Who REALLY owns the Land of Israel?

December 31, 2013

After working several years in Israel advocacy, I've found that most discourse about the Arab-Israeli conflict centers around the question: Who owns the land of Israel, particularly the “West Bank” or “Judea and Samaria”? (Nomenclature depends on the narrative you favor).

The “West Bank” (WB) narrative: It’s “Palestinian land” because Palestinians are the indigenous people. Zionists are “colonialist invaders.”

The “Judea and Samaria” (JS) narrative: It’s “Jewish land” because the Jews have lived here as a sovereign people millennia ago, maintaining continuity, and then returned en masse upon acquiring the land in a war of self-defense.

Religious Jews and Muslims claim a divine landlord who promised them the land.

While interpretations of international law as to the legality of settlements vary according to bias, few have stopped to consider whether land could intrinsically belong collectively to an entire people. The notion of collectively owned land is what drives the “peace” process today and enables governments to consider racist policies of “population transfer” and “land swaps.”

Currently, in Israel “proper” (within the Green Line), only 7 percent of the land is owned privately by individuals (3 percent Jews and 4 percent Arabs). According to the Israeli NGO Regavim, the rest is owned by the Jewish state (80 percent) and the Jewish National Fund (13 percent). Israeli citizens lease the land in 49-98 year installments from the Israel Land Authority. Should the government repeal the lease, they are subject to eviction.

Approximately 30 percent of land in WB/JS is classified as Israeli state land, while the rest is unsurveyed (without proven ownership) or privately owned. Of the privately owned land, approximately 95 percent belongs to Arabs and 5 percent to Jews.

The Supreme Court of Israel has adopted Ottoman-turned-British Mandate law which assumes that cultivated land in WB/JS belongs to someone. This enables Arab individuals, families, and tribes to settle and acquire unsurveyed land through consistent cultivation. For example, Arab-planted olive tree orchards dominating the landscape have been rendered “Arab” land, which, contrary to misconceptions, Israel does not uproot. Jews, on the other hand, do not have the same rights, and Jewish agriculture on unsurveyed land does not grant Jews private ownership of it.

One reason why Israel does not transfer or sell public land to individuals is to ensure the collective Jewish claim to the land (which it could easily rescind). Jews the world over could feel they have a stake in the land, without purchasing or cultivating it. Interestingly enough, many of these Jews prefer to live in countries that respect the idea of private land ownership, a characteristic of modern, free countries.

While in WB/JS, Arab cans privately own land, they are forbidden by the Palestinian Authority to sell land to Israelis/Zionist Jews on threat of death, no matter benefits to the owners. Furthermore, under any authoritarian regime, is private property ever really “private”?

Should both Israel and any Palestinian leadership adopt policies of private land ownership, we’d come much nearer to peace than if we were to uproot anyone from their homes. First, it would break both sides out of the harmful, irrational and hopeless “Jewish versus Arab land” continuum. Jews and Arabs who value the land would either have to purchase it or cultivate it, and in essence assume productive, rational care of it. Their motivation–religious, nationalistic, or financial–matters less than if their intentions are peaceful. Criminals, terrorists, and aggressors, particularly those who use their property to kill and maim, potentially forfeit the state’s protection of their property.

Of course, the concept of private land ownership raises many new questions but also many new solutions.

With individuals owning land, disputes would be taken out of the nationalistic sphere and off the international stage. They’d be settled privately–not between nations–in lower, local courts, as in the rest of the world. With the Israeli Supreme Court adjudicating land disputes, the entire nation of Israel is potentially implicated in any verdict, which is one reason why Jewish settlement in WB/JS tears apart the Jewish community, with Jews quick to distance themselves from “settlers.”

Naturally, both Arab and Jewish leadership would have to respect private property for this paradigm shift. Perhaps this principle should be the touchstone in any conflict resolution. Would either governing body respect the property of its individual citizens or lawful residents?

In such a scenario, individuals would be freer to live their own lives, without constant fear of arbitrary demolition, with all peoples making the best of their resources and working together to keep what they worked so hard to own.

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