Tuesday, March 24, 2015

An Introduction to Dispossession in Palestine - Arab Land Acquisition and Dispossession in Palestine - Zionist Land Acquisition and Dispossession in Palestine

An Introduction to Dispossession in Palestine

       One of the fundamental grievances in the Arab-Israeli conflict is the dispossession of Palestinian Arabs of their land. Often times the accusation of dispossession is so highly generalized, it is difficult to pin down exactly what is being claimed. In simplified form it is typically a claim that as Jews immigrated into Palestine, their frequent land acquisitions had the effect of callously removing the rural Palestinian Arab from land they had worked for generations. That Palestinian Arabs were dispossessed is not in dispute. Who was dispossessing them, the reasons they were doing it, and the methods being used need to be examined more closely in order to better understand this conflict.

Key Groups of People
       Specific terminology is used throughout these pages to identify the various parties to the dispossession complaint:
  • Land Owners/Landlords - Those who owned plots of land in Palestine, whether living locally or abroad, and almost always Arab.

  • Effendis - Elite or bourgeois class of Arab land owners at the top of the social pyramid.
  • Tenant Farmers - Arab farmers who rented the land and (sometimes) paid rent to landlords. Tenant farmers had often been land owners themselves, but through a process of dispossession, explained below, lost their ownership and were reduced to tenant status.

  • Fellahin - The rural, Arab, working class peasantry or tenant farmers. These were the people primarily, if not exclusively, affected by dispossession.

  • Landless Arabs - Arab tenant farmers who agreed or were compelled to vacate the land they worked when it was sold to another party without securing any alternate land to dwell on.

  • Dispossessed Arabs - (See below)

Who can be Considered Dispossessed?
       What makes the issue of dispossession so convoluted (and the accusations so abstract) is the potentially broad application of the word. To illustrate this, consider the following definitions:
  • "The wrongful, nonconsensual ouster or removal of a person from his or her property by trick, compulsion, or misuse of the law, whereby the violator obtains actual occupation of the land."1

  • "To deprive (another) of the possession or occupancy of something, such as real property."2

  • "The putting out of possession, wrongfully or otherwise, of one who is in possession of a freehold, no matter in what title;"3
       Dispossession can describe land owners who were forced to sell land against their will, or who lost land by illegitimate means such as theft. It can apply to those who did not own the land but agreed or were compelled to abandon it, regardless of whether they were working it or simply squatting there. Dispossession can be facilitated by purely legitimate, legal methods or downright illegal and fraudulent ones. Aggravating the situation even more is that dispossession in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict also has two distinct timeframes and conditions that may be referred to:
  1. Landless Arabs (that had been dispossessed) were a major concern of the British Mandatory government in Palestine prior to Israel's founding.

  2. In 1948-1949, as a consequence of the war waged against Israel during its founding, land and property from Palestinian Arab refugees was confiscated by the new government leading to further dispossession.
       The edges start to blur later in this series when dispossessed Arabs and landless Arabs appear to be referred to synonymously. Fortunately the clarification to keep in mind is simple. An Arab can be considered dispossessed without becoming landless. An example would be if the Arab was dispossessed of his land while being provided with alternate land to use elsewhere. The landless designation should only apply to those who were not able to acquire alternate land elsewhere. So the number of dispossessed Arabs is going to be higher than the number of Arabs who were rendered completely landless.
       This series examines dispossession's role as an instigating factor to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In other words, while dispossession can be carried out through a variety of methods, both just and unjust, legal and illegal, we are primarily concerned with methods that would lead to conflict. It also means that we are examining the timeframe from before the conflict took shape to just before Israel's War of Independence.

Dispossession and Conflict
       Since dispossession is pointed to as a source of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there is an assumption that the starting point for it must have been Zionism. This is not an unreasonable assumption, but it is incorrect nonetheless. It creates the impression that prior to Zionism, a sort of social harmony existed in Palestine that was not acquainted with such an injustice. Not only is this view entirely inaccurate, but it will be shown that dispossession in the most malicious understanding of the word was taking place before Zionism introduced a single Jew into Palestine.
       Dispossession in its most pernicious form, the act of prying ownership out of small landholder's hands through oppressive and illegitimate measures, had already been ravaging the rural Palestinian population during Ottoman times. This loss of ownership put the Arab farmers at the mercy of landlords and paved the way for eventual landlessness.
       The dispossession of rural Palestinian Arabs of their land was not an end in itself, but rather, a side-effect of accumulating land. Land acquisition was the goal for both notable Arab families in the Ottoman Empire as well as Zionist Jews, but for fundamentally different reasons. For the Arabs, the pursuit of land was done primarily for power, prestige, and income. Zionists, on the other hand, came seeking a homeland. Any land they were able to purchase was used to settle immigrating Jews and secure a foundation for which their eventual state would be built upon.
       Despite the significantly different motivations driving land accumulation by Arabs and Zionists, the process created the common and unfortunate byproduct of dispossession. Both groups, Arabs and Zionists, were guilty to varying degrees of causing the dispossession of rural Palestinian Arabs as they sought to consolidate land, but there were substantial qualitative differences in the manner with which the dispossession was carried out. Palestinian Arabs were indeed victimized with harsh and oppressive behavior that would understandably lead to conflict, but the boilerplate narrative that Zionism caused the conflict with unprecedented injustice is a surprisingly misinformed portrayal of the history.

