Legal Ground: The amazing maze of Israeli property

There seem to be so many different authorities regulating Israeli property and so many steps to take toward the final purchase.

Ramot Menashe Park 370 (photo credit: Courtesy JNF-KKL)
Ramot Menashe Park 370
(photo credit: Courtesy JNF-KKL)
When Abraham negotiated the purchase of the Cave of Machpela from Ephron the Hittite, he insisted on paying for the property on the spot and in full, which then led Ephron to quote an exorbitant price (clearly, Abraham should’ve had a lawyer). That was some 3,800 years ago, but from then and until today buying property in the Land of Israel has never been a simple task. Actually, purchasing property in Israel can be quite daunting, especially to those unfamiliar with the Israeli system.
The main problem is which authority regulates the ownership of the property you have just purchased. A popular adage states that possession is nine-tenths of the law. This is, of course, a fiction and quite frankly, a dangerous nonsense. The most important thing is to ensure that the property you have bought is properly registered in your name and under the watchful eye of a properly constituted government authority.
But there seem to be so many different authorities regulating Israeli property and so many steps to take toward the final purchase.
We are often asked questions like these by clients: Where are my rights registered and how can I prove my ownership? Do I actually own my home, or does it belong to the government? Can my ownership “expire”? What does the Keren Kayemeth have to do with my property? What’s the difference between Minhal and Tabo? What is the Reshut Hapituach? Who are these people? And how come they own the property I just paid for? The good news is that the state has been working to make the system more rational and user friendly. The bad news is that reform is a slow process and that property ownership in Israel is a still regulated by a confused piecemeal system. In fact, the system is based on the original framework that existed in the times of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks (and I hope this doesn’t spark another diplomatic crisis with the touchy Mr.
Erdogan), to say the least, did not excel in proper administration and organization, and their registration left something to be desired.
During the British Mandate, a new and more exact system was introduced that started including measurements of each property. The State of Israel took over where the British left off, and today 95 percent of property in Israel has been properly measured, mapped and registered. The remaining 5% is still based on historical records.
So what exactly is this ‘Tabo’?
The Tabo, a term often heard with regard to property ownership, is the unofficial name for the Israel Land Registry Office.
Contrary to what some people have written, it has nothing to do with the word Taboo. The word Tabo originates from the Turkish Tapo. Hundreds of years ago, Ottoman soldiers heading to war would receive a Tapo, a certificate proving their property rights. In Arabic, Tapo was pronounced tabo (since there is no “p” sound in the language), and eventually the term was adopted in Hebrew as Tabo.
The Tabo is thus a popular name for the Israel Land Registry, which is the government database for property rights in Israel.
Registration of property in your name in the Tabo is the final step toward gaining ownership of your property, and it (essentially) serves as final and absolute proof of your ownership.
The Land Registry operates via nine offices throughout the country. Each office handles registration of property in its own district. The Land Registry is used not only for registering ownership of property but also for various types of rights and notes as well, such as long-term rental contracts, mortgages, liens, easements (the right to use another’s property, such as for passage) and agreements between neighbors.
However, only a select (and fortunate) few are actually registered in the Tabo as owners of their property. In fact, less than 10% of property in Israel is actually privately owned! Over 90 percent of the property in Israel is owned by the Israeli government, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKLJNF) and the Israel Lands Administration. And so the maze deepens...
In addition, some 25,000 acres, or 100,000 dunams (another word adopted from Turkish, defined as 1,000 square meters) of countrywide are owned by various churches, the largest of which is the Greek Orthodox Church. Significant property in Jerusalem, including land that the prominent Rehavia neighborhood sits on, is owned by the church. In fact, the Knesset also sits on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.
Why is so much land owned by the state?
Historically, various Jewish organizations accrued land in Israel prior to 1948. After the State of Israel was founded, these organizations handed their property over to the government. In 1960, several laws regarding state-owned property were passed. The Basic Law: Israel Lands declares that all state-owned lands, now termed “Israel Lands,” will remain such and will not be sold or given to others (with some exceptions, of course.
After all, what is a law without an exception to the law?).
Another law instituted the Israel Lands Administration (commonly referred to in Hebrew as the “Minhal”) to manage Israel Lands. The purposes of creating this system were to protect the land from reaching hostile hands, to control the use of the property, to allocate land for national or public purposes and to oversee and supervise use of property for various purposes (agricultural, industrial, residential, etc.).
What are the practical implications of this complex structure and what effect does it have on homeowners (and potential homeowners) today? These will be discussed in our next column, so stay tuned. Chag Sameach.
This column is meant to provide general information and is not to be seen as legal advice. We highly recommend you consult a lawyer before engaging in any real-estate transactions.
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Dr. Haim Katz is a senior partner in a law firm with offices in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that specializes in real estate, international trusts and family, inheritance and corporate law. Sam Katz is a jurist who lives in Jerusalem.