Displaced from their homes in the mid- to late-1940s, Israel was quick to characterize Palestinians as infiltrators. It is a very cold word, and wherever it is used, know that it serves not only a political objective but a racist ideal as well.
The term in its most derogatory form originated almost simultaneously with the establishment of the state of Israel. The more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled their homes as Jewish Zionist paramilitary forces raided their villages were promptly barred from ever returning. Israel introduced legislation to recategorize them. No longer were they Palestinians. They were absentees. But that was too general. So they became infiltrators.
The year leading up to Israel’s declaration of independence and the decades following it yielded a bizarre sequence of laws and amendments that formalized, brick by brick, Israel’s commitment to racial purity and total ownership of the land. These are the laws.
Abandoned Property Ordinance, 1948: The first major land regulation law since the establishment of Israel saw the passage of abandoned land and property to the Israeli government despite evidence of Palestinian ownership. This law specifically targeted Palestinians who preemptively left their homes to avoid the imminent wave of Zionist violence. The myth here is that these Palestinians had abandoned their land outright. But, as evidenced by the very small amounts of luggage they took with them, their idea was to return once the Jewish Zionist paramilitary groups moved on past their villages. Thousands of families had expected to return in a matter of days.
The Area of Jurisdiction and Powers Ordinance, 1948: This law validated the annexation of land overrun by the Israeli military. This ordinance retroactively authorized the confiscation of land by the paramilitary groups prior to the previous law and even prior to the establishment of the state of Israel.
Abandoned Areas Ordinance, 1948: The following law validated the confiscation of land the government considered to be abandoned. Land that had not been directly overrun by Israeli forces but that was still abandoned by Palestinian villagers fearful for their lives was considered fair for confiscation. More and more Palestinians were finding it impossible to return to their homes despite carrying proof of ownership.
Article 125 of the Defence (Emergency) Regulations, 1948: This ordinance established a set of regulations that essentially prohibited Palestinian land owners from physically accessing their land. The strategy here was to expedite Israeli land confiscation. By preventing Palestinians from accessing their lands, Israel gave itself the legal grounds to reclassify the land as “abandoned.” Upon so doing, the previous law (as well as future laws) took effect, giving Israel the legal validity it needed to annex the land.
Emergency Regulations (Security Zones) Law, 1949: This subsequent law introduced security zones in which no one was allowed to live or visit. Lands falling under Israel’s new security zoning were annexed and frequently sold for development purposes and future military bases. This law complemented the previous one by driving Palestinians away from their property, recategorizing the land as “abandoned,” and confiscating the land to sell or develop despite Palestinians maintaining proof of land ownership.
Emergency Regulations (Cultivation of Waste Lands) Law, 1949: This law called on land owners to cultivate their lands or else the Israeli government would be forced to cultivate it for them. Masked as an environmental law that could only authorize temporary Israeli control of any acquired land, its sole purpose was to confiscate land from Palestinian land owners who had been kept from returning to their homes and lands by the previous laws. Because Palestinians could not be present to physically cultivate the land or to present a cultivation plan to any inspecting government bodies, Israel designated the properties as “waste lands” and assumed ownership of the land. This law essentially greenwashed the previous set of laws by giving this deliberate strategy an environmental spin.
Emergency Land Requisition (Regulation) Law, 1949: The ensuing law broadly legalized land annexations past and present, extended temporary land control to permanent land acquisitions, and even established a small set of criteria for Israel to meet to legalize future land confiscations. By this point in time, the Israeli government had finely crafted for itself a legal umbrella to validate virtually any acquisition of land that it so willed. For example, land that had been annexed under the Cultivation of Waste Lands Law could only be held by Israeli authorities for a temporary yet unspecified time period. This law allowed the Israeli government to maintain permanent control of the land. In addition, the law authorized the use of any necessary force to carry out an order to confiscate property.
Jerusalem Military Government (Validation of Acts) Ordinance, 1949: This ordinance validated the Israeli military’s authority specifically in occupied Jerusalem. Forceful home evictions were considered legal. Empty property was thus taken over by the military and, by default, the government of Israel.
