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Topic: The Palestinian Community in Israel: Absentees’ Property and Permanent Status

Concept Paper
Re: Annual Ambassadorial Study Day

On May 1-3 1998 Ittijah sponsored a Partners Field Tour with participants from various international embassies and donor agencies. The aim of the tour was to draw attention to the unique situation that the Palestinian Arab community faces as an unrecognized national minority, and to show the facts from a Palestinian minority viewpoint. The Tour focused on discriminatory policy, marginalization and the difficulties in enjoying the resources of the State as citizens of the State. The tour also displayed the achievements of various NGOs that work in planning and land issues, unrecognized and uprooted villages, health, women’s status, and community-based associations, in addition to addressing the policies of Donor’s regarding funding and financial issues.

During the last year, Ittijah and its member organizations held several meetings and tours for various embassies including American, German, Norwegian, Canadian, and the EU. Since then, Ittijah has come to play the role of information source on the Palestinian community. Further, as a result of the success that these study days have generated, Ittijah intends to institutionalize these relationships through an Annual Ambassadorial Study Day.

It seems that the Wye River Accords signed by the previous government will be implemented in the near future, and with the latest agreement the stage is set for Permanent Status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. As we all know too well the most important and sensitive issue in the history of the Palestinian people is that of land and refugees. With Permanent Status approaching, Ittijah is suggesting a new study day on the issue of Absentees’ Property. As the umbrella organization of many NGOs, Ittijah sees itself in an appropriate position to suggest a Study Day on this particular topic since it is directly relevant to the work of its member organizations, specifically dealing with land, the uprooted, Islamic Waqf property and internal refugees.

The Absentees’ Property Law defines persons who were expelled, fled, or who left the country between 1948-1952, mainly due to the 1948 War, as well as their movable and immovable property, as absentee. Property belonging to absentees (mainly land, apartments and bank accounts) was put under control of the Custodian for Absentees’ Property, subordinate to the State of Israel (Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel 1998). Since 1948, all Absentee properties, including properties of the Islamic Waqf, have been under a series of transfers that place them under various authorities culminating in a process of privatization. Through this process, the ownership of these lands will be formally transferred from the State to kibbutzim, moshavim and private companies, without state control.

In real numbers, the creation of the State of Israel displaced some 700,000 Palestinians of whom 100,000 remained on the land and were naturalized as Israeli citizens. Further, some 32,000 Palestinians were internally displaced and prevented from returning to their land, although they are/were Israeli citizens (Badil Resource Center). As a result of the 1967 War, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees, many for a second time, and most have not been allowed to exercise their right of return. Today, Palestinians constitute the largest group of refugees in the world at approximately 5 million.

United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 states that "compensation should be paid for the property of those not choosing to return and for loss or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible." Compensation is viewed as an integral part to the solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, there is sure to be a disagreement on the amounts of compensation and those eligible to receive them.

Although the Oslo Accords and the subsequent Wye River Agreement do not take into consideration the Palestinian minority located in Israel, the issues of refugees, Absentees’ Property and compensation are of direct concern and relevance to them. How then will Palestinian citizens in Israel incorporate their demands into the Permanent Status agreement, since the negotiations are the only current forum for discussing these issues? To date, the Israeli government uses privatization to change its function from a landholder directly responsible for Absentees property and confiscated land. Instead, ownership is transferred into private hands, i.e. individuals or agencies. This way the State will defend private ownership of Jewish citizens or entities, preventing any concessions to Palestinian citizens or refugees inside the Green Line. Thus, confiscated Palestinian land cannot be utilized as the basis for implementing the Right of Return. Further, any unutilized land that belongs to internal refugees is legally restricted by the State. Does the Palestinian Authority have the justification to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian minority? How will the permanent status negotiations address the whole Palestinian population, in Israel, the Arab world, and the Diaspora? Will Palestinian citizens of Israel receive compensation for their losses under a Permanent Status agreement or is the issue to be discussed as an internal Israeli domestic matter? The fact that the Palestinian minority is not part of the negotiations means that we need to push the issue to the forefront in order to raise local and international public awareness. Further, as this is an extremely complex topic we feel that the international community should contribute to the debate.

