Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict


No issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict has proven more intractable than the status of the Palestinian refugees. This work focuses on the controversial question of the property left behind by the refugees during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Beyond discussing the extent of the refugees'losses and detailing the methods by which Israel expropriated this property, the book also notes the ways that the property question has affected, and in turn been affected by, the wider Arab-Israeli conflict over the decades. It shows how the property question influenced Arab-Israeli diplomacy and discusses the implications of the fact that the question remains unresolved despite numerous diplomatic efforts.

From late 1947 through 1948, more than 726,000 Palestinians-over half the entire population-were uprooted from their homes and villages. Though some middle class refugees were able to flee with liquid capital, the majority were small-scale farmers whose worldly fortunes were the land, livestock, and crops they left behind. This book tells for the first time the full story of how much property changed hands, what it was worth, and how it was used by the fledgling state of Israel. It then traces the subsequent decades of diplomatic activity on the issue and publishes previously secret UN estimates of the scope and value of the refugee property. Michael Fischbach offers a detailed study of Israeli counterclaims for Jewish property lost in the Arab world, diplomatic schemes for resolving the conflict, secret compensation efforts, and the renewed diplomatic efforts on behalf of property claims since the onset of Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Based largely on archival records, including those of the United Nations Conciliation Commission of Palestine, never before available to the public and kept under lock and key in the UN archives, Records of Dispossession is the first detailed historical examination of the Palestinian refugee property question.


In the late fall of 2000, the plane taking me home from conducting research at the United Nations Secretariat archives in New York made a direct pass over the city just after takeoff from LaGuardia airport. As the aircraft banked over midtown Manhattan, I looked down and could see the exact part of town where I had just completed several days examining documents from the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) relating to the land left behind in Israel by Palestinian refugees in 1948. Among these documents were detailed records of almost every parcel of Arab-owned land in Israel that the UNCCP carefully compiled in the 1950s and 1960s in the hopes that they could prove useful should Israel ever compensate the refugees for their losses. How poignant, I thought, that a detailed and fairly accurate reckoning of the refugees’ losses, including the property lost by individual persons, has lain behind locked doors at the UN archives in New York for nearly four decades and thousands of miles from the Middle Eastern refugee camps that still house descendants of the original 1948 refugees. These unutilized records stand as mute testament to the fact that despite the considerable effort and diplomatic activity that has been expended over the years on how to deal with the Palestinian refugee exodus in general and the refugees’ property claims in particular, wide-scale restitution or compensation never have been forthcoming, and these claims remain unsettled to this day.

In focusing on the history of abandoned Palestinian refugee property and how this question has fit into the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, this study examines one dimension of what surely ranks as one of the core unresolved issues of that conflict: the Palestinian refugee problem. The refugees’ plight long ago emerged both as one of the most central challenges facing the world community in the aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 as well as one of the Arab-Israeli conflict’s most intractable problems. The flight of the refugees was the direct result of the partition of Palestine and the subsequent war that broke out between Jews and Arabs in 1948, and constituted a socioeconomic and political tragedy of the first order of magnitude for the Arab population of Palestine. More than 726,000 Palestinians—about one-half of the entire population—left their homes in Palestine from late 1947 through . . .

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