Arab Land Acquisition and Dispossession in Palestine

*This article is part of a series*

       We cannot properly examine Zionism's effect on Palestine's rural Arab population without first understanding their condition prior to its arrival. By all accounts, Zionism did not introduce dispossession into Palestine; it arrived to a region already thoroughly acquainted with it. Rural Palestinian peasants were being hopelessly victimized by land theft, oppressive taxes, astronomical interest rates on loans, and slick urban notables; all the things that would ostensibly lead to conflict.
"Before the Ottoman reform movement commenced, systematic administrative and physical disenfranchisement of the Palestinian Arab from his land had occurred."19

       Some of the more common methods leading to this dispossession were:
  1. Internal wars and Bedouin raids that resulted in flat out land theft and the destruction of cultivated plots.

  2. Consecutive years of poor crop yields and heavy taxation forced the farmer to turn to money lenders and merchants for loans. These loans were issued at excessively high interest rates. The trap of low yields and low prices for crops combined with high taxes and high interest loans triggered a downward spiral into poverty. The only way out for the farmer was to sell off his land to the money lender, rendering the farmer dispossessed.

  3. Allowing land to be registered in someone else's name in order to avoid being drafted into the Turkish army. Land registries were used to manage taxation and conscription into the military by the Turkish government, so having the land registered by proxy in the name of an Arab notable kept the farmer off the grid, so to speak. Unfortunately, this evasive technique also led to their dispossession since any proof of ownership was abandoned, and when Jews began purchasing plots of land, the proxy would sell it out from under the previous owner.

Wars / Bedouin Land Raids
  • "... an ongoing war was being carried on against Bedouin tribes that had invaded cultivated tracts of land – a war that usually resulted in the abandonment of the area by the permanent residents, and its being taken over by the Bedouins. H. B. Tristram describes several of these takeovers: ‘A few years ago the whole Ghor [Jordan Valley] was in the hands of the fellaheen, and much of it cultivated for corn. Now the whole of it is in the hands of the Bedouin, who eschew all agriculture … The same thing is now going on over the plain of Sharon, where, both in the north and south, land is going out of cultivation, and whole villages rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth. Since the year 1838, no less than twenty villages there have been thus erased from the map, and the stationary population extirpated."1

  • "T. Drake, who toured the Jezreel Valley in 1870, relates that eight years before his tour the Transjordanian tribes Ghualla and ‘Aneize invaded the Jordan Valley. They stole the cattle and crops of the fellaheen and prevented them from cultivating their lands."2

"The greater part of Turkish Palestine was held directly by the government as the Sultan's crown lands, by great effendis, or by the Wakf or Moslem religious establishment. The fellah or simple peasant as a landowner, was almost extinct. The danger posed by the Bedouin, the tax collection system, and competition by large landowners in a country where the possession of water sources was the key to agricultural survival, had combined to wipe out small peasant holdings."20

Heavy Taxation and High Interest Loans
  • "If ever an oppressed race existed, it is this one we see fettered around us under the inhuman tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. ... The Syrians are very poor, and yet they are ground down by a system of taxation that would drive any other nation frantic. Last year their taxes were heavy enough, in all conscience - but this year they have been increased by the addition of taxes that were forgiven them in times of famine in former years. On top of this the Government has levied a tax of one-tenth of the whole proceeds of the land. ... The Pacha of a Pachalic does not trouble himself with appointing tax-collectors. He figures up what all these taxes ought to amount to in a certain district. Then he farms the collection out. He calls the rich men together, the highest bidder gets the speculation, pays the Pacha on the spot, and then sells out to smaller fry, who sell in turn to a piratical horde of still smaller fry. These latter compel the peasant to bring his little trifle of grain to the village, at his own cost. It must be weighed, the various taxes set apart, and the remainder returned to the producer. But the collector delays this duty day after day, while the producer's family are perishing for bread; at last the poor wretch, who cannot but understand the game, says, 'Take a quarter - take half - take two-thirds if you will, and let me go!' It is a most outrageous state of things."3

