Genevieve Cora Fraser
Forty years after the events of 1948 that led to the creation of Israel, Henry Cattan, a Palestinian lawyer from western Jerusalem described the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their property one of the “greatest mass robberies in the history of Palestine.” If final status agreements between Israel and Palestine is ever to emerge and the Palestinian refugee problem resolved, in part, through monetary compensation, then Michael R. Fischbach?s “Records of Dispossession - Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict” is a must read for negotiators and other interested parties, plus all who care about the history of Palestine and Israel.
Fischbach, an associate professor of history at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia is a fluent Arabic speaker as well as a leading authority on socio-economic history of the Arab world. In Records of Dispossession, Fischbach details previously examined as well as never before published estimates of the scope and value of refugee property. His estimates are based on a meticulous examination of what Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari describes as “the collective memory of the exile of the Palestinian people,” namely the archival records. These records were initially flung across the globe. They were held under lock and key by the United Nations and preserved in fragmentary form in boxes and file cabinets and housed in dusty storage rooms in Britain, Palestine, Israel and across the Arab world.
But Records of Dispossession is more than an auditor?s account of property losses suffered by Palestinian Arabs and in some instances by Palestinian Jews. The book tells the story of how the tragic flight of the refugees was leveraged into carefully crafted strategies, Israeli policies toward abandoned property designed to permanently remove the Palestinian people from their property as they pacified critics while solidifying the sovereignty of the emerging state. And as the United Nations attempted to act on the refugee property question, the plight of the Palestinians soon morphed into the larger still unresolved quagmire between an increasingly paranoid, well-armed and aggressive Israel and its disdainful and wary Arab neighbors.
“Exactly how much land the refugees left behind has been the subject of numerous and contradictory studies over the years since 1948”, Fischbach acknowledges. The genesis of the refugee property issue started in 1948, during the first Arab-Israeli war where one-half of the Arab population of Palestine fled or were driven out of their homes in Palestine by Zionist forces. Believing they would soon return, many Palestinians left everything behind except what they could carry. But the mass repatriation of the refugees was not permitted and Israel quickly confiscated their property. Professor Fischbach identifies three socio-economic groups and distinct waves of Palestinians who fled their homes as the mutual violence, atrocities against civilian populations and fear intensified.
“Many of the Palestinian urban dwellers were quite wealthy. They left behind not only luxurious homes replete with expensive furniture and other consumer goods but also shops, warehouses, factories, machinery, and other commercial property. This was in addition to financial assets like bank accounts and valuables such as securities held in safe deposit boxes in banks. Others left behind large citrus groves. Not only were the land and trees temporarily abandoned but so too were irrigation pipes, water pumps, and other capital goods present on the land. None felt that their departure was anything but a temporary move away from a war zone.”
Fearful of violence from Zionist militia, Palestinians took what they could of their possessions, to prevent theft while they were away.
But not all wealthy Palestinians accepted their fate. “One distraught Haifa businessman who had left behind his home and business only to end up in a refugee camp in the Jordon Valley near Jericho took his two sons behind their tent quarters one day in November 1948, shot them, then turned the gun on himself.”
The Hagana, the official militia of the Zionist movement in Palestine, strategically attacked villages they felt were a threat to Jewish settlements and supply lines, and Arab forces in a tit for tat retaliated against Jewish settlements. But with the full-scale Zionist offensive in the spring of 1948, Palestinian villagers fled, leaving behind “their homes, farms, farm animals and equipment, and personal property. Generally not possessing bank accounts like their urbane counterparts, some buried money in the ground for safe keeping.” It was beyond imagination they would not return.
By the time the armistice agreement was signed in 1949, a total of 726,000 Palestinian refugees had “fled into Lebanon, Syria, Jordon, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Egypt, Iraq, and beyond,” Fischbach recounts. “Middle- and upper-class Palestinian urbanites moved in with relatives or rented new accommodations. The poor were relegated to refugee camps. The war also triggered the exodus of 30,000 Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Jordanian, and Iraqi Arabs living in Palestine as well. In total, these persons left behind a vast amount of moveable and immoveable property, the scope and value of much of which could not be proven either by deeds or by other documents.”
