Hal Draper


Israel’s Arab Minority:
The Great Land Robbery

(Winter 1957)

From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 1, Winter 1957, pp. 7–30.
Transcribed by Tex Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Transcriber’s Note: Numbers mark reference notes, which are collected at the end of the article and give source data only, footnotes had been marked by asterisks, are now marked by letters. – ERC


The background of this article is given by a previous one, Israel’s Arab Minority: The Beginning of a Tragedy (NI, Summer 1956), dealing with the 1948 Palestine war.

As before, it is the aim to document all important statements from sources which Zionists would recognize as being pro-Jewish rather than pro-Arab. Exceptions to this are clearly labeled in the text or reference notes, wherever necessary.

More than before, the present article refers most often to a basic work which is unfortunately still unpublished, though it has no near rival as the authoritative and scholarly work on the subjects covered. This is the Ph.D. thesis (Columbia, 1954) by Don Peretz, Israel and the Arab Refugees, in two mimeographed volumes.

Since we lean so heavily on it, and on the same author’s magazine articles, an introduction is in order. In viewpoint Dr. Peretz is a disciple of, and dedicates his book to, Judah L. Magnes, founder of the Ichud, a small group in Israel which is the only wing of the Zionist movement which still consistently stands for justice to the Arab people.

Peretz studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem till 1948; during the Palestine war, he was a correspondent for NBC; in 1949 he returned to Palestine as Quaker representative with the UN agency in the field; later he was Middle East media evaluator for the Voice of America. In 1952 he studied Israel and the Middle East on a Ford Foundation grant, leading to his thesis. More recently he has been an expert on Middle East affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

Thanks are also due to Mr. David I. Marmor, director of research of the Israel Office of Information (NY), for his co-operation in checking matters of fact and expressing his differences in matters of opinion and interpretation.

The Tel-Aviv newspaper Ha’aretz which is mentioned several times is the leading daily in Israel, sometimes called the Times of Israel, liberal in viewpoint. Its record of relative frankness on the Arab question is very exceptional.


Israel’s Arab Minority:
The Great Land Robbery

But the discussion of Zionism is beset with the additional difficulty that clear and honest thinking is subtly hindered by the fact that really honest speaking is almost unattainable. An exceptionally long history of struggle and suffering has left many sore and sensitive spots in the body of Israel, and the thoughtful Gentile feels the necessity of excessive caution lest he touch any of these tender spots; while the Jew, no matter how emancipated, cannot completely overcome the effects of a traditional attitude which puts group loyalty above devotion to the simple truth, and regards it as the most deadly sin to tell the truth in the hearing of the hereditary enemy. Self-respecting Jews also cannot help leaning backward in expressions which may endanger their being identified with those who for their belly’s sake creep out of the Jewish fold. The discussion of Zionism has thus been largely left to those who are more zealous about the triumph of their righteous cause than scrupulous about the justice of their arguments. – Morris Raphael Cohen

As a result of the mass flight of the Palestinian Arab population during the 1948 war, there were only about 170,000 Arabs left within the expanded borders of Israel’s territory after the armistices, as compared with 700,000 Arabs in this area before the start of the war.

This was a tremendous reduction from the proportions envisioned in the Partition Plan adopted by the UN in 1947. In the smaller Israel marked out by the partition, about 45 per cent would have been Arab (not even counting in the Bedouin); though it was expected that Jewish immigration would soon change the figure.

So Israel virtually began with an Arab minority of only 10 to 11 per cent, about the same as the Negro minority in the United States.

Today, according to government figures, the whole non-Jewish population is about 192,000, out of a total population of about 1,720,000. If we eliminate the 17,500 Druzes from this non-Jewish figure, then of the remaining 174,000 Arabs there are 131,500 Moslems and 42,800 Christians.

The proportion of Christians among the Arabs, as against Moslems, is now over twice as high as it was before the war – 20 to 25 per cent as against the pre-war 10 per cent. This means an added barrier against the automatic identification of the Arab minority with most foreign Arab regimes.

The largest Arab concentration, the all-Arab town of Nazareth, is predominantly Christian. It has over 20,000 Arabs, as against the remnant of 7,000 in Haifa and 5,500 in Jaffa. All together, 51,000 Arabs live in towns (according to government figures) as against about 70 per cent who live in the 102 Arab villages.

A basic fact to keep in mind, too often obscured in both Zionist and Arab propaganda, is that this Arab minority as it presently exists consists largely of those Arabs who succeeded in resisting all of the considerable pressures to take part in the wartime flight, both from the foreign Arab aggressors and their irregulars and from the Zionist forces. They withstood a great deal and did not become refugees.

Even if one accepts the standard Zionist tale that the Palestinian refugees fled the country out of support to the foreign Arab invaders, still surely those people who did not become refugees thereby proved doubly and trebly that they were far from being “fifth-columnists.” While the Zionist agencies seized the opportunity afforded by the flight to despoil the displaced Arabs of their land and property, surely there could be no question of dispossessing these Arabs who had not fled over the borders? ...

There was question indeed. While much of the story of the land-grab concerns the refugees, who are now outside Israel’s borders, we shall be presently concerned with the treatment of the Arab minority who remained inside.

In our preceding article on the Arab flight, we referred to the unofficial looting, property-snatching and land-grabbing which went on in the course of the fighting, directed against Palestinian Arab civilians. This, to be sure, was the start of the land-grab but it was still unofficial in the sense of being unsanctioned by explicit law and official government action, however deliberately it was carried through by official Zionist bodies like the Jewish Agency, or furthered by the military commanders. This was bad enough, but the story that has to be told now is of a different order: the robbery of a people carried through in planned, deliberate, “legal” action by the formal action of the Israel government over a period of years, and not in the heat or turmoil of war.

The extent of this robbery, in terms of its economic importance to Israel, has already been partially sketched [a]: over a third of Israel’s Jewish population lives on property stolen from displaced Arabs; most Arab-owned citrus groves were taken, plus almost all of the olive groves; etc. Let us now fill out this picture, keeping in mind that the entire area of Israel is not much over five million acres, or 23 million dunams in the Palestinian measure, of which less than a quarter are under cultivation. (A dunam equals one-fourth of an acre for rough estimate.)

Just before the war, the total amount of Jewish-owned land in all of Palestine was only 1,850,000 dunams The total amount of cultivable land taken from the Arabs after that was 4,574,000 dunams, or nearly 2½ times as much [1] – a fifth of the total area of the country. As for the total land taken

The CCP [UN’s Conciliation Commission for Palestine] estimated that although only a little more than a quarter was considered cultivable, more than 80 per cent of Israel’s total area ... represented land abandoned by the Arab refugees. [2] ... [The 80% figure includes areas such as Bedouin lands in the Negev that had been held by Arabs traditionally with virtually all rights except juridical ownership, which was retained by the British colonial government. – H.D.]


... They left whole cities like Jaffa, Acre, Lydda, Ramleh, Baysan, Migdal-Gad; 388 towns and villages; and large parts of 94 other cities and towns, containing nearly a quarter of all the buildings in Israel. Ten thousand shops, businesses and stores were left in Jewish hands ... [3]

Twenty thousand dunams of absentee property were leased by the Custodian [Israel government official in charge] in 1952 for industrial purposes. A third of Israel’s stone production was supplied by 52 Arab quarries under his jurisdiction ... [4]

The Custodian was also responsible for four million Palestine pounds in Arab bank accounts blocked in Israel [b], and an undetermined amount of shares in businesses, corporations, companies and partnerships. In 1953 his office was one of the largest employers in Israel, and perhaps the largest single employer of new immigrants. [5]

According to the CCP (UN) estimate, the total value of the lands taken from the Arabs was over 100 million Palestine pounds, to which should be added another 20 million pounds for movable property appropriated. [6] (In 1950, this total of 120 million Palestine pounds was worth $336 million.) Arab estimates went up to 10 or 20 times this amount. The Israel government has refused to give its own estimate. [c]

Of course the above inventory applies to all the displaced Arabs, most of whom are now refugees and not in the country. But how much was stolen from Arabs who are still in the country and who did not flee?

The leading Israeli daily Ha’aretz wrote in a survey of the Arab minority problem:

Individual DPs may be found in virtually every Arab village in Israel. 15,000 is the estimated number of fellahin [peasants] who have been dislodged from their homes and farms and left utterly destitute. About 15,000 more have been only partially hurt, some more and some less. The area of land seized under the Land Acquisition Law from the Arabs who did not flee from Israel – not counting those who did flee, from whom much more was taken away – amounts to over a million dunams, at least one half of which represents fertile and easily cultivable level country, the balance being stony mountainous terrain capable of cultivation only with the fellah’s primitive plow. [7]

On the basis of a different estimate [d] Dr. Don Peretz writes that

Approximately 40 per cent of the land owned by legal Arab residents of Israel was confiscated by the authorities as part of their absentee-property policy. [8]

Forty per cent of the land owned by presently legal Arab residents of the country, not even counting the other Palestinian Arabs who were driven out, or helped out, or kept out of the country by the Israeli refugee policy!

Let us now see how all this was done, from 1948 to the present.