  • "Partly to cover his own costs, and partly to make a gain, the multazim, or tax-collector, often exacted over half of the peasant's produce and so: The fellah was delivered hand and foot to the tax-collectors, since he had not the slightest protection against their tyranny. The fellah had no money and was forced to pay in kind. This system of tax-gatherers greatly multiplied the petty lords and tyrants who eat up the people as they eat their bread. The fellah often had to turn to the moneylenders for help. The moneylenders were themselves frequently delegates of the multazims and lent at exorbitant rates, leaving the fellah deep in debt."4

  • "[The fellahin's] trouble, however, is his debt; so long as a small cultivator sees the burden of his debt to be so great and the rate of accruing interest so high, that not only the present produce of his fields but even the increased amount of produce which he may hope to secure by minor agricultural improvement are insufficient to pay off his creditors, he will make no sincere attempt to alter his plan of cultivation. If his present crops allow him only to pay one-half of the interest upon his debt, there is little inducement to make such improvements as will enable him to pay three-quarters of the amount. The benefit will fall entirely into the hands of his creditors, while he will only labour the harder without hope of reaching freedom."5

  • "The reasons usually given for indebtedness by the fellahin are: (1) Government taxation; (2) High expenditure during, and in the years immediately succeeding the war; (3) low prices for crops; and (4) natural calamities."6

  • "... the peasantry was usually required to repay the interest on the loan, not the capital, within a six- to seven-month period. Interest rates on such varied between 30 and 60 percent per year. When agricultural yields could not meet accrued tax, rent, living, and arrears payments, the peasant relinquished ownership by providing title deed of his land to the moneylender or to a land agent in lieu of debt payment."7

  • "To these troubles must be added the natural unpunctuality of an illiterate cultivator, which leads to an accumulation of compound interest; a tendency to extravagance on the occasion of marriages ... and the lack of control over the credit which he has received at cruel rates of interest from the merchants or professional money-lenders. These rates appear to vary from a nominal 30% to a nominal 200% per annum, the actual rate being on account of deductions and frequent compounding, somewhat higher than the figures here shown."8

  • "It will be evident from what has been said above on the subject of the rates of interest charge, that the legal rate of 9% prescribed by the Turkish law is a dead letter. It is evaded by the merchants in the form of fictitious sales and of deductions from the nominal loan, while the commercial banks find it necessary to charge a commission which substantially increases the total debit against the borrower."9

  • "There is notable historical evidence from a variety of Arabic, German, Hebrew, and English sources to suggest that the Palestinian Arab community had been significantly prone to dispossession and dislocation before the mass exodus from Palestine began. ... Foundations for the Palestinian Arab refugee problem commenced in late Ottoman times. It began with the economic pauperization of the peasantry in Palestine and the simultaneous development of large landed estates. ... The peasantry was skeptical of both its traditional leaders and government officials, who over centuries had handled them maliciously, using extortion and maladministration. ... Gradually the peasant became inexorably dependent upon those who would provide him with temporary relief from economic hardship, including moneylenders, land brokers, grain merchants, and people with landowning interests. Well before the Ottoman reform movement ... the Palestinian Arab peasant began by necessity and preference to forfeit individual control of his life and livelihood to others."10

  • "By the time the Balfour Declaration was issued ... Palestinian village peasants had become feeble wards of notable urban and landowning classes. ... those who had become tenants on land they or their ancestors had once owned and habitually worked were increasingly susceptible to the planned caprice of land managers, the guile of many urban notables, the greed of moneylenders, and the trade plied by land brokers."11

  • "A heavy burden of taxation fell upon the peasant, who was forced from his meager produce to allay the avarice of the tax collectors, to pay the salaries of their assistants and to make up for the petty thievery in the process of collection. And, as if this were not enough, the tax assessors would bring with them police and military personnel … in order to expedite the negotiations over the tax levy and to resolve them in a manner satisfactory to the collectors. Since the dispute over the size of the crop generally lasted a considerable time, the police and soldiers remained in the village, eating and drinking and feeding their horses at the expense of the peasants until agreement was reached. In the end the peasant was forced to pay not 10% of his crop but often as much as 30% or 40%. After payment of his tax the poor peasant was left without means to satisfy his daily needs and to purchase seeds for the coming season, and he was obliged to borrow money. The lender – generally a professional usurer, or a merchant from town – lent the money at a high rate of interest – up to 40% - until ‘the next threshing season.’ … the process was repeated from year to year. Eventually, when the peasant was deep in debt with no prospect of repaying it, the money lender seized his field. … The farmer … was reduced to tenancy on the land that had once been his."12
       Later on when the British Mandate government was in effect, Lewis French, the British Director of Development for Palestine observed the devastating results of money lenders upon the rural fellahin:
  • “Some two years ago the Director of Lands reported that in no case had a transferee, even under the modified terms of the 1921 Agreement, been able from his own resources to discharge his financial obligations. The local authorities were of opinion that while the terms of the Agreement were not unduly severe, the indebtedness of the transferees prevented them from paying up the capital sums due. If a prize were offered to the cultivator who had done best, it would fall to one who still required twenty-two years to pay off the capital sum, quite apart from any interest. For villages to clear off the original capital sums due for the land, without interest, periods ranging from 45 to 143 years will be required. It is added that the “transferees are fully aware of their obligations under the Agreement and that the land will revert to Government at the end of the fifteen years, if the total amount due is not paid, and are merely trusting that Government will, in due course, solve the problem for them.”16