A thorough accounting of Palestinian land had never been completed by the British mandatory authorities; and the records that had been created were scattered as a result of the fighting. Of these, “the definition of a ?village? has varied from source to source. Not all locales from which the refugees came were recognized officially as settlements in the eyes of the mandatory authorities, who therefore kept no information on them nor included them on survey maps.” Though the estimates of destroyed villages range from an Israeli low of 360, the work undertaken by Basheer Nijim and Bishara Muammar indicates the geographical spread of the destroyed villages extends from parts of Israel, to the West Bank and Gaza. Their estimate details 427 villages destroyed, with two additional villages still undetermined.
Having terrorised the inhabitants out of their homes, Zionist forces simply destroyed thousands of them, to discourage owners from returning.
Records of Dispossession also looks at the public figures behind what is euphemistically referred to as “transferring” the Palestinians out of the country. Yosef Weitz of the Jewish National Fund was one of the most knowledgeable Zionist land officials in 1948. He adhered to the Zionist goal of building the Zionist state dunam by dunam (one dunam = 1,000 square yards) “It should be clear to us that there is no room in Palestine for these two peoples? Without the Arabs, the land will become wide and spacious for us, with the Arabs, the land will remain sparse and cramped”, Weitz noted. The fighting in 1948 provided both an opportunity for transfer and the challenge to prevent a return of refugees who might pose both a military and demographic threat. In defense of Zionist policy, Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel put it bluntly to the first American ambassador to Israel, “What did the world do to prevent this genocide [the Holocaust]? Why now should there be such an excitement in the UN and the Western capitals about the plight of the Arab refugees?”
While the battles were still being waged some Jews began to move into Palestinian homes. According to Fischbach, new Jewish immigrants, Holocaust survivors that had been initially housed in rural kibbutzim found that these accommodations reminded them of Nazi concentration camps. Some broke into well-appointed homes in Haifa, some of which were abandoned but others were still occupied by Palestinians who had remained. “Some Jews simply evicted the owners by force. One Palestinian, Sa?id Atma, reported that Jews broke into his home, assaulted him, threw out his furniture, and began living in his home.”
Arab homes were also looted by Jewish soldiers and civilians, and early in the war the future prime minister, David Ben Gurion “issued orders to the Hagana to begin settling Jews in captured Palestinian homes.” During the summer of 1948, the Israeli army began destroying abandoned Palestinian villages while socialist kibbutzim, as well as less communal moshavim and religious settlements, began to petition to lease abandoned refugee land. A Custodian of Absentee Property was appointed and reported to the Knesset the following year that “only ?14 million in moveable refugee property ever reached the storeroom.”
The declaration of statehood in May 1948 was followed a month later by a law to provide a legal basis for extending Israeli jurisdiction not only to abandoned property, but to “abandoned areas” of Palestine. By definition this meant that almost all Arab land which came under Israeli control, whether through capture or surrender, could be labeled abandoned. “The law also stated clearly that not all the land?s inhabitants need to have fled for it to be labeled ?abandoned.? The law also allowed the state to take over buildings, crops and just about anything else located on the land?.”
Dispossessed poorer Palestinians were forced to carry possessions out of Zionist areas on carts, on donkeys, or literally on their backs.
Fischbach further notes that the Emergency Regulations (Absentee? Property) of 5709/1948 “shifted the legal definition of what constituted abandoned land from the land itself to the owner: instead of declaring land to be ?abandoned,? people were now declared ?absentee? whose property could be seized by the state.”
The law also declared persons who at any point after November 29, 1947 were citizens of Arab states to be absentees, whether or not they were actually absent from any land they owned in Palestine. “It declared Palestinians absentees if they ever traveled to an Arab country for any length of time after November 29, 1947, including those who fled temporarily to an Arab state and then returned, or even those who briefly traveled to an Arab country for business. It declared Palestinians absentees if they were ever in any part of Palestine not under the control of Jewish forces after November 29, 1947 for any length of time ? which under those definitions included most of the country. Lastly, it declared an absentee anyone who was temporarily away from his/her normal place of residence, for any reason, even if both that place and the normal place of residence lay within areas under Jewish control.”
In other words, the Absentee Property law targeted virtually all Arabs including the Arabs who remained inside Israel in their homes. These too were declared absentees! What the law permitted was for the Custodian of Absentee Property to lease the property and to sell it to the soon-to-be created Development Authority which invited offers in foreign currency because the government needed hard currency as soon as possible. One of the takers was the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The JNF was concerned that the land be legally owned and not state controlled. Though the new state of Israel was a Jewish state, it was also a democracy. According to Fischbach, “The JNF feared that if captured refugee land remained in the hands of the state, the state might be forced to allocate land for development on an equitable basis between its Jewish and Palestinian citizens instead of reserving it exclusively for Jewish use.” In 1950 the Absentee Property law was further expanded so that Israel could govern the fate of refugee property for decades to come.
