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Jul 15 2006

Land Acquisition and Ownership in Palestine

Posted by smoothstone

Bibliography: Moshe Auman, author of “Land Ownership in Palestine”, and Mitchell Bard:

The question of land ownership in Israel – or before 1948, Palestine – has been the subject of much discussion. What is the status of the land on which, from the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish settlements – kibbutzim, moshavim, villages, and cities – were established?

For decades, Arab propaganda has been reiterating the claim that, legally and ethically, the Arabs are the true owners of the land and that the portion actually belonging to the Jews is minute.

The Arab claim rests on two premises:

(1) At the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Palestinian Arabs were living and cultivating their lands in peace and security, until the European Jewish immigrants drove them from their territory, creating a large class of landless and dispossessed Arabs;

(2) In 1948 a small Jewish minority, which owned only 5% of the territory of the country, took over the 95% that belonged to the Arabs, and, illegally and immorally, established the State on that territory.

It is necessary at this point to examine the state of the land and its inhabitants during the period of Turkish rule. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – long before the beginning of modern Jewish settlement and Jewish acquisition of land – the population of the country was minuscule and continually decreasing. In 1738, the land was described by the English archeologist Thomas Shaw as “lacking in people to till its fertile soil” (Travels and Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary and the Levant). The French historian Conte Constantine Francois Volney writes:

“The peasants are incessantly making inroads on each other’s lands, destroying their corn, durra, sesame and olive-trees, and carrying off their sheep, goats and camels. The Turks, who are everywhere negligent in repressing similar disorders, are attentive to them here, since their authority is very precarious. The Bedouin, whose camps occupy the level country, are continually at open hostilities with them, of which the peasants avail themselves to resist their authority or do mischief to each other, according to the blind caprice of their ignorance or the interest of the moment. Hence arises an anarchy which is still more dreadful than the despotism that prevails elsewhere, while the mutual the contending parties renders the appearance of devastation of this part of Syria more wretched than that of any other.” (Travels Through Syria and Egypt in the Years 1783, 1784, and 1785)

There were, in addition to the local disputes, actual wars. In the beginning of the nineteenth century Napoleon’s armies invaded the land; in 1831 it was conquered by the Egyptians, and nine years later again by the Turks. All these – in addition to the internal fighting – created in the country a climate of insecurity, which led to a sharp decline in its physical state and to the emigration of its inhabitants, who left in search of better living conditions elsewhere. Many of those who nevertheless stayed and continued to work their land were forced to relinquish ownership of it and find refuge with people of means or with the Muslim religious endowment fund (“the wakf”). A situation was created, then, in which the true owners of the lands did not reside on them, but leased them to others while they themselves spent their lives in such distant places as Damascus, Beirut, and Cairo.

H. B. Tristram, who wrote of his travels in the Holy Land in his 1865 book The Land of Israel.- A Journal of Travels in Palestine, presents a revealing description of the living conditions in the Land of Israel as he found them in the middle of the nineteenth century:

“A few years ago, the whole Ghor (Jordan Valley) was in the hands of the fellahin and much of it cultivated for corn. Now the whole of it is in the hands of the Bedouin, who eschew all agriculture except in a few spots cultivated here and there by their slaves; and with the Bedouin come lawlessness and the uprooting of all Turkish authority. No government is now acknowledged on the east side; and unless the Porte acts with greater firmness and caution than is his wont… Palestine will be desolated and given up to the nomads.”

Alexander Keith, recalling Volney’s 1785 description (quoted above) fifty years later, commented:

“In his day [Volney's] the land had not fully reached its last degree of desolation and depopulation.” (The Land of Israel).

Other travelers and pilgrims recorded similar reports of the dreary state of the Land around the middle of the nineteenth century. Here are just a few examples:

Alphonse de Lamartine, in 1835:

“…a complete eternal silence reigns in the town, on the highways, in the country … the tomb of a whole people” (Recollections of the East, Vol. I, p. 308).

A contemporary German encyclopedia (Brockhaus, “Allegmeine deutsche Real- Encyklopaidie”, Vol. VIII, p. 206, Leipzig, 1827) calls Palestine

“desolate and roamed through by Arab robber-bands.”

In 1849, the American W. F. Lynch described the desertion of Palestinian villages

“caused by the frequent forays of the wandering Bedouin” (Narrative of the United States Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea, p. 489).