  • “In the course of tours among Arab villages in the company of the Financial Advisor, with a view to the inspection of possible purchasable lands, I have come into close contact with, and studied the economic position of the fellahin and rural effendis, who are almost without exception oppressed by the burden of debts.”15

"In October 1935, a Palestinian intellectual, Afif I. Tannous, commented that 'the fellah until recently has been the subject of oppression, neglect, and ill treatment by his own countrymen and the old political regime. The feudal system played havoc in his life, the effendi class looked down upon him, and the old Turkish regime was too corrupt to be concerned with such a vital problem.'"18

Proxy Land Registration
  • In an effort to avoid taxes and military service, "most peasants preferred to have an urban notable, merchant, rural shayk, or mukhtar register the land in his name, with the original 'owning' peasant remaining on the land as a tenant. By resorting to this commonly used proxy system, peasants avoided the registration fees and ... eluded the conscription rolls, since land records were used to identify those eligible for military service. Furthermore, Ottoman law stated that land not cultivated for three years ... would be offered by government for public auction. Hence, peasants who were recruited into the Ottoman army ... often found that their land was now 'owned' by another."13

       These Arabs had no recourse to the dispossession and none of the safeguards that were later enacted by the British Mandate government to prevent it. They lost ownership of their land and that was it. Usually the dispossessed Arabs were allowed to remain on the land and work it as tenant farmers, paying rent to their new landlords. This was not always the case, however since "... Arab landowners before World War I could and did evict tenants without offering them compensation. Moreover, when land was transferred, all tenants could have been dismissed by the owner, and, indeed, the purchasers made it a condition of purchase that the land be transferred free of cultivators."14

"General rural disdain for the urban landowning elite originated in Ottoman times ... Landowning interests showed little or no sense of social obligation to assist in the amelioration of the peasants' economic condition. Minimal guidance or assistance was offered by the landowning classes about how land should be used to achieve better yields or increase the standard of living of the tenants and agricultural workers."17

       It is interesting to note that while the dispossession of Palestinian Arabs of their land is pointed to as a major instigation for the Arab-Israeli conflict, it never induced a similar conflict prior to the Jews arriving. To be sure, the indebted, rural Arabs losing their land viewed the money lenders and tax collectors with scorn as they were forced to hand over their deeds, but animosity toward this process never manifested itself in similar manner to that organized against Jewish land acquisitions. Certainly, if conflict arose from the act of dispossession rather than who was doing it, then conflict should have materialized during the many decades it had been taking place before Zionism took root in Palestine.

Zionist Land Acquisition and Dispossession in Palestine

*This article is part of a series*
       We turn our attention now to the arrival of Jewish immigrants to Palestine and their contribution to the dispossession of Palestinian Arabs. These immigrants started arriving in successive waves starting in the 1880s and continued through the creation of the state of Israel. Given the fact that an Arab-Arab conflict never took shape before the Jews arrived, it would be understandable to conclude that there must have been something especially harsh about the dispossession resulting from Zionist methods of land accumulation.
       One would expect to see commonplace examples of Jews stealing, strong-arming, swindling, blackmailing; basically resorting to any trick up their sleeve to pry land out of Arab hands. In reality, the Jewish technique of accumulating land was simple ... they bought it. Both the concern and the complaints of Jews dispossessing Arabs centered on how much land the Jews were purchasing, not stealing, from land owners:
  • The British investigation into the Arab riots during 1936-39 identifies "Arab alarm at the continued Jewish purchase of land"1, not Jewish theft of land, as one of the motivating factors.

