"For Jews Only" - Israeli Cabinet Endorses Bill Regarding Using of 'State Land', The Fate of Palestinian Refugee Property

On Sunday, 7 July 2002, the Israeli cabinet, in a vote of 17-2, recommended the adoption of a new bill to restrict access to 'state land' to Jews only. the cabinet endorsement comes on the heels of an earlier cabinet decision (12 May) to suspend family reunification procedures between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of the 1967 occupied territories to prevent the latter from establishing domicle in Israel. (See, BADIl Press Release, E/44/02) The primary aim of both measures is to uphold the 'Jewish character' of the state, characterized by a permanent Jewish majority and permanent Jewish control of the majority of the land.

The propsoed bill was formulated as a response to a High Court decision on 8 March 2000, which upheld the right of Adel and Iman Qaadan, a Palestinian couple from Baqa al-Gharbiyya in the Galilee to lease a plot of land and build a home in the nearby Jewish 'lookout' settlement of Katzir. Katzir was jointly established by the Jewish Agency and the Katzir Cooperative Society in 1982 on 'state land' allocated by the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) as part of a project to prevent the development of large contiguous Palestinian areas in the Galilee. The Cooperative Society only accepts Jewish members. In reviewing the case, the High Court held that the state may not allocate land to the Jewish Agency knowing that the Agency will only permit Jews to use the land. The Court note, however, that the decision applied only to the "particular facts of the case." Katzir has refused to implement the decision.

The cabinet decision, which resembles, in principle, South Africa's 1950 Group Areas Act, under which the vast bulk of the country was reserved for White ownership and occupation, rekindled debate and discussion about Israel's system of property laws. "If we are not already totally an apartheid state, we are getting much, much closer to it," stated Shulamit Aloni, a former Israeli cabinet minister (Meretz). Aloni went on to note that Israel had already put segregation into effect in a number of ways, among them in appropriating Palestinian-owned land, designating it as 'state land,' and earmarking it for exclusive Jewish use. "By the right of our might, we are acting as a racist nation. South Africa, as well as white and democratic [a reference to Israel's definition of itself as a Jewish and democratic state].' (Ha'aretz, 9 July 2002)

Many of those Israeli Jewish lawmakers opposed to the proposed bill appeared to be more concerned about the 'esthetics' of the discriminatory language in the bill and its implication for Israel's image abroad, rather than the underlying, historic, and discriminatory nature of Israel's land ownership system. "[The decision] places us in a bad situation," stated minister without portfolio Dan Merido, "changing our image in our land and in the world." "As to the charges that Zionism is racism - what are we ourselves saying here?" (Ha'aretz, 8 July 2002) As one Israeli commenator wryly noted, however, in an article entitled, "State Land Bill Sticks to Reality on the Ground": "When the cabinet approved a bill on Sunday that would permit state lands to be allocated to exclusively Jewish townships, it was giving legal backing to a situation that has existed in practice since the establishment of the state." (Ha'aretz, 9 July 2002)

While the majority of Israeli Jewish lawmakers continue to defend the ability of Israel to be both a Jewish and a democratic state, the very nature of Israel's land system, as exposed once again by the proposed land allocation bill, speaks otherwise. Property law inside Israel has enabled Israel to acquire control of vast quantities of Palestinian owned property, including refugee property. The majority of the land (approximately 17,000 sq. km) Israel classifies as 'state land' was illegally expropriated from Palestinian refugees in 1948. Moreover, it is estimated that since 1948 the Israeli government has also expropriated as much as 1,000 sq. km out of a total of 1,400 sq. km of land (not including vast areas expropriated in the Bir Saba' sub district) owned by Palestinian citizens of the state, including internally displaced Palestinians. Under Israel's 1960 Basic Law: Israel Lands, land is held as the inalienable property of the Jewish people, it may not be transferred either by sale or in any other manner.

For the last several months the United States and some European allies have invested a great deal of energy in linking political reform of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to a renewal of political negotiations and the prospect of a comprehensive solution to the conflict including the plight of Palestinian refugees. A quick look at Israel's property law, however, underscores the fact that the PA is not the only party in need of reform. The willingness of countries to correct the injustices of the past by restoring property to its rightful owners, stated former US Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Eizenstat befor ethe Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (March 1999), "is a measure of the extent to which they have successfully adopted democratic institutions, [and] the rule of law with respect to property rights." On the anniversary of World Refugee Day this year (20 June 2002), US President George Bush affirmed "America will always stand firm [with refugees] for non-negotiable demands of human dignity and rule of law." In Mr. Bush's own words, what is need now is not just words but action.