The Land “Confiscation” That Wasn’t

Beware the self-appointed peacemakers. An Israeli fellow, named Michael Steinhardt rushes in where angels fear to tread, and waxes eloquent in the pages of the Wall Street Journal (Refugees and Israeli-Palestinian Peace, March 12, 2010, at p. A19) on how to solve the Palestinian refugee problem. He calls, inter alia on Israel to apologize, even if he does not make clear what the apology should be for, and to “offer[ ] substantial, direct compensation to individuals for homes and land that have been lost.” If there is anything that gets our attention, it is the matter of providing compensation for takings of property, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to the readers that we do favor compensation in such cases. But wait. Didn’t the Arabs who fled Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, already receive compensation for their lost homes? They surely did, even though you’d be hard put to discern that little item from reading news coverage of events in that region. We had occasion to blog about that back in 2008, see , but it looks like this subject needs repeating.

When six Arab armies invaded Israel in 1948, their leaders’ strategy was to encourage and pressure their Arab compatriots living within the British Palestine Mandate territory (that was being divided between Israel and the Arabs) to leave, so as to provide a clear field of fire for the invaders. The idea was that after the Israelis were duly “pushed into the sea,” as the Arabs used to put it, the departed Arabs could return, reclaim their own land and also glom on to the land of those pushed-out Jews. But as you already know, things did not work out that way. The Israelis won that war, and those poor, misguided Arabs who listened to their leaders and departed, became refugees. They were herded into squalid camps by their compatriots, where they and their progeny have been languishing ever since, as the Arab countries, for all their professed support for the Palestinians, do not allow them to resettle there. But this aspect of the 1948 war left Israel with a problem: what to do with the properties abandoned by their erstwhile Arab occupants who fled to other Arab countries.

To make a long story short, Israel created the office of Custodian of Absentee Property who took charge of the abandoned land, and under Israeli law became empowered to return individual holdings to their rightful owners who could establish title, or, to offer compensation. He could also take unclaimed land by eminent domain upon payment of fair market value to its erstwhile owners. As of 1994, according to the figures released by the Israel Land Administration, 14,692 Arab absentee owners claimed compensation under the Israeli Absentee Property Law and under the Validation and Compensation Law. As of 1993, a total of 9,956,828 Israeli shekels were paid as compensation, and 54,481 dunams of land had been granted to claimants as compensation in kind. For the 1988 figures, see David Kretzmer, The Legal Status of the Arabs In Israel, at 59-60 (Westview Press 1990). For a description of similar procedures in the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war, see The Rule of Law in the Areas Administered by Israel (Israel Nat. Sec. of the International Comm’n. of Jurists, 1981), at 47-49. So it looks like Mr. Steinhardt is a half century late with his helpful suggestion.

Moreover, as is the invariable practice of folks like Steinhardt, he utters not a peep concerning the other side of this coin. What about the Jews who lived in Arab countries before 1948, some 800,000 of them, whose property was seized without cause and without compensation as they were expelled? If we are going to talk compensation, shouldn’t they be prime candidates for receiving it? They certainly are. But you won’t find the Steinhardts of this world shedding tears over that problem. It’s always exposition of supposed Israeli misdeeds, even where, as in this case, there aren’t any — the Israelis have already done what Steinhardt wants them to do.