  • "Conversely, the main Ottoman and Arab complaint against the Zionists was about land sales..."2

  • "Meanwhile, Jewish land purchase continued apace, exacerbating Palestinian disquiet."3

  • "Arab discontent on account of Jewish immigration and the sale of lands to Jews which has been a permanent feature of political opinion in Palestine for the past ten years, began to show signs of renewed activity from the beginning of 1933, developing in intensity until it reached a climax in the riots of October and November."4

  • "In the beginning of the 1930s, the national value of the land and its transfer from one people to the other became one of the main issues in the political conflict between the two communities. The Arabs insisted that His Majesty's Government put an end to land purchase by the Jews, claiming that it threatened their national existence."5

  • "Though they had profited from the enhanced trade and employment opportunities generated by the new Jewish settlements, Palestinian Arabs had grown increasingly concerned about the rise of Jewish immigration and land purchases."
  • 6

  • "An article published in July 1911 by Mustafa Effendi Tamr, a teacher of mathematics at a Jerusalem school" reads, "You are selling the property of your fathers and grandfathers for a pittance to people who will have no pity on you, to those who will act to expel you and expunge your memory from your habitations and disperse you among the nations. This is a crime that will be recorded in your names in history, a black stain and disgrace that your descendants will bear, which will not be expunged even after years and eras have gone by. ... Opposition to land sales was one of the principal focal points around which the Arab national idea in Palestine coalesced."
  • 7

  • "Of course, the Zionists bought the land from Arab landholders, who moved to cities or even left the country. They were all too willing to sell, for the price paid by the purchasers was often many times more than anyone else would or could pay."
  • 32

  • King Abdallah of Jordan complains several times in his memoirs about Jews acquiring land in Palestine. Not once does he accuse the Jews of stealing it from the Arabs. Each time he mentions it, the complaint is how much land they are buying:

    • "... the fears of the Arab political leaders are supported by the fact that the sale of land continues unrestricted and every day one piece of land after another is torn from the hands of the Arabs.
    • 8

    • "According to my information the Jews have requested the continuance of the mandate so that they can buy up more land and bring in additional immigrants. No other country has gone through such a trial as Palestine."
    • 9

    • "Or are you among those who believe that there is no harm in continuing the present deleterious mandate despite the Jewish usurpers it has brought and despite the demonstrated inability of those Palestinians now at the political helm to prevent their compatriots from selling their land? Furthermore, it is made quite clear to all, both by the map drawn up by the Simpson Commission and by another compiled by the Peel Commission, that the Arabs are as prodigal in selling their land as they are in useless wailing and weeping."
    • 10

  • "‘Know each of you that in the end every Arab who sells land of the Arab patrimony or who pimps for the Jews will soon receive his due, which is certain death.’ The placards were signed by an organization calling itself ‘Revenge.’ ‘Our problem is the outcome of the sale of our land. The amazing thing is that we sell to the Jews and then scream and wail and ask for the government’s help,’"11

  • "The land policy of the Zionist movement in the pre-state era was based on purchase of land on the open market by Jewish institutions (mainly the JNF) and subsequent freezing of the ownership so as to ensure that the purchased land would be in Jewish hands in perpetuity."33

       Not only was the land being legally purchased, it was being purchased at drastically inflated prices. Arab land owners were making a killing selling their land during the waves of Jewish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the animosity against selling land to Jews coming from elitist Arabs, it simply made good economic sense for landlords to sell while they could exploit the thriving market Jewish demand was creating. Sometimes the land being purchased was nothing more than sand dune, malarial swamps and marshes, or other unattractive plots of waste. Even so, it was payday for many landlords; a day many hadn't seen in a long time and one that wouldn't come again:
  • "Until 1936 ... the Jews acquired about 25,000 dunam in the Beit-Shean Valley ... The soil was of the poorest quality, in scattered parcels of land, and it was impossible to establish even one settlement on it. The Jewish purchasers paid the full price for these lands; in addition the Government compelled them to cover all the outstanding debts that the sellers had accumulated. (In most cases not one penny of these bad debts had been paid for years.)"12

  • "The Jewish authorities have nothing with which to reproach themselves in the matter of the Sursock lands. They paid high prices for the land, and in addition they paid to certain of the occupants of those lands a considerable amount of money which they were not legally bound to pay."13

  • "He [the Arab] may sell his land for a fantastic price and add to the congestion in the other zones by moving there. An Arab living a short distance away, just across the zone boundary, cannot obtain anything approximating the same sum for land of equal quality.”14

  • "The Jews were paying exorbitant prices to wealthy landowners for small tracts of arid land. “In 1944, Jews paid between $1,000 and $1,100 per acre in Palestine, mostly for arid or semiarid land; in the same year, rich black soil in Iowa was selling for about $110 per acre."15

  • "The settlers were ready to pay much more than the economic value of the land. The same or better land is available a few kilometers to the east or north of the Palestine frontiers at one tenth or less of the Palestinian price."16