The day we lick the Arabs, that is the day, I think, when we shall be sowing the seed of an eternal hatred of such dimensions that Jews will not be able to live in that part of the world for centuries to come. – Judah L. Maghnes 1946

We have already seen how the land-grab and property-steal began in the course of the 1948 war itself under the initiative particularly of the Jewish Agency (an arm of the World Zionist Organization executive) and of the military commanders on the spot, who of course were formally the agencies of the new Israel government, as well as of less official looters and pillagers; while “affairs in many areas degenerated without any restraint.” [e]

Almost a month after the Deir Yassin massacre, when the Arab flight was reaching a flood, the Zionist daily Palestine Post (May 5) already announced that a “Custodian of Arab Property” had been appointed in the Jerusalem area, and that similar authorities had been set up in other sections. This Custodian, said the paper, was a Haganah officer, name a secret, appointed by the Jewish Agency. In view of the role being played by the army and the Jewish Agency itself with respect to the grab of Arab property, one may wonder whether the appointment of an officer as Custodian was meant to restrain the grab, or merely to regulate and channelize it. (This, of course, was still over a week before the State of Israel and its government were formally set up by declaration on May 15.)

In the early days of the war, the ad hoc decisions of various field commanders substituted for a unified, preconceived plan of operation [regarding Arab property] ...

... From April until the Custodian’s appointment [in July], the army had primary responsibility for occupied Arab property. Because it conquered the property, the military considered itself the rightful owner. When the time came for the Custodian to take over from the army, military authorities often placed obstructions in his way, Sometimes for days and weeks, the army prevented the Custodian from entering cities to take charge of absentee property. [9]

(In studying the fate of the Arab minority in Israel we will often find that the military authorities, representing the most chauvinist elements in Zionism, bucked the government or its courts for a more reactionary policy, perhaps the most spectacular case being the razing of the Arab town of Ikrit in 1951. This pattern began early.)

Once the state came into existence and the provisional government took over, bits of emergency legislation were improvised to give a color of legal sanction to what was actually being done. The first was on June 24, an Abandoned Areas Ordinance which gave a most peculiar definition of an “abandoned area”:

1 (a) “Abandoned area” means any area or place conquered by or surrendered to armed forces or deserted by all or part of its inhabitants, and which has been declared by order to be an abandoned area. [10]

This law was made retroactive to the creation of the state, and in it the government gave itself the power to make all regulations for the “abandoned areas.”

The definition of “abandoned area” was deliberately made so wide-open that it applied to virtually any Arab village or town or section, whether it had been abandoned or not. Even where the population had really “abandoned” a village, they may have merely gone a few miles away to wait out the shooting before coming back; or only some of the inhabitants may have fled; and indeed nobody at all need have fled anywhere, according to the carefully expansive formulation of the definition.

The ordinance therefore did not have to use ethnic terms to pinpoint its objective as Arab property. Actually many a Jewish area became “abandoned” by this definition too, but this is purely academic in view of the fact that the sharp edge of the ordinance was intended to be wielded solely in one direction.

The government set up a “Custodian of Abandoned Property” – a change of label from the previously designated Custodian of Arab Property in order not to formalize the fact of ethnic robbery. The first Custodian was appointed on July 15.

Since he naturally was not going to work the land himself –

... therefore steps were taken to legalize its use by the Jewish agricultural settlements which had occupied much of it. The Ministry of Agriculture was given power to assign this land to cultivators whom it could designate for a period of up to one year. [11]

It is clear, then, that the government did not aim its ordinance only against “bad” Arabs who had fled to the invaders, as the Zionist story goes. No such criterion is involved in this ordinance in any way.

This ordinance was only the beginning.

Dr. Peretz relates:

Long-term policy in the latter half of 1948 was to present the Arabs with the fact that a large part of their property no longer existed and that areas for their resettlement in Israel would be determined by security and political factors. As yet there was no government plan for the use of refugee property, but due to security reasons, their immediate return was not permitted ...

By the end of the year, government policy concerning use of the property also began to assume long-term aspects ... [12]

In December 1948 the Ministry of Finance issued its first Absentee Property Regulations. A “Custodian of Absentee Property” replaced the Custodian of Abandoned Property. This had the effect of transferring the label from the land to the person affected, but the change in terminology didn’t help much. Just as “abandoned.” Property had been defined to include land that was never abandoned, so “absentee” was defined to include Arabs who were not only present in Israel but who had never been absent. According to Ha’aretz, “there is even a special label devised for these people, ‘present absentees’.” [13]

The key definition of “absentee” in these regulations was a Palestine citizen who had left his normal or habitual place of residence. [14] There was no pretense at limiting it to Arabs who had fled over the border or even to the other side of the fighting lines. Dr. Peretz explains:

Every Arab in Palestine who had left his town or village after November 29, 1947 [date of UN partition decision] was liable to be classified as an absentee under the regulations. All Arabs who held property in the New City of Acre, regardless of the fact that they may never have traveled farther than the few meters to the Old City, were classified as absentees. The 30,000 Arabs who fled from one place to another within Israel, but who never left the country, were also liable to have their property declared absentee. Any individual who may have gone to Beirut or Bethlehem for a one-day visit during the latter days of the Mandate was automatically an absentee. [15]

Naturally, this formula was so broad that it could also net Jews who might come under the extended definition of “absentee.” This danger was mainly academic, since those who administered the regulations knew well enough against whom it was aimed. But there were safeguards just in case:

The Custodian could issue a certificate stating that anyone was not an absentee if “in his opinion” such a person left his residence from fear of Israel’s enemies, or if the Custodian believed that he was capable of managing his properties efficiently, without giving aid to Israel’s enemies. [16]

There is no case where the provisions of the various land-grab laws (this one, or any subsequent one) were ever enforced against a Jew, even though they may have applied, and even though the laws were never ethnically formulated so as to be applicable to Arabs only.

Here are some of the other remarkable provisions of these regulations:

  1. The Custodian “could take over all property which might be obtained in the future by an individual whom he certified to be absentee.” [17] (Italics added)
  2. The Arab is guilty till he proves himself innocent:

The Custodian could take over most Arab property in Israel on the strength of his own judgment by certifying in writing that any person or body of persons, and that any property was absentee. The burden of proof that any property was not absentee fell upon its owner, but the Custodian could not be questioned concerning the source of information on the grounds of which he had declared a person or property absentee. [18]

  1. The Custodian could expropriate business associates of “absentee” Arabs, even though the associates themselves were not absentee:

All businesses in which at least one-half of the number of persons, partners, shareholders, directors or managers were absentees, or in which absentees were dominant or controlled at least half of the capital, were turned over in whole to the Custodian. [Italics added.] [19]

  1. Even where the Custodian might decide to release “absentee” property to its rightful owner, the game was not finished:

The Custodian could require the owner to deliver other property in exchange for his released property ... The Custodian could withhold the certificates to release property until he received a maintenance payment not to exceed five per cent per annum of the property’s value, to be determined by the price which could have been obtained had the property been sold in the market. – In addition, the Custodian was entitled to receive payment for all expenses incurred in holding the property, together with interest at the rate of six per cent per annum from the date he took over. [20]

  1. The Custodian could do no wrong:

Any person carrying out an order given by the Custodian was not held responsible if it was later proved that the property was not absentees’. [21]

When this legal atrocity was discussed in the Knesset, some of the truth about it was told by the Arab deputy Sayf al-Din al-Zabi, who represented a Mapai-affiliated “Arab” list. [f] He

challenged the seizure by the Custodian of property belonging to Arabs who were legal residents of Israel, who had participated in the first elections and who held government-issued identity cards. Many were absent from their residence for a few days only during the fighting which overtook their villages, but did not leave the country. Al-Zabi pointed out that many residents of Turan and Nazareth who were gone only a few hours also lost their property to the Custodian. The majority of the villagers of Maalul, Andor [Eindor], and Al-Mujidal who took refuge in Nazareth when fighting occurred near their homes were declared absentees although they never left Israel’s territory. Half the Arab inhabitants of Kafr Elut remained in their village during the fighting. The other half took refuge in Nazareth, but all the villagers became absentees, and even those who remained in their homes were required to pay rent to the Custodian for the use of their own lands. In Acre and Shafa Amr many Arabs were not permitted to cultivate their lands which were used by surrounding Jewish collectives under the authority of the Custodian and the Ministry of Agriculture. Villagers of Baysan and Zippori were moved from their villages by the army long after the end of active hostilities, and their property was turned over to the Custodian. Arabs of Al Qitna were also moved by the army to Al-Ghabsiya and those of Al-Halhala were moved to Akbara for “security reasons,” and their property declared absentee. [22]

So said Al-Zabi; and since he is Arab, perhaps convinced Zionists can persuade themselves that he must be exaggerating, in spite of the fact that he is the Mapai’s own domesticated Arab.

But the provisions of these regulations speak eloquently enough of the aims which animated the men who thought them up.

The following month, January 1949, a new legal instrument came into being in the form of an amendment to the Cultivation of Wastelands emergency ordinance. This empowered the Ministry of Agriculture to grant longer leases to Jewish settlers who were working “absentee” lands. It was a step on the road to their complete alienation; for at this point, it should be remembered, the “absentee” Arabs still owned the land in theory; the Custodian was simply ... taking care of it in their theoretical absence.

