Fischbach: Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
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Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, by Michael R. Fischbach. New York and Washington: Columbia University Press and Institute for Palestine Studies, 2003. xxviii + 368 pages. Appendices to p. 391. Notes to p. 433. Bibliography to p. 446. Index to p. 467. $39.50 cloth.

Reviewed by Salim Tamari

Of all the major issues surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict (territory, settlement, refugees, the status of Jerusalem, and border delineation), the fate of landed property seized by the Israelis in the war of 1948 has been the least examined by scholars of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is also the most neglected of the final status issues addressed in the course of fifteen years of protracted negotiations since the Madrid Peace Conference was convened in 1990. This is rather perplexing, considering the amount of documentation about the millions of dunams of refugee farmland and urban real estate that was taken by the nascent Israeli state and then utilized to absorb hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Europe and the Middle East. More shocking is that this neglect applies equally to both the Israeli and Arab parties, including the Palestinians. While Israel has been evading the issue for the obvious reasons of accountability, the explanations for Arab reticence are more obscure. It seems to be related by the Palestinians (at the official and popular levels) to a fear of appearing to negotiate anything less than the repatriation of refugees to their homes and restitution of confiscated property. It is as if the mere creation of an inventory of lost lands, their location, size, categories, and monetary value would automatically be followed by a willingness to accept a monetary compensation for their loss. But this stance has changed drastically in the last decade, at least at the level of open debate of the issues involved-partly because there is a new recognition that the compensation clause in UN Resolution 194 is no longer seen as a package in lieu of the right of return, but as supplementary to repatriation; and partly because international precedents have been created (particularly in the case of Bosnian and Croatian refugees following the Dayton Accords) in which refugees succeeded in achieving, under international support and supervision, both the right of return to their homeland, as well as a choice of compensation or restitution for their lost property. The recent publication of Michael Fischbach's Records of Dispossession is an important event because it meticulously documents the evolution of the Palestinian property issue over the last half-century, including its resurfacing since the Oslo Accords in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. The "records of dispossession" of the title refers to the vast corpus of ownership and other records painstakingly collected over a ten-year period (1951-61) by the UN agency in charge of classifying and monitoring the fate of refugee property. The contribution of this volume is the unprecedentedly detailed account of the workings of that important body (the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine-UNCCP). As advisor to a project for computerizing and digitizing the UNCCP archives, overseen by the Institute for Palestine Studies, the author had full access to these records that had never been open to the public. Fischbach shows the utility and limitations of the UNCCP database against the backdrop of other comparable refugee situations. The book should be read in conjunction with two earlier books: Sami Hadawi's Palestinian Rights and Losses (Saqi Books, 1988), and Don Peretz's Israel and the Palestinian Arabs (Middle East Institute, 1958)-both dealing with the fate of confiscated Palestinian property from first hand experience by the authors. One of the most poignant (and indeed appalling) episodes narrated in this work addresses the manner in which the victorious Haganah and other Jewish irregular militias dealt with deserted Palestinian dwellings in the major cities of Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem. Priority was given to senior administrators of the new state and senior officers in the army to occupy "abandoned" homes. In Jaffa, Ramla, and Lydda where an almost total ethnic cleansing of the Arab population took place, a pecking order of "occupancy right" was given to the waves of early Jewish immigrants. Displaced persons from European camps and Bulgarian refugees were given first choice. Jews from North Africa were next in line and were given homes in Jaffa and Haifa. Holocaust survivors played a prominent role in these acts of displacement: "having found their barracks-like accommodation in the kibbutzim too similar to those they faced in Nazi concentration camps, they broke into Palestinian homes in Haifa. They took over well-appointed homes in such Palestinian quarters of the city as Wadi Nisnas and along `Abbas Street. While the homes taken over in Qatamon had been abandoned, many of these dwellings were in fact still occupied by Palestinians who had remained [in Israeli territory]. Some Jews simply evicted the owners by force" (pp. 7-8). It is obvious from the manner in which squabbles (and sometimes violent fights) broke out in the ranks of the IDF and senior state officials that the spoils included choice villas and possessions of the departed Palestinian upper classes in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa. These acts of collective looting did not spare Jewish citizens either. Fischbach reports how Jewish residents of Talpiot and Sanhedriya in Jerusalem "submitted a bill to the Israeli government for the contents of scores of their homes looted by Israeli troops" (p. 9). In rural areas the kibbutz movement, aided by Israeli troops, spearheaded the move to seize abandoned peasant farms. Those communal settlements, which became a symbol for Zionist utopianism in the West, included the whole spectrum of ideological currents, from the leftist ha-Shomer ha-Tsair and Mapam to the religious Agudat Yisrael. It is clear in the author's narrative that the plunder of Arab property was an act in which the whole of Jewish society-left, right, and center-was engaged. Altogether Fischbach estimates that one-third of all immigrants in the late 1940s and early 1950s found accommodation in deserted Palestinian refugee homes. A much larger operation of property transfer involved the takeover of abandoned lands. Most of those plots that remained within the reach of Palestinians who were not expelled were seized anyway under the legal fiction of "absent-present"-the convoluted legal term for those refugees who