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Short Take

How Israel Applies the Absentees’ Property Law to Confiscate Palestinian Property in Jerusalem


Since its promulgation in 1950, the Absentees’ Property Law has been used by Israel to confiscate Palestinian properties—in Jerusalem as much as anywhere else in the country. It did this first on the newly depopulated western side of the city after the 1948 War, and then in the remaining areas it occupied in June 1967 on the eastern side. Confiscated properties have been given to Jewish Israeli settlers by different state offices, including the Custodian of Absentee Property. This Short Take explores how Israel uses the Absentees’ Property Law and several subsequent amendments to it to pursue its political objective of Judaizing Jerusalem.

As early as March 1948, Israel had established a Committee for Abandoned Arab Property and begun working on transferring such properties to Jewish use.1 By 1950, a full legal mechanism was prepared and passed in the form of the Absentees’ Property Law. This law enabled Israel to expropriate thousands of Palestinian movable and immovable property (including land, homes, assets, businesses, and more) in what became West Jerusalem and the rest of the 1948 territories (see The West Side Story). These properties belonged to Palestinians who were forcibly expelled or who fled to safety during the 1948 War (the Nakba), taking refuge in East Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, Jordan, or elsewhere.

Confiscated properties were transferred to the newly created Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property, appointed by the minister of finance, who, along with the Development Authority, subsequently transferred them to the ownership of the state in order to move Jewish Israeli settlers into them.

As a result, the Israeli government was able to transform what was once Jerusalem’s diverse New City into an exclusively Jewish West Jerusalem (see The West Side Story), which has essentially remained so to this day.

A Retroactive and Sweeping Law

Though passed in 1950, the law worked retroactively by defining as an “absentee” anyone who had left their property as of November 29, 1947, and was any of the following:

  • A national or citizen of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, or Yemen or located in any one of these countries
  • Located in “any part of Palestine outside the area of Israel” (i.e., Israel’s borders of the time when the law was passed)
  • A Palestinian citizen under the laws of the British Mandate (even if their status was unclear or undetermined) and left his residence for a place outside Palestine before September 1, 1948, or for a part of Palestine that was “held at the time by forces which sought to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel or which fought against it after its establishment”2
  • Any body of persons in these categories (such as a board or corporation)

The definitions applied from that date until the day on which the “state of emergency shall cease to exist.”3 To this day, Israel has not removed the state of emergency, rendering millions of exiled Palestinians in the region today “absentees.”

Moreover, the term “absentee” notwithstanding, the law’s formulation could and did mean that Palestinians who took refuge in the next village or in a relative’s village or any of a myriad of imaginable situations were automatically rendered into “absentees.” In effect, even if Palestinians exiled in 1948 whom Israel declared as “absentees” could find a way to return to their properties—even if they remained within the country—they could not claim them. Israel covered its bases, banning exiled Palestinians their right of return, and ensuring that none could reclaim their properties due to their status as “absentees.” Those who remained in the country were classified as “present absentees.” Under Israeli law, this status is passed on to one’s male children,4 meaning that even future generations had no hope of reclaiming property confiscated under this law.

When Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, it enacted Military Order 58 Regarding Abandoned Property (1967), which stipulated that “abandoned” properties that were left vacant after the war and whose inhabitants were “resident of an enemy country” could be transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property. Properties that were not vacant, however, were not transferred—yet. This was decided in an internal government meeting.5 In 1967, Israel also expanded the administrative and jurisdictional boundaries of East Jerusalem by 71 square kilometers, which de facto expanded the municipal boundaries of the city. That is, not only did the Absentees’ Property Law sustain the prohibition of Palestinians in East Jerusalem who were expelled from West Jerusalem in 1948 from their right to reclaim their original properties, but it made it so that:

Nearly all properties in East Jerusalem were considered from that day as “absentee property,” because they were: (a) within the territory of Israel (according to Israeli law), yet (b) the Palestinian owners were Jordanian citizens due to Jordan’s period of control over East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967.6

