Reviving the Absentee Property Law: Another Step in Consolidating the Occupation


Israel’s recent decision to apply the 1950 Absentee Property Law to lands in Occupied East Jerusalem in order to justify further illegal acquisition of territory in the city is a step toward excluding Jerusalem from final status talks. Applying the law to East Jerusalem property is one of several acts taken by Israel in order to change the legal status of the city and maintain control over it.

History of Israel’s Policy of Land Grabs

In 1950, two years after Israel’s creation, it applied the Absentee Property Law to the land of any Palestinian who fled or was forced to leave their property during the 1948 war. The same law was later applied to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the 1967 war. The property rights were transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property without compensation to the property owner or provision for him/her to appeal the take over.

In the Occupied Territories the seized land has been used predominately for military bases, Jewish-only bypass roads, and settlements. Although Palestinians may have been away from their lands during both periods, they were temporarily "absent." Those who fled in 1948 and in 1967 were prevented by Israel from returning to their property.

Unlike Palestinians who in 1948 were shut out of the newly created state and ended up in neighboring Arab countries or just a few miles away in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem landowners are not absent. Many landowners live in the surrounding Jerusalem suburbs and in the West Bank.

East Jerusalem – Legal Status

Nevertheless, East Jerusalem landowners are kept outside the illegally expanded Jerusalem municipal boundaries due to a series of Israeli measures. Those measures include: revoking or denying Palestinians Jerusalem residency permits, denying Palestinians housing permits and access to public housing in the city, continuing to demolish Palestinian homes, and cutting Palestinians off from their properties through settlement expansion, Jewish-only bypass roads and most recently the separation wall.

Israel refers to both Occupied East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem as Jerusalem. This conflicts with international law and the stated policies of the United States (US), the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU).

According to the 1947 UN Partition Plan-from which Israel draws its legitimacy as a nation-sate-the areas of East and West Jerusalem were not allocated to either the Arab or Jewish states. Instead, the areas were to be internationally administered. In 1948, Israel ignored the UN resolution and occupied over 80 percent of Jerusalem. In 1967, Israel occupied East Jerusalem along with the rest of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. Almost immediately after the occupation, Israel expanded the borders of city’s eastern sector. The expansion was designed to incorporate undeveloped Palestinian land while excluding Palestinian population centers. Israel went further in 1980 by annexing East Jerusalem to Israel.

The 1967 UN Security Council Resolution 242 rejects the admissibility of acquisition of territory by force. Israel’s occupation and annexation of East Jerusalem is therefore illegal under international law. The UN recognizes East Jerusalem as occupied territory and states that subsequent action taken by the occupying power to alter the status of Jerusalem has no legal validity.

The official US position does not recognize the annexation of East Jerusalem. The 1991 US Letter of Assurances to the Palestinians states:

[We] do not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem or the extension of its municipal boundaries, and we encourage all sides to avoid unilateral acts that would exacerbate local tensions or make negotiations more difficult or preempt their final outcome.

In a 1996 Declaration by the EU Council of Ministers, the EU declared:

East Jerusalem is subject to the principles set out by the UN Security Council Resolution 242, notably the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force and is therefore not under Israeli sovereignty. The Union asserts that the Fourth Geneva Convention is fully applicable to East Jerusalem, as it is to other territories under occupation.

For 37 years, Israel has carried out a plan of creating facts on ground that would permanently link East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem and Israel. The application of the "Absentee Law" is a component of the plan.

In 1967, occupation and settlement were the first facts on the ground designed to consolidate Israel’s hold on Jerusalem. The ring of settlements around Jerusalem also serve to cut it off from Ramallah in the north and Bethlehem in the south, and to prevent any contiguity along the central axis dividing the northern and southern West Bank.

The Jerusalem section of the wall serves the same purpose as the overall wall. It separates Palestinians from their land and from each other. The introduction of the "Absentee Law" is a tactic to separate Palestinian land from Palestinians in order to prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

The political ramifications of Israel’s continued violation of international law and its effect on the region do not serve the interests of Palestinians, Israelis or Americans. In prejudicing final status talks, obstructing peace-making efforts, and barring any viable two-state solution, Israel’s revival of its Absentee Property Law and continued unilateral action exacerbate resentment among Palestinians and further prevent economic development. An economically impoverished Palestine will spill over into Israel and further destabilize the fragile Israeli society.