The ordinance enabled the government to begin settling absentee [Arab] villages with [Jewish] farmers who would work the surrounding land. Government organizations were formed to manage the property and to rent land to individual farmers or contracting companies. Settlers were given the opportunity to choose lands near their villages through the Jewish National Fund ... [23]

This Cultivation of Wastelands ordinance was also the basis of a land-grab method which did not depend on the “absentee” gimmick, and therefore could be used against those Arab landholders who could not be fitted into the absentee category even with stretching. It

empowers the Minister of Agriculture to seize any plot of land lying waste, regardless of the reason – the land might even be located in an area not accessible without a special permit, which the Military Governor might refuse to issue – and hand it to anyone for “temporary” cultivation. The only condition was that the Minister send a prior notice to the owner warning him to resume the cultivation of his land – and the warning could be in the form of a written notice displayed in a conspicuous place on his land, which, as we have said, was not at all accessible to the owner – and the owner took no heed of the warning. Since the Arab landowners concerned “took no heed” of the warning and proceeded to “keep their lands waste,” those lands were leased by the Minister for a nominal sum to Jewish settlements and contractors, who in many instances employed the landowners themselves in the cultivation of those lands, in return for a portion of the crops. And for this purpose the Military Governor was not at all averse to granting them entry permits into the closed areas. [24]

In other words, it utilized what Mordechai Stein has aptly called “a sort of double-play of two laws.” [25] One, which permits the government to seize any land in Military Government areas “in the interests of the public safety” and declare it a “security zone,” is based on the Emergency Regulations of 1945 – i.e., of the British Mandate. The Israel government has taken over these hated laws, which were originally set up in good measure as a colonialist’s means of repressing the Zionist underground, and are equally suited as the Zionists’ means to despoil the Arab minority.

When this ordinance is applied to an area, and its Arab owners ejected, the second ordinance comes into play. Since the land is not being cultivated by its Arab owners any longer, it can be taken over by the state as “wasteland” and handed over to Jewish settlers who will cultivate it – i.e., who will be allowed to cultivate it. [26]

The land-robbery based on this “double play” is also aimed against Israeli Arabs who never fled. [g] But, as explained at the end of this article, this phase of the land robbery will be detailed in a future study dealing with Israel’s military rule over its Arab minority.


It used to be said in the liberal first quarter of our century that a country was judged by the manner in which it treated its Jews. It is, therefore, understandably natural that the converse proposition should he suggested, and the question asked: how does the Jewish State treat its Arabs? – Jon Kimiche

By 1950, with the relative stabilization that followed the victory in the 1948 war, the government felt that a firmer juridical basis for the land-grab was necessary, and so it had the Knesset pass a law to legalize what had been done. Up to this time, the land-grab had been carried through via the ordinances of the provisional government.

This was the Absentee Property Law of March 1950. Dr. Peretz sums it up:

Actually the Absentee Property Law defined no new procedure. It merely legalized the de facto situation which grew out of improvisation under wartime emergency conditions ... [27]


Minor changes somewhat curtailed the Custodian’s power and improved the status of absentees. [28]

One change was to narrow somewhat the definition of an absentee:

The new definition made an absentee of any Palestinian who, at any time since the UN partition decision of November 1947, had “left his place of habitual residence …. for a place in Palestine held …. by forces which sought to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel or which fought against it after its establishment ...” So –

It did not include Arabs who remained in areas controlled by Jewish forces after November 29, 1947 [the partition decision], provided they had not left such areas after that date ... the number of Arabs who benefited from the change was not large. [29]

Besides, a good deal of the land-grab had already proceeded according to the wide-open provisions of the preceding ordinances, and the Arabs did not automatically get their land back just because the new law did not apply to them. On the contrary; we shall see that in 1953 the Knesset had to pass another law precisely to legalize (once more) the retention of land stolen from Arabs outside the framework of any law or ordinance.

Other changes introduced by the 1950 law were: the Custodian could take over a business only when all the members, partners, shareholders, etc. were absentees, rather than half; the Custodian was no longer exempt from answering a court about the source of his knowledge about the status of an absentee; his maintenance payment was reduced from 5 per cent to 4. In addition, notes Schechtman [30], the new law “required the Custodian to pay debts owed by absentees whose property they controlled, and to obey court orders for attachments” – a change which did not do the absentees any good.

Such minor changes did little to affect either the status of absentee property, most of which was already distributed, or the status of its original owners. Presentation of absentee property cases in the courts by Arabs, however, was facilitated. [31]

Dr. Peretz, in an outstanding magazine article, described the effect of this law in terms similar to those we have seen above in connection with the December 1948 regulations. After noting its definition of absentee, he said:

Consequently, any Arab of Nazareth who might have visited the Old City of Jerusalem or Bethlehem on Christmas 1948 automatically became an “absentee” under the law. Nearly all the Arab refugees in Israel, as well as the 30,000 inhabitants of the Little Triangle which became part of the state under the armistice agreements with Jordan, were classified as “absentees.” Many Israeli Arabs who, during the battle of Acre, fled from their homes in the new to the old city lost their property under the provisions of this law.

... All of the new city of Acre was turned over to recent [Jewish] immigrants despite the fact that many of its Arab “absentee” home owners were living a few yards away ... [32]

The pro-Zionist journalist Hal Lehrman has also remarked that

“It was further charged that Israel authorities tended to treat any Arab owner, ipso facto, as an absentee unless he obtained, on his own considerable time and at his own expense, a certificate to the contrary.” [33]

In the Knesset at the time of its passage, a series of amendments (offered mainly by the Arab deputies) were turned down, even though many of them proposed only an elementary measure of fair dealing. Among these were amendments to protect the land of Arabs (1) who were legal citizens of Israel, with an identity card, and had not aided the enemy; (2) who had never fled the country; (3) who had been expelled from their villages when these were conquered by the Israeli troops; etc. [34] In defiance of conscience, these Arabs were specifically voted into the “absentee” category.

Another proposed amendment wanted to set up a special authority, instead of the Custodian’s say-so, to decide on the property of those Arabs who were legally in Israel. As Ha’aretz put it on March 20 after the law was passed,

“Elementary feelings of justice demand that an Arab who legally returns to Israel should not continue to be an absentee ... We are not at war with the Arabs who are established citizens of the state ... A law which automatically makes them absentee is insufferable ... This is a matter of conscience and political understanding.”

But it was the insufferable that was passed; and it seemed that the state of Israel was indeed “at war with the Arabs who are established citizens of the state.”

The popular columnist Courtney of the pro-government Jerusalem Post attacked the law as “perhaps the most serious factor creating embitterment among all Arabs.”

He pointed out that in Galilee twenty villages had been deprived of their property by Jewish collectives, which “arrogated to themselves, through long-term leases granted by the Minister of Agriculture, lands of Arabs who were free of any guilt or wrongdoing.” [35]

The Israeli Arab spokesman E.N. Koussa, writing in the Ichud’s organ Ner (January 1951), pointed out there was even a member of the Knesset who enjoyed all the privileges of a deputy and yet, because he was an Arab, “is under a legal disability to control his properties. Such is the actual condition of Mr. Tufiq Tubi, the Arab Knesset member.”

Incidentally, Tubi is a Communist Party deputy, but this is hardly relevant to the fact that there exists a peculiar Israeli institution of “absentee” deputies voting on the country’s laws.

One aspect of the Absentee Property Law precipitated a fight among the Jewish deputies themselves. Opposition parties criticized the great power vested in the Custodian, who was appointed by the Mapai’s minister of Finance. “Control of a quarter of Israel’s wealth and most of its land was a plum they hesitated to let fall to Israel’s largest party” [36], though they had not hesitated to steal this plum from the Arabs. Opponents accused the Custodian of giving 90 per cent of absentee property to Mapai-controlled institutions, co-operatives, etc., at half of its market value, and of selling absentee property to a favored few.

As mentioned above, one advantage gained by the Arabs was that it was easier to bring the government robbers to court, for an accounting. On this whole issue of the land-robbery the Israeli courts have often been a prominent bright spot as defenders of justice [h], but their remedial power has been too limited to make any considerable difference in the outcome. Court cases, however, have been particularly useful as documentable illustrations of what was going on, though one must bear in mind how few Arabs could even think of going through the court procedures.

Thus Dr. Peretz cites the “claim of Tanus Ilyas al-Askar against the Custodian” as “typical of many cases which reached the courts and thousands that did not.” Let us take a look at this “typical” case.

Askar was a legal resident of Haifa, with an Israeli identity card; he had in fact voted in the national elections. In January 1948 he had gone to a village near Israel’s northern frontier but had returned to Haifa in March.

He then obtained permission from the Custodian to receive rent from his home in Haifa and to lease a shop. Shortly thereafter he was denounced as an absentee who had procured his contract under false pretenses. The Custodian certified that he was an absentee and ordered him to evacuate his shop. [37]

Askar went to court in self-defense. The High Court found in his favor on the ground that he had in fact exercised de jure citizenship rights and that this “automatically exempted him from the Custodian’s arbitrary authority.”