  • “Between 1880 and 1914 over sixty thousand Jews entered Palestine … Many settled on wasteland, sand-dunes and malarial marsh, which they then drained, irrigated and farmed. In 1909 a group of Jews founded the first entirely Jewish town, Tel Aviv, on the sandhills north of Jaffa. The Jews purchased their land piecemeal, from European, Turkish and (principally) Arab landlords, mostly at extremely high prices.”17

  • “By 1925 over 2,600 Jews had settled in the [Jezreel] valley, and 3,000 acres of barren hillside had been afforested. This previously uncultivated land, bought at highly inflated prices, became the pattern of all subsequent Jewish National Fund settlements in Palestine.”18

  • "In his 'note of reservations' to the Report of the Woodhead Commission, Sir Alison Russel says: 'It does not appear to me that to permit an Arab to sell his land for three or four times its value, and to go with the money to a different part of the Arab world where land is cheap, can be said to "prejudice" his rights and position.'"19

  • "The average price paid by Jews for the rural land they bought in Palestine during 1944 amounted to over $1000 per acre or about $250 per dunam (including the value of buildings, orchards and other improvements). These prices are, of course, highly inflated …"20

  • "... land brokers sometimes purchased their shares or parcels at a very low price and sold them at ten and twenty multiples to Jewish buyers. Peasants who were in musha' villages were particularly incensed at landlords, land brokers, or agents after learning that they had been swindled."21

  •        "Aharon Danin of KKL told of an interesting conversation he had at the beginning of the 1940s with Khaled Zu’bi (brother of Sayf al-Din), who helped him buy land in the Zu’biyya villages east of Nazareth: He [Zu’bi] said, ‘Look, who knows better than me that your work is pure. You pay money for everything, top dollar, many times more than what the land is worth. But that doesn’t change the fact that you are dispossessing us. You are dispossessing us with money, not by force, but the fact is that we are leaving the land.’ I say to him: ‘You are from this Zu’biyya tribe which is located here, in Transjordan, and in Syria, what difference does it make to you where you are, if you are here or if you and your family are there? …’ He said: ‘It’s hard for me to tell you, but in any case the graves of my forefathers are here. I feel that we are leaving this place. It’s our fault and not yours.’"30

"The Arab large landowner quickly recognized that he could now do much better business with his land than continuing to have it worked by tenants. ... It was valid to sell it to the newly arrived [Jewish and German] colonist and indeed for the highest possible price. What was to happen to the renter for whom the land was ... sold from under his feet concerned the effendi very little. The tenant was just tossed out onto the street and had to take to his heels. So the colonization became an uninterrupted source of tenant tragedies. On the other hand, the price of land rose in an unimaginable manner."22
       In addition to the inflated land value, Jewish buyers were also making numerous and substantial (some might say extortionist) payments to see the deal through from beginning to end. "Initial sums were usually paid to lubricate the selling motive. Local village notables, tenants in occupation, mukhtars, intermediaries, brokers, short-term squatters, and land registry officials often received persuasive sums. The owner or owners also received a sum of money prior to signing the contract. This could mean paying several similar or different sums to members of one family who owned portions of a large land area. A subsequent payment was sometimes made when all the title deeds available were collected and condensed into one large parcel. Another payment was made when a portion of the land was legally transferred or prior to the land being considered free of tenants and agricultural occupants. Still another sum was paid when possession was taken (this to avoid squatting by transient fellaheen), and then periodically as stipulated in a contract."31

A Bit of Hypocrisy
       It was the Arab political leadership that was screaming the loudest about stopping these land sales: "The Arab Press lost nothing of its virulence in inveighing against ... the transfer of land to Jews ... The Arab leaders have been more outspoken and less compromising in their hostility ..."23 Of course, rendering these protests utterly disingenuous was the fact these same Arabs continued selling their land to immigrating Zionists. These elitist hypocrites wanted to reserve the right to profit from the suddenly valuable land in Palestine while denying other debt-ridden land owners the same option.
  • "The historian's eye has also been caught by the ambivalent position of the Arab national leadership which, while publicly demanding an end to Zionist expansion, privately continued to sell land to the Jews."24

  • "Here one cannot ignore the continuous sale of land by Arab landowners to Jews in the 1930s, which was so crucial to the success of Zionism. This can be treated in the context of the social fragmentation of Arab society in Palestine: some Arabs sold land for profit and thus deprived other Arabs of their only means of livelihood. Moreover, some of the national leaders themselves profited from land sales, despite their national consciousness."25

  • "Throughout the Mandate, the leading Arab families, including Husseinis and Opposition figures, sold land to the Zionists, despite their nationalist professions. Jewish landholding increased between 1920 and 1947 from about 456,000 dunams to about 1.4 million dunams. The main brake on Jewish land purchases, at least during the 1920s and 1930s, was lack of funds, not any Arab indisposition to sell."26

