“This land gives us all that makes life worth living,” said Mahmoud Darwish in his famous poem “Palestine.” The phrase is an accurate representation of the role land plays in the collective Palestinian mindset, where it is understood, not in terms of property, but existentially.
The progressive loss of land by Palestinians is seen as the loss of homeland, the loss of Palestine, something very connected to their very existence as a people.
Even though the process of dispossession started during the first decades of the 20th century, it was the 1948 war that set in motion a systematic process of Zionist land acquisition. Following the establishment of Israel in 78% of Mandate Palestine, the newly formed government immediately introduced emergency regulations to facilitate the confiscation of the Palestinian land under its control.
As a result of the war, known as the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), 750,000-900,000 Palestinians — 55-66% of the population — were displaced from their homes and became refugees. More than 500 Palestinian localities were destroyed or cleansed during the war, leaving 20,350 sq.km of land vacant.
The acquisition of control over the territory coupled with the dramatic decrease in the Palestinian population established prime conditions for widespread land confiscation by Israel. This policy was implemented through an elaborate legal process designed to transfer ownership of the lands to the Israeli government.
Following the Nakba, Israel, as the successor state, inherited all the lands registered with the British High Commissioner for Palestine. Once those lands were secured, Israeli officials developed mechanisms to acquire privately owned properties.
In 1950, Israel passed the Absentee Property Law, which declared all lands owned by the recently expelled refugees “absentee property” and transferred them to a custodian. The 1953 Land Acquisition Law transferred all land held by the custodian to the Development Authority to be used for the development of Israel. This law allowed for the legal registration of other expropriated land by Israel. As a result, the Development Authority illegally appropriated 1,200 sq.km of land, 704 sq.km of absentee land owned by refugees who fled during the war and 305 sq.km of land privately owned by Palestinians.
It is worth noting that, following the 1948 war, Israel imposed a military government on Palestinian areas. Many Palestinians were expelled during this military rule in operations aimed to strengthen Israel’s dominance in the territory and its control of the newly established borders. Palestinian towns and villages were cleansed and the lands left behind by those who fled were confiscated under the Absentee Property Law.
Through these strategies, 93% of the land in Israel came under the control of the Israeli government. These areas are categorised as Israel Lands under Israeli law, meaning they cannot be sold and can only be designated for the exclusive use of the Jewish people. The Israeli government not only managed to confiscate the properties of Palestinian refugees, it excluded Palestinian citizens of Israel from accessing them.
Following the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel implemented a process like that used inside Israel after 1948. All land registered as state land — 13% of the West Bank — was automatically under Israeli control. Several military orders passed effectively acting as the Absentee Property Law. This facilitated the illegal confiscation of the properties of the 1967 Palestinian refugees, nearly 500,000. Israel also confiscated 110,000 hectares of land in the West Bank by declaring them restricted military areas.
In 1968, Israel introduced a military order freezing in land registration processes, impeding the formal recognition of ownership of that land. The inability to prove ownership has made those lands vulnerable to confiscation by Israel because the Palestinian owners do not have official proof of ownership.
In 1995, the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into Areas A, B and C, leaving more than 60% of this territory, Area C, under full Israeli control. While control did not translate into ownership, Israel systematically abused this authority to deny use and access of the lands to the Palestinian owners, resulting in the de facto confiscation of those lands.
The grabbing of Palestinian lands continues relentlessly on both sides of the Green Line. In February 2017, for example, the Knesset passed the Regularisation Law legalising about 4,000 housing units in 55 illegal outposts built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank. By retroactively legalising the outposts, the law effectively allows for arbitrary confiscation of land that is then allocated for settlement expansion.
These developments constitute the latest expression of a 70-year-old policy that is pushing Palestinians into shrinking pieces of their homeland. As long as illegal confiscation of land continues unchecked and without legal consequences for Israel, Palestinian land will continue being confiscated under the Israeli premise of acquiring the maximum acreage of land with the minimum number of Palestinians.