Anger on behalf of people deprived of the right to reclaim a home they lost through no fault of their own is completely understandable. It is doubly justified when they have been forced to flee in fear of their lives, driven out at gunpoint during war or other upheaval, their belongings confiscated or looted.
Israel’s fury at a new law in Poland that makes it all but impossible for Jews to recover property stolen from them by Nazi Germany during the Second World War and subsequently seized by Poland’s communist regime is therefore not without justification. However, is it not also time for Israel, while it castigates Poland, to take account of how it deals with the right of Palestinians to be compensated for land and homes Israel has confiscated from them, and to show more empathy with the excruciating suffering that Israel has played a major role in bringing about?
Relations between Israel and Poland have been deteriorating for some time. In 2018 Warsaw proposed a law that would have imposed a three-year jail sentence on anyone who suggested that Poland or its citizens were complicit in crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, including the mass extermination of Jews and other minorities. The legislation which faced severe criticism from both Israel and the US, and the Polish government eventually backtracked, but the damage had been done. It was exacerbated the following year when Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s canceled a trip to Israel after Benjamin Netanyahu accused his country of cooperating with the Nazis during the Holocaust. It seems that the new legislation denying Jewish heirs their rights to property seized by the Nazis or the communists has tipped Israel over the edge.
Anti-semitism is rife in Poland, but whatever reasons Warsaw may have for enacting this law, Israel is on shaky ground when it accuses another country of immorally and illegally dismissing the rights of the dispossessed to the return of their property. Since 1948, Israel has created a web of legislation aimed at preventing Palestinians who lost their property, in many cases after being driven out by the advancing Israeli army, from returning to their towns and villages or claiming compensation. It is not my intention to make comparisons between the Holocaust and the Nakba; rather, it is about applying the same standards of empathy and understanding to the victims of these two catastrophes, and respecting their rights. It is about justice, fairness, compassion, and also adhering to international law.
Anti-semitism is rife in Poland, but whatever reasons Warsaw may have for enacting this law, Israel is on shaky ground when it accuses another country of immorally and illegally dismissing the rights of the dispossessed to the return of their property.
Poland’s move to prevent survivors of genocide from reclaiming their property cannot be justified, but by the same token, the Palestinian refugees of 1948 have the right to at least claim compensation for their lost property. Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights not only enshrines the right of everyone to own property, but also states that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of their property. Other international conventions recognise that all refugees and displaced persons have the right to full and effective compensation as an integral component of the restitution process, and compensation may be monetary or in kind. Israel’s legislation since its inception has violated these rights.
Instead, from early on, Israel passed discriminatory laws that translated into practice the ideology of “Judaizing” as much land as possible. The 1950 Absentee Law allowed Israel to expropriate vast swaths of Palestinian-owned land from those fleeing the horror of war or expelled by the advancing Israeli forces. By the end of the war, ousted Palestinians were permanently barred from returning to their homes, resulting in the overwhelming majority of them, about 750,000, ending up in neighboring countries where they and their descendants have lived as refugees ever since. In the intervening years many of their villages and towns have been literally demolished, making way for new settlements to host Jews arriving from Israel. In the meantime, 5.5 million Palestinian refugees have no mechanism to claim restitution, either physical or monetary. Those who live inside Israel are limited in their access to land defined by law as state land, which effectively means most land, and a similar approach has been applied to land in the occupied West Bank in order to allow illegal Jewish settlements to expand and prosper.
To add insult to injury, in 2018 the Knesset passed a Basic Law declaring Israel to be the Nation State of the Jewish People, and adding: “The State considers the development of Jewish settlements a national value and will take action to encourage and promote the establishment and reinforcement of such settlements.” –AN