And again H. B. Tristram, in 1865:

“… both in the north and south (of the Sharon plain), land is going out of cultivvation, and whole villages ar rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth. Since the year 1838, no less than 20 villages have been thus erased from the map (by the Bedouin) and the stationary population extirpated” (p. 490).

Better known in this context, perhaps, are the words of the American author Mark Twain, who records personal impressions of a visit to the Holy Land in 1867. His account abounds in descriptions such as these:

“Desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given over wholly to weeds – a silent mournful expanse … We reached Tabor safely … We never saw a human being on the whole route” (p. 451, 480); “There is not a solitary village throughout its (the Jezreel Valley’s) whole extent – not for thirty miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride ten miles, hereabouts, and not see ten human beings” (p. 448); “Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren … the valleys are unsightly deserts… It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land… Palestine is desolate and unlovely… Palestine is no more of this workday world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dreamland” (pp. 564, 567).

Referring to the same era, the Christian historian James Parkes writes in Whose Land?:

“Peasant and Bedouin alike have contributed to the ruin of the countryside on which both depend for a livelihood… In spite of the immense fertility of the soil, it is probable that in the first half of the nineteenth century the population sank to the lowest level it had ever known in historic times.”

Conclusion: The propagandist myth of an “entire Palestinian people uprooted from its soil by the Zionists” is shattered against the reality of the nineteenth century: plunder and devastation, war and destruction, chaos, anarchy, a population dispersed and declining. All this occurred many years before the beginning of the Zionist settlement, while the Jewish population still resided in the “Holy Cities” of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, and Safed, long before these Jews together with Jewish immigrants from the lands of the Diaspora began purchasing land and tilling the soil.

Moreover, at the end of the nineteenth century the Jewish pioneers began to make the desert areas of the land bloom, rendering the country highly attractive to Jews and Arabs alike. It is an undisputed fact that after World War I the pattern of Arab emigration was reversed: Until that time, the number of Arabs who left the land exceeded that of those who came to live in it. Starting in the 1920s, there were more immigrants than emigrants. And where did they settle? Usually in those areas which were developed by the Jewish settlers.

What was the state of the land – its ownership and cultivation – at the end of the period of Turkish rule?

Most of the territory was concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy landlords, most of whom lived far from their property. In many cases these lands were, or seemed, unfit for agriculture, and were therefore neither settled nor cultivated. Occasional plots were worked by tenant farmers.

According to a Turkish register drawn up shortly before World War 1, there were at that time 3,130,000 dunams in the hands of 144 landlords that is, approximately 22,000 dunams average per family. In the Nablus and Tul-Karem districts, five families held a total of 157,000 dunams, of which the Husseini family owned 50,000 dunams in various parts of the country, and the Abdel-Hadi family 60,000. The largest single holding, 230,000 dunams in the Jezreel valley, was in the hands of the Sursuk family, which resided in Beirut and Cairo.

The Palestinian peasant, then, was indeed exploited and at times dispossessed, not by the Jewish settler, but rather by his fellow-Arabs: the local sheiks, the Bedouin village elders, the Turkish tax collector, the merchants and moneylenders (at interest rates as high as 60%), and if he was a tenant-farmer, as was usually the case, by the absentee landlord as well.

When considering the issue of the lands which passed from Arabs to Jews, and on which the pioneering Zionist settlement was founded, six facts should be borne in mind:

1) The land was paid for in full.

2) Most of the land purchased involved large tracts belonging to absentee landlords.

3) Most of the land acquired was uncultivated because it was swampy, sandy, or rocky, or for other reasons considered unsuitable for agriculture.

4) For this reason, the initial purchases did not involve large sums of money, but with the passage of years the price of land began to rise as Arab landowners took advantage of the growing demand for rural tracts.

5) Modern agricultural methods introduced by the Jewish pioneers, which improved the lands and increased their yield, were quickly adopted by the neighboring Arab farmers.

6) The number of farmers forced to leave their land due to the Zionist undertaking was relatively very small. All those who left were compensated in accordance with the law, either by monetary payment or by other agricultural land; and indeed most continued to be farmers. Furthermore, a large number of Arabs from other parts of the country or from neighboring countries settled in the areas developed by the Jews.

