IN THE EVENING of February 28, 1949, a soldier of the 169th Regiment entered an abandoned Arab building not far from the boundary line dividing Jerusalem. On the ground floor he discovered a dry goods store with a large quantity of glassware. Some ten days later the police arrested two of the regiment's soldiers in Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market carrying items from that store. The affair was the cause of an extensive investigation, which uncovered a written agreement between a low ranking army commander and some private contractors. The contractors agreed to remove the goods to the warehouses of the Custodian of Abandoned Property, as required by law. In return, they were entitled to claim 30 percent of the value of the goods as a reward for handing in abandoned property. In this particular case, they also undertook to donate 10 percent of the value to the soldiers' fund. The company commander explained later that his experience in the occupied neighborhoods had taught him that in such cases it is impossible to control the men. He stated that he had to promise them some sort of reward, if only in the form of added income for the soldiers' fund otherwise they might have suspected him of receiving a personal reward I from the Custodian. The Chief of Military Police in Jerusalem noted, "There is good reason to meet the soldiers' demand for 10 percent of the value, in view of the fact that private contractors were going to be making such large profits so easily."
During the war and afterwards PLUNDERING AND LOOTING were very common. "The only thing that surprised me," said David Ben-Gurion at a Cabinet meeting, "and surprised me bitterly, was the discovery of such moral failings among us, which I had never suspected. I mean the mass robbery in which all parts of the population participated." Soldiers who entered abandoned houses in the towns and villages they occupied grabbed whatever they could. Some took the stuff for themselves, others "for the boys" or for the kibbutz. They stole household effects, cash, heavy equipment, trucks and whole flocks of cattle. Behor Shitrit told his colleagues of the Ministerial Committee for Abandoned Property that he had visited some of the occupied areas and saw the looting with his own eyes. "From Lydda alone," he said, "the army took out 1,800 truck-loads of property." Minister of Finance Kaplan admitted: " As a matter of fact, neither the Ministry of Finance nor the Custodian of Abandoned Property is in control of the situation, and the army does what it wants." The Custodian, Dov Shafrir, told the ministers that the regional commanders and their adjutants wanted to stop the looting, "but not the storekeepers of the various companies and squads."
Shafrir, a native of a small village in the Ukraine, was about 50 when he took on the post of Custodian, two days after the, conquest of Ramlah and Lydda. Earlier he had been active in a public housing project. As Custodian he was subordinate to the Minister of Finance. "It was obvious to me that the nature of the work entrusted to me called for fast and firm action, if we were to take control over the territory and the vast amount of property spread over hundreds of towns and villages," he wrote in years to come. To do this, he had to dispatch men to go from house to house, from shop to shop, from warehouse to warehouse, from plant to plant, from quarry to quarry, from field to field, from orchard to orchard, and also from bank to bank and safe to safe-to count, measure, evaluate, estimate, replace locks on doors and transfer all moveable property to well guarded warehouses, while maintaining a correct inventory of the property and its location. It included a total of 45,000 homes and apartments, about 7,000 shops and other places of business, some 500 workshops and industrial plants, and more than 1,000 warehouses. At the same time, it was necessary to continue harvesting the crops and picking the olives, gathering the tobacco and the fruit in the orchards-a total of over 800,000 acres. It was also necessary to take care of livestock-goats, sheep, hens-as well as market the produce, collect the profits and deposit them in the Treasury. This would have been an impossible undertaking even if the Custodian had had at his disposal battalions of skilled and honest workers. In fact, the staff assigned to do the work was very small, most of the personnel was inexperienced and knew nothing of administration, and some were dishonest. Ben-Gurion himself noted that there were thieves and crooks among them. The Custodian would have had his task cut out for him even if the army had cooperated with his staff in order to prevent the plunder, but very often the army did not help. Hours, and sometimes days, passed before the Custodian and his staff were permitted to center the occupied villages and towns, and by then all they could do, in some cases, was to note the destruction and the looting. In Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem there were many civilians among the looters. "The urge to grab has seized everyone," noted writer Moshe Smilansky. "Individuals, groups and communities, men, women and children, all fell on the spoils. Doors, windows, lintels, bricks, roof-tiles, floor-tiles, junk and machine parts. ..." He could have also added to the list toilet bowls, sinks, faucets and light bulbs.
The Military Governor of Jerusalem, Dov Yosef, wrote Ben-Gurion:
"The looting is spreading once again. ...I cannot verify all the reports which reach me, but I get the distinct impression that the commanders are not over-eager to catch and punish the thieves. ...I receive complaints every day. By way of example, I enclose a copy of a letter I received from the manager of the Notre Dame de France (a monastery). Behavior like this in a monastery can cause quite serious harm to us. I've done my best to put a stop to the thefts there, which are all done by soldiers, since civilians are not permitted to enter the place. But as you can see from this letter, these acts are continuing. I am powerless." Ben-Gurion promised he would discuss with Moshe Dayan the possible measures to be adopted in order to put an end to the robbery. The subject troubled him greatly. Prior to the occupation of Nazareth he ordered Yadin to "use submachine guns on the soldiers if he saw any attempt at robbery ."
