Earlier this year, Israel’s Committee for Preferred Housing Planning (known by its Hebrew acronym, VATMAL) – a specialized body created to fast-track rezoning of lands for building purposes – announced a plan to expand the Ramot settlement near Jerusalem by building 1,435 housing units and other construction. Under international law, Ramot is in occupied territory, a settlement for Jews only in the West Bank; under Israeli law, it is domestic space, part of the greater Jerusalem area annexed by the state of Israel.

The plans concerning 41.9 hectares of land that originally belong to two neighboring Palestinian villages: Lifta and Beit Iksa. In the map below, the proposed areas for building are outlined in yellow. Lifta’s lands are on both sides of the Green Line, while Beit Iksa’s are entirely inside the West Bank (here, the area above the Green Line). They were seized by the state years ago but have remained unused ever since.

ramot plan

Of the hundreds of Palestinian Arab villages depopulated during the Nakba, Lifta is the only one that remains largely intact and where attempts at reappropriation for Jewish use never took hold. Its empty homes continue to haunt the hills northwest of Jerusalem just across the Green Line from Ramot. Hikers who chance upon the site, predominantly Jews, experience the picturesque ruins as an “archaeological site,” where a focus on ancient history occludes a modern history of dispossession. Many of Lifta’s original inhabitants and their descendants live only a few kilometers away, in the Jerusalem neighborhoods conquered in 1967, as well as in exile outside Israel/Palestine.

Beit Iksa is in the West Bank, under that hybrid of Israeli military jurisdiction and Palestinian civil administration called “Area B.” Its population of 1,700 Palestinians is entirely surrounded by the separation barrier, with all movement to and from the village running through one checkpoint. Beit Iksa’s village council is actively encouraging the renovation of its historic sites, some of which date back many centuries, partially to strengthen claims that the village should be protected by the international community from further encroachments by the occupation.

At first glance these two villages would seem to represent the different categories normally used to understand the situation in Israel/Palestine. For international law, Beit Iksa is outside the state of Israel, whereas Lifta is inside the State of Israel; Beit Iksa’s people are under occupation as virtual prisoners, whereas Liftawis are refugees in exile (even as some of them also live under occupation); Beit Iksa is a living village whereas Lifta is a dead one, emptied of its people; Beit Iksa is the site of present-day human rights violations, Lifta is a reminder of past abuses. But looking more with the Nakba in mind shows how certain aspects of this case cross the boundaries that normally define how Israel/Palestine is understood.

The lands in question here are inside the “Greater Jerusalem” municipality and subject to the full civil authority of the state. Here, the State of Israel decrees uses for lands on both sides of the Green Line without bothering to distinguish between them in terms of its rationales; when it comes to building for Jews, the Green Line is irrelevant here. But the Green Line remains as important as ever: it justifies imposing a separate legal regime on the Palestinians of Lifta and Beit Iksa – some of whom are living just meters away from the lands in question – even as they live under the same supreme authority as the Israelis in Ramot. The Green Line can be ignored or dependably relied upon as the State finds convenient.

The story of Beit Iksa and Lifta in the shadow of Ramot illustrates the three ways of thinking about the Nakba that we hope to trace in the website. There is the Nakba as historical event, with the expulsion of Lifta’s people in 1948; there is Nakba as an ongoing process of dispossession, as we see with the recent moves to build on these lands; and there is Nakba as structure, with spatial categories such as the Green Line, “Greater Jerusalem,” and “Area B” together allowing the law to both enact inequality and to justify itself in doing so.

Attorneys Suhad Bishara and Myssana Morany from Adalah recently submitted written objections to the VATMAL on behalf of Lifta and Beit Iksa families. The petitioners’ arguments mostly fall into three categories:

  • Under the international law of occupation, these actions are unlawful on multiple grounds. They are tantamount to the confiscation of private property, which is absolutely forbidden. Insofar as they deviate from planning laws that predate the occupation, they are unlawful because they do not take into consideration the interests of the occupied population. Moreover, these measures are taken for the benefit of Ramot settlement, whose existence is itself illegal, and therefore compound the violation committed therein;
  • Under international human rights law, these actions violate the landowners’ right to property and right to development;
  • Under Israeli administrative law, the actions are arbitrary and disproportionate. VATMAL did not establish a proper factual basis for these orders. It did not examine the possible impact on nearby residents or the environment, nor did it explore the possibility of less drastic alternatives.

