By Mohamed Mohamed
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin recently held a meeting at his residence where he addressed representatives from several European countries. In this meeting, he called on his audience to help recover Jewish property stolen during the Holocaust.
The right to own property, which also includes the right to be secure from arbitrary seizure of property, is widely accepted as a universal human right. Clearly, Holocaust victims suffered many violations of this right, and they have the right to regain what they lost.
At the same time, it is astonishing that Rivlin could keep a straight face as he asked European representatives to help reclaim Jewish property, while totally ignoring the extensive land and property theft that Israel has inflicted upon Palestinians since the Nakba in 1948, much of which was committed by Jews who themselves suffered during the Holocaust only a few years earlier.
The prevailing position within American and European discourse is that Israel has been illegally occupying or controlling the “Palestinian territories” (which refers to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip) since the war of 1967. Here, much of the criticism of Israel focuses on Israeli settlements, which have been illegally built and expanded on stolen Palestinian land. The plight of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their property has largely been forgotten.
To make matters worse, hardline Zionist propagandists do not even recognize the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza to be occupied. In an op-ed for a media outlet owned by staunch Zionist Jared Kushner, one such propagandist flat-out claims that, “The ‘occupied Palestinian territory’ is neither ‘occupied’ nor ‘Palestinian.’” They claim that since there was never an official Palestinian state, there was no country to occupy. Apparently, this absolves Israel of its crimes against the indigenous Palestinian population.
Despite what Israeli propaganda wants the world to believe, the fact of the matter is that at least 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland by 1949, losing their land, their homes, and their property. My grandparents were among these people, forced out of their village near the northern city of Safad. They barely escaped a massacre in our hometown, one of many committed by Zionist forces, and they ended up walking north to Lebanon, not knowing that they would remain refugees there until their death. Like countless other Palestinians, they kept the keys to their homes in vain.
Over 400 Palestinian towns were also methodically erased by Israelis to prevent the residents from returning. Only around 150,000 Palestinians were able to remain. Much of their land was taken, and despite gaining Israeli citizenship, they suffer from widespread discrimination, both from the Israeli state and its society.
In 1950, Israel enacted a self-serving law which was the main legal mechanism used by the state to confiscate Palestinian property for its own. Much of this was fixed property such as land, houses, and belongings, but Israel also froze and seized the bank accounts of every single Palestinian, which is a rather unnoticed aspect of the Nakba. To add insult to injury, this law was called the “Absentees’ Property Law,” as if the Palestinians were “absent” by their own decision and were welcome to return whenever they pleased. Unfortunately, deception by euphemism is a hallmark of Zionist propaganda. In that context, Palestinian refugees are considered absentees, the Israeli military is named the Israel Defense Forces, and Israeli settlements are simply called neighborhoods.
With the displacement, death, and destruction of 1948 in mind, it is easy to understand why Palestinians refer to the tragic event as the “Nakba” (“catastrophe”), and why Palestinians consider Israel to be an illegitimate state. Yet, criticizing the dubious way in which Israel was founded is a quick way to attract accusations of anti-Semitism.
Specifically, questioning Israel’s legitimacy is equal to questioning the right for Jews to have a homeland. But for Palestinians who lost everything in 1948, the problem has nothing to do with the concept of a Jewish homeland, and everything to do with the fact that it was established by force and at their expense. Whether in Palestine or anywhere else in the world, no one would accept such an injustice.
In his meeting, Rivlin ironically had the following to say:
“We always say: ‘Crime doesn’t pay.’ But for many people the crimes of the Holocaust did pay. We cannot allow this. The property must be returned.”
For Israel, the crimes of the Nakba certainly did pay, to the detriment of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees of 1948 along with their descendants, who now add up to around seven million and are scattered across the world as a result. As the Jewish people pursue their lost property in Europe, Palestinians have an absolute right to do the same in historical Palestine.
Mohamed Mohamed is the Executive Director of the Palestine Center.
The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.