The Israeli government has put together a case for the Arab states and Iran to pay it $250 billion as compensation for the property of Jews who left their countries of birth and migrated to the Zionist state.
In principle, every person who owns land, a house or property and did not sell, but was forced to leave it behind, has the right to return to it or receive compensation in lieu of ownership; the choice should be the property owner’s. This is logical and fair and must apply to every human being wherever they live or come from.
The issue of Jewish migration from Arab countries to Israel is fundamentally different from the migration of European Jews, as all the Arab countries were under colonial control. Conspiracies were plotted against the Arab people, Palestine and its people, as well as the Jews who wanted to continue to live in the Arab countries where they were born. There was a shared interest between the Zionist movement and colonialism, and some Arab regimes. This resulted in relationships that were characterised by tension between Arabic-speaking Jews and their local communities during and after the waves of Jewish migration to Palestine; difficulties reached a climax with the 1948 Nakba and ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians from their land.
The details are many and complex, but whether Jews emigrated from Arab countries out of fear, intimidation, suspicious bombings, incitement or harassment, or of their own free will due to financial and other inducements offered by Zionist organisations, this does not nullify the ownership of property of any human being. The property remains theirs as long as they inherited it or acquired it with their own money; nobody has the right to confiscate it or deny their ownership. This right must be applied to everyone: Jews, Palestinian Christians and Muslims, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians and Turks. The same applies to religious endowments (Awqaf in Arabic). It was unreasonable for Israel to confiscate all the Islamic Awqaf funds and many of the Christian endowments, which make up over 83 per cent of the real estate in Palestinian cities, and deprive the faith groups of the funds on the pretext that the owner — in these cases, presumably, God — is an “absentee”. And yet that is precisely what Israel did and gave legal approval to after the Nakba.
More than 1 million Palestinians were displaced in 1948
Relive the journey of Nakba refugees
If I leave my house for any reason, this does not mean I lose its ownership. I have the right to return to my property or to be compensated if I am prevented from returning. Being on the losing side in a war does not mean that you can expel me, steal my house, garden, trees, land, property, real estate and the endowments of my religion. The Israelis argue that the Jews in the Arab countries did not fight and were civilians, but this was also the case with 99 per cent of the Palestinians who were expelled from their homes in 1947/48. They were also unarmed civilians afraid for their lives and the lives of their families. We see a similar scenario today, with millions of Arabs and non-Arabs displaced and migrating to safe areas and lands. As refugees, they will always have the right to return to their land when it is safe to do so. That is the law, and the ownership of their property is not cancelled by their being “absentees”. Even those who fought and lost in defence of their land do not lose the right to their homes and property.
Today and every day — not seventy years ago — the Israeli government is still confiscating land and destroying buildings which belong to Palestinians, apparently with impunity. The owners of the land are prevented by force of arms from returning, and must stand and watch while everything that they have built up is destroyed in front of their eyes; in some cases, they are made to destroy their own buildings or pay the Israeli occupation forces to do so. These are not the actions and policies of a civilised country, let alone a democracy; it is barbaric.
It is estimated that there are 300,000 Palestinian displaced persons and their families within Israel itself. They do not live in refugee camps, but nor do they live in the villages, towns and cities of their ancestors. Nevertheless, many still own the property from which they were expelled, perhaps just a few hundred metres away. Some were removed from their homes after the 1948 fighting ended, such as those in the villages of Hula, Iqrit and Bar’am.
A few days ago, I visited an old man originally from Iqrit, from the Ashqar family. He has been living as a refugee in the village of Mi’ilya in Upper Galilee since the Nakba. He is 90 years old and he told me a familiar story, sometimes angrily and sometimes laced with sarcasm. The Israeli army ordered the people to evacuate the village two weeks after occupying it. The soldiers reassured and advised them to take just a few changes of clothes and to leave everything as it was because they would be back in two weeks. The army even asked them to leave some young men as guards for their property and homes until they returned. Most of the Palestinians did not believe this, but what could they do in the face of a brutal armed force and after they had seen neighbouring villages obliterated and their people either expelled or killed, such as in Dayr al-Qassi, Tarbikha, Marwahin, Nabi Sablan and other places?
The people of Iqrit are still waiting to be allowed to go back, even though as Roman Catholics their case was put before the Pope in the Vatican in the 1960s. Moreover, they and the people of neighbouring Kafr Bar’am won a judgement from the Israeli High Court in 1951 allowing them to return to their homes and property. Despite this, they have been banned from returning, and if they plant even a sprig of mint — literally, not metaphorically — staff from the Israeli Land Authority come along and pull it out the next day.
About a year after the residents of Iqrit left, one of their men died. They decided to bury him in his old village and did so, secretly and at night. However, the Israeli army was informed and ordered the body to be dug up and buried elsewhere. He lies in the cemetery in Fassuta, the nearest village.
The Israelis think within the context of the “deal of the century” and think about a trade: compensation for compensation. They will propose around $100 billion in exchange for the money and property of the Palestinians. If accepted, this means that the Arab states will still be left to pay “the balance” of $150 billion. They’d better prepare to do so because Israel usually gets what it wants; justice and the law mean nothing to the Zionist state and its allies.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 9 January 2019