Strategic Amendments to the 1950 Absentees’ Property Law

Following a number of amendments to the Absentees’ Property Law put in place during the 1970s, and with the support of the Likud government starting in 1977, the law became a tool for settler organizations and the Israeli state to use across East Jerusalem to nullify Palestinian ownership over property. These amendments included the following:

  • The Law and Administration Procedures Law, 1970. The law withdrew the status of “absentee” from properties owned by Palestinians in Jerusalem who are considered permanent residents.7 However, Palestinians who lived outside the new Israeli-imposed municipal boundaries of the city and owned properties within the city limits were still deemed “absentees.” These properties were handed over to the Custodian of Absentee Property. While the Custodian’s office was ostensibly tasked with guarding these properties temporarily, in the 1980s, the government enabled it to transfer ownership of properties to settler organizations through different Israeli authorities, such as the Development Authority.8

    The amendment also stipulated that Jewish properties in East Jerusalem previously controlled by the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property between 1948 and 1967 be transferred to the Administrator General at the Ministry of Justice, who was required to release these properties to their Jewish owners and heirs. Also known as the Custodian General, the Administrator General manages all property in Israel when the “owners cannot manage it or are untraceable.”9 The amended law did not make similar provisions for Palestinians who lost their properties in 1948.

    To this day, and in cooperation with the Attorney General’s office, settler groups utilize the 1970 amendment to the absentee law in order to “resettle” Israeli Jews in Palestinian neighborhoods based on the justification that these neighborhoods were owned by Jews before 1948. That is, the Attorney General’s office accepts settlers’ historic claims to the land, whether factual or not, irrespective of Palestinians’ residency and property rights.

  • The 1973 amendment to the Absentees’ Property (Compensation) Law enabled Israeli settlement organizations to dispute the claims of Palestinians who held the status of “protected tenants” in court cases which, for the most part, ruled in favor of the organizations. The amendment allowed settlers to make arrangements with clandestine agents who did not live in or own the property in question, but who could provide affidavits and manipulated documents.10 Settlers could also legally forfeit the ownership of many of the Palestinian families living in their homes, and sell them with no involvement from the families living there, ultimately expelling hundreds of families from their homes.
  • The 1978 amendment to the Acquisition for Public Purposes (Amendment of Provisions) (Amendment No. 3) Law, 5738-1978, expanded the definition of “absentee property” and allowed Israel to expropriate lands and properties that were deemed “abandoned” for public purposes without compensation to the owners of the land and those living on it.11 It also allowed Israel to transfer the properties to the department of the Administrator General at the Ministry of Justice, which would supervise and administer them.

Expanding the Application of the Absentees’ Property Law

By the late 1970s, and despite many appeals and court challenges by Palestinians, successive Israeli governments expanded the application of the Absentees’ Property Law. Indeed, the 1980s were marked by an accelerated process of settler takeover of Palestinian properties by claiming that they are “absentee” properties.12 More specifically, between 1977 and 1992, the Likud government used the Absentees’ Property Law and its amendments to confiscate Palestinian properties across East Jerusalem, transfer them to the Custodian of Absentee properties, and then to settler organizations. Then, Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor government, which came to power in 1992, stopped the practice, though not permanently and it did not retroactively restore Palestinians’ property rights. As a result, Palestinians continued to deal with expulsion proceedings put forth by settler organizations and the Jewish National Fund.13

By the time the Likud party regained control of the government in 1997 under Benjamin Netanyahu, the Absentees’ Property Law was again expanded. In 1997, the Custodian of Absentee Property was permitted to declare absentees’ assets as vacant or occupied property with the approval of the Ministry of Finance’s legal advisor, as well as the Ministry of Justice.14

In March 2000, under Ehud Barak’s Labor government, the use of the law was again restricted with a new clause: sale of absentee property to third parties through the Development Authority, another state office, required the approval of a special ministerial forum.15 But in 2004, under Ariel Sharon’s Likud government, “the Ministerial Committee for Jerusalem Affairs decided to revive the use of the Absentee Property Law in the manner observed between 1977 and 1992.”16 Ultimately, the policy was affirmed by the Israeli High Court in April 2015, giving “the green light for the use of the Absentee Property Law.”17 The law also retroactively approved all past expropriations.18