A secret report, written by the Custodian of Abandoned Property tried to explain how people "succumb to the grave temptation of looting," and why. First there was the massive flight of panic-stricken Arabs who abandoned thousands of apartments, stores and workshops as well as crops and orchards. Second, the property concerned was in the midst of the front-line combat area during the transition from mandatory to Israeli rule. This meant there was no stable authority with which to be reckoned. " ...The moral sense of the few who were attacked by the many and managed to survive, justified the looting of the enemy's property," reported the Custodian. "passions of revenge and temptation overcame great numbers of people. Under those conditions only an extremely firm action by the military I administrative civil and judiciary authorities might have saved, not only the property I but also many people, from moral bankruptcy. Such firm action did not take place, and perhaps could not, given the circumstances, and so things continued to go downhill without restraint." Years later the Custodian removed the veil of secrecy: "The inspectors found most of the houses broken into, and rarely was there any furniture left," he wrote in his memoirs. "Clothes, household effects, jewelry I bedding-other than mattresses-never reached the warehouses of the Custodial authority. ..." More than 50,000 Arab homes had been abandoned, but only 509 carpets reached the Custodian's warehouses. The Custodian attributed it all to the "weak ness and greed of many Israelis, who in normal circumstances would never have permitted themselves to act thus with regard, to other people's property." He indulged in some philosophical speculation about it: "Indeed, history repeats itself in all that concerns human nature. In our own chronicles it is stated simply and plainly without any circumlocutions: 'But the Children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the accursed thing' (sacred loot) (Joshua 7:11. As you travel through the country today, through the towns and in places settled by new immigrants and demobilized soldiers as you observe the teeming life ...your joy is mingled with sadness, the sadness of the shadow of Achan, who took of the accurse thing."
In Cabinet sessions too the problem of looting was often discussed. Minister Shitrit reported thefts in Jaffa and Haifa. Minister Mordehai Bentov asked about a convoy of spoils which left, Jerusalem and Minister Cizling said:
". ..It's been said that . 'there were cases of rape in Ramlah. I can forgive rape, but I will not forgive other acts which seem to me much worse. When they enter a town and forcibly remove rings from the fingers and jewelry from someone's neck, that's a very grave matter. ... Many are guilty of it."
Amin Jarjouria, MK of the (Arabic) Nazareth Democratic List, which was associated with MAPAI, reported: "Two days after the seizure of Jish, in the Safed district, the army surrounded the village and carried out searches. In the course of the search soldiers robbed several of the houses and stole 605 pounds, jewelry and other valuables. When the people who were robbed insisted on being given receipts for their property, they were taken to a remote place and shot dead. The villagers protested to the local commander, Manu Friedmann, who had the bodies brought back to the village. The finger of one of the dead had been cut off to remove a ring. ..." In the State Archives there are many files containing information about the plundering and looting, including the acts of Arab robber gangs. Some of these files are still closed to researchers. However, something may be learned from the index titles: Plunder of Abandoned Arab Property; Looting; Possession without Permit; Robbery. Yosef Lamm, MK (MAPAI) stated, "None of us behaved during the war in a way we might have expected the Jewish people to behave, either with regard to property or human life, and we should all be ashamed."
After a while the Custodian himself began to distribute the I confiscated property. To begin with, Shafrir later reported, goods, materials and equipment were turned over to the army, directly from the stores in the occupied towns. Merchandise which the army did not require was put up for sale. The sale was conducted by special departments instituted for the purpose, staffed, as much as war conditions allowed, by personnel trained in the principal branches of commerce. Other merchandise was sold through negotiation with merchants or industrialists, depending on the type of materials. "The army had the first choice of any goods and materials it might require," Shafrir said. "Next were the government offices, the war disabled, the Jewish Agency, the local authorities and public bodies, such as Hadassah." The army also needed most of the workshop equipment such as cabinet-making shops, locksmiths-works, turneries, iron-works, tin-works and the like. Industrial plants which could be operated on their existing sites were leased out by contract, "whenever possible," according to Shafrir. Plants which no one wanted to lease were sold to the highest bidder.
The sale of furniture, Shafrir said, "was an especially complex and difficult business and took a long time." The army had removed from the houses and obtained from the warehouses furniture worth tens of thousands of pounds for its offices, homes and clubs. A ministerial committee resolved to have the remaining furniture, which was mostly from warehouses, evaluated by professionals and furniture dealers, and sold to a variety of buyers at this valuation price. If any furniture was left after the general sale, the Custodian would determine the method of selling it. The priority list for buyers was as follows: the families of the war disabled, soldiers' families, government employees who had been transferred from Jerusalem, civilians who had been injured in the war, and last of all, ordinary civilians. "In reality," the Custodian later remembered, "the, last category never got to purchase any of the furniture, because the higher categories bought practically all of it."
Yosef Yaakobson-an orange grower, and later an advisor to the Ministry of Defense-suggested to Ben-Gurion that he
expropriate a shoe-making plant from its Jaffa owner and turn it over to the shoe-making enterprise Min'al of kibbutz Givat
Hashloshah. Ben-Gurion consulted the Minister of Finance and Kaplan expressed the opinion that the private property of Arabs
who remained in Jaffa should not be expropriated. Ben-Gurion disagreed; in his opinion only the property found inside private
residences should not be expropriated. Yaakobson told him that the army was removing goods from Jaffa property estimated at 30,000 pounds daily. Attorney Naftaly Lifshitz of
Haifa informed him that in the banks of that city there were
1,500,000 pounds in deposits belonging to Arabs. "The banks are willing to turn this property over," noted Ben-Gurion, and so the
government, too, took a hand in the division of the spoils.
