When Israeli citizen Adel Qa'adan from the village of Baqa el-Gharbiyyah asked to buy a plot of land in order to build a home in the nearby Jewish settlement of Katzir, in Wadi 'Ara, he was refused because this community village belongs to the Jewish Agency.
Over two and a half years ago the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) petitioned the High Court of Justice on Qa'adan's behalf against the Israel Lands Authority (ILA), the Jewish Agency, and the Katzir Cooperative Society. The Court has not yet ruled on the issue and has asked the parties to seek a compromise solution, meanwhile instructing the settlement to leave a plot for the family. Adel, 43, a male nurse with three children, was ready to pay the 1995 price of US $17,000 for the land.
Katzir claimed in its defense that the purpose of its establishment was "to absorb only Jews, in order to implement the Zionist vision of Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael." The settlement, it noted, was deliberately located in the heart of the Arab Triangle (from the Jezreel Valley to Kufr Qassem - ed.) so as to strengthen the Jewish population in a largely Arab area. The aim would be thwarted by Arabs living there.
ACRI maintains that in view of Jewish Agency policy, the plaintiff should be entitled as an Israeli citizen to buy a plot directly from the ILA, which is legally bound to issue a tender open to all citizens.

Non-Jews Need Not Apply

What precisely is the Jewish Agency? The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, ratified in 1922, stated that "an appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognized [on] matters which may affect the establishment of the Jewish National Home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine." The status of the Agency (as "the representative of world Jewry") in fostering immigration, absorption, and land settlement was ratified in laws passed in the Knesset in 1952 and 1954. Thus, following the establishment of the State of Israel, the task of the Agency, which is now a stronger and more diversified organization, remains to develop, settle, sell and rent for Jews. One may find an occasional exception, but, within the Agency mandate inherited from the pre-1948 era, the rule is that non-Jews need not apply.
It is ironical that were Qa'adan a new Jewish immigrant, he could settle in Katzir. He is refused, in spite of having been born here, to a family which has lived in the country for some two hundred years. The denial of a citizen's aspiration to improve the quality of life and education for his family in a village seven minutes' ride from his birthplace, raises grave questions about the contemporary role of the Jewish Agency. In the words of ACRI attorney Dan Yakir, who defended Qa'adan, "As a Jew in Israel, I think that if a Jew elsewhere in the world was prohibited from buying state land, public land, owned by the federal government because they're Jews, I believe there would have been an outcry in Israel." (The New York Times, March 1, 1998).

A Discriminatory Policy

This, however, may only be the visible tip of the iceberg, for ACRI is also dealing with broader issues. According to reports, under the auspices of National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, the ILA has plans to transfer millions of dunums (a dunum is a quarter of an acre) of state lands to the Jewish Agency.
Agency chairman Avraham Burg (who is associated with the dovish wing of the Labor party) says it is asking the ILA for land instead of cash it is owed. It has been "demanding what it considers just recompense for its investments in the rural sector [though] it will not be a partner to the uprooting of anyone from their land, neither Jew nor Arab." This is fine but, unfortunately, it avoids the main issue, which is not dispossession but negation by the Agency of access by Arab citizens to state lands.
ACRI described in a letter to Israel's attorney general the glaring injustice inherent in preventing the use of public land by non-Jews - "the transfer of state land, an asset of all citizens, to a body which declaredly discriminates between citizens of the state on a national and religious basis." Sent in March 1998, the letter remains unanswered. Former director general of the Prime Minister's Office Avigdor Lieberman has called for action against what he calls the theft of state land by Arabs and, so far, 100,000 dunums, mainly in the Negev but also in Galilee, have been parceled out among 50 Jewish farmers. Green organizations have also protested against these policies, claiming that some of these lands were designated to serve as natural parks.
According to estimates, Palestinian Israelis (Arabs who remained after 1948 and their descendants), who constitute 18 percent of the country's population, today own only about 4 percent of the land, compared to 25 percent in 1948. What future faces Bedouin shepherds in the Negev or Arab farmers in the Galilee if more and more public land, which accounts for about 90 percent of the total in the country, is to be closed before them?
The Hebrew daily Ha'aretz (March 29, 1998) asks in an editorial: "After fifty years of Israel's existence, is it still morally justified to designate lands for Jews only, with deliberate discrimination against the state's Arab citizens? Are terms such as ... 'redemption' of land or 'Judaifying' land, which had meaning in the pre-sovereign era, still valid in a state which has pretensions of treating all its citizens equally?"

The Same Law for Jews and for Arabs

If the need for such policies is argued for "security reasons," the results can only be the exact opposite - bitterness, instability, unrest and protest, elements which undermine security rather than promote it. Palestinian Israelis have a natural sense of solidarity with the Palestinian people of which they are part. But 99.9 percent have proven their loyalty to the state of which they are citizens. It should be recalled that, in 1947, Chaim Weizmann, who had led the Zionist movement between the two world wars and was to become Israel's first president, wrote that "there must not be one law for the Jews and another for the Arabs ... the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs." Over the land question, international public opinion will certainly judge Israeli policies for what they are.
But there is an even more pertinent question for Israelis in the state's fiftieth year. The 1948 Declaration of Independence promised "to foster the development of the country for the benefit of all ... to ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants regardless of religion, race or sex ... full and equal citizenship to the Arab inhabitants of the State." Similar concepts were subsequently ratified by the Knesset in the Basic Law on the right to personal and human dignity which also upholds the value of equality.
The Declaration of Independence spoke of a state "based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel." How does this match the record of the last five decades when these selfsame values have been consistently denied to one in every five citizens? The jubilee motto speaks of "Pride and hope," but, on the ground, this slogan looks hollow and the fine words meaningless. Israelis might note the words of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell some 70 years ago: "It seems to be the fate of idealists to obtain what they have struggled for in a form which destroys their ideals."