|Rights groups say Israel's sale of Palestinian homes erodes refugees' right of return
A Palestinian advocacy group is accusing Israel of removing by stealth, what Palestinians see as a one of the key elements of any future peace deal – the right of return for refugees.
Adalah, a legal centre for Arab rights in Israel, claims that the possibility of Palestinians returning to the homes they left in what is now Israel is slowly being eroded away by the sale of an increasing number of their properties to private individuals.
In most cases, the original owners are either in exile or unable to afford the prices offered by tender on the Israel land administration website.
"Based on its law, Israel is allowed, as a state, to use this property. However they are not allowed to sell it to private hands," Hassan Jabareen, the managing director of Adalah, said.
But at least 282 homes have been sold in the past two-and-a-half years, he told Al Jazeera.
Israel calls them "absentee properties" – houses and land belonging to nearly 700,000 Palestinians who left or were expelled when Israel was created in 1948.
The properties are supposed to be held in trust by the Israel land administration until a final resolution is agreed, but once they are sold to private owners, any right of return becomes almost impossible.
The Palestinians have always argued that the refugees should be allowed to go back, even to lands that are now part of Israel.
Some of the refugees scattered across the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and beyond even keep the deeds and the keys for their old properties in the hope they will one day return.
|Abd Al-Latif Kanafani says his family home in Haifa is being sold as "stolen property"
Adalah is writing letters to Israel's attorney general's office demanding that the state maintain control of the Palestinian lands.
"It seems absurd that we are saying to Israel 'keep absentee property in your hands and don't let it fall into private hands' but the reason is that the claim of the Palestinian refugee can only come vis-à-vis Israel," Jabareen said.
Number 15 in what was formerly Al-Borj Street in the city of Haifa belonged to the Kanafani family, which is now living in exile in Lebanon.
81-year-old Abd Al-Latif Kanafani had no idea that his father's home was up for sale until he was shown a photograph by Al Jazeera.
"I am worried about every stone in the house, every door, every window, every ceiling," he said from his home in Beirut. "The house is part of me."
"I am worried about every stone in the house, every door, every window, every ceiling"
Abd Al-Latif Kanafani
The three-storey house has sweeping views across the Mediterranean Sea but has fallen into a state of disrepair, its windows have been sealed with bricks to prevent squatters moving in
Kanafani lived in the house for the first 20 years of his life, but he believes his age will prevent him from ever returning.
However he is adamant that his descendants will still get that opportunity, even if the home is sold.
"The right of return continues to be the right of return. It is not affected. What the Jews are doing now is they're dealing in stolen property," he said.
Other houses in the street have already been sold to Israeli investors who have renovated them to rent out as offices.
Metanis Shair, a Palestinian-Israeli lawyer, said he purchased one to keep it in Arab hands.
It was owned by Abd Elrahman Haj, a former mayor of Haifa, whose family are now exiled in Jordan.
"I spoke with the family and they did not have enough money to buy the house," Shair said.
"They thanked me for the offer and said they think that I am the best alternative to their family to purchase this house and renew it."
Shair said he would happily sell it on to the original owners if they ever decided that they want it back.
The issue is not limited just to Haifa. Three weeks ago a one acre block of land in a predominantly Arab neighbourhood of Jaffa was sold to a group of Jewish buyers.
Adalah is now working on a bid to the Israeli supreme court to prove that the sale of refugee properties seized during war is in violation of both Israeli and international law.
A spokesperson for the Israel land administration told Al Jazeera that while a 1960 law prevents the sale of refugee homes, a follow-up bill passed the same year includes seven exceptions, one of which allows the sale of absentee property if it is in an urban area and under 20,000 hectares.
"Any claims against the Israel land administration's actions will be examined thoroughly from a legal point of view and addressed in the appropriate manner," the spokesperson said.