The next set of laws built upon the previous set, although the focus shifted from defining the land to defining the person. This binary would work hand in hand from then on to maintain Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
Absentees’ Property Law, 1950: This critical law replaced a previous absentee property law and formally defined Palestinians who had been away from their homes for any reason after the partition of Palestine as an “absentee”. The law is extensive, its primary objective being to include as many Palestinians as possible under this umbrella term. Under this law, “absentee” refers to any Palestinian land or property owner who maintained citizenship in a nearby Arab country or who was not physically present on his or her property upon adoption of the United Nations’ 1947 partition plan. Property rights belonging to these absentees were then transferred to the Israeli government. Bearing proof of ownership or not, Palestinians returning to their lands were expelled or detained and any construction was halted and demolished. In other words, if a Palestinian was not physically within the boundaries of his or her land on November 29, 1947, the day the partition plan went into effect, the land was considered forfeited. “Absentees” included Palestinians who had been prevented from returning to their homes after paramilitary forces attacked their villages, Palestinians who had lost their land to the aforementioned property laws working retroactively, and even Palestinians who had been in nearby towns visiting relatives or running errands at the moment this property census took place. Although these Palestinians were present, they were considered absent. Hence the legal categorization “present absentee”. It is estimated that upwards of 70% of Israel’s acquired, confiscated, and occupied land was gained through this and subsequent absentee laws.
Development Authority (Transfer or Property) Law, 1950: This law worked in conjunction with the legal framework established by the Absentees’ Property Law to acquire and prepare land for incoming Jewish immigrants. From an economics perspective, each newly arriving immigrant increased the demand for land, which in turn drove the confiscation of Palestinian land through the previous assortment of laws.
State Property Law, 1951: This law repealed an early land law from the British Mandate period and designated all land that was acquired after the establishment of the state of Israel on May 15, 1948, as “State land”. More ominously, the law formally grants the government the power to acquire “rights in property, situate[d] in or out of Israel, on such conditions as it may think fit.” This is the first time an Israeli law so openly invites the government to annex land without any instruction on restraint.
Land Acquisition (Validation of Acts and Compensation) Law, 1953: Another critical law, this one patched the 1950 Absentees’ Property Law to automatically transfer the titles of the confiscated land to the Israeli government. Palestinians were prohibited from returning to the lands that were confiscated under the prior law. Though the Israeli government assumed ownership of the land, the land could not be developed unless the government could further legalize ownership of the land with titles transferred from the original Palestinian owners. To do this, another property census was conducted on April 1, 1952. Land that was still abandoned by the original Palestinian owners (i.e. all of the land confiscated through the original Absentees’ Property Law) was validated as Israeli property. Any remaining titles were stripped from their original holders. Israel then divided the land for construction of future settlements and for military use. Incidentally, this law promised compensation to the owners who were dispossessed of their land, but it is unclear if the Israeli government followed through with its promise or if the compensations, which were oftentimes determined by an Israeli judge, were fair.
Prevention of Infiltration (Offences and Jurisdiction) Law, 1954: By now, the Israeli government classified as many Palestinians as it could as “present absentees”. Use of the term, however, switched to “infiltrators” following this law which stipulates that anyone with citizenship elsewhere (regardless of land ownership status), anyone who visits outside of Israel (including the occupied Palestinian territories and the surrounding Arab countries), and anyone who had at some point fled their home (for safety, by force, or otherwise) is considered an infiltrator. Although not specifically a land regulation law, integrated enactment of this law with previous and future land laws meant that Palestinians who tried to return to their homes or whose proofs of ownership were ignored by Israeli administrators were not only prevented from returning but were also liable to penalties, including fines and lengthy imprisonments. Israel has effectively criminalized Palestinian acts of self-preservation.
