Yair Lapid to move into home that Arabs fled in 1948


Villa Hanna Salameh was built in 1932 at 2 Balfour Street in Jerusalem, near the official residence of the Israeli premier.  It was built by Hanna Salameh, an Arab Christian businessman who was the representative of General Motors in the region.  It is a spacious, beautiful building that retains signs of its first owner – above the gate, for example, is an iron grating with the words “Villa Salameh”.


In 1948, Hanna Salameh left Jerusalem and moved to Beirut and his house was expropriated by the Israeli state under the Absentee Property Law.


The Israeli Prime Minister’s official residence is undergoing renovations and the newly appointed Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, will temporally move into Villa Haana Salameh. 


Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol were both offered expropriated property to live in, but considered it inappropriate for prime ministers to live in such property.  Apparently, Yair Lapid is of a different mind.



US embassy to be built on stolen land?


President Trump moved the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  This was done by moving the name plate from the embassy building in Tel Aviv to the building housing the US Consulate in Jerusalem. His successor in the White House has decided not to reverse this and there is now a requirement for an embassy building in Jerusalem.


Israel plans to a have a large diplomatic compound in an area of Jerusalem known as the Allenby Complex in the expectation that other states will follow the US in moving their embassies to Jerusalem.  The new US Embassy building is to be built in this compound.


However, several Israeli families have presented documents testifying that some of the land chosen for the diplomatic compound belonged to them before 1948, but was expropriated under the Absentee Property Act.  The respected Palestinian-American professor Rashid Khalidi, whose family had owned part of the land, said:


“The fact that the U.S. government is now participating actively with the Israeli government in this project means that it is actively infringing on the property rights of the legitimate owners of these properties, including many US citizens.”


It will be interesting to see how the Biden administration handles this.



How the Absentee Property Law worked


Anna Roiser has summarised the overall effect of the Absentee Property Law (APL) as follows:


“The APL was enacted in 1950, ostensibly to address the management of property left by the 750,000 Palestinian refugees displaced from Israel during the 1948 war. In reality, the law provided not for management but for permanent expropriation. Its dual purposes were to expand Jewish control over land, and prevent the refugees from returning to their homes, considered necessary to ensure a substantial Jewish demographic majority in Israel.


“The broad wording of the APL meant that almost every Palestinian who left their home during the war became an 'absentee' under Israeli law. This included those who had remained within what became Israeli territory, creating the paradoxical legal status of 'present absentee'. All property belonging to absentees became 'absentee property', and could be expropriated by the state without compensation. Legal geographer Sandy Kedar estimates that Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens had around 40-60% of their land expropriated, giving lie to the claim that the APL’s purpose was solely to manage abandoned property.


“Historian Shira Robinson estimates that in total the APL resulted in the expropriation of over 10,000 shops, 25,000 buildings, and almost 60% of the country’s fertile land. Most of the expropriated land was transferred to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), achieving the transfer of huge swathes of land privately owned by Palestinians into communal Jewish ownership. Robinson records that by 1954 more than one-third of Israel’s Jewish population lived or worked on absentee property. Although some mistakenly suggest the expropriation of Mizrachi Jews’ property by Arab states in the 1950s negates the effects of the APL, it was not the Palestinians who either took or received that property.”



David Morrison

27 July 2022