National Land Policy in Israel

Jews and Palestinians Protest Jewish National Fund

Israeli and Arab human rights activists see Israel's land policy as a form of discrimination against the Palestinian minority. Now they are going to Israel's Supreme Court to sue for equal treatment. Joseph Croitoru has the story

photo: AP
Every time a plot of land is sold to Israeli Arabs, the state must replenish the lost land reserves – but it is not clear how

​​The acquisition of land in Palestine has always been one of the pillars of modern Zionism; in the early days, people even used the phrase "redemption of the land". As early as 1907 a central logistical apparatus was created especially for this purpose: "Hakeren Hakayemt Le-Israel", the Jewish National Fund. Ever since its founding it has proceeded according to the iron law that land once acquired by Jews must always remain in Jewish hands.

Arabs can purchase land in Israel – in theory

Formally speaking, after the founding of the state of Israel this regulation was only partially observed, as two different authorities were charged with developing national land policy:

One is the Israeli Office for the Administration of State Land. It is officially permitted to sell land to Arabs, but in practice this happens very rarely. Not only has not a single Arab town been founded in Israel since 1948, Israeli Arabs have lost more and more land to land confiscation by the state.

The other is the Jewish National Fund, which now administers around thirteen percent of Israel's state-owned land. This land is reserved exclusively for Jews, and in the view of the state it must remain this way. These Jewish land reserves are absolutely taboo for Arabs – they cannot even use them, much less purchase them.

Discrimination against a minority

Israeli and Arab human rights activists are refusing to put up with this situation any longer. They regard the land policy of the Israeli state as a form of discrimination, as it discriminates against a minority within a democratic state.

In recent years these activists have repeatedly appealed to the country's Supreme Court. In one case the Israeli Supreme Court judges even decided that a plot of land in a new Israeli settlement had to be sold to an Israeli-Arab couple, something which the authorities has previously tried to prevent.

A stronger position for Israeli-Arab activists

This ruling, the first crack in Israel's stringent land policy, had few repercussions at first. In the long term, however, it has strengthened the position of the Israeli-Arab activists who are now hoping to topple the existing system.

Several months ago they brought the matter to the Supreme Court, a suit initiated by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), an Israeli human rights organization supported by a number of mainly religious organizations in Europe. In Germany it is supported by the Church Development Service (Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst, EED).

Asked about the background and motivations for this support, the press officer of the EED, Ilonka Boltze, explained: "The Church Development Service has been sponsoring the human rights organization ACRI for several years now due to its commitment to the legal equality of all Israel's citizens, including the Arab minority in Israel."

According to Ilonka Boltze, another issue is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories: "The ACRI provides legal advice, informs the public about Israel's obligations under international law and criticizes violations of international law inside and outside the zone of occupation. The EED supports organizations such as ACRI in their efforts to increase respect for international law."

Israel's Supreme Court pressures politicians to act

The initiators of the suit being brought to the Supreme Court, Israeli Jews and Arabs, refuse to go on tolerating the fact that land held by the Jewish National Fund cannot be sold to Israeli Arabs.

When the judges asked for a statement on the issue, the Jewish National Fund countered that the institution's job had always been to ensure that at least part of Israel's national territory will always remain in Jewish hands.

Due to a number of legal precedents set by the Supreme Court, however, this attitude is no longer legally tenable. Now the Israeli government, all too well aware of the situation, is trying to pull the emergency brake.

In reaction to the suit brought before the Supreme Court, Israeli Attorney General Mani Mazoz offered a compromise in the hopes of defusing the situation and heading off a verdict that could put the government at a disadvantage.

A revolutionary compromise or eyewash?

Mazoz' proposal seemed nothing short of revolutionary: in future, Israeli Arabs would be allowed to put in bids to use and purchase state land from the Jewish land reserves.

On the face of it, this breaks with one of the most sacred taboos of the Israeli state, which defines itself as a Jewish state: now Arabs have formal permission to purchase land reserved for the Jewish population.

There is one catch, however: the Attorney General also set the condition that every time a piece of land from the Jewish land reserves is sold to Arabs, the Israeli state must replenish the lost reserves. Yet it remains unclear where the land is supposed to come from.

All the same, the apparent breaking of the taboo outraged conservative circles. Yehiel Leket, chair of the board of directors of the Jewish National Fund even referred to it as a "robbery", an assault on the land resources laboriously built up over the decades with donations from Jews all over the world.

According to Leket, the Attorney General's decision undermines the Jewish foundation of the Israeli state; someone who proceeded like that could well be expected to abolish the Jewish right of return as well.

But criticism is being raised among the ranks of the Arab-Israeli human rights activists as well. For them, Mazoz' decision is nothing but eyewash. According to Auni Bana, an Israeli-Arab human rights activist who is one of the plaintiffs in the suit, the discrimination remains, because the condition that the land reserves sold to Arab applicants must be replenished means that part of the territory continues to be reserved for Jews.

Bana takes a skeptical view of future developments. The deadline set by the Supreme Court means that the Israeli state must take a position on the suit a few weeks from now, and he fears that the state will intentionally delay the decision, for example by setting up a special commission whose work might take years.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2005

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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