The legal claims made here are largely consistent with those often used to challenge the expropriation of land. They reflect the dilemmas that have been discussed whenever Palestinians have resorted to the law to challenge Israeli measures, especially in venues controlled by the Israeli state. Exploring these dilemmas will be a recurring theme on this site.

Lodged within the Lifta objection in particular, however, is an additional and somewhat unusual (if not novel) set of arguments for this context relating to the part of the lands that are inside the Green Line.

First, petitioners asserted their right of return as Palestine refugees under General Assembly Resolution 194. This international law argument is an important, even if symbolic, reiteration of a key Palestinian legal and political position. Here, it dovetails with another argument, namely that privatizing the lands in question violates the 1950 Absentees’ Property law. Relying on the Absentees’ Property Law is surprising, as it has been one of the primary legal instruments for enacting the Nakba in the first place: the Absentees’ Property Law legitimized the transfer of Palestinian land to the state using the legal fiction that such transfer is not a permanent confiscation, but rather a “temporary” (or rather, indefinite) decision to make the best possible use of the land while their owners remain in exile. This is one reason why many lands in Israel are held with 99-year leases from the state rather than outright private ownership. The Ramot plans threaten to give the lie to this illusion, since privatizing the lands would extinguish even the notional possibility of Palestinian rights to those lands. The Adalah lawyers thus turn the rhetoric of custodianship on its head, citing the law’s putative purpose of “plac[ing] absentees’ property under the temporary trusteeship of the Custodian, pending a solution to the question of the Palestinian refugees” (¶ 10). In a way, one can say that the petitioners’ argument relies on the old Nakba (as enacted through the Absentee Property Law) as a bulwark against the new Nakba (as enacted through privatization).

Second, the petitioners cite international laws of war prohibiting the confiscation of private property. Normally, in discussions of Israel/Palestine discussions of the laws of war are limited to the 1967 occupied territories, perpetuating the assumption that the situation inside the Green Line is “normal,” and at peace. Here, the petitioners remind the state that the war of 1948, too, never officially ended – a fact often cited to justify the ongoing state of emergency upon which much of the country’s legal edifice continues to rest. And if the state has never stopped making war, even on its own citizens, then why shouldn’t the relevant international rules for regulating war be invoked against it?

It is important to bear in mind that these arguments are being made in letters to an administrative body, and not a court. There is no risk of a negative and binding legal precedent being set, making it a good place to test unusual arguments alongside conventional ones. This is not to say that these arguments inherently radical or emancipatory, but they do contain the seeds for potential alternative legal theories and strategies. Whether and how these seeds are nurtured is an altogether different matter.

What does it mean to think of the Nakba as a structure that works through law? One theme we will return to again and again is the Green Line and its various meanings. Some might see the marking of the Green Line through the 1949 armistice as signaling the end of the Nakba. But this “end” – be it in space or time – has always been provisional. The war of 1948 has still not officially ended and the Green Line is not a border in the sense of a stable internationally recognized demarcation between states. As a porous and contingent boundary, the Green Line is a reminder that the Zionist project has always needed the flexibility to choose, combine, and discard different legal regimes in order to carry out its aims and to produce justifications for its actions.

Primary Sources:

Objection to Tamal – Committee for Preferential Housing Treatment, Plan 1012 (Expanding Ramot) — Beit Iksa. Adalah, 28 April 2016 [Hebrew]

Objection to Tamal – Committee for Preferential Housing Treatment, Plan 1012 (Expanding Ramot) — Lifta. Adalah, 28 April 2016 [Hebrew]