BACKGROUNDER: Land, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel

Following statements by PA Justice Minister Freih Abu Meddein and by Chairman Yasir Arafat that Palestinians found to have sold land to Jews will face the death penalty, at least 4 Palestinian land dealers said to have been involved in such sales were murdered. Another was rescued by Israeli forces as he was being spirited to Ramallah by Palestinian agents. In addition, there are reports that the PA has formed a secret force called “The Long Arm” to execute Palestinians living abroad who sold land in “Palestine” to Jews.

The PA policy and the subsequent executions have been condemned by Israeli and US leaders, and by many newspaper editorialists. However, Palestinian leaders and spokesmen, and many journalists and commentators, have asserted that Israel’s complaints are hypocritical because of that country’s own biased land policies, which are variously said to bar non-Jews from leasing, or buying, or even accessing most, or all, of the land in Israel.

Examples of such statements faulting Israeli policy include:

  • Israel has always confiscated land from Arabs and dispossessed them of their property. The land always goes from Arabs to the Jews. Can a Palestinian resident of Nablus or Hebron buy land in Israel? Therefore, what should we call those from our nation who serve Israel’s policy of stripping property? We are talking about a few traitors and we will apply what has been determined by law against them. (Yasir Arafat in Yediot Ahranot, 21 May 1997)
  • … it is virtually impossible for a non-Israeli Palestinian to buy land in Israel proper. (David Ensor, ABC World News Tonight, 21 May 1997)
  • In Israel, Palestinians cannot buy state land, which is 91 percent of the country’s territory, and state land held by the Jewish National Fund cannot even be leased to Israeli Arabs. (Joel Greenberg, New York Times, 16 May 1997)
  • Arabs who live outside Israel cannot own land anywhere in the Jewish state — even if it was once their property. (Hilary Appelman, AP 21 May 1997)(Corrected by AP on 5 June after CAMERA intervention.)

Such assertions are based on misconception, error and outright invention. In Israel most of the land is government-owned, this land is leased rather than sold, and it is available to all Israelis, whether Jewish or Arab.

Indeed, half the land used by Israeli Arab farmers is directly leased to them by the Israel Land Administration (ILA). In addition, the ILA has sometimes leased land to Israeli Arabs under terms so favorable that Israeli Jews have sued (unsuccessfully) to receive the same deal.

A Factual Look at the Land Policies of Israel and its Neighbors

1. Land Ownership in Israel

In order to purchase land for the resettlement of Jews in their ancient homeland, the Fifth Zionist Congress (1901) created a private charitable organization called the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Before statehood land purchased by the JNF was not resold but was instead leased out on a long-term basis to create kibbutzim and other forms of Jewish settlement.

After 1948 state-owned lands formerly in the possession of British Mandatory Authorities, together with property abandoned by Arab refugees, passed into the control of the new Israeli government. Some of this land was sold by the government to the JNF, which had developed expertise in reclaiming and developing waste and barren lands and making them productive.

In 1960 under Basic Law: Israel Lands, JNF-owned land and government-owned land were together defined as “Israel lands,” and the principle was laid down that such land would be leased rather than sold. The JNF retained ownership of its land, but administrative responsibility for the JNF land, and also for government-owned land, passed to a newly created agency called the Israel Land Administration or ILA. (Encyclopaedia Judaica, V 10, p. 77)

Today, of the total land in Israel, 79.5% is owned by the government, 14% is privately owned by the JNF, and the rest, around 6.5%, is evenly divided between private Arab and Jewish owners. Thus, the ILA administers 93.5% of the land in Israel (Government Press Office, Israel, 22 May 1997).

2. Jewish and Arab Access to Government-Owned Land in Israel

Statements that Israel refuses to sell state-owned land to Israeli Arabs are extremely misleading, since, as stated above, such land is not sold to Israeli Jews either, but is instead leased out by the ILA and is equally available to all citizens of Israel.

