The United Nations has designated June 20 World Refugee Day. Like other designated international days, the goal is to raise global awareness and to foster a sense of responsibility for the approximately 70 million people driven from their homes due to war, violence and persecution.
On June 20, the world will focus on the expanding number of refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Central America. But the world community would do well to remember the most enduring case of forced displacement in the world today – the more than 6.5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants created by Israel’s wars of 1948 and 1967.
Palestinians were forced into exile and refugee status during the Nakba (Catastrophe) in 1948, when Zionist militia and terrorist groups forced 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and destroyed approximately 531 villages to make way for the new state of Israel. For 71 years, in defiance of international law, Israel has denied Palestinian refugees their inalienable right of return to their ancestral homes in Palestine.
Beginning in 1947, Palestinian homes, businesses and possessions were looted, destroyed or transferred to Jewish ownership. In one city alone, Lydda, Haganah troops removed 1,800 truckloads of property after Israeli brigade commander Yitzhak Rabin had forcibly expelled 19,000 of the town’s Palestinian population of 20,000.
"The only thing that surprised me," said David Ben-Gurion at a Cabinet meeting, "was…the mass robbery in which all parts of the population participated." Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was commenting on the widespread looting and theft of Palestinian property and possessions that occurred during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.
Nazi looting of Jewish property and assets during the Second World War is well documented; as are the continuing attempts to restore stolen property and compensate victims of the Holocaust. Since 1952, Germany alone has paid post-war reparations well over $89 billion.
Little is known, however, of the plunder and looting of Lydda and all the other Palestinian cities and towns by Zionist forces before and after 1948, and of Israel’s failure to compensate the Palestinian victims of the Nakba.
By the end of 1949, after setting in motion policies of elimination, dispossession and confiscation, the Jewish state controlled some 78 percent of historical Palestine.
Ignoring the 1907 Hague Convention on international warfare, Articles 46, "private property cannot be confiscated" and Article 47, "pillage is forbidden," as well as Article 17/2 of the 10 December 1948, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property," Israel has made no effort to restore the land and property stolen from Palestinians.
U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 of 11 December 1948 called upon Israel’s provisional government to permit and facilitate the return of Palestinians to their homes and to restore their land and property. By 1951, however, more than 687,000 Jewish immigrants had settled in Palestinian homes and land.
There are Palestinians currently living in the United States who hold the deeds and keys to the homes they had to flee in 1948.
Thousands of Israelis – soldiers and civilians – helped themselves to the spoils of war. Ben-Gurion admitted to Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann, "….We have come here and stolen their country." Israelis were able to acquire the right of possession of an "abandoned" Palestinian home simply by spending the night.
In December 1948, the new Jewish state created the Custodian of Absentee Property – initially called Custodian of Enemy Property – an agency with the mandate to seize all property and assets that the refugees had left behind. Commercial banks were ordered to freeze all accounts and stop all transactions on the accounts of their Palestinian clients. In February 1949, banks were required to transfer those accounts and the contents of safe deposit boxes to the account of the Custodian.
The Absentees’ Property Law of 1950, meant to further reduce the number of Palestinians left in the newly created state, legalized Israel’s project of land confiscation. It allowed the Custodian to confiscate the land and property of anyone determined an absentee. The law de-fined an absentee as persons who were expelled, fled or left the country after 29 November 1947, and defined all land, property and assets as absentee.
For Palestinians, the Nakba meant not only the loss of property and assets, but also Israel’s expropriation of their intellectual and cultural heritage. Over 70,000 books and manuscripts were seized from Palestinian homes and public institutions. The National Library of Israel houses more than 8,000 of these books with the letters "AP" for abandoned property on the spines.
Israel claims the confiscation was a protective act. Palestinians, however, view it as plunder and cultural disinheritance. Israel has done little to return these literary artifacts to their rightful owners. Ironically, the presence of the rich cultural history of Palestine contradicts Zionism’s fictional myth of a "land without a people."
Israeli settlements, businesses, malls, parks and recreation centers have been built on private Palestinian property – a massive transfer of wealth for which Palestinians have not been compensated.
Abetted by the United States, the plunder of Palestine and Palestinian dispossession continues.
(c) 2019, M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D.
M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D., is a political scientist specializing in the history, politics and governments of the Middle East and American foreign policy in the region and author of Cultural Foundations of Iranian Politics.