The court expressed the opinion in this case that, in the light of the evidence, Askar had been classified an absentee in order to force his removal from his shop. “It can be said,” stated the court, “that the certificate [classifying him as absentee] was issued only to deprive the claimant of elementary rights and of legal assistance and defense, and in this respect the Custodian acted in an untoward manner.” [38]

Another case is summarized by Judd Teller, a professional Zionist journalist who was UN correspondent in New York for Davar, the Histadrut organ. This is from a 1951 article of his:

There is the case, still pending in the courts, of Abed il Al and his family, who live in Om it Faraj, a Galilee village, and whom the military authorities had ordered deported as infiltrees. Al, admitting that he had fled the village at the outset of Arab-Israeli hostilities, claims that he has lived there all his life, that it is ridiculous to brand him an infiltree, that his troubles in fact started only after he had refused to agree to a proposal by the military that he exchange his rich land in Galilee for an inferior parcel in another part of the country, and that if he lost his case all other Arabs in that village soon would face a similar choice because a nearby kibbutz was determined to increase its own holdings by annexing Arab lands. In a somewhat similar case, the Israeli high court has upheld an Arab claim and nullified an evacuation order. [39]

On the role of the courts in tempering the land-robbery law in some cases, the pro-Zionist journalist Hal Lehrman remarked:

Mistreated Arabs could appeal successfully to the Supreme Court for redress. But the very frequency of such appeals showed the extent of the abuses, and many Arab fellaheen lacked the sophistication, the funds or the daring to go over the head of the official controlling their areas. The Court itself found occasion severely to reprimand the Custodian’s office for its unjust interpretation of the law. [40]

Now in general, as we have noted, the Absentee Property Law of 1950 only legalized the de facto robbery that had already gone on, though in some minor respects (which we have noted) the status of absentees was a bit improved. Outside of the issue of Arab rights, however, “The fundamental change introduced by the law was the Custodian’s privilege to sell property.” [41]

Up to this time, theoretically the Custodian was simply holding the land on behalf of its owners. The new provision in the law “was the first step toward legally implementing the new policy of absorbing Arab holdings through development,” [42] that is, of permanently and juridically alienating the land from its Arab owners. A Development Authority was set up which had the right to buy absentee property from the Custodian. The Jewish National Fund was specifically authorized to purchase such land.

The Hebrew University professor Norman Bentwich states in his book Israel, published in 1952:

The [Jewish National] Fund has now become an indispensable adjunct of the State for both rural and urban development. It buys from the Custodian of Absentee Property, appointed by the State, the land and houses of the fugitive Arabs, and makes them available to the State Development Board for occupation, the purchase-price, in whole or part, being held as compensation for the former Arab owners. Till 1947 it has acquired 250,000 acres – 1,000,000 dunams in the Palestine measure; by 1951 it had trebled that holding. The programme for the next five years is to acquire another 500,000 acres, and for that the Fund hopes to collect 250,000,000 dollars. [Italics added] [43]

It should be remembered that the purchase-price, which is referred to, was set by one Zionist official for sale to another Zionist official for the purpose of integrating the land into the Zionist scheme of development. The “former” Arab owners had nothing to say about it, least of all about whether they wanted to sell in the first place. In addition, as Bentwich indicates, the Arab owner might be allocated only a “part” of the purchase-price which is thus set for his own land.

The expectations of which Bentwich wrote were indeed realized. On July 3, 1953 the Jerusalem Post reported that

The Government signed an agreement with the Jewish National Fund this week for the sale of two million dunams, mostly abandoned land, it was announced yesterday.

The agreement was concluded in accordance with Government decisions in 1949 and in 1951 ...

The land in question is in all sectors of the country and is mostly agricultural. About 400 new [Jewish] settlements have in the meantime been established on it by the Jewish Agency ...

After the mass flight of the Arabs the Government took over the custody of their holdings. In order to normalize [sic] the land situation, abandoned land is being transferred to the Jewish National Fund in a series of land transactions.

The significance of the latest land transaction may be measured from the fact that the entire area of Israel is a little over 20 million dunams, of which only 5 million dunams are under cultivation.

Thus the deed was consummated.

A little ease-up on one point took place in 1951 under the pressure of the election campaign for the Knesset. After all, the Arabs had 10 per cent of the votes, and the Mapai-affiliated “Arab” parties had to have some reason for asking for these votes; the Communist Party was getting the support of up to a third of the Arab minority and the government parties were worried. It is remarkable that even under these circumstances the paltry concession that was made was only such as to point up the nature of the whole operation.

The amendment that was passed allowed Arabs who were legal residents to keep any property which they might obtain in the future; they were not to be robbed of any property which they did not yet possess. The change did not affect the steal that had already gone on and was still going on. Such was its magnanimity.

According to Dr. Peretz’ account, even this great-hearted gesture was first initiated in the Knesset, late in 1950, by a Mapainik, David Ha-Cohen, who had to break party discipline in order to do so. But the following year, under the spotlight of the election campaign getting under way, the Knesset passed it.

Even Arabs who were not absentees were liable to be affected by the [Absentee Property] law without Ha-Cohen’s amendment. If a non-absentee Arab citizen willed property to his wife or child or to another member of his family who returned to Israel [from refuge abroad] under the plan to reunite families, their inheritance would be insecure. The Custodian could immediately seize it under the present law. [44]

That much was vouchsafed to justice. Other things were promised with an eye on the vote. The Custodian, and also Moshe Sharett, talked about loosening up on some of the stolen property. Ha’aretz commented (June 2, 1951):

Is it not strange that only now ... measures are promised on behalf of the Arab minority? So far no steps have been taken. It seems hardly likely that the policy will change after the elections.

It was a safe prediction.


And it came to pass after these things, that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, which was in Jezreel, hard by the palace of Ahab king of Samaria.

And Ahab spake unto Naboth, saying, Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near unto my house: and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money.

And Naboth said to Ahab, The Lord forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee. – 1 Kings 21 : 1–3

The juridical completion of the land-robbery was, however, not quite accomplished yet. One loose end had to be gathered up. There were still tracts of land that had been taken away from Arab peasants, during the war or right after it, whose robbery could still not be justified under any law, in spite of the wide-open character of the measures already passed. Besides, the whole operation could scarcely be considered cleaned up till a show had been made of offering some compensation. [i]

The task was met handily by the Land Acquisition Law of March 1953. It did not bother with any niggling piecemeal pretexts for stealing land from Arabs. In one fell swoop it came out with a formula which automatically legalized any and all land-robberies that had already taken place.

The way this is done is surely a juridical curiosity. The heart of the law is in Paragraph 2: land “will become the property of the Development Authority …. free of any encumbrance” if the minister in charge certifies “by signed document” that it fulfills the following three provisions:

  1. On April 1, 1952, was not in the possession of its owners;
  2. Was used or earmarked within the period from May 4, 1948 to April 1, 1952, for purposes of essential development, settlement, or security;
  3. Is still required for one of these purposes ... [45]

The crux is in point (1), which carefully applies the law to any land that “was not in the possession of its owners” for any reason whatsoever—the important reason being, of course, the simple fact that the owner had been illegally kicked off.

The law is being wrongly interpreted by Israel’s Arabs, wrote a Zionist journalist from Haifa to the London Jewish Chronicle. They are in “panic” because they think it means all Arab-owned land can be “confiscated at will.” That is not so, he assures; the law’s main aim “is to grant legal status to an already existing situation.” [46] It seems he expects his readers to heave a sigh of relief.

Ha’aretz related, in its January 1955 issue:

Since the publication of the law in the Official Gazette, up to the end of 1954 the Government Printer had his hands full with the job of issuing official brochures crammed with announcements to the effect that “I, the Minister of Finance ... acting under the powers granted me in the law ... hereby affirm that the lands specified below are covered by the following conditions ... and therefore I order that they be transferred to the ownership of the Development Agency.” This short announcement would always be followed by long lists of Arab villages, numbers of land parcels and series of coordinates sufficient to construct an entire map of Israel. When the work was concluded about two months ago [j], the Development Agency of the State of Israel found itself the richer by over a million dunams. [47]

Before its passage by the Knesset, the 1953 law was strongly criticized as unjust by a number of liberal and socialist Jewish deputies and spokesmen, but when it came to a vote not a single vote was cast against it by any Jewish deputy. At a protest rally of liberal Jewish and Arab notables, it was stressed that 

... the reason why not a single Jewish member of parliament voted against the bill, although many members of the Mapai and Mapam parties strongly criticized it before it was adopted, is that a number of powerful kibbutzim (collective farms) belonging to both Mapai and Mapam parties benefited directly from the law by acquiring the land requisitioned from the Arabs. The Left-wing [Mapam] kibbutzim Hamishmar and Kfar Masaryk were the chief beneficiaries. They acquired so much of the requisitioned Arab land that they now rented out parcels of it to some of the Arabs who previously owned it. [48]

In the Knesset a forceful speech against the law was made by Masad Qasis, deputy of a Mapai-affiliated “Arab” party. Among other things he complained that Jewish collectives were given land in some villages still legally inhabited by Arabs, for example Shafa Amr, al-Hamma, Evron; talk of development and security was “sheer deception.” [49]

Ha’aretz openly said that the purpose of the law was to legalize the seizure of Arab land by Jewish settlements that wanted to expand. “There is no reason to legalize the fact that certain farms exploited the victory of the State in the defense war against invaders, to seize for their own benefit the lands of their neighbors,” it said (March 10, 1953). Being politically conservative, Ha’aretz also thought it worthwhile arguing that “seizure of the [Arab] minority’s property is liable to undermine the foundations of private property rights.”

