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Selling what is not theirs

Israel issuing tenders to auction off Palestinian refugees’ property

by Executive Staff

Abdullatif Kalafani, an 81- year-old Palestinian exile living in Lebanon, is the owner of house number 15 on al Burj Street, now renamed Liberation street, in Haifa. Kalafani is one of many Palestinians who still owns property in Israel, but maybe not for long. House number 15 has been put up for sale in one of the public auctions that developing municipalities are running in different urban areas like Haifa, Acre and Jerusalem.

Since 2007, the Israel Land Administration (ILA) has been issuing tenders for auctioning properties that belong to some 800,000 refugees who were forced out of Israel in 1948 and 1967. So far, 282 tenders were issued in 2007, 106 in 2008, and 80 in the first six months of 2009.

Adalah, a legal center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, is trying to stop the issuance of these tenders, saying that selling these properties is illegal under both Israeli and international humanitarian law.

In May this year, Adalah sent a letter to the Israeli attorney general, the ILA attorney general, the general director of the Israeli government-owned housing company Amida and to the Custodian of Absentee Property, demanding cancelation of the tenders.

“So far we have not received a reply from the attorney general, except that it is being dealt with and as soon as they finish, they will get back to us,” says Suhad Beshara, a lawyer from Adalah. “Most probably they will reply. In any case, we probably will be filing a petition to the Supreme Court.”

Breaking their own law

Many Israeli laws issued in the 1950s restrict the sale of refugees’ property, unless the owner chooses to sell. According to Adalah, the Absentees’ Property Law issued in 1950 stipulates that property belonging to absentees — Palestinians who fled during the war of 1948 — were handed to the Custodian of Absentee Property for guardianship until a solution regarding Palestinian refugees was reached. Since these properties were acquired, many were leased, but not sold, until the auctions began to take place in 2007.

Moustafa Assir, a lawyer at Alem Associates in Lebanon, goes back even further to 1947, and says that law 194 issued by the United Nations during that year stipulates that refugees have the right to go back to their land, unless they are considered the “enemy.”

“Lebanese people are considered Israel’s enemy, but Palestinians aren’t,” he said.

Moreover, Beshara says the tenders also violate the Israel land law of 1960, which says that all land  owned by the state of Israel and therefore include the Palestinian real estate controlled by the development authority, cannot be sold.

In a reply to Adala’s accusations, the ILA told Al Jazeera TV that after the 1960 law was issued, there was a follow up bill which was passed in the same year. It included seven exemptions. One of them allows the sale of absentee property located in an urban area that is under 20,000 hectares (200 million square meters).

Adalah also thinks Israel is breaking international humanitarian law, which requires the respect of private properties and prohibits its expropriation following the termination of warfare.

A possible reason

Adalah’s Beshara told Al Jazeera the auctions might be done for political reasons. Israel may be auctioning the properties to create a situation “that would eternally frustrate any potential attempt in the future to fairly and justly resolve the issue of Palestinian refugees.”

Once sold, Palestinian refugees will not be able to claim their property back, since it would already belong to another owner. 

Kalafani, who lived his first 20 years in Haifa, is worried about losing his home. He told Al Jazeera that even though there is little chance he could go back due to his old age, he believes that there is a chance his descendants will. 

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