Minister of Agriculture Aharon Cizling wrote to Ben-Gurion :
Again and again in our meetings we discuss the issue of the abandoned property. Everyone expresses shock, bitterness and shame, but we have yet to find a solution. ..up to now we have dealt with individual looters, both soldiers and civilians. Now, however, there are more and more reports about acts which, judging by their nature and extent, could only have been carried out by (government) order. I ask. ..on what basis was the order given (I hear it has been held back to dismantle all the water pumps in the Arab orange groves). ...If there is any foundation to the reports which have reached me, the responsibility rests with a government agency....Meanwhile, private plundering still goes on, too.(1)
Cizling himself represented certain well-defined interests. Minister of Justice Rozen suggested that he address himself to the kibbutzim, including those of his own movement, and ask them to cooperate with the Custodian of Abandoned Property in accordance with the regulations, stipulating that anyone in possession of abandoned property must inform the authorities within two weeks. The Minister of Agriculture, a member of kibbutz Ein Harod, replied that it was "awkward" for him to approached kibbutzim in this matter. At a meeting of Ministerial Committee for Abandoned Property, Cizling recommended that no steps be taken against those kibbutzim which were "tardy" in reporting their possession of abandoned property. His recommendation was adopted. His colleagues decided that he would consult with the national secretariats of the kibbutz movements, together with the Minister of Finance, "to discuss the issue."(2)
Some time later, Ben-Gurion ordered an inspection of all the kibbutzim and moshavim (villages) of Lower and Upper Galilee for an inventory of "flocks [cattle, abandoned sheep], and other property 'taken' from the Arab villages during the war and after; crops, furniture and all other objects, were to be presented to the Minister of Defense."
A few days after the capture of Jaffa, Giora Yoseftal, Chief of the Jewish Agency's Department of Immigrant Absorption, went to see how many new immigrants could be settled in the town. Many of the streets were empty when he arrived, the houses abandoned and the shops boarded up. The smell of war was still in the air as well as the residual odors of life that had existed there earlier. Yoseftal, a tall yekkeh (German Jew), proper and very thorough, took care to obtain the documentation showing that he was acting in accordance with official policy. The documents included one from the Custodian and one from Ben-Gurion himself, confirming that Jaffa was intended for the settlement of new immigrants. "Jaffa will be a Jewish city," wrote Ben-Gurion in his diary, "War is war." Yoseftal set up a "housing committee" in his department, and assigned it the task of distributing the houses among the immigrants, in accordance with qualifications and criteria which he himself determined. But the time was inauspicious for committees and criteria-the houses in Jaffa fell to whoever grabbed them first.
With the intensification of immigration in the summer of 1948, the institutions which looked after the immigrants themselves began to demand that parts of the city which were still under occupation be made available to them. The property included warehouses and shops from which the merchandise had yet to be removed, as well as fully equipped workshops and plants. In Haifa the inspector's office began to issue apartments to the Absorption Department as early as July. The intention was to proceed through the city, quarter by quarter, allocating the apartments and business premises, after the goods had already been taken out of them. But the order was not followed. Hundreds of immigrant families were sent to take possession of apartments, and this caused confusion both in the collecting of goods and in the distribution of apartments. In Jaffa the situation was considerably worse. A certain part of the city was scheduled to be opened on September 10, and a particular allocation of houses was actually agreed upon-to be given to the Absorption Department, the army, the government officials who had been transferred from Jerusalem, and for the children of the settlements who had been evacuated during the war and who had been living in Tel Aviv schools, as well as to the soldiers' families. The Tel Aviv Absorption Department ignored this agreement and went ahead and organized a mass invasion of hundreds of families. ..before the date that was originally agreed upon for the opening of the city to civilians. The government appointed a committee to handle the distribution of apartments in Jaffa. The committee met and reached authoritative conclusions. But once again no heed was paid to the proper agreement. This time the social welfare officers sent hundreds of soldiers' families. Thus the populating of Jaffa was achieved by continuous invasions and counter-invasions [of unauthorized immigrants]." (3)
By established custom, whoever succeeded in placing a bed in a room and spending the night in it, acquired the right of possession. One day Avraham Am salem, age 19, entered the house of Mohammed Abu Sirah in the Ajjami [in Jaffa] quarter [in Jaffa], and, threatening the Arab with his submachine gun, invaded and occupied the hallway of his house. The man was brought to trial and in court he explained that he was about to get married and had nowhere to live. He was sentenced to five days in prison. A few weeks previously, a few score soldiers, some of them disabled, invaded Arab houses in Wadi Nisnas and Abbas Street in Haifa. Carrying arms, they appeared at six o'clock in the morning, and forcibly ejected the residents. Then they threw out their belongings and brought in their own. The police came and removed them, but by evening they had invaded other people's homes. They, too, had nowhere to live.
Not only Arabs were subjected to such violence. Moshe Yupiter, an Israeli immigrant, got his apartment from the Custodian, but he was constantly harassed by people who would present themselves, in twos and threes, as Jewish Agency officials, demand to inspect his rooms, check the lease agreement and ask other questions pertaining to the apartment. Yupiter sensed that they were not Jewish Agency officials, and more than once these "visits" ended in threats and curses. He was fearful. "There was no one to go to," he complained. "There is no civil police and the military police is far away from here." Custodian Shafrir confirmed that "the police help little and the military police not at all." After receiving permission from the Ministry of Police, Shafrir managed to recruit a few policemen of his own to work for his office.
Altogether, between 140,000 and 160,000 immigrants were settled in abandoned homes: in Jaffa some 45,000, in downtown Haifa about 40,000, and in Acre about 5,000. The man who was put in charge of resettling Acre was Mordehai Sarid. "We consulted a map," he later recalled. "I knew which houses I was getting and I worked with engineers to determine what we would do with each apartment. One place needed sinks installed, another required a coat of paint, while other places needed flooring and sewage." The expenses were covered by the Jewish Agency . One day Sarid asked about some immigrants and was told that they were "getting organized." "Splendid," he said, "let them get organized." One of his aides explained what the phrase meant. "They are stealing tables and wardrobes from abandoned houses." As Sarid put it, he was "terribly disturbed"; he summoned the most influential persons among the immigrants and demanded that they all return the stolen property. According to him, "almost everything" was restored.