The Ichud, the only wing of the Zionist movement with a consistent conscience on the subject, naturally spoke out with burning indignation. Here is a good sample from Dr. Shereshevsky, the associate editor of the Ichud organ Ner, entitled We Accuse, addressed to a responsible leader of the Knesset:

[The law’s] true meaning is robbery of land from people, inhabitants, of the State. They are agricultural people, like you; they are citizens of Israel, like you. There exists only one difference between them and you: they are Arabs and you are a Jew. This difference seemed to you so great and decisive that you were ready to trespass for it all that is required by the Law of Israel and its tradition.

The name given to this “Law” is but a lie to conceal what has truly been fixed by it so that the public may not realize and know that not the “acquisition” of land – by a mutual spontaneous agreement on either side – is meant, but an expropriation of lands that have been seized in an arbitrary and illegal way since 1948. This “Law” puts a stamp of legality on criminal actions, “the taking over of land by kibbutzim and settlements from Arab citizens only because these settlements wanted to enlarge their property” (Ha’aretz). One village of 7,000 inhabitants, Um-el-Fahm, has thus lost 110,000 dunams and will remain with only 30,000 dunams. The village of Jatt, of 1,450 inhabitants, remains with 1,600 dunams. The village of Tireh (4,000 inhabitants) is left with 9,000 dunams ...

It is not on behalf of the Arabs that I am writing this letter. They will know how to defend themselves and their rights ... It is not on their behalf that I am writing but on our behalf, for God’s sake “whose name you have profaned among the nations,” for the name of the people of Israel, on behalf of our sons and daughters “who have not sinned”! [50]

In the course of a series of articles in the liberal Ha’aretz, Moshe Keren summed up in January 1954, under a subhead which said Robbery With a Legal Coating:

We consider it our bounden duty to spell this subject out in unequivocal terms: for what occurred here was a case of wholesale robbery with a legal coating. Hundreds of thousands of dunams of land were taken away from the Arab minority – I am not talking here of the refugees – through a whole variety of legal devices. The future student of ethnology will wonder how it came to pass that it was the Jewish people, striving to build their state on the foundations of justice and righteousness and having themselves been the victims of unparalleled acts of robbery and expropriation, that should have been capable of doing this to a helpless minority. But the fact remains that they were, and even more depressing is the fact that it was precisely those groups who presume to establish a new society free from injustice and exploitation – the kibbutzim, in other words – who marched in the vanguard of the seizure campaign, and that foremost among them were the self-styled fighters for the idea of absolute justice – the kibbutzim affiliated with Mapam – whose representatives in the Knesset are now missing no opportunity to condemn the government for its discriminatory policy towards the Arabs. [51]

Although the main objective of the 1953 Land Acquisition Law was to provide a sweeping legalization of all land-robberies committed up to date against Arabs, it formally presented itself also as a law to provide compensation for the lands that had been and were being stolen. [k] On the one hand, this allowed the government to present the operation as a respectable financial transaction; on the other, it enabled Zionist propagandists to invent a picture of the law as a veritable boon for the Arabs and another clinching “proof” of the happy life which the Arabs led under the Zionist state.

The law did indeed offer a compensation system, and a number of Arabs did get some compensation. A close look at this compensation system, however, will raise the question whether the measure was designed to ensure fair payment to despoiled Israeli Arabs or to get around making such payment.

One point is basic, before any such consideration is made at all. This is the fact that not even a scrupulously fair compensation system could possibly make up for the injustice that was done to this people by separating them from their land in any way at all. The land was not only the economic sustenance of these Israeli Arab peasants; it was also the root of their family life, social life, culture and identification with their ancestral mores. Stealing their land meant, literally, destroying their way of life, even if a certain number of pieces of gold and silver were placed in their hands. And it must be borne in mind that the Arab could not simply take the money and buy any other land he might want – land was able to go in one direction only, ethnically speaking.

Pieces of money could no more take the place of land in their culture than, say, a refugee Jewish diamond merchant settling in Lhassa could be compensated for the theft of his cutting tools and precious stock by an equivalent value in stocks of Tibetan rancid yak butter, a Himalayan delicacy.

It is important to emphasize this because, otherwise, an unwary reader may absorb the notion that the justice or injustice of the entire land-grab operation stands or falls with the adequacy or inadequacy of the compensation which may be the final outcome for some. It would be better not even to discuss this aspect of the question at all than to further this notion by getting into the financial argument involved. With this warning, however, a few points about the compensation offered by the law are in order.

It should be borne in mind, too, that the compensation offered by the law was only to Arab peasants who were legally in Israel, and did not refer at all to any who were refugees outside the country. It was therefore an offer of payment for only 300,000 dunams [l] out of the millions of dunams that had been taken. According to Dr. Peretz’s account, “The law was also an attempt to appease the growing sentiments which favored payment to the country’s Arab citizens for their requisitioned property.” [52]

According to the compensation provisions of the law, the Arab owner will be indemnified in money, “if not otherwise agreed” between him and the government. What about his getting land in return for the land taken from him? This was spelled out in the following paragraph of the law:

If the acquired property was used for agriculture, and was the main source of livelihood of its owner, who owns no other land from which he can derive a livelihood, the Development Authority is obliged to offer him, on his demand, other property, either in ownership or in lease, as full or as part indemnity. A competent authority, to be appointed by the Minister, will determine the kind of property to be offered, its location, area, and in the case of lease, the term of the lease (provided it is not less than 49 years) and the value of the property for the purpose of calculating the rate of indemnity, and for the purpose of satisfying his requirements for livelihood, all in accordance with rules to be laid down in regulations. [53]

So the Arab owner is not to be given as much land as was robbed from him; he is to be given only as much as befits “his requirements for livelihood,” the difference to be made up in money. Who will determine how much he needs for his livelihood? Naturally, those who are engaged in robbing him. In any case, whether this determination is made fairly or not, it is written into the law that these Arab peasants shall be deprived of all land except a subsistence tract, even if the land is legally admitted to be theirs. [m]

The government decides, subject to court review, what land shall be given in compensation, what kind, where, how much, and whether it is to be granted outright or merely leased to the peasant. [54]

In case of money compensation, all cash payments are based by the law on the value which the land had in 1950, three years before the law was passed; namely, before the devaluation of Israel’s currency. Surely a most unusual provision! How could it be justified? In the Knesset debate, spokesmen for the law argued that

The Committee [of the Knesset] had fixed the date to prevent owners from benefiting by any rise in value caused by improvements of the Development Authority. [55]

This might be considered legitimate if it referred to improvements like new buildings, etc. on the land in question [n], but if that were really the consideration involved, it would have been much more straightforward and simple to write into the law the requirement that this deduction was to be made for the purposes enumerated.

But this would not have suited the intentions of the lawmakers since it would have failed to take advantage of the currency devaluation that took place between 1950 and 1953. “In January 1950 the average official value of the Israel pound was $2.80. At the time of the Knesset debate on compensation, the average official value of the Israel pound was $1.00.” [56] A piece of land price-tagged 100 pounds in 1950 would have been tagged somewhere near 280 in 1953; but the Arab would be given little more than a third of what it was worth.

Now just to show that it understood this, the Knesset specifically voted into the law a provision which, it claimed, made up for this currency devaluation: the 1950 value, for purposes of compensation, was to be increased by an amount equal to three per cent for each year since then. Only three per cent!

In the Knesset, the Arab deputy Masad Qasis (of a Mapai-affiliated “Arab” party) made another point about the 1950 date:

In 1950 Arabs were permitted to sell land exclusively to the JNF [Jewish National Fund, the Zionist agency]. They received no more than £I 25 per dunam and in some places as little as £I 15, whereas the present price was nearer to £I 250 or £I 350 per dunam. Qasis proposed to give the courts power to fix the kind and amount of compensation. [57]

So much for the fairness of the law’s provision that three-year-old values not current ones, were to be basis of compensation.

But this is only one of the factors involved in the reluctance of the despoiled Arabs to settle their claims in accordance with this unjust law. Here is a review of the situation in the January 7, 1955 issue of Ha’aretz:

The least that might have been expected from the perpetrators of this draconic law is that the one constructive paragraph of the law would be implemented with fairness and decency. Official figures disclose, however, that to date, two years after the passage of the law, no more than one thousand compensation claims have been filed, of which only a few hundred have been settled – and that these are mostly the claims of townsmen whose confiscated lands have been merely a small and subsidiary source of their income, and who are only too glad to receive the money offered them by way of compensation, and some rich farmers who suffer from no lack of land and for whom compensation constituted no problem at all. But not one single fellah, among the thousands of DPs concentrated for the most part in the Galilee has so far been the beneficiary of any measure of agricultural rehabilitation. Why? [58]

This is certainly a very striking fact, particularly given the class differentiation which the Haaretz writer stresses. [o] It is precisely the poor peasants who find the law most unjust and unacceptable; the richer have substantially less difficulty in coming to terms with the masters – hence, incidentally, the very existence of those Mapai-affiliated Arab deputies whom we have had occasion to mention, and who are widely regarded as turncoats; but that is another story.

The Ha’aretz writer asked “Why?” Here is his answer:

The officials entrusted with the administration of the Land Acquisition Law reply that the bulk of the DPs refuse to listen to any offer of compensation and insist on being allowed to return to their lands and villages, and that the few who desire rehabilitation in some other locality are only willing to take strictly Jewish lands, that is, they refuse to resettle on the property of absentees appropriated by the Development Agency, which is the only category of land the Government is prepared to grant them.

