — the ILA — who are they? To ask this question draws us nearer to baring the hypocrisy that runs through the liberal Zionist critique of the settlers’ ‘illegality’ — and perilously close to exposing the theft at Israel’s core. The ILA was formed in 1960, charged with the responsibility of managing the 93 percent of the land in Israel in the public domain. [6] But where did all this land come from? Prior to 1948, less than eight percent of what became Israel was in Jewish hands. [7]

You can find the answer in the Palestinian refugee camps of Gaza and Lebanon or in the rubble of destroyed Palestinian villages obscured by Jewish National Fund-planted forests. New towns have been built, and place names changed, but the scars of the Nakba continue to disfigure the imagined virgin land of Zionist propaganda. The towns and fields emptied by the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians — so-called ‘Absentees’ Property’ — became Israeli state land in a flurry of Knesset legislation, and duly passed into the custody of the ILA. [8] In contrast to the piecemeal work performed by even well-funded private groups such as Ateret Cohanim, the ILA has played a key role in colonizing vacated Palestinian land, preventing the refugees’ legal return and Judaizing not just East Jerusalem, but all of historic Palestine. [9]

Land acquisition scandals such as that of Ateret Cohanim/ILA and the Sheikh Jarrah plot thus perform a useful function: these isolated incidents of impropriety can be uncovered and condemned, while Israel’s original (though continued) fundamental, colonization of Palestine is either ignored or, more commonly, approved. The likes of Ateret Cohanim, whose spokesperson unashamedly defended the “Judaization of Jerusalem,” might with some justification charge their Israeli critics with selective morality. [10] As Jonathan Cook once noted, with regards to a previous land controversy in Jerusalem:

“Despite the agonizing over the current use of the Absentee Property Law, Israelis of both the right and left have lived quite comfortably for more than half a century with the original mass dispossession of the Palestinians engineered by that very same law…The land was used to settle Jewish immigrants and the money to finance their entry into Israel … One Israeli academic, Don Peretz, has observed: ‘Abandoned property was one of the greatest contributions toward making Israel a viable state.’” [11]

Israel’s successful colonization of Palestine owed much to both the brutality of the expulsions in 1948, followed by the creation of a complex web of legislation that served to mask the racist fabric of the state (a truth admittedly that many in the West were uninterested in discovering). The extent of Israel’s continued dispossession of the Palestinians, enforced by bureaucracy and the gun, is not, however, difficult to unearth. Encouraging our media, politicians, academics and fellow citizens in this task is a vital undertaking that will create the space in public debate required for a just solution to the conflict in Palestine/Israel to be realized.

Ben White is a freelance journalist specializing in Palestine/Israel. His website is at www.benwhite.org.uk and he can be contacted directly at ben AT benwhite DOT org DOT uk.

[1] “ILA leasing Arab-owned land in Jerusalem to Ateret Cohanim,” Meron Rapoport, Haaretz, 20 August 2007
[2] “Arab attacker killed in J’lem Old City,” Etgar Lefkovits Jerusalem Post, 10 August 2007
[3] “Jerusalem Reclamation Project Celebrates Yom Yerushalayim At Gala Dinner,” 5 Towns Jewish Times, 9 August 2007,
[4] “The selling of Lot 62,” Meron Rapaport, Haaretz, 5 April 2005, “Land grab in East Jerusalem,” Haaretz, 20 August 2007
[5] The work of Ateret Cohanim in colonizing East Jerusalem can be researched via the ‘Foundation for Middle East Peace’ (www.fmep.org) and the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (www.arij.org).
[6] Israel Land Administration - Genral Information (http://www.mmi.gov.il/Envelope/indexeng.asp?page=/static/eng/f_general.html)
[7] “The Feasibility of the Right of Return,” Salman Abu-Sitta, June 1997
[8] Overview of the relevant legislation available on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_and_Property_laws_in_Israel
[9] “ILA destroys Bedouin homes to make way for Jewish town,” Haaretz, 25 June 2007
[10] “Petitioners: Gov’t seized Arab land and gave to Jews,” Jerusalem Post, 21 August 2007
[11] “Israel’s latest land grab is part of an old strategy,” Jonathan Cook, The Daily Star, 4 February 2005