Injustice and stupidity in Jerusalem

Editorial

Haaretz

Shvat 13, 5765

In July 2004, Israel's cabinet adopted a decision that was neither made public nor even published in the official government gazette, Reshumot: to apply the Absentee Property Law to East Jerusalem, and thereby to confiscate thousands of dunams of land from owners who live in the West Bank. The reason for the decision was security-related: Since in practice, West Bank residents are barred from entering East Jerusalem because of the intifada, the cabinet decided to enact an official measure that would prevent any use of these lands by their owners in the future as well, and would explicitly state that henceforth their property belongs to the State of Israel.

Even though the owners live only a short distance away from their confiscated property, their names and addresses are known and no one doubts their ownership, the cabinet decided to label them "absentees" and apply the law that enabled the state to take over refugees' lands when the state was founded, a law which has never been used since.

According to the law, enacted in 1950, every person who was outside of Israeli territory between November 29, 1947 and September 1, 1948 was considered an "absentee," and his assets were transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property, with no possibility of compensation or appeal. But even though the Absentee Property Law remained in force, successive Israeli governments decided not to apply it to annexed East Jerusalem, because of the injustice this would wreak. The decision to once again apply this law has caused thousands of Palestinians, including many who live right next to their confiscated lands, to lose property overnight worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and for which no one intends to compensate them.

It is impossible not to deem the cabinet's decision theft, as well as an act of state stupidity of the highest order. Israel has already seized land and property from the Palestinians during the years of occupation, reducing their living space in order to establish settlements in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The person responsible for many of these unnecessary projects was Ariel Sharon, both in his governmental roles and as someone who himself bought a house in the Arab Quarter of East Jerusalem. One might have thought that such activity would cease when Sharon had recognized the need to divide this land between the two nations. The arbitrary confiscation of property, without suitable compensation, contradicts this trend.

An article by Meron Rapaport in today's Haaretz Magazine relates that when East Jerusalem was annexed in 1968, then attorney general Meir Shamgar decided not to apply the Absentee Property Law to real estate in Jerusalem that was owned by West Bank residents. The decision to refrain from paying compensation for expropriated land today, dozens of years after the state was established - which, regrettably, was made with the consent of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz - does no honor to the state.

It is also impossible to accept the secrecy with which the cabinet makes fateful decisions of this nature, which unnecessarily damage the fabric of relations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Absentee Property Law, which might have been tolerable at the time of the state's establishment and the War of Independence, is inappropriate 55 years later.