Israel’s Land Ownership Policies

What about land? Does Israel discriminate against Arabs owning land?

While often repeated, the assertion that Arabs cannot obtain land in Israel is based on misconception, error and outright invention. In fact, most of the land in Israel is government-owned, and it is equally available to all Israelis, whether Jewish or Arab.

History of Land Ownership in Israel

In order to purchase land for the resettlement of Jews in their ancient homeland, the Fifth Zionist Congress (1901) created a private charitable organization called the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Before the State of Israel was established in 1948, land purchased by the JNF was not resold but was instead leased out on a long-term basis to create kibbutzim and other forms of Jewish settlement.


After 1948 state-owned lands formerly in the possession of British Mandatory Authorities, together with property abandoned by Arab refugees, passed into the control of the new Israeli government. Some of this land was sold by the government to the JNF, which had developed expertise in reclaiming and developing waste and barren lands and making them productive.

In 1960 under Basic Law: Israel Lands, JNF-owned land and government-owned land were together defined as "Israel lands," and the principle was laid down that such land would be leased rather than sold. The JNF retained ownership of its land, but administrative responsibility for the JNF land, and also for government-owned land, passed to a newly created agency called the Israel Land Administration or ILA.

Of the total land in Israel in 1997, the Israel Government Press Office statistics say 79.5% is owned by the government, 14% is privately owned by the JNF, and the rest, around 6.5%, is evenly divided between private Arab and Jewish owners. Thus, the ILA administers 93.5% of the land in Israel.

Who can access Israel Land Administration (ILA) land?

The crux of the issue then, is who can actually access the land that is almost completely controlled by the ILA? The statement that "Arabs cannot buy land in Israel" is largely true, but meaningless since Jews cannot buy land either, bound by the same ILA restrictions. In actual practice, ILA lands are leased and both Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel have equal access. Some classes of Arab citizens, e.g. Bedouins, have been the beneficiaries of highly subsidized land programs in Israel, so beneficial that Jews have gone to court to try to get the same terms. Affirmative action programs for Bedouins have been upheld by Jewish courts to the detriment of Jewish citizens.

Special case of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) land

JNF land, even when managed by the Israeli government, is restricted by the formal charter of the JNF. The purpose of the JNF was to purchase land for the settlement of Jews, and this has been interpreted to mean that JNF land should not be leased, at least on a long-term basis, to non-Jews. The agreement that placed the JNF land under government administration incorporates the restriction.

In practice, however, JNF land has been leased to Arab citizens of Israel, both for short-term and long-term use such as leases on a yearly basis to Bedouins for use as pasture. In other cases, JNF land has been traded for other, unrestricted, land so it can be leased to Arabs.

Private land in Israel

There are no restrictions on private land transfers in Israel. Private land can be purchased or leasaed by Israeli Arabs or by non-citizens. Such land can be, and has been, purchased by Israeli Arabs and by foreigners, including Arab foreigners.

The Israeli government has announced plans to privatize much of Israel's state-owned land and offer cheap building permits to Israelis willing to move to less-desirable parts of the country, away from the crowded central area.

Contrast with Arab Policies

The relatively unrestricted access to land in Israel is in sharp contrast with Arab policies. During the 1948-1967 Jordanian occupation of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), for example, Jews were forbidden to live there under pain of death. In 1973, under the direct instructions of King Hussein, the government of Jordan passed the Law for Preventing the Sale of Immoveable Property to the Enemy. The "enemy" defined in Article 2 as:

  • ... any man or judicial body [corporation] of Israeli citizenship living in Israel or acting on its behalf.

This law, or equivalent, continued in effect under the Palestinian Authority (PA). By 1997, 172 people had been sentenced to death under this law, although "only" about 10 have been executed. The law is invalid under the Oslo II agreement and is one of the many violations of the Oslo peace process agreements by the PA. Palestinian land dealers in PA controlled areas have been murdered as "collaborators", a practice that was publically condoned by Yasser Arafat.

In 1995, following the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the Jordanian Parliament repealed the 1973 law and replaced it with milder statutes that still effectively bar Israelis from purchasing or leasing land in Jordan.


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