This is quite true, and in unofficial talks with DPs’ representatives they freely admit that they would not think of “soiling their hands with the plundered property of their brethren who fled across the border.” And those familiar with the mentality of the Israeli Arabs add that the DPs fear – or maybe hope – that the present situation may be reversed, either through a “second round” or through the detachment of the Galilee from Israel in a peace treaty, as a result of Israel’s eventual agreement to readmit the Arab refugees.

In other words, the Israel Arab DPs who are in Israel are asked by the government not only to condone the robbery of land from their brothers the refugees, but as a matter of fact to become accomplices to the theft by themselves becoming the recipients of stolen property. One cannot gainsay the cleverness of the scheme from the Zionists’ viewpoint: by settling Israeli Arabs on the refugees’ property, these will be made willy-nilly into defenders of the robbery against their people, Arabs against Arabs. But of course the Israeli Arabs regard the stolen property as stolen property, and their disinclination to take it is not hard to understand.

From this point, the rest of the script is acted out: The government can now point to the recalcitrants as holding up that measure of Justice which the land-robbery law was designed to vouchsafe, and Zionists can inspire articles everywhere to the effect that this shows, does it not, that the Israeli Arabs are all fifth-columnists who are waiting bloodthirstily for another round of foreign invasion.

In this connection, Dr. Peretz mentions that “The military discovered that often Arabs within Israel, after agreeing to use land of refugees who fled to the Arab States, made illegal payments to the former property owners across the border.” [59] One sees that the Israeli Arabs even tried to square it in their own way, at their own expense; but of course such “treasonous” goings-on could not be permitted by the state.

To come back to our Ha’aretz writer, his discussion of the situation continues with two other facets of the picture:

But it is doubtful whether this reason alone, which the authorities are powerless to remove, would have prevented the DPs for any length of time from agreeing to resettle even on absentee lands, were it not for some additional delaying factors for which the Government alone is responsible: the endless procrastination, the lack of good will on the part of the responsible officials, the multiplicity of administrative agencies, the bureaucratic confusion which baffles the Arab fellah.

And even when he had finally overcome all these difficulties, the fellah finds out that the Development Agency would grant him no more than 25 dunams of non-irrigated land, the balance of the compensation being paid in money – a few tens of pounds per dunam. So he asks : The money will be spent pretty soon, and how am I supposed to feed my large family from 25 dunams of barren soil?

And thus the ugly affair drags on month after month, year in year out, to this very day, and the ominous challenge it poses to the moral, character of Israel.

With regard to “the lack of good will” mentioned by Ha’aretz, we may also note the statement by Dr. Peretz that “Most Israeli Arabs declare that even after winning court cases against the Custodian, they failed to receive adequate compensation for their losses.” [60]

Dr. Peretz goes on to mention, like others, that the government explains Arab reluctance to take land on the ground that they fear reprisals in a “second round,” and then he adds:

A more plausible explanation might be that farms offered in exchange for “absentee” property are usually granted on short-term leases and in more or less standard-sized holdings which do not necessarily correspond to the amount of land requisitioned.

This point about leasing rather than giving the land is, then, still another reason for the Arabs’ reluctance to accept the law’s settlement. (A little more on this question below.)

And finally, as another reason, not quite covered in all that we have given so far, is this one, perhaps the simplest of all: “Many of them avoid filing their claims on the ground that this would be tantamount to signing away their lands ...” [61] as indeed it would; and so they hope against hope for real justice.

In this way the above-mentioned law achieved three aims at one time: It established order at home; there are no more illegal land-grabs in Israel; everything is now legal. In addition, the Israel government can now make a show to the world of its decency and justice toward the Arab owners of land which was stolen for “development and settlement.” And in addition to all this, the state retains the entire compensation, both the money and the land. [62]

That is a harsh summary from the pen of an Israeli anti-Zionist, M. Stein, but it is in conformity with the facts in the case of the uncompensated “present absentees.”


“It gives you a queer turn,” said one of the [UN] officials who visited the DP camps in Germany and who now works in the steaming, unsanitary camps into which these sorrowful victims of the Palestinian conflict [the Arab refugees] are herded. “If you close your eyes and listen to them, you believe you are back in Bavaria. You ask them where they want to settle, Transjordan, Egypt, Syria, just the way we used to ask the Jews in Germany if they wanted to go to the United States or to South America or to England, and the answer is always the same – ‘Palestine ... Palestine ... Palestine,’ exactly as it was in Germany.” He shook his head at the overlapping and repetitive quality of agony in our century. – Irwin Shaw: Report on Israel

There remain a few aspects of the land-robbery still to be noted.

The 1950 law provided certain circumstances under which absentee property could be released back to its Arab owner. Did this ever happen? In some cases, but then mostly in the case of urban property like houses – rather than agricultural land, which was the main prize desired from the spoliation of the Arabs.

Hal Lehrman writes, discussing serious criticisms made not only by Arabs but also by Israeli Jews whom he talked to:

The Custodian of Arab Property was empowered by law to exempt absentees who had left their residences for valid reasons, but such exemption, it was asserted, was sparingly given and only in exchange for large fees. [63]

Dr. Peretz writes, referring to the time in November 1949 when Finance Minister Eliezer Kaplan answered charges in a Knesset debate:

The government classified tens of thousands of Israel Arabs as absentee. But in urban areas only 400 residents of Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem who had never left the country recovered some of their property, according to Kaplan. The non-urban property of “several score” Arabs was also released. The Custodian issued a total of 209 certificates releasing property to its Arab owners. Maintenance grants from the income of absentee property were made by the Custodian to “several families of absentees in Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem.” There were also a few instances in which merchandise was returned to Arabs after they proved their ownership. [64]

And later:

In urban areas the Custodian returned over 2,000 dwellings to their Arab owners who had been classified as “absentees” by 1953. [65]

The Jerusalem Post reported on October 10, 1952 that, as of August 1, 828 houses, 276 plots, 22,127 dunams of land were returned upon the recommendation of the Committee. [66]

And in those cases where a house was returned to an Arab owner, he might find himself stuck with a tenant in that house whose rent had been fixed by the Custodian, because it was “absentee”-owned, at a specially low level. The Jerusalem Rent Court handed down a ruling that the restored Arab owner could not raise that rent, even if only to the prevailing level. [67] One can have no quarrel with measures designed to keep rents down, especially for the benefit of arrivals from Europe’s DP camps, but this was a measure which automatically discriminated against Arabs only, and did not affect Jewish landlords.

Next: we have already mentioned that the government, in allocating compensatory land, tended to give it to Arabs only on lease, rather than outright. In fact

In many areas the paradoxical situation arose in which the Custodian rented “absentee” property to its original owners. All the Arabs of Kfar Ilit near Nazareth were declared “absentees,” although half of them had never left, not even during the fighting which occurred in the village. After the war, those who remained were forced to pay rent to the Custodian for the use of their own lands. [68]

Truly a fantastic situation, in which “absentees” are so thoroughly present that they are kindly permitted to rent their own land from those who stole it, and where the land itself is so far from being urgently needed for “development and settlement” that, indeed, there is no one to cultivate it except the very Arabs who have been dispossessed of it ... As Dr. Peretz explains when he mentions that the Custodian at one point leased 100,000 dunams to Arabs:

The move resulted from pressure by the Arab minority, Jewish political groups sympathetic to the minority, and government failure to recruit enough Jewish settlers to farm all cultivable absentee land. About 5,000 Arab families – between 25,000 and 30,000 people – in nearly 100 villages were each granted yearly leases of 20 dunams. In most cases the land was leased in exchange for property commandeered by the Custodian. [69] [Italics added.]

If it is a matter of compensating for property “commandeered” by the Custodian, why then isn’t the land given outright, rather than leased? The answer suggests itself: as long as the land is only leased, the Arab protest is temporarily stilled but the land itself still belongs to Jews and the Arab tillers can always be eventually squeezed out. Thus the authorities reason, for the land-grab is not over; but meanwhile the state badly needs the food and crops which will be raised by these Arab lease-holders.

The Mapai-affiliated Arab deputy Masad Qasis, in his complaints against the 1953 law in the Knesset,

strongly opposed compensation in the form of leases for land previously owned by Arabs on the grounds that it would give the government unusual powers over former Arab landowners ...

He accused the government and various institutions of holding property illegally and unjustly for other than security or development reasons and wanted to confine their power to requisition of Arab lands which were either actually settled, or used .for security purposes. Although the government prevented Arabs from securing ownership of their land, in many places it permitted them to lease their own holdings from the Custodian. Jewish collectives, on the other hand, were given land in some villages still legally inhabited by Arabs. This occurred in Shafa Amr, al-Hamma, and Evron. In such cases talk of development and security was “sheer deception.” Qasis, therefore, proposed an unconditional return of the lands to their rightful owners. [70]

But it is not the objective motive of “development and settlement” that governs the over-all policy of the authorities. The question is: development and settlement by whom? all citizens of Israel without discrimination, or Jews only? What governs the real policy of the government is an ethnic chauvinism derived from the Zionist ideology. Hence every foot of ground owned by an Arab citizen of Israel has a question-mark over it. Cutting down the amount of land under Arab holding becomes an end in itself, even apart from the fact that the “Jewish State” is not going to move Jewish settlers who are squatting on stolen land. Thus Qasis’ complaints went on:

Despite their large agricultural contribution, the government refused to restore the untilled land which belonged to the 30,000 Arab refugees who legally resided in Israel. The government often prevented Arab farmers from cultivating unoccupied land near their own villages. Much of the 300,000 dunams requisitioned under the Land Acquisition Law was uncultivated. If the government wanted these lands developed, Qasis thought it should return them to their owners. [71] [Italics added.]

