54th Anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (15 May 2002): Real Property Restitution and Property Documentation

As Palestinians in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories begin to reconstruct and rehabilitate their neighborhoods, refugee camps, civic and national institutions in the wake of Israel's most recent military campaign to crush indigenous resistance to the ongoing illegal military occupation and the denial of the right to self-determination, one of the challenges to be faced is the damage to, loss of, and destruction of countless records, files, databases, and computer hard drives. The systematic damage, loss, and destruction of this information - information which is critical to the state-building process - from numerous ministries of the Palestinian Authority (including Education and Health), municipalities and non-governmental organizations engaged in human rights advocacy and delivery of community services has severely harmed and in some cases wiped out a decade worth of professional work.

Based on the categories defined by the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Israel's widespread damage, expropriation, and destruction of civilian records, files, databases and computer hard drives may be considered as rising to the level of war crimes. This type of destruction has been witnessed in other recent conflicts as a means to ensuring a particular political objective or outcome. In Guatemala, Bosnia, and Kosovo, for example, widespread destruction of property records was used to try to prevent the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes and villages of origin. In Bosnia, around 30 percent of the country's original property books were destroyed during WWII and many of the remaining ones were damaged, removed or rendered unusable during the 1992-95 conflict. In Kosovo, initial estimates indicated that more than 50 percent of the property records were no longer existent following the cessation of hostilities.

Available Documentation for Restitution of 1948 Palestinian Refugees Inside Israel

Unlike the current situation in the 1967 occupied territories and in the cases mentioned above, where conflict has resulted in a significant damage to, loss of, and destruction of information, there is a relative wealth of documents, records, and databases detailing Palestinian refugee property claims inside Israel. "Recovery of refugees' homes and property in their countries of origin,' as the UN refugee office notes, "needs to be addressed consistently to ensure that effective solutions to refugee displacement are found." (UNHCR Inter-Office Memorandum No. 104/2001, 28 November 2001) While each source, listed below, has its own particular shortcomings, together they provide a fairly extensive and accurate pool of information to tackle and resolve real property restitution for Palestinian refugees as part of a just, comprehensive and durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Village Statistics 1945:

The British mandate statistics provide a record of the extent of land by village and town, the nature and use of land and type of ownership. It also provides figures for rural and urban property tax payable in each town and village, useful for providing details on unsettled (i.e., non-surveyed) lands. (Only 25 percent of the land of Palestine had been subject to cadastral survey by the time the Zionist/Israeli- Palestinian/Arab conflict began in late 1947)

UNCCP Records:

The records created by the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine Refugee Office include two types of forms. RP/1 forms identify each parcel owned by Arabs in Palestine, including partnerships, companies, and cooperative societies (Total of 453,000 forms). RP/3 forms identify land owned by the state and other public authorities, Jews, and other individuals not included in RP/1 forms. These records were digitized in the 1990s. (During the process it was not possible to locate 30,000 RP/1 forms covering land mostly in the Jaffa and Jerusalem sub-districts and most RP/3 forms in UN archives where the records are stored)

UNRWA Records:

The family files include additional documents filed during initial refugee registration in 1948. Not all files contain property-related documents. A recent pilot project covering 2000 family files, for example, discovered that approximately 33 percent of family files examined had property deeds attached to the family file.

Israel Custodian of Absentees' Property:

Includes documentation of all land expropriated from Palestinian refugees under the 1950 Absentees' Property Law (similar to abandoned property laws repealed in other refugee cases such as Bosnia) and later transferred to the state of Israel and the Jewish National Fund.

Israel Lands Administration:

Includes records of all land transactions in Israel.

Aerial Photographs:

Aerial photographs taken by German and British forces prior to the beginning of the Zionist/Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict reveal original refugee villages, housing and plots of land prior to the depopulation and destruction of some 530 Palestinian localities. Using GIS mapping technology, these photographs can be combined with historical and contemporary maps to locate original refugee villages, housing, and plots of land.

Mandate-era maps:

Pre-1948 maps help resolve problems related to customary ownership of land by indigenous Bedouin tribes. As of 1948 the British administration in Palestine had not yet begun a land survey in the Bir Saba' (Beersheba) Sub-District, the traditional home of a significant Bedouin community. Only 64 sq. km of Arab-owned land in the Sub-District (the entire area of the sub-district exceeds 12,000 sq. km) were registered in the official Register of Deeds. This land is included in registration records of the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine. Many pre-1948 maps of the sub-district, however, clearly identify Bedouin tribal lands according to the name of the tribe.

Refugee Survey/Questionnaire:

During the 1950s, the UNCCP Refugee Office prepared a draft form of a questionnaire to be distributed among refugees, for the purpose of cross-referencing UNCCP records with documents and other materials held by refugees themselves. The project, however, never proceeded beyond a pilot stage. The circulation of such a questionnaire (Jewish restitution organizations, for example, have used internet websites for claimants to detail losses and lodge claims) would enhance existing records by identifying titles, deeds and other documents still held by refugees.

Oral History:

Oral history accounts have been used in various other cases to identify land claims, particularly in cases where traditional systems of landownership mean that refugees do not have paper documents detailing land claims.

On the occasion of the 54th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, BADIL Resource Center calls upon the international solidarity movement to:

* Educate and inform about the history and the scope of Palestinian displacement and dispossession;
* Educate and inform about Palestinian refugees' right of return, real property restitution and compensation in accordance with international law and UN Resolution 194.

Resources are available on the websites of BADIL and the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (http://al-awda.org)