The decision by Israel’s government to overturn its earlier policy of seizing the Jerusalem land of Palestinians who live in the West Bank (the so-called ‘absentee presents’), was a significant symbolic victory for activism combined with diplomacy. The decision was ostensibly taken by the government in response to a memorandum by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz who termed the plan “contrary to Israel’s obligations according to the rules of customary international law”, but was in fact the result of combined pressures from the hundreds of affected farmers and landowners in the Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah area; interventions made by the new Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (after meeting with US emissary William Burns at the end of January); as well as Israeli and Palestinian civil rights associations.
The plan, termed by those groups as a ‘land grab’ and ‘legalized robbery’ was initiated by Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Natan Sharansky on 22 June, 2004 and approved by the Israeli cabinet on 8 July. Its objective was to apply the 1950 Absentee Property Law through which the bulk of Arab lands were appropriated from Palestinian refugees after the 1948 War and then passed on to Jewish immigrants. The new plan would have subjected thousands of dunums of Palestinian land in metropolitan Jerusalem to Israeli control since their owners now reside in areas whose residents have been barred from entering the city, including the Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. Many legal experts observed that these regulations, enacted under the rubric of security concerns, served in fact to expand the area of land confiscation around Jerusalem. This is augmented by construction of the ‘Separation’ Wall, since its contours have been designed to optimize separation of Palestinians from their land. Recent decisions by the Israeli High Court have altered the original planned boundaries of the walls, but - significantly - did not address their land grab intent in the manner exposed by the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the current battle over expropriated lands concerns the dubious role of Minister Sharansky. Ever since the Soviet émigré politician arrived in Israel two decades ago, Sharansky has been heavily involved with radical right wing causes and land grab schemes. As leader of the ethnically Russian Israel Ba’alyah party and former housing minister, he took the initiative in formulating government decisions to incarcerate dissident journalists, expel political activists, and close Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem. He resigned as minister of interior from the Ehud Barak government in July 2000 during the Camp David negotiations when news circulated that Barak was about to reach a peace agreement. He was then, and continues to be, adamantly opposed to Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian neighbourhoods in the city (or, for that matter, from anywhere else in the occupied territories). He also initiated a campaign for rewriting Palestinian textbooks in which references to Israel’s history of colonial conquest and land confiscation would be expunged under the guise of removing ‘anti-Jewish references’.
In the US, Sharansky has effectively used his political reputation as a former Soviet dissident and campaigner for (Jewish) human rights. He received considerable support for bringing Russian (Christian and Jewish) immigrants to settlements in the occupied territories (Gilo, Neve Ya’coub, Ariel). Sharansky today stands at the helm of the most extreme trends in Israeli politics, campaigning vigorously against Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip. All of this background is virtually unknown outside Israel. Most recently he was applauded by President Bush for his “defense of democracy”. Sharansky’s recent book The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror became an inspiration (according to the Washington Post) for Bush’s inaugural and state of the union speeches. Sharansky makes regular appearances in Congressional and government circles, and has reputedly unimpeded access to the White House.
This is why the defeat of this land grab scheme in Jerusalem is significant, even if it is a temporary victory. It signals a defeat of the arrogance of power and a welcome exposure of Sharansky’s real political character as a conquistador parading as a human rights activist. And there is an important lesson to be learned here. The combination of political activism, when used effectively with diplomacy, can make a difference. It may be a temporary victory, but one that shines new light on the struggle for the freedom of Jerusalem and Palestine.