From our point of view, Absentee lands are the basis for absorbing any Palestinian refugees and implementing the Right of Return. The fact that most land is confiscated and the lack of participation by Palestinian citizens in this debate is a hindrance to the overall development process of Palestinian society in Israel. We feel that this problem is not an internal Israeli issue, as human rights and equality are universal standards, but rather a crucial part of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict and its resolution. However, privatization effectively turns Absentee Property into an internal Israeli matter even though it is directly related to the refugee issue, a central component of the permanent status negotiations. This brief description seeks to show the importance and sensitivity of the issue of Absentee Property and compensation and how it cannot be solved in the Supreme Court, accountable to Israeli Laws, or in the Knesset and should therefore be resolved during Permanent Status negotiations. Further, the Palestinians in Israel need the support of the international community.

Ittijah will take this opportunity to invite you to participate in a Study Day on Absentees Property, compensation and the Permanent Status negotiations as they pertain to the Palestinian minority. The study day will provide a forum for discussing the issue and possible strategies or approaches in confronting it. The day will bring together experts on the issue including politicians, lawyers and individual activists and a small field tour will also be held to show the fact on the ground. Those invited to participate will be diplomatic corps with NGOs and leaders of the Arab community including Local Council heads and representatives of Arab political parties. We expect that this topic will be interesting and important to Ambassadors as they follow-up current developments in the negotiations and attempt to link them with the Palestinians located in Israel.

Palestinians in Israel and Permanent Status

Speech given by Ameer Makhoul

Both Palestinians and Israelis are eager to achieve a lasting peace. The Palestinian NGO sector inside Israel is also eager for a just peace. But we believe that a just peace must take into account all of the problems associated with the conflict. The peace process must consider the consequences of the Palestinian problem from 1948 and not focus only on the results of the 1967 War. We believe that a permanent solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must address all of the accompanying problems, not only a part of them. A comprehensive solution must be based on the right to self-determination of both peoples and a solution to all the problems that are a result of the 1948 War.

Today, the remaining issues of the conflict that need to be resolved include the status of Jerusalem, the question of Israeli settlers, the distribution of rights to water and the problem of the Palestinian refugees. Yet among these fundamental issues, the status of the Palestinian minority in Israel must also be addressed. Raising the issue of the Palestinians in Israel may appear to make matters more complicated, but a just peaceful solution must be conveyed to the Palestinian people not only in the near future, but also in the long-term. What is not addressed now will only be postponed until later. As a national minority numbering over one million, as part of the citizens of Israeli in general, as an integral part of the Palestinian people, and as victims of a long and difficult conflict, it is our responsibility to introduce you to our point of view. This is the point of view of the Palestinian national minority inside of Israel.

There have been two main reactions in the Palestinian community inside Israel to the changing circumstances since the signing of the Oslo Accords. The first reaction is individual and integrative. Palestinians, while remaining on the margins of Israeli society, attempt to assimilate into Israeli society as best they can. Those who believe in this approach are attempting to influence the social position of Palestinians through individual actions. They are trying to become decision makers in Israeli politics or to blend society. I do not believe that this approach can be successful in creating the necessary mobility within Israeli society for effective social change. There are important structural elements in the institutional composition of the Israeli state that get in the way of the ability of Palestinians to effectively exercise their political position in Israel. The hiring policy of Israeli government companies is a good example. There are very few Palestinians working in government companies. This is because of hiring practices that require military service. As Palestinians, we are unable to serve in the military and cannot work for these companies.

The second reaction to the Oslo Accords has been collective and activist. It focuses on the group rights of Palestinians as a national minority inside Israel. I believe that this approach can be effective in bringing about the changes in Israel that we need. It is important to stress that Palestinian minority rights in Israel are human rights that are being violated. The human rights of the Palestinian minority cannot be reduced to an internal Israeli issue. Indeed, Palestinian minority rights are connected to the final status negotiations. This is because we are a part of the Palestinian people as a whole. WWed;lkjasdf;lkj We need to be given guarantees that will ensure our equal status in Israel. Un

The issue of our rights has not been put on the final status agenda. We are neglected by both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli government has no interest in representing our needs. It employs a legally sanctioned discriminatory policy that undermines our rights. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) does not have the ability to represent our needs since, as a result of the Oslo accords, they can only represent Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The two main groups marginalized as a result of the current agreements between Israel and the PNA are the Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian refugees in the Diaspora, especially inhabitants of refugee camps in Lebanon.

Our rights to live as normal citizens inside of Israel are seriously constrained by the nature of the Israeli state. We face discrimination daily. The main threat that we face is the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. The result of this definition is discrimination against the non-Jewish (Arab). This discrimination is structural. It is embedded in both the formal and informal institutions of the state. In many cases, this discrimination is legally sanctioned. Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel conducted a study that found 20 laws that discriminate against the Arab citizens of Israel. These laws include immigration laws, the Israeli citizenship law, the absentee property law and laws about land ownership, housing and internally displaced refugees. A larger problem is that confrontation through the courts and the Knesset is seen by many Israelis as a challenge to the essential nature of the Jewish state.