  • "And a giant question mark hangs over the “nationalist” ethos of the Palestinian arab elite: Husseinis as well as Nashashibis, Khalidis, Dajanis, and Tamimis just before and during the Mandate sold land to the Zionist institutions and/or served as Zionist agents and spies."27

  • "Muhammad Nimer al-Hawwari, who headed the Najjadah, took the microphone at a rally in Jaffa and said, ‘For twenty years we have heard talk against land brokers and land sellers, yet here they sit in the front rows at every national gathering.’ The rally’s organizers reacted swiftly; they turned off the loudspeakers."28

  • "The rural elite, with their large landholdings, were accused of opportunism by fellahin, who declared: ‘They, the effendis, sold their lands to the Jews, they are the intermediaries between us and the Jews in the sale of land, they exploit us with usurious interest and head the gangs that abused us.’"29

       An initial contrast between the way Arab money lenders and merchants acquired land through economic oppression and trickery versus the way Zionist immigrants acquired land through paying exorbitant sums of money offers no answers for why conflict erupted. In fact, considering only the methods of land acquisition apart from any issue it would seem the arrival of Jewish immigrants and their money would have ended hostilities that should have already been in place. It cannot be suggested by any reasonable account that Jewish land purchases oppressed or dispossessed the legal owners of the land being sold. That was a willful agreement reached between two parties. The catch here was the tenant farmers that lived and worked the land being sold. These were often times the previous owners who had already been dispossessed of their ownership before Jewish immigrants arrived. Now with interested Jewish buyers available, the same Arabs guilty of demoting these farmers to tenant status were selling the land out from under them to turn a profit.
       The reason this was such a concern was that Jewish buyers wanted the land free of tenant farmers. Unlike absentee Arab landlords living in Damascus, Beirut, and Cairo, the Jews desired to live and work on the plots they bought. Certainly the new Jewish owners were within their rights to expect the land they had spent so much money for would not have to be shared, but we are looking to explain why this dispossession led to conflict, not to justify owners' rights which do not require a defense.
       Perhaps the physical act of relocation was of greater psychological consequence than losing intangible ownership and therefore accounts for why conflict only arose against the Jews. Yes, it was the Arab elite who stripped them of this ownership through a series of oppressive measures and then in a second pass sold away the land they used, but it was typically not until the Jews arrived that the Arabs faced the physical consequences of relocation. The next section in this series explores the extent to which this form of Zionist dispossession took place.

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Navigate this series:

Part 1 - Introduction to Dispossession in Palestine
Part 2 - Arab Dispossession Methods
Part 3 - Jewish Dispossession Methods
Part 4 - How Many were Disposessed?
Part 5 - Arab Land Sales
Part 6 - Preventing Dispossession
Part 7 - Improvements for the Fellahin

1  Great Britain, and William Robert Wellesley Peel Peel. Palestine Royal Commission Report. London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1937.
2  Western Imperialism in the Middle East 1914 - 1958 by D. K. Fieldhouse, Pg. 125
3  Palestine and Israel: The Uprising and Beyond by David McDowall, Pg. 23
4  Report by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations of the Administration of Palestine and Trans-Jordan, 31 December 1933
5  "The Tenants of Wadi Hawarith: Another View of the Land Question in Palestine" by Raya Adler,International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2. (May, 1988), pg. 199.
6  Oren, Michael. Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the PresentPg. 368
7  Cohen, Hillel. Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 45
8  King Abdallah of Jordan, My Memoirs Completed (Al-Takmilah), Pg. 81. In a letter written to the High Commissioner for Transjordan, Sir Arthur Wauchope on July 25, 1934.
9  King Abdallah of Jordan, My Memoirs Completed (Al-Takmilah), Pg. 88. In a letter written to 'Abd al-Hamid Sa'id on June 5, 1938.
10  King Abdallah of Jordan, My Memoirs Completed (Al-Takmilah), Pp. 88-89. In a letter written to 'Abd al-Hamid Sa'id on June 5, 1938.
11  Cohen, Hillel. Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 219-220.
12  Avneri, Aryeh L. The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs 1878-1948. Efal, Israel: Yad Tabenkin, 1982. 168.
13  Hope Simpson Report, Pg. 51
14  Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Chapter I
15  Bard, Mitchell G. Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 2006. 19.
16  Jewish Colonisataion and Arab Development in Palestine by David Horowitz, Central Zionist Archives, Record Group S90/File 76, 7 October 1945
17  Gilbert, Martin, and Martin Gilbert. The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. London: Routledge, 2002. 3.
18  Gilbert, Martin, and Martin Gilbert. The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. London: Routledge, 2002. 12.
19  Schechtman, Joseph B. Population Transfers in Asia. New York: Hallsby Press, 1949. 101
20  Schechtman, Joseph B. Population Transfers in Asia. New York: Hallsby Press, 1949. 112
21  Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
22  Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
23  Report by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations of the Administration of Palestine and Trans-Jordan, 31 December 1933
24  The Tenants of Wadi Hawarith: Another View of the Land Question in Palestine by Raya Adler,International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2. (May, 1988), pg. 197.
25  The Tenants of Wadi Hawarith: Another View of the Land Question in Palestine by Raya Adler,International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2. (May, 1988), pg. 215.
26  Morris, Benny. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2008 14
27  Morris, Benny. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2008 83
28  Cohen, Hillel. Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 225.
29  Cohen, Hillel. Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 173.
30  Cohen, Hillel. Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 200.
31  Stein, Kenneth W. "The Jewish National Fund: Land Purchase Methods and Priorities, 1924-1939". Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 20, Number 2, April 1984.
32  Crist, Raymond E. "Land for the Fellahin, VIII: Land Tenure and Land Use in the Near East".American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Jul., 1959). 415
33  Kretzmer, David. The Legal Status of the Arabs in Israel. Boulder: Westview Press, 1990. 50.

