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Editorial Board

Adnan Abdelrazek

Danny Rubinstein

Sam'an Khoury

Daniel Bar-Tal

Walid Salem

Galia Golan

Gershon Baskin

Hind Khoury

Edy Kaufman

Ata Qaymari

Benjamin Pogrund

Nafez Nazzal

Dan Jacobson

Jumana Jaouni

Moshe Maoz

Munther Dajani

Khuloud Khayyat Dajani

Izhak Schnell

Lucy Nusseibah

Meir Margalit

Menachem Klein

Ali Abu Shahla

Ilan Baruch

Hanna Siniora

Yehudit Oppenheimer

Mossi Raz

Susie Becher

Frances Raday

Vol.4 No.2 1997 / The Struggle For Land


Arab Lands in Israel: A Festering Wound

How most of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel were moved from their lands after 1948.

Palestinians learning the history of their people's struggle for independence will no doubt be surprised to know that one of the great heroes of the Palestinian national movement in its early days in the 18th century was a "Zionist." For
among the revolutionary acts of Dahar al-'Umar al-Zidani (1698-1777) in the period when he established his independent state in the whole of Galilee, including Haifa, was his call to the exiled Jews of Tiberias "to return and inherit their
patrimony." He welcomed them on their return, building them houses and a magnificent synagogue while they, for their part, responded with complete loyalty to him, even providing him with vital information on the movements of his antagonists.1

However, in recent years, this idyll in Arab-Jewish relations looks only like a vestige of the past. The first 50 years of the 20th century have witnessed the persistent and consistent endeavor of the Zionist movement to acquire Arab lands in
Palestine ("redeeming the land" in Zionist terminology), transforming them into a nationalist endowment serving the exclusive purposes of the Jewish people. This encouraged, strengthened and accelerated the process of Arab opposition to this movement and contributed considerably to the number of violent outbursts against Jewish immigration to the country and, in particular, against the plans of "the Zionist

Ten Percent

Up to 1948, toward the war which brought about the partition of the country and the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) succeeded, according to official sources, in registering in the British Mandatory government's Land Registration books less than a million dunums (there are four dunums to an acre). This constitutes less than 10 percent of the land area of the country. Most
was acquired from Arab land owners who were citizens of neighboring countries, especially Lebanon and Syria.2 There were other Jewish acquisitions amounting to 1,431 million dunums in the early 1940s, of which only close to 942 thousand dunums were in the hands of the JNF.3
However, with the end of the 1948 war and the acceptance by the neighboring Arab states of the armistice agreements, the situation was immediately transformed. The overwhelming majority of the Palestinian Arabs found themselves removed
from their lands, with Israel treating the land as its own. This included a significant amount of the land belonging to those Arabs who stayed in their land and, in the new
circumstances, became Israeli citizens. At the beginning, they controlled the lands of about 120 agricultural settlements. This control, however, was not to last for long.

Land in Custody

First, as far back as the end of 1948, came the creation in the Ministry of Finance of a special "Custodian of Abandoned Property" mechanism. While in 1949 the name was changed to the "Custodian of Absentee Property," the mechanism did not
deal only with property abandoned by refugees or with properties which had really been abandoned. Those Palestinians who had not left their homeland even for a
moment, but were absent by choice or by free will from certain lands (perhaps in order to be on other lands which they owned) all lost the lands from which they had been "absent." One of the most famous examples of forced absence was seen in the large villages of what is called "the southern triangle" (in the eastern Sharon area of central Israel, abutting the Jordanian border). The Arab lands there became battlefields during the war and were divided.
In 1949, in the framework of the armistice with Jordan, these villages were transferred to Israel and farmers found consolation in having their fields united again within the State of Israel. They were soon to find, however, that they had the status of "present absentees." The fact that they had not worked their fields in 1949 served as proof of the fact that they did not meet the requirements of Israel's "Law of Abandoned Property" of May 14, 1950. They were, accordingly, declared "absentees" and temporarily forfeited their ownership rights to the property.
This "blow" was not restricted to farmers in the area of Tireh, Taibeh and Kufr Qassem, who were never to be able to return to the property and land from which they had been expelled during the fighting. The Law was applied generally to almost every Arab settlement in Israel. Thousands who had been in neighboring villages or at work in town, or even visiting relatives in areas which looked safer as they were further away from the fighting, became "present absentees." The Law of Abandoned Property made nearly 20 percent of the Arabs in Israel into absentees, regardless of their citizenship.