As a result of this difficulty in making our case inside of Israel, there is a need for collective action on our part. The Palestinian community in Israel needs to build its organizations to face the challenges before us. But we also need to draw the attention of the international community to the violations of minority rights and gain your support. This is not a normal minority situation. We are citizens of a foreign state in our own land. There are two fundamental challenges that we face as a result of this unfortunate situation. First, we are struggling to achieve equality as citizens in Israel. Issues that face us here include equal representation in budgets, service provision, and development opportunities for our community. We are also struggling with a second fundamental challenge. This challenge comes from the violations that are a result of our national conflict. The most important issues here are the problems of internally displaced Palestinian refugees and absentee property laws. These two challenges, our equality as citizens and the question of our dispossession, are not the same. Achieving equality in budget decisions does not ensure that internal refugees will be given the opportunity to return to their lands, villages and cities.

There is a consensus in Israel against allowing the Right of Return. There is also a consensus that Arab political parties and their representatives cannot hold decision-making positions in the Knesset or other government bodies. The only role that Arab MKs play in the peace process is that of support, through their votes, of all agreements that are signed by the PNA and Israel. This support is given even if the agreements are not made on a just basis. The only issues where we can voice serious opposition are those relating to the national Zionist consensus, and in these discussions, we cannot influence the decisions made.

Issues like the right of return and absentee property are important for more than political reasons. These issues affect our communities on a personal level since the majority of Palestinians have family members that are refugees or claim land that has been confiscated. Palestinian absentees do not have a state that will advocate on their behalf. The negotiations between Israel and the PNA are based on a balance of power that is clearly to the advantage of Israel. Thus on a very personal level, we face isolation both in terms of our political power inside Israel, and our separation from the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and refugees.

As a result, we are feeling an increased level of frustration since the signing of the Oslo accords. In spite of all the hopes and eagerness for peace, we feel that our dream of a just peace was broken in 1993. We also feel that the interests of the Palestinian people have since come into conflict. The post-Oslo consciousness is reflected in our increased isolation and our political inability to be a part of the final status agenda. In addition, this has resulted in other tensions within the Palestinian community, like the rise of sectarianism that we see today in Nazareth.

Yet, the Palestinians in Israel have made many great efforts in recent years towards developing the tools to confront the many challenges ahead. The Palestinian NGO sector and the other components of civil society are very important in this effort. To build our institutions is a minority right. We do not wish to threaten others. We want to fulfill our needs by exercising our rights. Yet building civil society continues to be difficult. For example, the state of Israel now holds the Islamic Waqf land under the control of the Prime Minister’s office. This land is being sold and privatized. This property belongs to our community. Our community is not absent. This land is the physical infrastructure for the development of the Palestinian community in the future.

The work of Palestinian civil society is vital for our needs. But our rights are not on the final status agenda. We need help from the international community to get our rights on the agenda. For better or worse, the international community has been involved in the conflict over Palestine since the beginning of this century. Because of this past, and because of the growing sense of a developing community of nations, we are looking to you, to work to ensure a just basis for the resolution of the conflict. Absentee property and the right of return cannot continue to be issues whose outcome depends on the balance of power between the PNA and Israel. The international community needs to be involved in these issues to ensure a just foundation for peace. We hope that these efforts would be made in accordance with the principles that constitute the international community. These are the principles set up by the resolutions of the United Nations, human rights covenants and increased global interdependence.

In conclusion, I would like to stress that these are difficult but hopeful times. The Palestinian community throughout the world is hoping for a just and meaningful resolution of the conflict. But a just peace can only succeed in the long run if our rights are taken seriously in these negotiations. The legal discrimination that we face today is a result of our connection to the rest of our people. The opposition we face in the Israeli establishment against the right of return and absentee property is something that we cannot face alone. Our minority rights and status are not an internal Israeli issue since we are a part of the larger Palestinian nation. They are also an international issue because human rights are a global concern. Because of our unique position as citizens of a state that is working against our interests, and because of our separation from the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, we appeal to the international community to help us. We look forward to your understanding. We hope to develop a dialogue through which we can create mechanisms for ensuring Palestinian rights. With your help, we can address the rights of the Palestinian community inside Israel in the final status negotiations. Your help will ensure a lasting and just peace.

December 7, 1999

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