Mordehai Elkayam was placed in charge of settling immigrants in Ramlah. His first step was to tour the town, accompanied by two social workers. Then he planned the repopulation of the town, quarter by quarter, in conjunction with the military governor. "We decided to start with one particular quarter," he related later. "There was no electricity, but there was running water. The houses were in fair shape. Not much work needed to be done." Three days later the first immigrants arrived-36 families from Bulgaria. Elkayam went to Ramlah with only two aides. He recruited his staff from among the immigrants themselves. Their job was to inspect the empty houses and determine how many families would occupy them. When the immigrants arrived Elkayam's staff would take them to the apartments, and divide the rooms and the use of the facilities among them. Elkayam recalled, "They would paste on the front doors the names of the families and the number of rooms they were entitled to, so that they would not 'squat' in any more rooms (than they were given." He said that the immigrants bought furniture from the Custodian, and some had brought a few items with them from abroad. But when asked whether they stole furniture from the Arab property, he replied: "Well, of course, there was a good deal of confusion. They bought, they took, in any case, they managed. The early arrivals still found a few pieces of furniture here and there. The later arrivals found nothing." In some cases, immigrants squatted in rooms which had not been as signed to them and had to be forcibly removed by the army.
By the end of the year some 600 shops in Ramlah had been distributed to immigrants. Elkayam had no idea what a city might need, so he went to Tel Aviv. "I went through the streets and made a list of all types of shops," he related later. "I estimated more or less how many groceries were needed, how many butcher Shops, how many barber shops and how many cafes." The shops were then distributed, as he described it, by a special committee, giving first consideration to the disabled. But some of the shops were leased to people who could pay for them. By May 1949 some 8,000 people had been settled in Ramlah. In Lydda, too, some 8,000 were settled. At that time there was still no electricity in Lydda, and there was a water shortage. However, most of the political parties had already opened offices and clubs in the town. Of the abandoned properties turned over to immigrants those already operative were: a button manufactory; a carbonated-drinks plant; sausage, ice, textile and macaroni factories.
In Jerusalem the situation was the same. In April it was decided to allocate 400 apartments to government officials who would move to Jerusalem. They had a choice of homes in the better neighborhoods of Baq'a, the "German Colony" and the "Greek Colony ." The Absorption Department got the poorer houses of Musrara and Lifta. Shaul Avigur, one of Ben-Gurion's closest advisors, was to be the absolute arbitrator in any disputes. The document detailing this division of property does not mention the elegant quarter of Talbieh. The houses there were given to senior officials, associates and people with important connections-government officials, judges, professors at the Hebrew University, etc. In Jerusalem, too, people were sent to take possession of empty houses. The immigrants' center in Baq'a sent them to occupy apartments assigned to government officials.
Hundreds of people moved in on their own initiative. In the files of the Absorption Department there are lists of such squatters together with recommendations to let them remain in the apartments they had seized, as if they had obtained them legally:
Klein, Moshe. Date of Immigration: 7.22.49. Country of origin: Hungary .Number of persons: four. Squatted on 12.1.49 in Bloc #160, Section #302, number of rooms: 2. Date of recommendation 1.25.50. Mosud, Amram. Date of immigration: 3.1.49. Country of origin: Algeria. Number of persons: 8. Squatted on 8:23.49 in Bloc #112, Section #13, number of rooms: 2. Date of recommendation:
It seems that the recommendation was a mere formality. Itzhak Ben-Tsvi warned:
If we go to the leaders of the Jewish communities abroad they too will ask how the vacant Arab residences were occupied. With more than 400,000 people evacuated and only 70,000 settled, it could be interpreted as negligence on our part. The proper utilization of the abandoned residences is imperative!
And so tens of thousands of Israelis, soldiers and civilians, helped themselves to the spoils. One took an armchair, another a rug, a third took a sewing machine and a fourth-a combine; one took an apartment and another took a vineyard. Very quickly and easily a whole class-albeit a small one-of newly prosperous people appeared on the scene: merchants, speculators, contractors, agents of all sorts, industrialists and farmers. Some stole what property they could, others received theirs legally. A good many of the transactions fell into that gray area between what the law permitted and what was considered illegal, between outright robbery and official expropriation.
Before the appointment of the Custodian there was a Committee for Arab Property, established by Israel's pre-state army, the Haganah. After the capture of the Arab quarters of Haifa, Tiberias, Safed, Acre and Jerusalem, local attorneys were appointed to supervise the abandoned property. The decision to centralize and formalize the procedures for handling the property came as a result of the growing amount of property and the increased incidence of looting. Under British rule there had also been a Custodian-for German and other alien property. At first the Custodian was seen as a temporary trustee of property left behind by the refugees, which would have to be maintained until their return. The Emergency Regulations, which served as the legal framework for the Custodian's functions, limited his prerogatives: he could not sell the properties he had in his charge, but only lease them for a period not exceeding five years. Most of the refugees were not allowed to return, and with few exceptions, Israel did not return their properties to them, although it did not expropriate them formally. The government did declare its willingness to compensate the refugees, but only as part of a general peace settlement. The question of what would be done with enemy property had preoccupied Ben-Gurion even before the Declaration of Independence. "The property belongs to the government," he resolved. The Prime Minister was deeply interested in the methods of expropriating the ownership of the abandoned property.