stayed in the country but left their immediate residences temporarily during the fighting and were not allowed to return to them. One of the most successful operations of clearing peasants from their land was articulated by Yosef Weitz, the director of the Jewish National Fund. He proposed after the end of the 1948 war what became known as a policy of "retroactive transfer," in a memorandum appropriately entitled "A Scheme for the Solution of the Arab Question in Israel." The memo summarized measures which essentially would "prevent the return of Palestinian refugees [to their homes]; prevent Palestinian farmers from cultivating their abandoned fields; and settle Jewish immigrants in 90 abandoned villages; and destroy the remainder of the abandoned villages." When Ben-Gurion agreed to all these measures but objected to the last clause (apparently for utilitarian reasons), Weitz carried them out anyway (pp. 12-13). Virtually all of this plunder was carried out under the cover of meticulous legal procedures. A whole army of lawyers attached to the Jewish Agency, the state, the office of the chief of staff, and the Justice Ministry-together with a retinue of international "legal experts"-labored on the issue of confiscated lands. The most effective tool of this conquest was the Emergency Regulations for Absentees' Property of December 1948, drafted by the Justice Ministry. These regulations, we are informed, "shifted the legal definition of what constituted abandoned land from the land itself to its owner: instead of declaring land to be 'abandoned,' people were now declared 'absentees' whose property could be seized by the state" (p. 21). And when people were not absent, they were 'absented' on behalf of the state, as happened to thousands of Palestinians who remained in Israel but escaped from the fighting arena for safety, as civilians do everywhere, and subsequently found that their land officially sequestered. Another "legal" tool of dispossession, not covered by Fischbach here, was to declare public land as belonging to the "Jewish public" and therefore inaccessible to Palestinians. Both these measures were applied vigorously over the years to territories conquered after 1967, in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. With few exceptions the Israeli High Court of Justice became a rubber stamp for these measures. When challenged, as in several cases of settlement activity in the occupied territories, the court would avoid taking the issue since these cases were deemed to be mostly of "political nature," outside the domain of the court's jurisdiction. Fischbach describes at length the extensive efforts undertaken by Israeli officials to document the uses and disposition of refugee property; yet their obsession came to naught when the issue came up for permanent status negotiations in Camp David (1999) and in Taba (2000). Israeli chief negotiator Elyakim Rubinstein (who was also Israel's Attorney General) made the remarkable disclosure that the records of the Custodian of Absentee Property [of Palestinian refugees] were no longer available, and that the money generated by these assets over the last five decades "no longer exists. We have used them up. It is up to the international community to create funds for this" (p. 348). That in effect has become the Israeli strategy of negotiations over refugee assets under the administration of the Israel Land Administration and before that of the Custodian for Absentee Property. The logic behind this line of thinking is to create a paradigm of reciprocity, in which the Israeli claim to have absorbed a large number of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, some of whom had their property confiscated by the Arab states in which they lived, is now advanced as an act of exchange for the property of Palestinian refugees evicted in the 1948-1951 period. Since this notion of "exchange" is applied by current Israeli advocates specifically to Jewish property in Iraq for 1951 and in Egypt for 1956 (where Jewish property was taken over by the state), it leaves the bulk of Arab-Jewish immigrants to Israel (particularly those who came from Morocco) outside the sphere of reciprocity since it could not (and cannot) be subsumed under the rubric of confiscated property. The Palestinians in their turn have insisted that these claims must be dealt with bilaterally between the Israelis and the respective Arab governments concerned. Since November 2001 the Israeli government has come out publicly with the position that the issue of Jewish property will be its chief tool of negotiating with the Palestinians. (Fischbach cites a calculation to the effect that the value of Palestinian property sequestered is 22 times greater than the value of Jewish claims [p. 353].) Both the Clinton administration (in Taba) and the current Bush administration have come out in favor of the idea that compensation for Palestinian refugees should be dealt with "through an international organization that will be established for this purpose," presumably with European and Japanese funding. As in the case of settlement activities the Americans have come around to adopt a position of faits accomplis for refugees-an exceptionalism that seems to operate only in the case of Israel. Fischbach's work is breathtaking in its scale and attention to details. He goes to extreme lengths to expose the historical evolution of international and national (particularly Israeli) institutions dealing with the fate of refugees and their property. Whenever possible he also provides the reader with extensive alternative surveys for the properties in question, their values, and estimates of the number of people affected, discussing the strengths and pitfalls of each. While the main focus of this study is the records of UNCCP property records in New York, the book provides several other studies that supplement those records. It also provides an essential source for comparison with other international cases involving refugee restitution in Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda. The main missing component in his research are the records of UNRWA-the UN Agency for Palestinian refugees-which includes the Unified Registration System and the family files of some 4 million registered refugees in the Arab host countries-a surprising omission since the author refers at length to other UNRWA documents and its early rivalry with the UNCCP. This point notwithstanding, the work of Michael Fischbach is bound to be a standard reference for the issue of Palestinian refugee property for scholars and policy makers alike.
Salim Tamari is currently visiting professor at the history department of the University of California at Berkeley and director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies.