Israeli Arabs, Arab Land, and Arab Refugees

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Events immediately before and during the War of Independence and during the first years of independence remain, so far as those events involved the Arab residents of Palestine, matters of bitter and emotional dispute. Palestinian Arab refugees insist that they were driven out of their homeland by Jewish terrorists and regular Jewish military forces; the government of Israel asserts that the invading Arab forces urged the Palestinian Arabs to leave their houses temporarily to avoid the perils of the war that would end the Jewish intrusion into Arab lands. Forty years after the event, advocates of Arabs or Jews continue to present and believe diametrically opposed descriptions of those events.

According to British Mandate Authority population figures in 1947, there were about 1.3 million Arabs in all of Palestine. Between 700,000 and 900,000 of the Arabs lived in the region eventually bounded by the 1949 Armistice line, the so-called Green Line. By the time the fighting stopped, there were only about 170,000 Arabs left in the new State of Israel. By the summer of 1949, about 750,000 Palestinian Arabs were living in squalid refugee camps, set up virtually overnight in territories adjacent to Israel's borders. About 300,000 lived in the Gaza Strip, which was occupied by the Egyptian army. Another 450,000 became unwelcome residents of the West Bank of the Jordan, recently occupied by the Arab Legion of Transjordan.

The Arabs who remained inside post-1948 Israel became citizens of the Jewish state. They had voting rights equal to the state's Jewish community, and according to Israel's Declaration of Independence were guaranteed social and political equality. Because Israel's parliament has never passed a constitution, however, Arab rights in the Jewish state have remained precarious. Israel's Arab residents were seen both by Jewish Israelis and by themselves as aliens in a foreign country. They had been waging war since the 1920s against Zionism and could not be expected to accept enthusiastically residence in the Jewish state. The institutions of the new state were designed to facilitate the growth of the Jewish nation, which in many instances entailed a perceived infringement upon Arab rights. Thus, Arab land was confiscated to make way for Jewish immigrants, the Hebrew language and Judaism predominated over Arabic and Islam, foreign economic aid poured into the Jewish economy while Arab agriculture and business received only meager assistance, and Israeli security concerns severely restricted the Arabs' freedom of movement.

After independence the areas in which 90 percent of the Arabs lived were placed under military government. This system and the assignment of almost unfettered powers to military governors were based on the Defense (Emergency) Regulations promulgated by the British Mandate Authority in 1945. Using the 1945 regulations as a legal base, the government created three areas or zones to be ruled by the Ministry of Defense. The most important was the Northern Area, also known as the Galilee Area, the locale of about twothirds of the Arab population. The second critical area was the socalled Little Triangle, located between the villages of Et Tira and Et Taiyiba near the border with Jordan (then Transjordan). The third area included much of the Negev Desert, the region traversed by the previously apolitical nomadic beduins.

The most salient feature of military government was restriction of movement. Article 125 of the Defense (Emergency) Regulations empowered military governors to declare any specified area "offlimits " to those having no written authorization. The area was then declared a security zone and thus closed to Israeli Arabs who lacked written permission either from the army chief of staff or the minister of defense. Under these provisions, 93 out of 104 Arab villages in Israel were constituted as closed areas out of which no one could move without a military permit. In these areas, official acts of military governors were, with rare exceptions, not subject to review by the civil courts. Individuals could be arrested and imprisoned on unspecified charges, and private property was subject to search and seizure without warrant. Furthermore, the physical expulsion of individuals or groups from the state was not subject to review by the civil courts.

Another land expropriation measure evolved from the Defense (Emergency) Regulations, which were passed in 1949 and renewed annually until 1972 when the legislation was allowed to lapse. Under this law, the Ministry of Defense could, subject to approval by an appropriate committee of the Knesset, create security zones in all or part of what was designated as the "protected zone," an area that included lands adjacent to Israel's borders and other specified areas. According to Sabri Jiryis, an Arab political economist who based his work exclusively on Israeli government sources, the defense minister used this law to categorize "almost half of Galilee, all of the Triangle, an area near the Gaza Strip, and another along the Jerusalem-Jaffa railway line near Batir as security zones." A clause of the law provided that permanent as well as temporary residents could be required to leave the zone and that the individual expelled had four days within which to appeal the eviction notice to an appeals committee. The decisions of these committees were not subject to review or appeal by a civil court.

Yet another measure enacted by the Knesset in 1949 was the Emergency Regulations (Cultivation of Waste Lands) Ordinance. One use of this law was to transfer to kibbutzim or other Jewish settlements land in the security zones that was lying fallow because the owner of the land or other property was not allowed to enter the zone as a result of national security legislation. The 1949 law provided that such land transfers were valid only for a period of two years and eleven months, but subsequent amending legislation extended the validity of the transfers for the duration of the state of emergency.

Another common procedure was for the military government to seize up to 40 percent of the land in a given region--the maximum allowed for national security reasons--and to transfer the land to a new kibbutz or moshav. Between 1948 and 1953, about 370 new Jewish settlements were built, and an estimated 350 of the settlements were established on what was termed abandoned Arab property.

The property of the Arabs who were refugees outside the state and the property expropriated from the Arabs who remained in Israel became a major asset to the new state. According to Don Peretz, an American scholar, by 1954 "more than one-third of Israel's Jewish population lived on absentee property, and nearly a third of the new immigrants (250,000 people) settled in the urban areas abandoned by Arabs." The fleeing Arabs emptied thriving cities such as Jaffa, Acre (Akko), Lydda (Lod), and Ramla, plus "338 towns and villages and large parts of 94 other cities and towns, containing nearly a quarter of all the buildings in Israel."

To the Israeli Arabs, one of the more devastating aspects of the loss of their property was their knowledge that the loss was legally irreversible. The early Zionist settlers--particularly those of the Second Aliyah--adopted a rigid policy that land purchased or in any way acquired by a Jewish organization or individual could never again be sold, leased, or rented to a nonJew . The policy went so far as to preclude the use of non-Jewish labor on the land. This policy was carried over into the new state. At independence the State of Israel succeeded to the "state lands" of the British Mandate Authority, which had "inherited" the lands held by the government of the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish National Fund was the operating and controlling agency of the Land Development Authority and ensured that land once held by Jews-- either individually or by the "sovereign state of the Jewish people"--did not revert to non-Jews. This denied Israel's nonJewish , mostly Arab, population access to about 95 percent of the land.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress