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Refugee Bank Accounts Gone for a Walk?

Government Refuses to Provide Information on "Moveable Property" of Palestinian Refugees

Adalah News Update

28 Jan. 2002

On 21 January 2002, Adalah Staff Attorney Marwan Dalal submitted a letter to Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein asking that he reconsider his decision not to compel the Custodian for Absentees' Property to release information on the moveable property of Palestinian refugees. The Attorney General rejected Adalah's request on the grounds that it might damage Israel's foreign relations to release the information, and that it would require an exorbitant amount of time and resources to comply with the request for information. Adalah rejected these arguments and again demanded the release of information.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave their homes by Israeli forces during the 1948 War. Although many "absentees," as they are legally known, still live in Israel, most are currently refugees living outside of the country. Between 1948 and 1960, the Knesset passed a series of laws placing the property of refugees under state control.

One such law - the Absentees' Property Act (1950) - created the position of Custodian for Absentees' Property in order to control what the absentees left behind, including both "immoveable property" (land, buildings, etc.) and "moveable property" (bank accounts, jewelry etc.). The Custodian transferred most of the immovable property to a quasi-governmental agency called the Development Authority. The Development Authority then transferred the property to the state, which has used the property chiefly for establishing Jewish settlements, many of which sit on land previously inhabited by Palestinians. Moveable property remained under the control of the Custodian.

In 1991, a report by the State Comptroller confirmed the existence of absentees' moveable property, including substantial company shares, bank accounts, savings and jewelry. The report charges the Custodian with the mismanagement of shares that, according to a review of five companies in which the absentees own shares, numbers in "tens of millions of shekels at least." Many of the shares listed in earlier company reports do not appear in more recent reports; yet, the Custodian has been unable to explain the disappearance of these shares over the years. The report notes that it is the Custodian's legal responsibility not only to maintain the absentees' property, but also to preserve its value.

Adalah initially approached the Custodian on 27 July 1998 seeking information on the moveable property of refugees under the control of the Custodian on the grounds that it is public information; in August 1998, he refused. In January 1999, Adalah submitted a letter to the Attorney General requesting that he approach the Custodian to remind him of his legal responsibility to release the information. Since January 1999, Adalah approached the Attorney General's office 15 times concerning the status of the information request. Initially, he announced that the situation was being investigated. He later added that substantial information would soon be released, and requested that Adalah refrain from initiating litigation under the Freedom of Information Act (1998). Eventually, however, he conceded to the government's position and refused to pursue the release of information on the subject.

In the letter sent on 21 January 2002, Adalah challenged the Attorney General's position. Regarding Israel's foreign relations, Adalah noted that the 1991 report already confirmed the existence of the property in question. Concerning the amount of time and resources required, Adalah argued that its initial contact with the Custodian began over three years ago, in 1998, and the Custodian never suggested that he did not have the time or resources to compile the information. Moreover, as mentioned in the 1991 report, the Custodian has a legal responsibility to organize and arrange data on the property under his control, regardless of the amount of time and effort required. Finally, Adalah informed the Attorney General that if he did not reconsider his refusal, Adalah would be forced to go to court.