Starting in the latter half of 1948, the Ministry of Justice worked on the drafting of an Absentees' Property Law, giving the Custodian a share in the ownership of the property he had hitherto controlled as a trustee, and authorizing him to transfer it to a newly established "Development Authority." The Ministry's draft proposed a literal definition of the term "absentee," namely, one who was no longer present in the territory of the state. When the draft was brought before the Ministerial Committee, Moshe Sharett demanded that the definition be changed to designate anyone who had left his home after a certain date (November 29, 1947), regardless of where he might have lived thereafter. He drew attention to thousands of refugees who had left their villages and settled in Nazareth. If they were not defined as absentees, it would be necessary to let them return to their homes. Sharett also raised the possibility that Israel might one day seize Nablus on the West Bank, which was a "reasonable likelihood," he thought. In that case thousands of refugees would come within Israel's jurisdiction and they would demand to return to their homes and take back the properties they had abandoned. Sharett's reservation was accepted. Consequently, the definition in the law was changed to embrace all who had abandoned their "usual place of residence," even if they were still living in Israel. Some time after, the Custodian was authorized to sell the abandoned property to the development authority, and the Government of Israel authorized the latter to sell it to the Jewish National Fund. More than half a million acres were thus expropriated from their owners. A few thousand of these owners were actually living in Israel, yet the law defined them as absentees, even if they had only left their homes for a few days and stayed with relatives in a nearby village or town, waiting for the fighting to end. Later they came to be referred to as "present absentees." The majority of them were not allowed to return to their homes. Those refugees who were permitted to return to Israel after the war were also formally absentees and their property was not restored to them.
In one of the Prime Minister's Office files there is a correspondence between several government Ministers, arising from the application of a Haifa Arab lawyer, Elias Koussa, to David Hakohen, MK. The attorney wished to know what was the ruling in the case of an absentee who had been allowed to return to Israel under the family reunification agreement, and after his return received properties which had not belonged to him before leaving, whether by way of purchase, inheritance or any other means. The Minister of Justice expressed the view that an absentee remains an absentee forever, even when allowed back and so long as he is an absentee his property belongs to the Custodian, regardless of when or how he acquired the property. Police Minister Shitrit disagreed. Eventually the law was changed to make it possible for "present absentees" to acquire new property .
The law had other bizarre aspects. Yohanan Bader, MK (Herut) stated, "According to this law, the Israeli army is full of absentees. ...Every man who went to war on or after November 29, that is to say, left his city-is an absentee, unless he has a certificate to prove that he is not an absentee."
The authority of the military governors was also utilized to expropriate lands. The military governor would issue an order to
expel villagers from their homes, or forbid them entrance to their fields and thereby prevent them from cultivating them.
Then the Minister of Agriculture would declare the lands to be uncultivated and use his authority to hand them over to others
to cultivate. In this way Arab farmers lost their lands without actually losing their title to them. Other laws which served the
same purpose were later passed. The properties of the Waqf (the Moslem religious
authority) were also frozen as if they belonged to absentees. According to the Moslem religion, the
Waqf properties belong to God. "God has become an absentee!" wrote poet
Rashid Husein in one of his protest songs.(4)
In September 1951 the Custodian M. Porat-who had succeeded Shafrir-sent a secret report to the Minister of Finance. He wrote:
"The fact that we are holding the property of legal residents of the country, who otherwise enjoy all the normal rights of citizenship, is a source of great bitterness and constant agitation among the Arabs who are affected by it. Most of the complaints made by Arabs against our department are made by 'absentees' who see their property in the hands of others and can't bear it. These absentees try by every means to get their lands back, and offer to lease them even at exorbitant rents. In accordance with the general rule originally established. ..our office does not lease the lands expropriated by the government to the present absentees, so as not to weaken our control over the properties in our charge, and this gives rise to complaints and bitterness. Clearly, this policy does not enhance a spirit of good citizenship among the Arabs who returned, and the question arises whether the state, having allowed certain Arabs to come back, or approved their infiltration de facto, should provoke their extreme resentment and expose them to the inordinate incitement of certain political elements. In my opinion, it should not. That is to say-the government policy should make the legal definition of 'absentee' match the normal connotation of the word's meaning, i.e., a person who is absent. That should be the policy. The question remains, how would the policy be applied. It seems to me that at present there is no practical way of carrying out the policy I have suggested, at least with regard to real estate. The number of 'present absentees' runs into the thousands, most of them owners of real estate. There are already new people living on some of these properties, particularly in the border settlements. Any attempt to return the properties to these absentees would, therefore, adversely affect thousands, or tens of thousands, of settlers, not to mention army camps and installations."
To relieve the resentment of the "present absentees," the Custodian proposed that their bank accounts be released to
them, and that a way be found to compensate them for their properties. Attorney General Shapira had made the same recommendation long before, though without any illusions: "In the end we shall both pay compensation and still be considered thieves," he predicted in August 1949. And so it was. The government offered the compensate only a few of he property owners and its offers were hardly tempting. Only a few accepted them, and the compensation was generally viewed as unfair. (8)
In the Knesset debate about the work of the Custodian, Yaakov Gil, MK, of the centrist General Zionists, claimed that 90 percent of the abandoned property was being give tot he members of the MAPAI. "Other parties, and ordinary Jews who belong to no party," he said, " are left out and have received no benefit from this property. The Custodian handles the property as he pleases, to suit himself and the party of which he belongs, his friends and associates. . . . The entire country has become a single Poltibureau." But some property was allocated to various other parties and political organizations.
