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Israel's Double Standard

By Amira Hass

The State of Israel owns real estate in Syria - more than 13,000 acres, 30 kilometers south of Damascus - land that was purchased by PICA (the company established by Baron de Rothschild for the purchase of land in what later became Israel), according to a report in the January 6 Ma'ariv, which even published a photocopy of a Syrian land registry document attesting to the ownership. From the 1940s onward, the Syrians, horror of horrors, actually abused the ownership rights of this property and "attempted to deny them on the basis of various laws." Over the years, PICA transferred the ownership of the land into the hands of both Israel and the Jewish National Fund (JNF). A number of experts, says Ma'ariv, are claiming that, within the context of the Syrian-Israeli peace treaty whose terms are now being negotiated, "Israel is fully entitled to demand compensation for this property or even to demand an alternative property."

As in all negotiations over business agreements, there is no reason why (unnamed) Israeli experts should not come up with points that can reinforce Israel's bargaining position.

Another issue deserves special mention here, however: The collective talent of the Israeli public in demanding for itself universal rights and principles that it denies to others.

A striking example of this phenomenon is the planned national referendum on the restoration of the Golan Heights to Syria. The debate on the referendum has already assumed the character of a struggle over the extent to which Israel is truly a democratic society.

Many Israelis are trying to thwart the attempts of those who want to exclude Israeli Arabs from the right to cast their ballots in the referendum or, at least, to downscale the impact of their votes upon the final results.

But what about the indigenous population currently living on the Golan Heights? I am not speaking just about those Druze who have refused to become Israeli citizens, but also about the Syrians who are victims of the Six-Day War and whose existence seems to be almost totally ignored by the Israeli public, although they number 130,000, according to Syrian and Druze sources, or 93,000, according to British researcher William Harris.

These Syrians lived in dozens of villages on the Golan Heights, all of which have been razed to the ground. For the past 33 years, that is, since the end of the 1967 war, almost no Israeli has taken any interest in their grief over the loss of their homes.

Is it any wonder that Israel now considers it perfectly legitimate to have the question of whether or not to return occupied land, or what to do with such land, decided by its own citizens, in other words, by the citizens of the occupying power?

In this process, the occupied and banished population (and their children) is being denied any say in the matter. At the very most, we hear enthusiastic reports about Druze residents of the Golan who are eager to remain within Israel's boundaries.

This same sense of arrogant, exclusive legitimacy will no doubt characterize the preparations for the referendum on the size of the territorial chunk that Israel will return to the Palestinians in the context of the permanent status agreement.

In that national referendum, the right to vote will be extended to Israeli citizens who arrived in this country six months ago, or a week ago, or five years ago from Ukraine, from Tashkent, from Ethiopia or from Florida.

The Palestinian residents of Khan Yunis, Tulkarm, Jericho, Salfit and elsewhere, who have been living on the same piece of land for hundreds of years, will watch from the sidelines as Israel's citizens, including freshly arrived new immigrants and the settlers of Neveh Dekalim and Ariel (who are also the neighbors of these Palestinians), graciously decide whether or not to grant the Palestinian people a territory that will amount to some 50 to 60 percent of the land that was occupied by Israel in 1967.

According to the report in Ma'ariv, Israel would be justified in demanding compensation for its lost acres in Syria.

There are tens of thousands of people in Israel and in other parts of the world who have land registry documents attesting to the fact that they own land and houses throughout all of Israel. Four hundred and eighteen Palestinian villages, extending over a total area of tens of thousands of acres, no longer exist today.

Since 1948, Israel has expropriated most of the land belonging to the Arab population that has remained here. The expropriations have been carried out to "serve the needs of the public" (meaning, in most cases, the Jewish public) or as an expression of Israel's right to use the "property of absentee owners."

In Israel today there are a quarter of a million "present but absentee owners" - Arab citizens who have lost their lands and their homes because they had the audacity to continue residing in a nearby village or hide in a cave during the War of Independence in 1948.

These partial statistics, which relate to the past and present of about a fifth of the Israeli population, draw heavy fire for anyone who dares to cite them.

In a public opinion survey conducted last October and November, the members of four groups - Palestinians residing on the West Bank, Palestinians residing in Gaza, Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews - were asked whether they agreed with a principle that has been established by international law.

According to that principle, individuals who have voluntarily left their homes or who have been forced to leave during wartime are entitled to return to those homes once hostilities have ended.

The questionnaire was worded by a joint team of Palestinian and Israeli scholars from three universities: Queens (in Canada), Tel Aviv and Bir Zeit.

Among the Israeli Jews, 18.2 percent responded that they accepted this principle without any reservations, while 51.8 percent said that they accepted it but that, under certain circumstances, it was not applicable.

Asked whether the principle could be applied to the Palestinians, 41 percent of the Israeli Jews said yes, while more than 50 percent of them replied in the negative.

The director of the survey conducted among Israeli Arabs, Elia Zreik, a native of Akko who currently resides in Canada, is apparently an incurable optimist. He was actually encouraged by the responses of Israeli Jews to the questions in the survey.

In contrast, the Jewish directors of the survey, Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann, emphasized the wide gap between, on the one hand, the total number of respondents who recognize, in principle, the right of the Palestinians to return to their homeland and, on the other, the number of Israeli Jews prepared to see that principle applied in practice.

Of the Jewish respondents, 42.7 percent answered that Israel must not permit the return of any Palestinian refugees who lived here in 1948, while 30 percent of them said they could agree to the return of only a few hundred or, at the most, a few thousand.

These respondents, it should be emphasized, live in a country that regards as sacred the right of all Jews from any place in the world to come and live in a land from which their ancestors were apparently exiled two millennia ago

(c) copyright 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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