Emergency Regulations

Moreover, those fortunate villagers who neither fled nor were expelled found that they were not overlooked in Israeli "settlement plans." In this instance, use was made of the British Defense Emergency Regulations (1945), of which Clause 125 afforded the defense minister the authority to close "security areas." The regulations were used in order to prevent the return of villagers to their villages (such as Ikrit and Bir'im, in the Galilee near the border with Lebanon). Later the regulations were applied in order to get a temporary hold over neglected areas (Waste Lands Ordinance), regardless of who was responsible for the neglect and for preventing access to the area.
In 1953, the Knesset passed the "Land Acquisition Law" which enabled the state finally to expropriate all the lands temporarily in its hands since 1948. What is the scope of these areas? The Israel Lands Authority (ILA) has one figure: 1,225,174 dunums, but "only 325,000 dunums were under private ownership at the time of the 1953 expropriation."
Who did the rest of the land belong to? Some to the "present absentees," a smaller amount to the Waqf (Muslim Religious Trust) and some perhaps to real refugees.4 According to these laws and regulations, Arab citizens of Israel lost not less than one half of their land. Some claim that they lost some two-thirds of their patrimony. No reliable and agreed-upon data is available regarding the scope of the expropriated area and Arab sources put the figure at between 870,000 dunums and a million and even one-and-a-half million dunums.5 The government of Israel didn't bother to determine official and authoritative figures.
Professor Don Peretz estimates that Israeli Arab citizens lost 533,851 dunums in 121 villages6 and, in the first census in Israel, it was found that Arabs in Israel were
working 533,851 dunums of land in 121 villages. In 1973, the deputy-director of the ILA, Reuven Aloni, said in a conversation with the author that, up to September 1, 1962, the ILA had completed consideration of 8,736 claims for compensation for areas encompassing up to 139,000 dunums. Moreover, 3,147 additional citizens had at that time demanded compensation for the expropriation of 90,000 dunums and "there is a readiness to pay compensation for another 70,000 dunums up to April 1, 1964."

Aloni also said his office estimates that 15,000 Arab farmers, nearly all with families, will demand compensation for the loss of their lands, amounting to some 300,000 dunums. These estimates are therefore close to those of Don Peretz: Arabs had private ownership of about one million dunums, of which about 40 percent was appropriated in the principal waves of expropriation. These figures do not include the category of Bedouins in the Negev, nor the expropriations from the 1960s and 1970s which reached their peak in "Land Day," March 30, 1976.

The Bedouins

In discussing the scope of the injustice suffered by Palestinian farmers in Israel, exact figures are difficult to determine for objective and simple reasons, such as the existence of varied forms of land ownership and complex questions of rights. When the Arab villager comes to lay down how much land he lost, he rightly includes not only those areas owned privately by him but also pasture land and forest land, water sources and the threshing floor, as well as the other "public areas" which were in the village. But from the point of view of the ILA, when it comes to compensating the
villager, he is an individual private person who must prove his private rights. The consequence is that the total private claims lag far behind the general claims.
This matter is even graver when one starts to deal, not with normal village society in Galilee, for example, but with Bedouin society. Here, ownership registration was not
generally practiced. British registration from the year1937 noted that the area of the Negev amounts to 12,577,000 dunums, including 1,640,000 dunums fit for cultivation. Most of the area was cultivated in rainy seasons by Bedouins.
Nevertheless, in spite of the cultivation of areas where this was possible, most of the Negev lands were considered mawat, i.e., without registered ownership. Only 15.39 percent were registered in 1945 as Arab-owned.7 In 1950, only about 25 percent of the Bedouins who had lived in the Negev under the British remained under Israeli rule. It can therefore be assumed that the claims of the Bedouins as private
individuals declined relatively, yet the Israeli authorities restricted them even more.
Eleven out of 16 tribes were asked by the military government to cross the Tel Aviv-Beersheba road eastward and to move nearer to the border with Jordan. Over the years, the Negev Bedouins were "encouraged" to cross the border in one direction out of Israel. The matter became a subject for discussion in the mixed Israeli-Jordanian Armistice Commission and for publication in the annual United Nations
report in 1953. In this way, the Bedouins, whose rights were not legally documented, also became "absentees" and lost a considerable part of the lands they possessed.
Today, some 50 years after Israel's establishment, the Negev Bedouin society has been revived and its population has reverted to the pre-1948 figure. However, the land area in its private possession has declined to 150,000 dunums. There are also 250,000 dunums which they rent temporarily.8 In other words, the Bedouins nowadays exploit about a quarter of the land on which they lived 50 years ago.