However, not all Jews were delighted with their new found fortunes. The Yiddish-language journalist David Pinsky recounts a story in 1949 of a Holocaust survivor who began to brood, “what right had she and her family to occupy a house which does not belong to her? Use a garden and field which were taken by force from other people who ran away in a panic of war and are not permitted to return? Is she and her family not living on goods robbed from others? Is she not doing to the Arabs what the Nazis did to her and her family?”
Though the international community was shocked by the havoc created by the first Arab-Israel war, the onus of the plight of the Palestinian refugees fell to the United Nations which had proposed the partition plan, rejected by the Arab states, to designate 55% of Palestine for a proposed Israel state. According to Section 1.C.2.8 of the plan: “No expropriation of land owned by an Arab in the Jewish state shall be allowed except for public purposes. In all cases of expropriation full compensation as fixed by the Supreme Court [of the Jewish state] shall be paid previous to dispossession.” On the last day of the British Mandate, the UN created the office of a UN mediator for Palestine who would “promote a peaceful adjustment of the future situation of Palestine.” The former president of the Swedish Red Cross, Count Folke Bernadotte was chosen for the position.
Not only did Bernadotte insist that the fate of the refugee property be secured pending a solution to the refugee exodus, he stated that “the right of the Arab refugees to return to their homes in Jewish-controlled territories at the earliest possible date be affirmed by the United Nations.” His report also called for the “payment of adequate compensation to those choosing not to return to their former homes.” To that end, the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) was created which for two decades carried on the work of Arab-Israeli mediation and rights associated with the Palestine refugee property.
The day after he signed his report, Bernadotte was shot and killed in Jerusalem by “Fatherland Front” militants, a group associated with the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel who one week later issued a statement warning others not to repeat the mistake:
“The Fighters for the Freedom of Israel will fight by any means at their disposal against foreign regime [sic], be it Arab, Anglo-Arab, or a combined imperialist regime under the mask of the U.N. ?. Any such [foreign] supervision or any such ruling will be considered by us as service to imperialism and foreign occupation and we will treat them as we treated the British regime and its representatives.”
According to Fischbach, “The archives of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) long have been known to contain the most thorough reckoning of the scope and value of Palestinian refugee land ever undertaken. Although part of the UNCCP ?Technical Project? on refugee property losses was made public in 1964, significant details were not. The UN Secretariat Archives in New York, which houses the UNCCP?s archives, has kept very tight control over the records detailing the refugee property since then. It also has not allowed access to other documents that are contained in the commission?s archives. This archival material has assumed an almost mythical status over the years for those studying the refugee property question, and it was long believed that much useful material was secreted away somewhere “at the UN.”
In the late 1990s, the author was granted access to the UNCCP archives, both the land records and other material, in the course of writing his book on the history of the Palestinian refugee property issue. Though the UNCCP refused to release its estimate of the value of this property, research into the UNCCP archives reveals this figure to be ?235,660,250 ($942 million). “The UNCCP archives also hold other studies and data on the refugee property issue that were never published. In 1962, the UNCCP?s land expert, Frank E. Jarvis, devised a plan to compensate refugees that never was made public. This study estimated that a total compensation package would cost some $1.125 billion in 1962 dollars. This figure included the value of abandoned land and moveable property; interest on this amount; an amount for changes in the value of currency; the value of public property that should have conveyed to the refugees; and a ?disturbance allowance? covering lost income,” the author relates.
“The UNCCP ceased functioning in 1966 for all intents and purposes. Its archival material, including secret studies of land values and compensation schemes, went into the UN archives where it has remained to this day. Far from the refugee camps that still house the 1948 refugees and their descendants, the data on their lost property continues to gather dust,” Fischbach said.
Records of Dispossession - Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, by Michael R. Fischbach, was published by Columbia University Press, as part of the Institute for Palestinian Studies Series.
Genevieve Cora Fraser is a poet, playwright and journalist as well as a long-standing environmental and human rights activist.
Article courtesy of Ramallah Online