The abandoned property in the villages was divided in much the same way as in the towns and cities. While the war was still going, Levi Shkolnik (Eshkol), Head of the Settlement Department of the Jewish Agency, went on tour of the Arab villages which has recently been abandoned and captured. As put it, he saw " the traces of what had been and was no longer" --- the houses broken into, plundered and burned. "The sight sank through my eyes and nostrils into my head, brain, blood, and heart . . . " One day, in the letter half of 1948, Eshkol drove up to Jerusalem. With him were his driver and Raanan Weitz, his aide. They passed near Birieh, a little village perched on top of a rocky hill southeast of Ramlah, overlooking the road to Latrun. "I did not know the details, yet" he related alter, "but I believed the the desolate and abandoned place might solve the problem of settling the nation." He stopped the car and he and Weitz went for a walk through the village. As they proceeded to Jerusalem they drew up a plan. Eshkol related, "That evening I . . . sent for the engineers, asked the Engineer Corps for assistance and began to turn the great wheel which enabled us that very winter to transform more than 45 abandoned villages into lively new settlements." (5)
In the latter half of 1948, the settlement department of the Jewish Agency prepared a list of several dozen Arab villages which it proposed to repopulate with new immigrants. Most of the villages had been abandoned, but a few were not quite empty. Some were meant to be demolished and their lands to be used for new settlements. Some of the Cabinet ministers criticized the army for demolishing some of the villages it occupied. The subject was brought up time after time by Ministers Shitrit, Bentov and Cizling. "As I travel about I hear rumors about the destruction of property and I should like to know who gave the order to do this," said Cizling at one meeting. "I was in Beit Shean and was told by people I trust that the anny commander had received an order to destroy the place. ...These are facts about villages which I have seen destroyed. In the Hefer Valley I saw Arab villages which had been abandoned by their inhabitants and were not destroyed during the campaign. Now they are in ruins and whoever did it should be called upon to explain. ..." Ben-Gurion replied: "When you say Beit Shean, that is a particular place. But when you mention generally 'ruined villages'-I can't send people to look for ruined villages." Cizling asked: "Who destroyed the village of Cherkass in the Hefer Valley? At an earlier meeting I mentioned Moussa Goldenberg who reported an order to DESTROY 40 villages and named you, as the source of that order. I stated then that I did not believe it was really done in your name. I am not speaking now about the political aspect, but about things which seem to be happening by themselves, without control. Even if I agreed with a certain act-I wouldn't accept it being done by itself."
Not everything happened "by itself": in September Ben-Gurion informed the Ministerial Committee for Abandoned Property that the commander of the central front, Tsvi Ayalon, considered it necessary "to demolish partially" 14 Arab villages, for reasons of security. "As it is extremely difficult to convene the committees," Ben-Gurion wrote his ministers, "would you please let me have your opinion [on the destruction of Arab villages] in writing. I shall await your answer within three days. ... Lack of response will be viewed as consent." The ministers demanded further information. In September 1949 the Cabinet debated the destruction of the old city of Tiberius. Yigael Yadin was quoted as recommending that the entire city, except for the holy places, be destroyed, in order to prevent the Arab residents from returning.
The authorities also included in their plans lands owned by Jews. They were inclined to emphasize that most of the Arab lands they proposed to expropriate were not cultivated, and that even after the expropriations the Arab villages would still have enough lands to sustain them. The planning was done in close cooperation with the army. The army recommended certain locations and often demanded that they be settled. The assumption was that the new settlements would serve to fortify the country's borders and prevent the return of the villagers who had fled and been driven out in the course of the war and its aftermath.
Yosef Weitz, of the Jewish National Fund, saw the new plans as the direct sequel to the efforts made by the Zionist movement over the past years, through the Jewish National Fund, to "redeem" the land. Hundreds of thousands of acres had been purchased from their Arab owners over the years, bit by bit. The process continued after the Declaration of Independence. "I marked on my map land areas of one village after another," noted Weitz in his diary, "and I should like to swallow it all." Weitz spent most of his time traveling around the country. The abandoned villages set his imagination alight. At night, standing empty and dark, he wrote the villages "terrified" him. By day, when he saw them looking so picturesque and blooming, but still empty, he "felt ashamed" that they had not yet been settled by Jews: "This is a wide country," he wrote, "the sense of its breadth makes one feel so secure." Ben-Gurion thought that purchasing land was a waste of money. He preferred to expropriate the land and thought that the Jewish National Fund's willingness to pay only made land more expensive. Weitz continued to purchase, among other reasons, because he feared that the Fund and all its staff would become superfluous and be closed down. "Ben-Gurion's way of thinking is that the state is above everything, and that the Zionist Federation is only there to serve it, and should exist only as long as it is needed," he noted bitterly.
Before long, the government decided to promote the settlement of immigrants in the abandoned villages of Galilee. In August 1948, the Ministerial Committee discussed the creation of 61 new settlements. The settling authorities recommended that only 32 of them, on some 30,000 acres, be built for the time being. Of those lands some 14,500 acres belonged to Arabs, 5,000 to the government, 5,000 to other owners, chiefly German, and in one case to the Waqf; about 5,000 acres belonged to Jews. The Ministers considered the future of the Arab inhabitants and made suggestions for transferring them legally. The Minister of Agriculture described the legal arrangements as "a fiction."