Wholesale and Retail

In the 1950s, the Israeli government was disposed to wholesale expropriation of Arab lands. However, toward the 1960s, the expropriation became retail, a change having become necessary in view of the circumstances. On the one hand, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship had acquired a large degree of self-confidence, political and organizational ties and the ability to influence in the Knesset elections;
on the other hand, the area remaining in their hands had diminished to the extent that they were left with no breathing space.
The government, however, did not go back on its intention maximum possible restriction of all Arab ownership of land. The first act in the retail period was carried out in 1956 with the establishment of Upper Nazareth, bordering with
Nazareth. An area of tens of thousands of dunums was expropriated, supposedly "for public purposes" and in order to develop Nazareth as a district capital. But the majority of the area was actually exploited for the construction of a town for absorbing a new Jewish population.
A second operation was carried out in 1964 with the establishment in western Galilee of the town of Carmiel. Both confiscations stirred up public agitation and claims, with the cases of citizens who had lost land coming to the High Court. In all known cases, under pressure from the court the matter was settled out of court, sometimes with serious compensation payments.
Things on the expropriation front quietened down from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. But in the mid-1970s, the government decided on the expropriation of lands for the expansion of Upper Nazareth and Carmiel, at the expense of the Arab neighbors of these towns. This time and for the first time in the history of Israel's Arab minority they organized for a massive uprising.
The National Council for the Protection of Arab Lands, which had been established at the initiative of the Rakah (Communist) party, and with broad participation by rural
circles, succeeded in its call for a general strike. Exploiting the army and the police, the government put on a show of strength in order to deter the Arab citizens in a
number of large communities, only to come up against surprising resistance by the demonstrators, who blocked roads and threw stones at army vehicles.
On Land Day (March 30, 1976), for the first time in the annals of Palestinian Arabs, citizens of Israel, there were six dead and scores of wounded among the demonstrators. The atmosphere was poisoned and this was even expressed at the polls in the Knesset elections about a year later [1977] when most Arab citizens voted for the Hadash list (with a Communist orientation which was outside the Zionist consensus).

The Wound Remains Open

In the wake of Land Day, the government learned its lesson
and decided that there is no place for additional expropriation.9 No more simple and direct expropriation of private Arab land for the benefit of Jewish settlement took place. However, the first Likud government [1977] developed an indirect system which had been used before it came to power. In the days of Labor rule, when a Regional Council was established, the Interior Ministry had refrained from including the lands of Arab villages within the Council's scope of jurisdiction.
The Likud government was led in practical terms by Yisrael Koenig, representative of the Ministry of the Interior in the north, who set up a new regional council called Misgav. Within its framework mitzpim or outposts (small Jewish community settlements) were set up in the heart of the Galilee highlands, usually overlooking Arab villages.
Tens of thousands of dunums belonging to a dozen Arab villages were added to the council's jurisdiction. This enabled the council to receive revenue from the owners of
land though they and their representatives in the local government were denied any possibility of development and planning of these lands. This sophisticated method constitutes a sort of semi-expropriation. In their unlimited impudence, the Likud government accuses Palestinian Arabs, citizens of Israel, of "plundering state lands."
In general, all the different Israeli governments since the establishment of the state failed to decide on the implementation of a policy of equality toward Arab citizens
in everything connected to land. Discriminatory policies were also evident in the relations of the authorities with Druze citizens. One of their leaders remarked that it is easier to ask the Israeli establishment for a bride than for a dunum of land.
The policies adopted include putting pressure on those Arabs who can still be brought round to give up lands under their ownership or possession. In this respect, the most prominent group is nowadays the tens of small villages in the Galilee which lack government recognition. Some of these villages have existed for a hundred years, others for a shorter period. The difference between them and "recognized" villages is
mainly one of "quantity" [of land] since they are scattered over wide areas, over which they have a degree of possession. A partial survey held in April 1989 included 32 villages in the Galilee, with 4,518 residents, ranging from 53 to 650 souls in each place.10

Since Land Day, the issue of the unrecognized villages has taken its place at the top of the public agenda for Israel's Palestinian population in the context of protecting their lands. Here and there, Arab pressure, with the active help of progressive Jewish circles, won government recognition and budgets for minimal development of the infrastructure and for security, for a number of villages. However, danger still hovers over the future of tens of such villages. Similarly, the lack of an acceptable solution to the problem of Bedouin lands in the Negev provides a reminder of the struggle for the land waged between Arabs and Jews in Israel an open and festering wound in the normalization of relations between majority and minority in the State of Israel.


1.Tewfik Mu'amar, Daher al-'Umar (Nazareth: al-Hakim Printing Press, 1979), pp. 70-71 (Arabic).
2.Emile al-Ghori mentions in his book, al-Mu'amara al-Kubra (The Great Conspiracy), which was published in Cairo in 1955, the names of these famous families: al-Gazairy, al-Qabbani, Twaini, Sursok, Salam, al-Tayan.
3.Baruch Kimmerling, The Struggle over the Land (Hama'avaq al-Haqarqa'ot), Jerusalem, 1973, (Hebrew).
4.Ran Kislev, a series of articles published in the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz, during the last week of July 1976.
5.A declaration from the Arab Committee for the Land Defense, published on the eve of Land Day, March 30, 1981.
6.Don Peretz, Israel and the Palestinian Arabs (Washington, D.C.: 1958), p. 142.
7.Penny Maddrell, The Bedouins of the Negev (London: Minority Rights' Group, 1988), p. 5.
8.Ibid., p. 12.
9.Shmuel Toledano, the prime minister's Arab affairs adviser, in an interview with Uzi Benziman and Atallah Mansour, co-authors of Dayarei Mishneh (Subtenants)
(Jerusalem: Keter Publishers, 1992), p. 169.
10.Rassem Khmayseh, Taqreer al-Wada' al-Qa'em (The Status Quo Report) on the unrecognized Arab villages, April 1989, p. 7 (Arabic).

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