A Coordinated Effort at Dispossessing Palestinians

With the tenets of this law in place, the process of expelling Palestinians from their homes and replacing them with Jewish settlers has been one of coordination between settler groups and state authorities.19 In fact, to this day, government bodies and private organizations regularly fabricate evidence in order to legally make settlers the “rightful” inheritors of pre-1948 settlements.20 According to Peace Now, this coordination between settler organizations and state authorities usually works as follows:

Settler-related bodies recruited people to declare that the owners of certain properties were absentee landlords. These affidavits were passed onto the Custodian for Absentees’ Property, who deemed that they were indeed absentees’ assets without any further inspection. Thereafter, the absentees’ assets were passed onto the JNF, which passed them onto settlers. The Palestinian families living in these properties discovered that their homes were sold by the state to settlers, upon receiving lawsuits from the settlers or the JNF by mail, demanding that they vacate the house. Thus a long, costly, exhausting legal battle ensued, for underprivileged Palestinian families versus powerful well-funded bodies like the JNF and settler organizations. Some of the families have been compelled to leave their homes, few have managed to save them, while others are still struggling.21

Moreover, the office of the Administrator General uses any means possible to strip Palestinians in East Jerusalem of their rights as protected tenants.22 In doing so, it delegitimizes Palestinian claims to the city while being directly involved in planning the construction of settlements in Palestinian neighborhoods. Essentially, the office of the Administrator General, which promotes itself as a supervisor of public interests, has become the “executive arm of the settler organizations.”23 In the end, Palestinians in Jerusalem are left with limited representation or clout within a political and legal mechanism structured to systemically dispossess them of their properties and remove them from Jerusalem.


Researcher and Writer: Amir Marshi, Jerusalem Story
Editor: Nadim Bawalsa, Jerusalem Story
Research Assistant: Hassan Doostdar, Jerusalem Story



Michael R. Fishbach, Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 13.


State of Israel Absentees’ Property Law, 5710–1950, Laws of the State of Israel: Authorized Translation from the Hebrew, Volume 4 (Jerusalem, Israel: Government Printer, 1948–87), 68–82.


Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), “Legal Memo: The Absentee Property Law and Its Application to East Jerusalem,” February 2017.


Himmat Zu’bi, “Present Absentees in Israel: Exiled in Their Own Homeland,” Interactive Encyclopedia of the Palestine Question, accessed November 11, 2022.


NRC, “Legal Memo.” According to the NRC, “This decision was made in a meeting [sic] that took place on 22 November 1968 and 3 February 1969, with the participation of the Minister of Justice, the Attorney General, the Minister of Agriculture and representatives of the Israeli Security Forces, the Counselor on Arab Matters, the Israel Land Administration and the Custodian of Absentee Property.”


NRC, “Legal Memo.”


”BADIL Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights, “Israeli Land Grab and Forced Population Transfer of Palestinians: A Handbook for Vulnerable Individuals and Communities,” June 24, 2013.


NRC, “Legal Memo.”


Michael Dumper, “Israeli Settlement in the Old City of Jerusalem,” Journal of Palestine Studies 21, no. 4 (1992): 50.


BADIL, “Israeli Land Grab.”


NRC, “Legal Memo.”


Ofran, “Annex and Dispossess,” 32.


Ofran, “Annex and Dispossess,” 32.


NRC, “Legal Memo.”


Mustafa Abu Sneineh, “Explained: How Israel’s Absentees’ Property Law Keeps Palestinians from Their Homes,” Middle East Eye, January 21, 2022.


NRC, “Legal Memo.”


Nir Hasson, “The Judaization of an East Jerusalem Neighbourhood Gains Steam,” Haaretz, November 2, 2015.


Ofran, “Annex and Dispossess,” 2–3.


Peace Now, “Systematic Dispossession.”


Nir Hasson, “The Executive Arm of the Settler Organizations,” Haaretz, December 15, 2021.

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