Following are some revealing statistics:

1) Out of the 429,887 dunams acquired by PICA (Palestine Jewish Colonization Association) from private landowners between 1880 and 1947, 293,545 dunams – close to 70% – were large tracts of uncultivated land, most of which belonged to absentee landlords.

2) The purchases of the Palestine Land Development Corporation included an even greater percentage of large tracts – approximately 90% (455,169 dunams out of a total of 512,979 which were purchased of private owners). If we add to this the 66,513 dunams of Beersheba desert land and the swamps of the Hula Valley, we will find that the purchases of the corporation totaled close to 580,000 dunams.

3) A third body which purchased property in Palestine was the Jewish National Fund, which leased the lands to groups or individual settlers for periods of forty-nine or ninety-nine years, in accordance with the principle that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish People, and no one has the right to hold permanent ownership of Israeli soil. In the first thirty years of its existence, the JNF acquired 270,084 dunams, of which 239,170 (close to 90%) were large tracts. This percentage dropped during subsequent years, but of the total area of 566,312 dunams purchased by individuals, at least 50% were large tracts of land which was either totally uncultivated or only superficially cultivated.

The prices paid by Jewish individuals and organizations for property in Palestine reached, during the 1930s, legendary proportions. The Palestine Royal Commission (“the Peel Commission”) of 1937 reported that in the year 1933 alone sums totaling 854,769 pounds sterling were paid; in 1934 the total reached 1,647,836 pounds sterling and in 1935, 1,699,488 pounds sterling. During those three years alone, then, the total sum paid to Arab landlords reached 4,202,180 pounds sterling, which was the equivalent of over $20 million at the time. Ten years later, in 1944, an acre (4 dunams) of good, fertile land in the State of Iowa cost $ 100, while in that same year Jews in Palestine were paying over $ 1,000 for an acre of parched soil.

The claim that the Arabs were being driven out was raised as early as the 1930s. This claim was investigated by the British, and rejected almost completely – and this at a time when British policy in Palestine was clearly moving from a pro-Zionist to a pro-Arab position.

Two official British documents from the year 1937 deal with this claim. One is the report of the Peel Commission (Chapter 9, Par. 61), which relates that during the years 1920-1939, 688 Arab tenant farmers were removed from their land as a result of purchases made by the Jews. Five hundred twenty-six of the Arab farmers remained in some agricultural occupation, and four hundred received alternative plots of land in other locations.

The second document is one of a series of memoranda prepared by the mandatory government and published in London (Colonial No. 133, p. 37). It contains the findings of the 1931 investigation of Lewis French, which totally refute the claim that the Zionist undertaking in Palestine caused the creation of “an entire landless people among the Palestinian Arabs”.

The memorandum notes that the total number of applications of registration as landless Arabs reached 3,27 1. Of these, the claims of 2,607 were rejected as not belonging to this category, and only 664 heads of families were recognized as having legitimate claims. Approximately half this number – 347 – agreed to accept the government’s offer of resettlement. The rest refused, either because they had found employment elsewhere, or because they were unaccustomed to the agricultural methods, such as irrigation, employed in the new locations, or because of other reasons. In his investigation of the hill country, where the Jewish purchases were minimal, French found that out of seventy-one Arab claims of eviction, sixty-eight were rejected (The Esco Foundation for Palestine, Inc., Vol. II, p. 716).

And finally:

What was the land ownership situation when the State of Israel -was established in 1948? According to the official data published by the outgoing British mandatory administration before the establishment of the State (Survey of Palestine, 1946), only 8.6% of the land was in fact owned by Jews, while over 70% was state land, which had passed from British to Turkish authority and now to Israel, the legal heir of the British mandate. The remaining lands – 33% belonged to Arab landowners, and 16.9% were abandoned by the Arab owners who hastened to obey the call of their leaders “to clear the way for the Arab armies which would annihilate the Jewish State”. These landowners did not consider the possibility that the Jewish State would remain.

The key to the entire problem lies in that large percentage of state land, most of which was in the Negev – an unsettled area of approximately 12,557,00 dunams, or close to 50% of the entire area (26,320,000) of mandatory Palestine. These lands had never been under Arab ownership, neither during the period of British rule nor even during the preceding Turkish regime. The contention heard time and again from Arab propagandists – that 95% of the territory of Palestine had belonged to the Arabs – is, therefore, entirely without basis in fact.

Bibliography: Moshe Auman “Land Ownership in Palestine”

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