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A Restitution Solution in the Mideast

Iraq war may open way to settle property claims of Palestinian and Jewish refugees.

May 05, 2003|Michael R. Fischbach | Michael R. Fischbach is an associate professor of history at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. His book, "Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab- Israeli Conflict," is scheduled for publication this fall by Columbia University Press.

Opponents of the recent war in Iraq predicted a host of unforeseen and undesirable consequences. But here's one potential outcome that might work to everyone's advantage: a redressing of the property losses sustained by both Arabs and Jews more than half a century ago at the very beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Beginning in 1948, just after the first war between the Arabs and the Jews, thousands of Jews fled their homes in Iraq, abandoning their property rather than remain unprotected at a time of heightened tension between Jews and Arabs.

Most of these emigrants from Iraq's ancient Jewish community -- about 13,000 people -- settled in Israel. A 1951 law passed in Iraq allowed authorities to sequester the property of Jews still waiting to emigrate, so they were forced to leave behind not only their land and their homes but other property as well.

Similarly, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab refugees were uprooted by the creation of Israel and the outbreak of war, leaving behind millions of dollars' worth of houses and property. Most of these 725,000 Palestinians ended up in refugee camps, separated from their homes and farms by the new cease-fire lines and borders.

Israel not only sequestered but eventually confiscated the refugees' abandoned property in 1950, although it agreed with a 1948 United Nations General Assembly resolution that it should pay compensation for the property.

Then, in 1951, the Israeli government linked the two sets of property claims: In the future, it decided, any amount it paid to Palestinians would be reduced by the amount claimed by former Jewish citizens of Iraq and other Arab states. The Arab world rejected such linkage, and neither the Palestinian refugees nor Iraqi Jews were compensated for their losses. These property claims largely lay dormant for decades.

To this day, neither group has been compensated. But now, as a strange consequence of Iraq's twin defeats of 1991 and 2003, the opportunity has arisen for the resolution of these decades-old claims.

In the wake of the Gulf War, Yoram Dinstein, president of Tel Aviv University, suggested that the old Iraqi Jewish property claims be linked with the U.N.-mandated compensation that Iraq was supposed to pay to Kuwait and other parties. Nothing came of the idea at the time. But today it is conceivable that international Jewish organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress, might resurrect Dinstein's idea and demand that Washington impose a "lien" on future Iraqi oil revenue as compensation for decades-old Iraqi Jewish property losses.

Both the Israeli government and international Jewish organizations have focused renewed interest in the last two years on the question of compensation for Jewish emigrants from Arab countries.

In March 2002, the Israeli government announced that it would begin registering Jewish immigrants from Arab countries for the purpose of establishing claims with individual states and international organizations. Two months later, in May 2002, the Israeli Justice Ministry announced that it would work with the International Committee of Jews from Arab Lands on creating a computerized property database.

At the same time, the recent U.S. victory in Iraq might presage American efforts to solve Palestinian property claims as well -- just as the 1991 Gulf War encouraged President George H.W. Bush to open the first face-to-face Arab-Israeli peace talks in decades. The issue is one that remains very much on the table.

During Israeli-Palestinian talks at the Camp David II summit in July 2000, President Clinton publicly discussed the Palestinian and Jewish property questions when he spoke of creating an international fund for paying out both sets of claims. In the last three years, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Jordanian government have computerized U.N. data on the Palestinians' property in preparation for talks on the refugee question. A Palestinian nongovernmental organization called the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights dispatched a delegation to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2002 to study refugee property restitution in that war-torn country. Presumably, the much-vaunted "road map" for a final resolution of the conflict will deal with property claims as part of a final settlement.

War's consequences are difficult to predict at the outset. But if we can find in the recent Iraq war a solution to these grievances between Arabs and Jews, it will be some consolation.

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