The availability of state-owned land to Israeli Arabs is true not just in theory, but also in practice. For example, about half of the land farmed by Israeli-Arabs is leased from the ILA. (Legal Status of the Arabs in Israel, Westview Press, p. 66, 1990)

Moreover, sometimes Israeli Arabs receive more favorable terms from the ILA than do Israeli Jews. Thus, for example, in new Jewish communities near Beersheva the ILA charged $24,000 for a capital lease on a quarter of an acre, while at the same time Bedouin families in the nearby community of Rahat paid only $150 for the same amount of land. (Israel’s Dilemma, Shapolsky Publications, p. 97, 1989)

In another case a Jewish citizen applied to the ILA to lease land in a new Bedouin community under the same favorable, highly subsidized terms available to the Bedouins.

When the ILA refused to lease him land in the community under any circumstances, he sued. In Avitan v. Israel Land Administration (HC 528/88) the High Court ruled that ILA discrimination against the Jewish citizen Avitan was justified as affirmative action for Bedouin citizens. (Legal Status of the Arabs in Israel, p. 81)

3. Jewish and Arab Access to JNF-Owned Land in Israel

There are formal restrictions on the lease of JNF land. Under its charter the purpose of the JNF was to purchase land for the settlement of Jews, and this has been interpreted to mean that JNF land should not be leased, at least on a long-term basis, to non-Jews. (Legal Status of the Arabs in Israel, p. 62)

Some have argued that despite the private nature of JNF land, it is now administered by a government agency and thus should be leased on an exactly equal basis to both Jewish and Arab Israelis. Such a policy, however, would violate the very agreement which placed JNF lands under government administration.

Official restrictions aside, in practice JNF land has been leased to Arab citizens of Israel, both for short-term and long-term use. To cite one example of the former, JNF-owned land in the Besor Valley (Wadi Shallaleh) near Kibbutz Re’em has been leased on a yearly basis to Bedouins for use as pasture (The Negev Bedouin and Livestock Raising, Berg Publishers Ltd., 1994, p. 28, 36, 38).

Arab citizens of Israel have also leased JNF-owned land for housing purposes via a “legal device” used to evade the restrictions against such long-term use: The land in question is traded to the government so that it can be leased out and the JNF receives other land in return (Legal Status of the Arabs in Israel, p. 64).

While such swaps have clearly taken place, sometimes under threat of court action, it is not known how much la
nd originally belonging to the JNF has been leased to Arabs in this way.

4. Private Land in Israel

Contrary to many press reports, there are no restrictions on the purchase of private land in Israel by Israeli Arabs or by non-citizens. Such land can be, and has been, purchased by Israeli Arabs and by foreigners, including Arab foreigners.

For example, a recent press report on such purchases quoted Israel’s Deputy Housing Minister, Meir Porush:

The Palestinian Authority is encouraging purchases of land in Israeli territory by wealthy Palestinians. It is a matter of Palestinian figures tied to the real estate business, and living mainly in London, who try to purchase homes and lands in Jerusalem through agents and lawyers who live mainly in Ramallah. (Yediot Ahranot, 3 January 1997)

One should note that Ramallah is in the West Bank and is under PA control, meaning that these purchasers are clearly not Israeli citizens.

5. Land Reform in Israel

Far reaching reforms that would privatize much of Israel’s state-owned land were approved by the Cabinet on 13 June 1997. Under the plan the government hopes to encourage a population shift away from the crowded central portion of the country to “northern and southern Israel by privatizing huge tracts of real estate and offering cheap building permits to Israelis willing to settle there” (AP, 13 June 1997).

6. Land Law under the Palestinian Authority

Over the last year PA Justice Minister Freih Abu Meddein has repeatedly (IMRA interview, 12/23/96; Agence France Presse, 5/5/97; Yediot Ahranot, 5/20/97; Ha’aretz, 5/28/97; IMRA, 6/4/97) stated his intention to enforce a Jordanian law which, on penalty of death, prohibits the sale of land to Israelis. It is doubtful, however, that this Jordanian law has any legal standing in territories under control of the PA.

