control of Arab-owned land?
Israel's Attorney-General blocks Israeli Cabinet
Published: 2 February 2005
Briefing Number 131
Summary: Israel’s Attorney General Menachem Mazuz
has quashed a decision made at Israeli Cabinet level which
would have enabled the Israeli authorities to take control
of unoccupied Arab-owned land in East Jerusalem. The episode
illustrates the strength of the rule of law in Israel, and
how Arab rights are protected in the Israeli political system.
The rights of Arab landowners have prevailed over the wishes
of influential Israeli politicians.
Source: Jerusalem Post reports – 31
January – 2 February 2005.
Background – The Issue of Absentee Property in
- Many Arabs who live on the West Bank own property in East Jerusalem.
But they are physically absent from that property.
- Since Israel took control of East Jerusalem in 1967 (see Beyond
Images Briefing 103), successive Israeli governments have
grappled with the legal status of this “absentee property”.
- In 1997 a right-of-centre Israeli government permitted the
Israeli authorities to seize unoccupied absentee property in Jerusalem
but only with the permission of the Government’s own legal
- In 2000 a left-of-centre Israeli government decided that no
such absentee property could be transferred to the Israeli authorities
without the permission of a forum of Israeli government ministers.
This represented a higher level of advance approval.
- Each of these arrangements was built on powers given to the
Israeli authorities by an old piece of Israeli legislation, the
Absentee Property Law 1950.
The Cabinet Decision 2004 – Absentee Property
in Jerusalem Can Be Seized
In June 2004, the Israeli Cabinet took a further decision regarding
this absentee property.
- A sub-group within the Cabinet, called the Inter-Ministerial
Committee for Jerusalem, issued a fresh interpretation of the
Absentee Property Law 1950.
- The Committee decided that the law gave the Israeli authorities
the right to “transfer, sell or lease any real estate property”
to the Israeli Development Authority – in other words, to
take control of unoccupied Arab-owned land in Jerusalem and transfer
it into Israeli hands.
- According to the Attorney-General, this decision was taken
by just two ministers on the Committee: Natan Sharansky (the Minister
for Jerusalem), and a religious party minister Zevulun Orlev.
Each Minister is well-known for holding right-wing political views.
- Justice Ministry officials apparently objected to their new
interpretation; and the decision was not brought to the attention
of Israel’s Attorney-General at the time.
- Because no member of the Committee for Jerusalem opposed the
new interpretation, the Israeli Cabinet automatically approved
the decision at its next meeting, without examining the issues.
Israel’s Attorney-General quashes the decision
- Israel’s Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz has stepped
in, and quashed the decision of the Ministerial Committee.
- In an opinion of 1 February 2005, he held that the Ministerial
Committee, and the Israeli Cabinet, had exceeded their powers.
He held that their interpretation of the Absentee Property Law
went too far. He said that their decision caused legal problems
under “customary international law” and in relation
to Israel’s legal obligations to respect the property rights
of Arabs in Jerusalem.
- Mazuz’s legal ruling was delivered to Israel’s
Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose ministry is responsible
for properties which Israel takes over under the 1950 law.
This episode illustrates the strength of the rule of law in
Israel. And it also illustrates again how Arab rights are protected
in the Israeli political system.
Israel is routinely accused of “grabbing Palestinian
land”. The Attorney-General’s intervention demonstrates
that Israeli measures to acquire land are subject to powerful
and independent supervision. In this case the rights of Arab
landowners have prevailed over the wishes of influential Israeli