A few days later officials of the Department of Health went out to inspect an abandoned Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. They were accompanied by representatives of the military government and of the Absorption Department of the Jewish Agency. The health inspectors found Anopheles--malaria-mosquitoes in the village, and stated that before it could be re-inhabited the houses would have to be fumigated with DDT and the water wells purified. This was a budgetary problem, and the Health Department proposed using volunteer labor. It was easy work, the Department promised, offering the volunteers protective gloves for the purpose. The Jerusalem District Officer informed the Department that there was as yet no plan for resettling the village, but in the meantime the staff of the Jewish Agency's settlement section had already gone there to inspect the place. On their return they reported:
". ..We have no data concerning the size of the lands, as there are no accurate maps of the village and environs, but as far as we could tell from examining the site, the cultivable lands are considerable, extending over a few hundred acres. These lands have been cultivated for many years by the former inhabitants of the village. Around the houses there are orchards, fruit trees and olive groves, which would be suitable for sustaining future settlers. In view of the above, we recommend that the village be settled in two different ways. 11 Houses with home farms, each on a total of 1.25 acres, the land to be used for growing vegetables and fruit trees. In addition, each settler would raise between 500 and 1,000 head of poultry. The village center would serve to settle artisans, who would have their workshops and quarries there, serving both the local population and that of Jerusalem. The two groups can amount to a total of 150 to 200 families--i.e., 50 units of houses with home farms, and the rest housing only. The buildings are generally well constructed and do not require much repair. There is a water well beside each house, and the proximity of the central water pipe that supplies Jerusalem makes additional water supply a possible alternative. There are no modern toilets, but they could be provided. There are community buildings in the village, such as a school, a central building for public institutions, etc. ..."
A slight misunderstanding ensued in the next few weeks between two departments of the Jewish Agency, each of which wanted to be put in charge of the village. In January it was decided that the village would be handed over to the Absorption Department, which would establish an immigrant camp on the site. The decision was made at a meeting which was also attended by Shaul Avigur, one of Ben-Gurion's top aides. In the minutes of that meeting it is stated that approval by Avigur was tantamount to approval by Ben-Gurion himself. Therefore, an immigrant camp was established in the village. In the following weeks they looked for a contractor whose offer would be lower than that of Solel Boneh (the Histadrut construction corporation); they also persuaded the Hamekasher transport company to open a bus route to the village, and the post office to connect it to the telephone network. Jerusalem Mayor, Daniel Oster, was called upon to make a contribution-he offered a four-inch water pipe, Simultaneously, they settled the village with immigrants from Poland, Rumania and Slovakia, members of an association which was linked with the orthodox movement Poalei Agudat Israel. A cooperative store, a medical clinic and a synagogue were opened. The Ministry of Education inquired if it was necessary to open classes in the village. By the summer of 1949, 5 acres of olive groves had already been ploughed over and 300 crates of plums had been marketed from the village orchards. The grape harvest began and a new settlement was well under way. The village was now given the name Givat Shaul Bet. In the past it had been known as Deir Yassin.
There is a file at the Prime Minister's Office, dealing with the rural settlement of immigrants, which contains a letter signed by Martin Buber and three other noted scholars, Ernst Simon, Werner Senator and Cecil Roth. They asked Ben-Gurion that Deir Yassin be left uninhabited, or at least that its settlement be postponed until the wounds had had a chance to heal. "We are well aware of the hardships suffered by our brothers, the new immigrants, who have reached their homeland after many years of wandering and being confined in concentration camps, and here too are still without a proper roof over their heads," wrote the scholars. "Moreover, we fully realize that the Government of Israel must provide for their housing to the best of its ability. However, we do feel that Deir Yassin is not a suitable place, or, at any rate, that the time has not yet come to decide on establishing a Jewish settlement in that village. The name of that village has become infamous throughout the Jewish world, the Arab world and the whole world. In Deir Yassin hundreds of innocent men, women and children were massacred. The Deir Yassin affair is a black stain on the honor of the Jewish nation. The Zionist movement, the army and our government of the time (the Jewish Agency Executive), all felt this acutely and most unequivocally condemned the deed at the time.
"There are certain symbolic acts in the life of a nation that must be avoided, and there are certain educational values that must be preserved. In the case of this great and ancient nation, and this state, so small and so young, this is even more imperative. We hope that time and constructive acts of friendship will heal even this sore wound, which is far too fresh-just as fresh as our own memory of the tragedy of April 13th, when the medical convoy to Hadassah on Mount Scopus was massacred 124 hours after the massacre in Deir Yassin). The time will come when it will be possible to conceive of some act in Deir Yassin, an act which will symbolize our people's desire for justice and brotherhood with the Arab people. We are already now proposing such an act. But in the meantime, it would be better to let the lands of Deir Yassin lie fallow and the houses of Deir Yassin stand uninhabited, than to carry out an act whose negative symbolic impact is infinitely greater than the practical resolution it can offer. Resettling Deir Yassin within a year of the crime, and within the framework of ordinary settlement, would amount to an endorsement of, or at least an acquiescence with, the massacre. Let the village of Deir Yassin remain uninhabited for the time being, and let its desolation be a terrible and tragic symbol of war, and a warning to our people that no practical or military needs may ever justify such acts of murder and that the nation does not wish to profit from them." (6)
A few months later the village was mentioned again. This was in the course of a Knesset debate on the government's decision to permit the return of 100,000 Arab refugees to Israel.
Yaakov Meridor (Herut): "Soviet Russia knew how to solve the problem of the Volga Germans during the war. There were 800,000 Germans in that region. ...They transferred them to the east, beyond the Urals. If there should be a second round of fighting, where shall we transfer this fifth column? With the coastal region being only 10 miles wide, how shall we do it? Or perhaps we'll have to evacuate Tel Aviv so as to settle them there and keep an eye on them."
Tewfik Toubi (Communist): "You're preparing another Deir Yassin!"
Meridor: "Thanks to Deir Yassin we won the war, sir!"