The Jordanian Law

In 1973, under the direct instructions of King Hussein, the government of Jordan passed the Law for Preventing the Sale of Immoveable Property to the Enemy — with the “enemy” defined in Article 2 as:

… any man or judicial body [corporation] of Israeli citizenship living in Israel or acting on its behalf.

Under Article 4 of this law any Jordanian citizen who sold land in Jordan or the West Bank to the “enemy” faced the death penalty and forfeiture of all his property — moveable and immoveable — to the state:

(A) The sale of immoveable property against the provisions of this law constitutes a crime against state security and well being, punishable by death, and the confiscation of all the culprit’s immoveable and moveable possessions.
(B) If the crime is committed by a judicial body the punishment will be exacted from the persons who committed the crimes on behalf of this judicial body, and the judicial body will have its registration cancelled.

In addition, under Article 3 the sale of land to any alien (ie., someone who is either non- Jordanian or non-Arab) without permission from the Council of Ministers became a security offense, again punishable by death.

According to PA Attorney General Khaled Al-Qidreh, 172 people had been sentenced to death under this law (Palestine Report, 6 June 1997). Amnesty International reported that as of 1988 many of the convictions were in absentia and there had been no executions (Jordan: Human Rights Protections After the State of Emergency, Amnesty International, 1990).

However, in a recent press conference PA Justice Minister Meddein stated that 10 violators of the law had been executed (Los Angeles Times, 1 June 1997).

Oslo 2 Invalidates the 1973 Jordanian Law in PA Territories

The 1973 Jordanian law is null and void in PA territories because, inter alia, it violates numerous provisions of the Oslo 2 Agreement, and under Oslo 2 any “legislation … inconsistent with the provisions of the DOP, [or] this Agreement … shall have no effect and shall be void ab initio.” (Article XVIII.4.a).

Among the violations:

  • Oslo 2 (Article XVI, paragraph 2) requires that Palestinians who have “maintained contact with the Israeli authorities” will not on this account be subject to “harassment, violence, retribution or prosecution.”
  • Oslo 2 (Article XIX) requires that the Palestinian Council “shall exercise their powers and responsibilities pursuant to this agreement with due regard to internationally- accepted norms and principles of human rights and the rule of law.”

Imposing the death penalty on Palestinians for selling land to Israelis clearly violates both of these provisions.

• The New Palestinian Law Barring Sale to “Occupiers”

In recent weeks the Palestinian Council has been formulating a law to supersede the 1973 Jordanian statute discussed above. According to press reports (AFP, 16 June 1997) this new law, entitled Property Law for Foreigners:

  • Defines occupiers as the “government of occupation, its civilian and military institutions and its individual citizens”;
  • Declares the sale of land in “Palestine” to such occupiers to be “national treason”;
  • Determines that any Palestinian who “sells land in violation of this law … will receive the maximum punishment.” (Under an inherited Jordanian law still legitimately in effect on the West Bank the maximum punishment is death.)
  • Further states that foreign violators “will be prosecuted on charges of harming the national interest and will receive a life sentence.”

According to PA legislators, in using the term “Palestine” the law refers to all the territory of the Palestine Mandate, meaning it includes all of Israel. Thus, under this proposed statute an Israeli Arab who sells any land in Israel to an Israeli Jew would face the death penalty.

Such extraterritorial threats receive added weight from the reported formation by the PA of a shadowy force known as “The Long Arm,” whose task is to track down and execute Palestinians living anywhere in the world if they have sold land to Israeli Jews. (Al-Arab al-Yawm, 17 May 1997 as translated in BBCSWB).

Finally, since the draft Palestinian law is quite similar to the 1973 Jordanian law it is meant to replace, it would, on the same basis, directly violate the Oslo 2 Accords.

7. Land Law in Jordan

In 1995, following the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the Jordanian Parliament repealed the 1973 law which threatened those selling land to Jews with death. In its place milder statutes were adopted that still effectively bar Israelis from purchasing or leasing land in Jordan:

Law on Economic Boycott and Banning Dealing with the Enemy (Art. 6)

A. … it is impermissible for foreign persons or corporate entities that do not hold an Arab nationality to purchase, lease, or own directly or indirectly any immovable property in the kingdom … [ex
cept under certain conditions including]:

4. … the endorsement of the Council of Ministers upon the recommendation of the Minister of Finance and the Land Registration Department.

