The story of the Nakba often focuses, rightly so, on the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who were exiled, as well as the destruction of their villages and loss of their lands. The Israeli legal system has played a pivotal role in this process, especially through the 1950 Absentees’ Property Law, which declared Palestinians outside areas of state control to be “absentees” and expropriated their land. Less well-known is how the state of Israel confiscated the land of even those Palestinians who never left.
On 10 March 1953, Israel enacted the Land Acquisition (Validation of Acts and Compensation) Law, an extraordinary statute with a limited one-year timeframe. The law allowed the Minister of Finance to seize any land “not in the possession of its owners” for the “purposes of essential development, settlement or security.” Unlike the Absentees’ Property Law, it did not matter if the owners were still inside Israel or not. Moreover, the law did not provide for any hearings prior to confiscation or oblige the authorities to notify the land owners after the confiscation took place. And under court rulings from 1954 and 1981, factual claims made by the Minister of Finance to justify seizing lands cannot be challenged.
The Land Acquisition Law was used to expropriate 1.2 million dunams (120,000 hectares), mostly belonging to so-called “present absentees” – Palestinians who were displaced from their homes but remained inside the state of Israel and became its citizens.
The absolutist logic of conquest undergirding the Nakba means that the state sometimes acts through legal reasoning and at other times refuses to reason at all. We can see this in one of the first known cases to challenge the Land Acquisition Law, Ali Yunis v. Minister of Finance. The petitioner lived in ‘Ar‘ara, a Palestinian village that remained intact inside the Green Line, and continued to cultivate his lands nearby with his family. After the state declared ‘Ar‘ara a “closed military zone” under the 1945 Defence (Emergency) Regulations promulgated by the British, Yunis could no longer access his lands. Then, in August 1953, his fields were seized under the Land Acquisition Law.
The High Court of Justice ruled that the confiscation was lawful because the land was no longer in Yunis’ “possession.” The Court acknowledged that Yunis “was not permitted to leave the closed area for the purpose of cultivating [his] land” (p. 318) but gave no legal weight to the fact that the state itself was responsible for this. Dismissing any logic or reasoning, the law kept Yunis off his land and then punished him for not being there.
More than five decades later, some 200 Palestinian citizens of Israel from the destroyed village of al-Lajun sought to challenge the Land Acquisition Law again. In 1953, the state seized al-Lajun’s lands under the Land Acquisition Law for “settlement needs,” but instead planted a forest there. There were good reasons to try this lawsuit despite the 1954 Yunis precedent: in the intervening years, Israel had experienced a “constitutional revolution” ushered in by the passage of the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty that was supposed to provide robust human rights protections. It was soon apparent, however, that the Court had little interest in constitutionalizing the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the face of the Land Acquisition Law.
During land registration procedures, the original owners argued in the Nazareth District Court in 2007 that the land should be returned to them because it was not used for the purposes stipulated in the original confiscation order. The District Court rejected the suit, as did the High Court of Justice. In its decision, the High Court interpreted the Land Acquisition Law very broadly to include forestation as an “essential” development need of the state that outweighed the property rights of Palestinian citizens. Commitment to a Zionist ideology of land use was evident, especially in Justice Elyakim Rubinstein’s opinion:
… the theme of forestation in the wilderness or in previously abandoned places has been a central part of the ethos that gave rise to the state of Israel, like the development of the country or making the desert bloom (p. 17)
Rubinstein’s language resonates with colonial legal doctrines alleging that native territories were not properly cultivated and therefore terra nullius (nobody’s land), ripe for taking.
Meanwhile, Justice Yoram Danziger brushed aside the argument that the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty’s protections for personal property should outweigh or constrain a temporary and long-elapsed law from 1953:
… the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty has interpretive effect on various confiscation laws, and this is evident in the case law of this Court. However, as noted above, the Land Acquisition Law is an exceptional law, to be interpreted against the backdrop of the period in which it was passed, the only time that it was actually possible to implement it […]. It can be said that the Land Acquisition Law “froze in place” and therefore I believe that the effect of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty on it, if any, is minimal (p. 14).
Thanks to the Court, the Land Acquisition Law might have elapsed 50 years earlier but it nevertheless possessed a special nature that allowed it to override human rights guarantees that are supposed to be fundamental. This is a clear example of how the Nakba – which the Court alluded to as the “exceptional … background of the period” in which the law was passed – continues to reverberate in the Israeli legal system.
These cases were not merely legal defeats. By silencing any form of legal reasoning, they were also acts of erasure, denying the validity of Palestinian narratives and Palestinian history in order to safeguard Zionist structures of sovereignty, territoriality, and property. They are reminders of how the Nakba persists in Israel’s legal system.
Ali Yunis v. Minister of Finance. HCJ 5/54, 10 March 1954 [Hebrew].
Jabareen, et. al., v. State of Israel. HCJ 4067/07, 3 January 2010 [Hebrew].