Israel’s land practices are not discriminatory

Middle East Quarterly published an article in Dec ’97 by Alexander Safian, titled Can Arabs Buy Land in Israel? [After discussing all the propaganda, he continues with the facts.]


The present landholding system in Israel can be traced back to the events of nearly a century ago, when the Fifth Zionist Congress meeting in 1901 created a private charitable organization called the Jewish National Fund (JNF) with the intent to purchase land for the resettlement of Jews in their ancient homeland. By the eve of statehood, the JNF had acquired a total of 936,000 dunums of land; another 800,000 dunums had been acquired by other Jewish organizations or individuals.11 These holdings amounted to some 8.6 percent of the total land of what would later be Israel; of the rest, more than 70 percent were public lands vested in the British Mandatory authorities.12 All the lands purchased by the JNF remained in JNF hands; these were never sold, either to Jews or Arabs, but instead were leased on a long—term basis for kibbutzim and other forms of Jewish settlement.

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the new government inherited the state-owned lands formerly in the possession of British Mandatory authority as well as property abandoned by Arab refugees. The government sold some of this land to the JNF, and retained the rest. In 1960, the Israeli parliament passed a series of land laws including the “Basic Law: Israel Lands” that defined government-owned and JNF-owned land both as “Israel lands.” It reiterated the principle that these lands would only be leased, not sold. While the JNF retained ownership of its lands, the 1960 laws turned administrative responsibility for these (as well as government-owned) properties to a newly-created agency, the Israel Land Administration (ILA).13

The land-owning situation in Israel today is as follows: 80.4 percent is owned by the government, 13.1 percent is privately owned by the JNF, and 6.5 percent is evenly divided between private Arab and Jewish owners. Thus, the ILA administers 93.5 percent of the land in Israel.14 Put differently, 93.5 percent of the land is unavailable for private ownership; such land is sold neither to Jews nor to Arabs but is leased out by the ILA. Thus, while it is true that Israeli law prevents the sale of state—owned land to Israeli Arabs, this alone is extremely misleading, for it is equally unavailable for sale to Jewish citizens of Israel.


This then raises the question, how do the Israeli Arabs fare in terms of land? Here we must distinguish between government, JNF, and private lands.

State-owned lands. Israeli Arabs have equal access to state-owned land—four-fifths of the entire country—both in theory and in practice. Indeed, about half of the land they cultivate is directly leased to them by the Israeli government through the ILA.15

Moreover, when it comes to residential land, the ILA sometimes offers Israeli Arabs more favorable terms from than it does to Israeli Jews. Thus, the ILA charged the equivalent of $24,000 for a capital lease on a quarter of an acre in new Jewish communities near Beersheva while Bedouin families in the nearby community of Rahat paid only $150 for the same amount of land.16 In a different case, when a Jewish policeman from Beersheva, Eleizer Avitan, applied to the ILA to lease land in a Bedouin community under the same highly subsidized terms available to the Bedouins, the ILA refused to lease him land there under any terms, so he sued. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ILA, saying that what might be viewed as ILA discrimination against the Jewish citizen Avitan was justified as affirmative action for Bedouin citizens.17

JNF lands. The purpose of the JNF, according to both its original charter and its 1953 Israeli charter is to purchase land for the settlement of Jews, and this has been interpreted to mean that JNF land should not be leased, at least on a long-term basis, to non-Jews.18There are, thus, formal restrictions on the lease of JNF land to Arabs. That JNF lands are now administered by a government agency does not change this restriction, for JNF land is privately owned and to lease it on exactly equal terms to Jewish and Arab Israelis would violate the 1960 agreement that placed JNF lands under government administration.

So much for official restrictions. In practice, JNF land is leased to Arab citizens of Israel, for both short- and long-term use. Thus, the ILA has leased on a yearly basis JNF-owned land in the Besor Valley (Wadi Shallala), near Kibbutz Re’em, to Bedouins for use as pasture.19 Arab citizens have also leased JNF-owned land for housing purposes via a legal device that evades the restrictions against precisely such long-term use: The land in question is traded to the government so that it can be leased out and the JNF receives other land in return.20Such swaps have sometimes taken place under threat of court action.

Private lands. There are no restrictions on the purchase of private land in Israel. Israeli Arabs or non-citizens, including Arab foreigners, may freely purchase it. The Israeli authorities have placed no obstacles in the way of such purchases, which are proceeding, as Israel’s Deputy Housing Minister Meir Porush recently noted:

The Palestinian Authority is encouraging purchases of land in Israeli territory by wealthy Palestinians. It is a matter of Palestinian figures tied to the real estate business, and living mainly in London, who try to purchase homes and lands in Jerusalem through agents and lawyers who live mainly in Ramallah.21

Clearly, many journalists reporting on Israel’s land policies have uncritically accepted charges leveled by activists and Palestinian spokesmen. Typifying the problem was a New York Times article in which reporter Joel Greenberg made four major errors in one sentence:

In Israel, Palestinians cannot buy state land, which is 91 percent of the country’s territory, and state land held by the Jewish National Fund cannot even be leased to Israeli Arabs.22

In fact, state land amounts not to 91 percent of Israel’s territory but to roughly 80 percent; neither Arabs nor Jews can buy state land; the Jewish National Fund holds no state land; and JNF land is leased, with some restrictions, to Israeli Arabs.

[After discussing Jordanian and Palestinian land law he arrives at the following conclusion.]


In sum, the Palestinian Authority has successfully managed to charge Israel with the very sins that it itself is guilty of. The most striking instances of this success, perhaps, are the many academics and journalists who repeat and reinforce Palestinian charges of Israeli discrimination with regard to land ownership. This climate of distortion has two consequences. First, it misleads politicians, diplomats, and others about the basic facts that underlie the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Second, it encourages Palestinians to harbor unreasonable hopes and make exorbitant demands. These twin problems reinforce each other, and thereby make a genuine peace that much more difficult to achieve. [..]

May 29, 2007 | Comments Off on Israel’s land practices are not discriminatory

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