(Amman Al-Aswaq, 27 July 1995, in FBIS-NES-95-145)

8. A Brief Analysis of the Coverage

In dealing with the issue of Israel’s land tenure policies and those of the Palestinian Authority, many journalists such as David Ensor of ABC, Dan Perry of the Associated Press, Joel Greenberg and Anthony Lewis of The New York Times, and Barton Gellman of the Washington Post, have uncritically accepted as true numerous charges critical of Israel levelled by Palestinian spokesmen and Israeli activists.

In a pattern that has become all too familiar these journalists, along with many of their colleagues, apparently find such charges to be so inherently believable that fact-checking and further inquiries are deemed unnecessary.

Typifying the problem was a 16 May New York Times article in which reporter Joel Greenberg made four major errors in one sentence:

In Israel, Palestinians cannot buy state land, which is 91 percent of the country’s territory, and state land held by the Jewish National Fund cannot even be leased to Israeli Arabs.

In fact, state land amounts not to 91% of Israel’s territory but to 79.5%, neither Arabs nor Jews can buy state land, the Jewish National Fund holds no state land, and, with some restrictions, JNF land is leased to Israeli Arabs.

Finally, it should be noted that the Associated Press deserves credit for correcting its story of 21 May 1997 alleging that “Arabs who live outside Israel cannot own land anywhere in the Jewish state.” After CAMERA contacted the AP Bureau in Jerusalem a correction ran on 5 June.

Appendix: Further Charges of Israeli Land Discrimination

Additional false allegations of Israeli land discrimination include:

  • Let me tell you, the prime minister [Netanyahu] asked what would have happened, had land sales to Arabs been banned in the State of Israel. Well — and I suggest you listen well to what I say — the only country in the world which has an ugly, racist and fascist law, with elements on which I don’t want to elaborate, which has a law on absentee property, where an Arab has his land next to him but it is only a Jew who can control it, [is the State of Israel]. It is the only country in the world with such a law. (Ahmed Tibi, adviser to Yasir Arafat, interviewed on IDF Radio, 19 May 1997)

  • Israel confiscated property owned by Arabs who fled during the 1948 war, for example, and today about 15 percent of Israeli land is owned by the Jewish National Fund and cannot be bought by non-Jews, even by citizens such as Israeli Arabs. (Dan Perry, AP, 22 May 1997)
  • … about 15 percent of Israeli land is owned by the Jewish National Fund and cannot be bought by non- Jews, even if they are citizens — such as Israeli Arabs. (Hilary Appelman, AP 21 May 1997)
  • Before the founding of Israel in 1948, the Zionist movement acquired land by purchase in Palestine and held it in trust for an eventual Jewish national home. In Israel today most land is still held in trust by an agency devoted to furthering the Jewish homeland. As a practical matter, land used by Israeli Jews for home or business or farm is hardly ever sold to Arabs. So the idea of Palestinians wanting to keep what land they have is not unusual. (Anthony Lewis, New York Times, 16 May 1997)
  • … Zionists devised formal and informal mechanisms to prevent Arabs from acquiring Jewish land that persist today. (Barton Gellman, Washington Post, 20 May 1997)
  • Netanyahu … described the idea “as a racist law, as a Nazi law, as a Nuremberg law.” It is not without parallels, penalty aside, in Israel. Keren Kayemet [the Jewish National Fund], a cooperative that owned most of the Jewish land in the century’s first decades, “by its regulations could not sell land at all, and could not rent land except to Jews,” according to historian [Anita] Shapira. As recently as January … one of Israel’s two state-appointed chief rabbis, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, issued a ruling of religious law forbidding the sale or rental of any Jewish land to Arabs. (Barton Gellman, Washington Post, 20 May 1997)

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