Plant Protection Law, 1956: Although not associated with the Absentees’ Property Law, this law returns once again to Israel’s greenwashing of its role in annexing swaths of Palestinian land. This law permits the Israeli government to regulate which kinds of crops are grown during any given season, and the way this law was put into use severely affected Palestinian cultivators who were suddenly subject to Israeli regulations. Furthermore, the law gave Israeli authorities authorization to destroy crops for the purpose of “pest control”. Crops belonging to Palestinians who had not yet been driven out were subject to these arbitrary measures.
Prescription Law, 1958: This particularly disturbing law was another land-oriented ordinance that functioned alongside the Absentees’ Property Law. According to this law, Palestinian landowners were required to show evidence of land cultivation during the “prescription” period, an uninterruped 15-year period at least. This was difficult to prove, and the Israeli government used this to its advantage. Landowners that came close to finalizing their proof of ownership were frequently given additional requirements. The goal here was to make it so difficult for Palestinian farmers to prove their ownership that their land was quickly transferred to the Israeli government, in essence treating the original landowners once again as present absentees. This law saw heavy usage in the north where the Israeli government felt threatened by remaining Palestinian communities intent on maintaining possession of their property.
The Absentees’ Property (Eviction) Law, 1958: This law provided a legal basis for revoking an eviction or expulsion under certain circumstances. It is unclear how or how often this law was put into use. It is also unclear if this law was introduced to alleviate concerns over the scope and absolutism of the Absentees’ Property Law of 1950.
Amendment No. 3 to the Absentees’ Property (Release and Use of Endowment Property) Law, 1965: This amendment widened the scope of the Absentees’ Property Law by including Muslim religious endowments. About two-thirds of all mosques, Muslim graveyards, and land donated as charity for religious use were confiscated. The land was developed or repurposed, and although the law required that a fraction of all income from these confiscated lands be used to provide services for remaining Muslim inhabitants, the properties were often dealt and traded away without any consultation to the resident Muslim Palestinian community.
The Absentees’ Property (Compensation) Law, 1973: This ordinance to arrange compensation for Palestinians whose property was confiscated under the Absentees’ Property Law of 1950. The compensation was to be determined by the Israeli government. Palestinians were to receive their compensation over a fifteen year period, most likely. It is unclear how many Palestinians were given compensation. But the law did little to rectify any of the Israeli government’s previous wrongs. By now, the land had been redeveloped for Israeli settlements, sold to land development agencies, or retained for military use. Palestinian land and property owners had been evicted from their homes and, once the lands were essentially lost in the system, they were sent away with promises of compensation that likely valued less than the worth of the stolen land itself.
These are only a fraction of the laws enacted by Israel to establish and maintain control of Palestinian land while simultaneously classifying and reclassifying Palestinians to suit Israel’s interests and to criminalize Palestinians. The jargon is complex, the clauses are numerous, and the amendments are frequent. But the pattern is the same.
Initially, the Israeli government confiscated land belonging to Palestinians who had fled Jewish Zionist paramilitary aggression. Then it annexed land for military and development purposes. To validate this land annexation, the Israeli government quickly enacted laws to nullify or retroactively void Palestinian proof of ownership. The Israeli government also reclassified hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as “present absentees”, which essentially stripped them of whatever land rights they had left. Palestinians bearing deeds who attempted to return to their properties were called infiltrators and were treated as enemies of the state of Israel. In just under two decades, the Israeli government designed a deliberate and highly effective legal blanket that gave it the cover it needed to expel Palestinians and colonize their land. It was a matter of stealing then retroactively justifying it. This all happened under the international community’s noses, and very few people are aware of the scope of these laws and the way they targeted just one particular group of people.
These laws are largely in effect today, although many have already served their purpose. Most of Israel’s land was acquired through these laws, and most Palestinian land was destroyed or confiscated in just the same way. Borders uncertain and settlements still expanding, Israel appears determined to show the world that nothing has changed and that its program of annexing large plots of Palestinian land is still underway. And the terms — present absentees, infiltrators, demographic threats, threatening droves — are now part of everyday language.
More information can be found in “Ruling Palestine: A History of the Legally Sanctioned Jewish-Israeli Seizure of Land and Housing in Palestine”, published May 2005 by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) and BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. A PDF version of the resource is available through BADIL’s website.