Restrictions on Arab land-holding point toward an eventually Araberrein Israel. In February 1953 the Ichud raised this question of restrictions, among others, in a sharp attack on the government, in which it linked it with the leasing practices of the authorities:

Why did he [a government spokesman] announce to Arab “refugees” who wanted to set up a village in order to bring waste land under cultivation, that “no new Arab villages were to be established in Israel?” Why are lands leased to Arabs for only a one-year period? Does this not prevent capital investments for long-term cultivation and improvements? Do such acts not cause damage to an excellent agricultural area which supplies a considerable proportion of the products so much needed by our population and which save us large amounts of foreign currency? [72] [Italics added.]

The last remarks do indeed indicate economic motives which come into play to counter the Zionist-chauvinist ones. Arab agriculture is badly needed; Arab-owned or cultivated land still has to be put up with, at least for the present. So Arab farmers even have to be aided to produce, today (as we intend to discuss in a future article). But no Arab can feel secure in this atmosphere. [p]

For the land-grab did not end with the 1953 legalization of all previous land-grabs. We have not even discussed – only barely mentioned, on page 13-14 – one whole sector of this subject of how the Arab minority has been despoiled of its heritage. That is the method of the “double-play” which depends on expropriation by the military – the proclamation of certain lands as “security areas” for border defense and the mass eviction of the Arab population from these lands, so that they can be replaced with Jewish settlers.

But this fact raises a larger question – the military occupation under which 85 per cent of the Israeli Arab minority live. This military occupation and the land-grab are the two great and overshadowing realities under which the Israeli Arabs exist, beside which everything else is secondary. The military sector of the land-grab, therefore, will be considered as part of a future article on the military occupation as a whole.

Some readers may wonder: What possible justification do Zionists give for this wholesale robbery of a people? The question is an idle one, for the most part, since virtually all of Zionist literature, with few exceptions, is designed to deny and falsify the fact of the robbery itself. Zionist accounts of the land laws, while dissembling their real meaning and contents, repeat endlessly that the only losers are those bad fifth-columnist Arabs who fled to the enemy out of frothing hatred of the Jews and who are now only whooping it up for war against the state of Israel, etc., etc., etc.

It is therefore enough to establish the facts, as we have done here, to cut through these myths.

But another approach needs a word, since it is given considerable space in the book by the World Zionist-Revisionist leader Joseph B. Schechtman, The Arab Refugee Problem, which is a down-the-line propaganda production for the Israel government position:

Israel’s Finance Minister, Eliezer Kaplan, stressed in the Knesset on November 23, 1949, that the Israel legislation on Arab abandoned property was patterned on that of India and Pakistan, who were confronted with similar problems growing out of the partition of India in 1947. That resulted in vast exchanges of population with the abandoning of enormous quantities of land and other property. Some 7,900,000 Moslems left India for Pakistan and simultaneously some 5,000,000 destitute Hindu and Sikh refugees arrived in India from Pakistan ...

These problems were substantially the same on the Indian subcontinent and in Israel. The legislation dealing with the matter was bound to be construed along similar lines. [73]

This attempt to establish an analogy with the India-Pakistan exchange of population requires a certain kind of boldness which one can admire. We can note first the question of the voluntary character of the exchange, though that will only get us into the official Zionist claim that all the Arab “absentees” fled voluntarily, etc. – a claim which we have already considered. More to the point, there was no exchange at all in the Palestine case, of any kind, voluntary or involuntary. The Israeli Arabs who are now refugees in the Arab states did not get – and are not offered – the property of Jews in those states who move into Israel. This exchange-analogy is a grim jest, quite apart from any criticism of what actually happened in the India-Pakistan operation.

The cream of the jest, however, is to be found a few pages ahead in Schechtman’s book [74], in a passage entirely unrelated to the exchange-analogy. There we find Schechtman echoing the indignant Israeli complaints against the action taken by Iraq in 1951 when that Arab state confiscated the property left behind by Jews leaving for Israel in a mass exodus of over 120,000. Tel-Aviv protested vigorously, and quite rightly. But according to the terms of the exchange-analogy, this was sort of the other half of the “exchange”!

But attempts at propagandist justification like this are exceptional. For the most part it is simply a question of burying the truth. In his burning denunciation of the 1953 land law which we have quoted in its place, Dr. Shereshevsky of the Ichud proclaimed that “The Jewish people in the whole world” will know the truth and “will not put up with it.” … Unfortunately he was wrong. Most particularly in the United States, not only the Zionist press but the general Jewish press, with the general press mostly going along, has performed prodigies in propaganda and public relations to falsify and suppress any part of the truth, thus keeping it from the Jewish people and all other people.

But would “the Jewish people” put up with it if they knew the truth? Dr. Shereshevsky raises the question. It reminds us that the Ichud people, though sterling liberals and honest democrats, are still enmeshed in the Zionist ideology. “The Jewish people” is no monolithic entity that will or will not put up with it; it spreads over the political spectrum.

This is also what is disturbing about one of the constant refrains of those Israeli liberals who do tell the truth about the Arab minority. They tend to pass the guilt off onto the backs of “the Jewish people.” The reader can see a typical example of this in the quotation from Haaretz’s Moshe Keren on page 20-21: how could “the Jewish people” do this to “a helpless minority” when it has itself been the victim of robbery and exploitation and has so often vowed itself to righteousness and justice?

One must respect the motives of this breast-beating, but the content is distressing. It was not “the Jewish people” who did this. In other mouths, such a sweepingly false and slanderous accusation would sound sinister indeed. It was not “the Jewish people” but the Zionist authorities, the Zionist movement, and the Zionist government that bear the responsibility; and the difference is enormous.

Such sweeping attribution of guilt to a whole people, for crimes committed by some among them, is more familiar as a methodological habit of anti-Semites and other racists. It is dangerous. In the present case the conscientious Zionist liberals apply it to their own people, whom they love, whereas the anti-Semites apply it to an alien people whom they hate. This great difference bespeaks the virtues of the liberals, but the dangerous similarity bespeaks the pitfalls of the Zionist identification of all Jews as one nation and of world Jewry with the state of Israel. Here we touch upon that common axis from which Zionism and anti-Semitism branch off in opposite directions as bisymmetric phenomena.



a. NI, Summer 1956, p. 88.

b. The money in these blocked bank accounts was one of the few items of Arab property largely released later – four-fifths by the October 1956 report of the UN’s CCP. Of course, this benefited mainly better-off Arabs, not the fellahin. The problem involved only 6,050 Arab refugee accounts.

c. In general the Israel government has cloaked many details of the land-grab in secrecy. Dr. Peretz writes: “Much information concerning the use, amounts, and distribution of abandoned Arab property and the government’s policy toward it was secret. Records and most reports of the Custodian of Absentee Property were secret ... Even the United Nations, in spite of frequent requests, was unable to obtain adequate information about Israel’s disposition of Arab property.” – Peretz (ref. n1), vol. II, p. 230.

Israel consistently refused to participate in UN attempts to set up mixed commissions “to administer conservation of existing properties including orange groves; to determine property ownership; and to evaluate property damages, including those to orange groves.” The Arab states accepted these proposals. (Ibid., p. 262.)

The Israel agency in charge, the Custodian of Absentee Property, wasn’t telling anybody:

“The decision [of the government in 1953 to sell Custodian-held urban property] caused great concern to the Israeli Arabs who feared that their absentee property would also be sold. At a meeting in Nazareth called to clarify the situation, absentee Arab citizens were told to send their questions in writing to the Custodian’s office for study. A year later they had still received no reply.” (Ibid., p. 303.)

In the 1950 Knesset debate on a new land-grab law, when opposition parties made angry charges that the government was favoring the ruling Mapai party in distributing the acquired land, “One General Zionist member attacked the Custodian’s office as ‘a secret organization’ which operated free of parliamentary control.” (Ibid., p. 285.)