A. Ben-Eliezer (Herut): "Don't be so sad."
A. Cizling (MAPAM): "Don't boast about Deir Yassin."
E. Raziel-Naor (Herutl: "There's nothing to be ashamed of ...!"
Zalman Aran (MAPAI): "As a member of the Knesset I must comment on one interjection that was heard here yesterday from the Herut benches. The interjection was, We are not ashamed of Deir Yassin."
A. Ben-Eliezer: "How many Deir Yassin have you been responsible for?"
Aran: "For your sakes, I should like to say that I don't believe you're not ashamed of Deir Yassin."
Ben-Eliezer: "You don't have to bring Up something that you yourselves performed."
Aran: "I don't know that we performed any Deir Yassin."
Ben-Eliezer: "If you don't know, you can ask the Minister of Defense!"
Aran: ". ..If I thought that the State of Israel would be capable of Deir Yassin, I would not only not wish to be an Arab here--I wouldn't want to be a Jew here!"
In the Central Zionist Archives and in the State Archives there are many files dealing with the resettlement of Givat Shaul Bet. The former name of the village is given in brackets, evidently without any indication of embarrassment. The press, too, reported the resettlement as if it had been an ordinary village, like any other. Several hundred guests came to the opening ceremony, including the Ministers Kaplan and Shapira, as well as the Chief Rabbis and the Mayor of Jerusalem. President Haim Weizmann sent written congratulations. The band of the school for the blind played and refreshments were served.(7)
Amid the diaries, letters, telegrams, memoranda, reports, minutes, essays, poetry, prose, newspaper articles and speeches written during those months, a few lines recorded from a speech made in the Knesset by Dr. Zerah Warhaftig, in the course of a debate about the absentees' property, stand out:
...Who better than us, a people without land, who for so many generations could not call even a few feet of land its own, can know and must know how to appreciate land. The word for man in Hebrew (Adam' is derived from the Hebrew word for land (Adamah). Our Sages said, " A man without land is not a man." Only now that we have a state and a land of our own, can we be called both a nation and men.
With the mass immigration of Jews, especially from Arab countries, the newspapers tended to portray Arab emigration as part of a general exchange of population and property between the incoming Jews and the outgoing Arabs: Jewish immigrants from Arab lands had left their homes behind, just as the Arabs in Israel had, the papers contended.
The daily Haaretz worried more about whether the abandoned villages would provide enough housing. "We are on the verge of a serious crisis with regard to immigrant absorption," warned the respected paper. "In another month the abandoned lands will hold no more room for new immigrants."
2) By the time Shafrir reached Beersheba, two days after it was captured, the army had already removed several tractors from the town, but had left a few others where they were. The Custodian's staff removed the remaining ones and placed them in surrounding kibbutzim for "storage." Shafrir wrote to the Ministerial Committee: "Presumably the Ministry of Agriculture will not wish to remove them from the Negev, and it will be necessary to distribute them among the kibbutzim." In his report he stated that heavy and agricultural equipment were sold at the recommendation of the Ministry of Agriculture.
3) The Absorption Department strenuously denied these charges. According to its spokesman, it was the Ministry of Defense which attempted to seize houses designated for immigrants.
4) When the Minister of Finance brought the Absentees' Properties Law
before the Knesset he warned the members not to talk carelessly: "We are a small
country," he said, "but the interest of the world in all that happens and is said
here is immense. It's as if the eyes of the world are constantly on us, watching,
exploring, analyzing every step, every act, every word." To put Israel's actions
in a better light before the eyes of the world, Kaplan was careful to point out,
apologetically that in India and Pakistan, too, the governments had expropriated the properties that the refugees left
behind. An internal report, which was not published, noted other precedents: Turkey had expropriated the
property of the Greeks and Armenians; Bulgaria expropriated the property of the
Greeks; Iraq of the Assyrians; Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Yugoslavia expropriated the properties of the German
5) But at the end of November he said to his Jewish Agency colleagues that he was aware that the Arabs might yet return to the occupied zones. "Since our own agriculture is intensive," he said, "we may be able to give them some of the lands for cultivation." He expressed the view that he did not care to house the immigrants permanently in Arab houses, but meant to build them new ones.
7) The press expressed no qualms in reporting the resettlement of other abandoned villages, a total of 350. The reports reflect a solid belief in the right and justification of the resettlement. Davar: " ...At the sound of the Israeli soldiers marching, the Arabs were seized with a great terror and left their homes, with their heavily loaded camels and donkeys, en route for the border.
...And now in Jamsin-renamed Givat Amal-live new residents, recently arrived via Cyprus, survivors of the camps of Europe. ...They sit around a long table, with one remnant of the abandoned furniture, and tell their tales. ..." Haaretz: " ...Patches of brilliant green are now surrounding the houses in the abandoned villages, thanks to the activities of the Ministry of Agriculture that helps the new immigrants develop their home farms. ..." Dvar Hashavua: " ...You will not recognize Aqir! More than a thousand immigrants have settled in the abandoned village. ..." Similar descriptions were published about Deir Yassin. The immigrant camp was later turned over to the Ministry of Health, which converted it to a sanitorium for the mentally ill. Parts of the village became one of the neighborhoods of the new city of Jerusalem, other parts remained deserted.
8) In one Foreign Ministry file there is a record of correspondence which links the possibility that Israel would pay compensation to the Arab refugees with the possibility that West Germany would compensate the Jews for the Nazi crimes. At some stage the idea was also raised that the property of Arabs in Israel would be held as security against Jewish property in the Arab countries. This was Behor Shitrit's proposal. The Legal Advisor to the Foreign Ministry rejected it. When the sale of abandoned Arab property was finally allowed, Israeli undercover immigration agent in Iraq telegraphed in horror: "What's going to happen to Jewish properties here.?!"