When East Jerusalem was annexed to Israel in 1967, all the laws of the State of Israel were applied to the territory, including the Absentee Property Law of 1950, with the purpose to transfer the property of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 to the state of Israel. According to an amendment of the law in 1970, Palestinians who were physically present in East Jerusalem at the time of the annexation would not be
considered absentees; but for anyone who was not in the annexed territory at the time, their property is considered absentee and can be appropriated by the Custodian of Absentee Property. Meanwhile, the same law allows Jews to claim their property from before 1948 (as is happening in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah), in clear national-ethnic discrimination.
Immediately after the annexation, then-Attorney General Meir Shamgar issued an opinion that there was no justification to apply the Absentee Property Law to East Jerusalem. As a rule, the State of Israel rarely applied that law to the annexed territory; this policy changed in 1977 at the initiative of then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, and also during the 1980s when used in East Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and the neighborhood of Silwan. In 2004 the policy was reinforced when the ministerial committee on Jerusalem decided that "the Custodian of Absentee Property has powers under section 19 of the Absentee Property Law 5710-1950, including the execution, transfer, sale or leasing of land property in East Jerusalem to the Development Authority."2 Subsequently Atty. Gen. Meni Mazuz sent a harsh letter to Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asserting his opposition to the declaration by the ministerial committee.
However, parallel to the large expropriations, there has been a de facto "creeping expropriation" of properties in East Jerusalem. It occurs when Palestinians apply to register their land ownership; at that time the authorities initiate an investigation at the end of which, in many cases, the State of Israel becomes a part owner of the property in question.
Even though the opinions of attorney generals objected to application of the law in annexed areas of East Jerusalem, the law itself was never annulled. The court has presented different positions: there were judges who accepted the State's right in principle to expropriate property by using the law, and others who adopted the approach of the attorney generals and objected to its use. Now there are four cases pending in court, the hearing of which was united; the judges have instructed the State Advocacy to present its clear position on the issue.
The current legal situation allows any government to continue taking over the property of Palestinians in blatant discrimination due to nationality. On the political level, use of the Absentee Property Law in East Jerusalem is another tool to deepen the Israeli stronghold of an area whose future is subject to political dispute, by the unilateral dictation of facts on the ground. This matter creates an additional and
substantial burden on an already complex situation in Jerusalem, and may also contribute to the difficulties the sides will face when they attempt to decide the future of the area at the negotiating table.