The UN agency (Conciliation Commission for Palestine) therefore had to work out its own estimates with considerable effort; Peretz’s book explains at great length the bases and methods it used in arriving at its conclusions, which he gives.

d. The 4 million-plus dunams taken from Arabs, “approximately 300,000 dunams belonged to Arab residents of Israel who had fled from one section of the state to another during the fighting, or had been moved from their villages by the Jewish authorities for ‘security reasons’.” (Peretz in Middle East Journal, ref. n32) And in his book (ref. n.1) Peretz also mentions 30,000 such Arabs, adding, “as well as much of their urban property.”

e. NI, Summer 1956, pp. 103–4.

f. That is, this Arab notable represented an “Arab party” created by the Mapai, which is the ruling Zionist party, to corral Arab votes. In general, these men are regarded as turncoats by most Arabs, and rightly so; but on Arab questions in the Knesset they usually make the record in speeches of complaint and in their vote. At any rate, it is evident, such men as Al-Zabi are not “anti-Israel demagogues” or “agitators” but quite the reverse: the very tamest specimens the Zionists can find. The only point that is relevant here is whether they tell the minimum truth in their speeches of complaint in the Knesset, while still remaining affiliated with the Mapai.

g. M. Stein, in the article quoted above (ref. n25), writing as a socialist anti-Zionist, says: “With the help of this legal double-play, dozens of Arab villages have been confiscated (Ghabsiye, Ikrit, Kfar Arian, Ferradie, Birim, Seffurle, Mejdel, Mansura, Berwe, Damun, etc.).”

h. For example, Oscar Kraines of NYU writes in his book that under the 1950 land law, “the Custodian of absentee owners’ property was authorized to exempt Arabs who had left their residence for valid reasons. In a number of appeals, the Supreme Court, to its credit for judicial integrity and impartiality, upheld the Arabs and severely reprimanded the Custodian and his staff for arbitrary, capricious, and harsh action in excess of their authority.” (Israel, the Emergence of a New Nation, 1954, p. 27.)

i. For the question of Israel’s offers of compensation to Arab refugees outside the state, which is outside the purview of this study, see Dr. Peretz’s work (ref. n1).

j. The Israel government propaganda booklet The Arabs in Israel (p. 27) says, “The transfer of such land to the Development Authority was completed by March 1954 ...”

k. The UN’s Partition Resolution of 1947, which provided the juridical basis for the creation of the state, had had something to say about land expropriation and compensation, in anticipation of such attempts to take away the minority’s land. It provided that the constitution of the new state must embody certain provisions which could not be abrogated by any law or official act, and which were “under the guarantee of the UN” itself. Among these was the following (Chap. 2, Art. 8):

”No expropriation of land owned by an Arab in the Jewish State (by a Jew in the Arab State) shall be allowed except for public purposes. In all cases of expropriation full compensation as fixed by the Supreme Court shall be paid previous to dispossession.” (Emphasis added.)

l. This figure is Dr. Peretz’s estimate. The government says, “The total of Arab-owned land involved is estimated at 250,000 dunams,” in its propaganda pamphlet, The Arabs in Israel, p. 27 – Incidentally, the next sentence in this propaganda booklet is a good example of the slickly misleading statements which fill it: “The other 1,020,000 dunams transferred to the Development Authority under the Act was either Government-owned or Jewish-owned land.” Thus the disingenuous author distinguishes it from the “Arab-owned land.” But all of this land was equally stolen originally from Arab holders.

m. The aforementioned government pamphlet The Arabs in Israel falsely states on p. 25 that the law aims “to provide for appropriate compensation either in land or in cash as desired by the claimant” (emphasis added), even though some details given on the very next page would indicate the falsity of the statement to close inspection.

n. But in a discussion with a New York representative of Israel’s Histadrut, I got this interpretation of what is meant by “improvements” from which the Arab must not benefit: e.g., if a new road is built and raises land values around it, including an Arab’s land, the latter’s land should be evaluated without taking the change into account, for why should “they” benefit from what “we” do? Israeli Arabs are here thought of as “they” (aliens) while only “we” (Jews) are truly of the country; for is it not a “Jewish State”? This is the authentic ethnocentrism of the Israeli Zionist climate. So the Arab is to be compensated on the basis of what land values were at the time he was robbed, just as if he legally ceased to own the land by virtue of being robbed.

o. As for the fact itself, note that the Ha’aretz statement quoted above says “not one single fellah”; and other sources indicate that, even if all Arabs are counted, the overwhelming majority were unwilling to settle or held out for quite some time. Thus in an article in Ha’aretz on January 14, 1955 by Moshe Keren (ref. n.51) the writer notes that “a certain improvement in the disposition of the land problem has been taking place in this year, the seventh after the establishment of the State of Israel. Some 500 out of the total of 2,000 claims filed to date – and out of the thousands not yet filed with the authorities – have been settled through the grant of compensation in the form of money or land, and the rate of progress in the settlement of the problem is gaining speed.” (This writer then also goes on to discuss the reasons for the Arabs’ reluctance.) – The government propaganda pamphlet The Arabs in Israel, published later in 1955, says, “Some 2,500 Arabs claims have been filed, of which 700 have so far been settled.” (Page 27.) – Back in 1953, a Zionist journalist Maier Asher (ref. n46) wrote that there were only two exceptions to the refusal of Arabs to take the proffered land: “the villagers of Ilakr, near Acre, and Salo, near Ramie.”

p. An American liberal critic of Zionism, Christian Century editor Harold Fey, reported from Israel that

“It is common practice to establish a Jewish land settlement close to an Arab village. If an Arab’s sheep strays to land used by the Israelis, the Arab is arrested and may be fined 50 pounds. Encroachments on Arab land are frequent, beginning with the commons owned by the Arab village and extending now to privately owned land. Many Arab villages sit like a duck in a freezing pond, in the midst of a shrinking circle.” (Fey, Israeli Citizen, Class B, Christian Century, Jan. 13, 1954.)

Reference Notes

1. Don Peretz: Israel and the Arab Refugees, v. II, p. 233.

2. Ibid., p. 230.

3. Ibid., p. 231–2.

4. Ibid., p. 237.

5. Ibid., p. 240.

6. Ibid., p. 236, 238.

7. Yaakov Aviel, The Arabs Among us, Article III, Ha’aretz (Tel-Aviv), Jan. 7, 1955.

8. Peretz (n1), v. II, p. 229.

9. Ibid., p. 228, 244.

10. Laws of the State of Israel, Authorized Translation ... Vol. I, Government Printer, Jerus: Abandoned Areas Ordinance, No. 12 of 5708-1948.

11. Peretz (n1), v. II, p. 244.

12. Ibid., p. 258–9.

13. Yaakov Aviel (n7).

14. Peretz (n1), v.II p. 248. Also Joseph B. Shechtman: The Arab Refugee Problem, Philos. Libr., N.Y., 1952, 96.

15. Peretz (n1), v.II, p. 250–1.

16. Ibid., p. 249.

17. Ibid., p. 248.

18. Ibid., p. 248–9.

19. Ibid., p. 248.

20. Ibid., p. 249.

21. Schechtman (n14), p. 97.

22. Peretz (n1), v. II, p. 251–2.

23. Ibid., p. 260.

24. Yaakov Aviel (n7).

25. M. Stein, The Arab Minority in Israel, Lebensfragen (Tel-Aviv), organ of the Jewish Labor Bund in Israel (socialist anti-Zionist), Jan. 1956.

26. For the legal references, see Peretz (n1), v.I, p. 204.

27. Peretz (n1), v.II, p. 229.

28. Ibid., p. 277.

29. Ibid., p. 278.

30. Schechtman (n14), p. 102.

31. Peretz (n1), v.II, p. 279.

32. Don Peretz, The Arab Minority of Israel, Middle East Journal (Wash., D.C.).

33. Hal Lehrman: Israel, the Beginning and Tomorrow, Sloane, N.Y., 1951, p. 260. See also Norman Bentwich: Israel, Berm, London 1952, p. 157–8.

34. Peretz (n1), v.II, p. 281–4.

35. Ibid., p. 288.

36. Ibid., p. 285.

37. Ibid., p. 297.

38. Ibid., p. 299.

39. Judd L. Teller, Israel Faces Its Arab Minority Problem, Commentary, Dec. 1951.

40. Lehrman (n33), p. 260.

41. Peretz (n1), v. II, p. 279.

42. Ibid., p. 279.

43. Bentwich (n33), p. 78–79.

44. Peretz (n1), v.II, p. 294.

45. Text of law in Middle East Journal (Wash., D.C.), Summer 1953.

46. Maier Asher, The Arab Minority in Israel, Jewish Chronicle (London), Dec. 18, 1953. (Datelined Haifa.)

47. Yaakov Aviel (n7).

48. Jewish Newsletter (New York), May 25, 1953. (Liberal anti-Zionist.)

49. Peretz (n1), v. II, p. 308.

50. Ner (Jerusalem), Apr. 1953.

51. Moshe Keren, The Arabs Among Us, Article V, Ha’aretz (Tel-Aviv), Jan. 14, 1955.

52. Peretz (n1), v. II, p. 306.

53. Text of law (n45).

54. Peretz (n1), v. II, p. 307. See also text of law as quoted in my article.

55. Peretz (n1), v. II, p. 310.

56. Ibid., p. 310.

57. Ibid., p. 308.

58. Yaakov Aviel (n7).

59. Peretz (n1), v.I, p. 168.

60. Peretz in Middle East Journal (n.32).

61. Moshe Keren (n51).

62. Stein (n25).

63. Lehrman (n33), p. 260.

64. Peretz (n1), v. II, p. 255.

65. Ibid., p. 305.

66. Ibid., p. 305.

67. Arabs in Israel, Business Digest (Haifa), July 23, 1952.

68. Peretz in Middle East Journal (n32).

69. Peretz (n1), v. I, p. 213.

70. Ibid., v. II, p. 308–9.

71. Ibid., v. II, p. 309.

72. The Position of the Arabs in the State of Israel, Ner (Jerusalem), Feb. 1953 (English section).

73. Schechtman (n14), p. 98–9.

74. Ibid., p. 111–2.

Last updated on 11 January 2020