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Court case challenges role Jewish National Fund plays in Israeli land theft

Senior jurists asked if body dedicated to serving Jews only should so dominate Israel's land policy

On 18 August, a group of Israeli NGOs petitioned the country’s Supreme Court over the role of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in government decision-making regarding land usage.

The JNF was established in 1901 to obtain land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. Subsequently, the JNF was incorporated into the Israeli state’s land administration bureaucracy, while still remaining a private organisation. It holds some 13 percent of the land inside Israel’s pre-1967 lines.

The Supreme Court petitioners are seeking to annul JNF representation on the Israel Land Council (ILC), the state body responsible for managing public land resources. Currently, six of the ILC’s 14 members must also be JNF representatives.

According to a press release by Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, although the JNF “openly discriminates against non-Jews and sees itself as serving only one population”, it is, by law, a “decisive partner” in the government body “charged with managing public land resources”.

Realistically, this legal case will not generate many headlines, particularly in the English language, Western media (even if the petition succeeds). This is unfortunate, however, since the case throws a spotlight on critical issues at the heart of the decades-old "conflict" in Palestine/Israel.

Specifically, the petition – and the role of the JNF in the ILC – concerns the still poorly understood institutional discrimination faced by non-Jews in Israel, and the role of bodies such as the JNF in a settler-colonial legal infrastructure that maintains spatial segregation and exile for Palestinian refugees.

The petitioners claim that the JNF’s role on the ILC “constitutes a violation of the right to equality and the right to dignity of the Israeli Arab population in Israel”, given that the JNF’s “clear mission is to serve the Jewish population exclusively”.

The organisations bringing the petition cite a quote from an affidavit, once submitted by the JNF, which states: “The JNF is not and cannot be loyal to the entire Israeli public. The JNF’s loyalty is reserved for the Jewish people alone - for whom it was established and for whom it acts.”

This appeal to equality is not straightforward, since “the right to equality is not yet enshrined in law regarding most aspects of life”. Even in Israel's Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty (which forms part of the state's informal constitution), there is no recognition of equality “as an independent right that stands on its own”.

'A certain amount of displacement'

Concerns over equality aside, the JNF has also played a critical role in both the historic and current mass dispossession of Palestinians, for example, in being given expropriated land after the Nakba (the 1948 forced exodus of Palestinians), as well as in the ongoing colonisation of Palestine and displacement of its indigenous population.

The JNF is also deeply involved in the ethnic cleansing of Bedouin Palestinians from the unrecognised village of al-Araqib. In response to the negative publicity this has brought the organisation, the JNF has boasted of projects which it says help the Negev’s Bedouin communities.

But they were not always so PR conscious. In 2005, JNF chief executive Russell Robinson acknowledged to The Jerusalem Post that plans to bring a significant “influx” of Jews to the Negev would “mean a certain amount of displacement” for the region’s Bedouin Palestinian citizens.

The JNF is also involved in the colonisation of the West Bank, sending millions of dollars to settlement projects. In 2011, a board member resigned over the JNF’s role in evicting Palestinians in East Jerusalem, while the JNF is also a landowner south of the Gilo settlement near Bethlehem.

As recently explained on the Nakba Files website, “if the court sides with the petitioners, it will disrupt a key element of the Zionist regime; if it legitimises the JNF’s role, it will expose Israel to further international criticism." Thus, given the sensitivities involved, it is likely that the Supreme Court will seek a fudge, and avoid ruling on the substance of the case.

In how many other countries does the state control 93 percent of the land, while affording a significant role in the body that makes decisions about land usage to a private organisation obliged to benefit only one racial or religious group of the state’s citizens? Once again then, it is Israel that "singles out" itself, through its settler-colonial past and present.

Whatever the outcome of this particular case, it is important to use the issues that it brings up as a way of explaining how Israel’s – often complex – institutionalised discrimination works in practice, and how such policies are incompatible with claims to democratic values.

Ben White is the author of  Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide and Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy. He is a writer for Middle East Monitor, and his articles have been published by Al Jazeera, al-Araby, Huffington Post, The Electronic Intifada, The Guardian’s Comment is free, and more. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Bedoun protest, waving Palestinian flags, during this year's Land Day demonstrations against Israel's discriminatory policies (AFP)

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