Did Zionism Dispossess Palestinian Arabs?

*This article is part of a series*
       As the Jews took possession of the land, they faced the responsibility of what to do with poor Arab farmers residing there. Often times, the previous owner who sold to the Jews lived outside the region and the existence of these farmers was of little concern. If the landlord could collect rent from them, he would. If not, their presence was tolerated in so far as prosecuting them for trespassing did not top the landlord's priorities. The problem arose when the new Jewish landlords desired not only ownership of the land, but to live and work there, to cultivate with their own hands. A British report describes this troublesome scenario:
       “An Arab of the effendi class acquires ... a large tract in return for a comparatively trivial outlay: and is content to collect such rents as he can from some occupiers. Others, being illiterate and cut off from common sources of information, do not recognise the existence of an alleged owner who himself is certainly quite unable to identify the boundaries of his own supposed property. These limits are described in his title deeds only in such vague terms as are possible in an unsurveyed area with few distinctive topographical features, and so may be today, practically, unidentifiable. A Jewish Organisation buys this land from the owner, and, as entitled under law, proceeds to take possession for development of its prosperity. That proceeding involves eviction of a number of men who have possibly heard of the late owner merely as a neighbouring effendi, and who have grazed a more or less indeterminate local area for generations without paying the alleged owner any rent. The eviction displaces them from land of which, to all intents and purposes, they are, and have been for generations hereditary occupiers ...

       Monetary compensation is no solace for such men as these who can find no other pied-a-terre: and who can recognize no reason for the change of circumstances which deprives them of the only form of livelihood known to them. And the offers by organizations to provide money for the purchase of land elsewhere for the re-settlement of evicted tenants represent simply the familiar device of transferring a nuisance from oneself to one’s neighbour.”
       Knowing this was the case, and not wanting to become entangled in legal disputes that could last for years, the Jewish organizations preferred to buy land free of any such landless tenants:
  • "In 1920 he [Ben-Gurion] told a visiting delegation of Poalei Zion that '... the most important economic asset of the native population is the fellahs, the builders of the country and its laborers ... Under no circumstances must we touch land belonging to the fellas or worked by them. ... They must receive help from Jewish settlement institutions, to free themselves from their dead weight of their oppressors, and to keep their land. Only if a fellah leaves his place of settlement should we offer to buy his land, at an appropriate price.' And if an effendi landowner sold land worked by fellahs, 'then we must give the displaced tenants their own plots, and the means to cultivate such tracts more intensively. When this is impossible, the fellahs must receive new land elsewhere.'"2

  • "Ben-Gurion placed the work of renewal in the desert and the wastelands. He told a visiting delegation in 1920 that the possibilities for massive settlement of Jews lay in the abandoned or uninhabited reaches ... on land that had no owners, and on partially utilized tracts owned privately or by the government. He estimated that four fifths of the country's territory was available for new settlement. Six million persons using modern methods could earn their livelihoods from farming these lands; an untold number could prosper from industry. None of this activity would impinge on the Arabs, who would continue to live in their established areas, while Jews lived in new settlements and worked new fields."3

  • "From 1936 on Arabs sold land only when there were no tenant farmers on it. In 1938 the Palestine Land Development Company wrote to the Political Department of the Jewish Agency: 'Some time ago you requested detailed information from us concerning Arabs living on lands in the Sharon Plain, where new settlements were established. For the last two years it has been our policy to buy lands unencumbered by tenant farmers or by other claimants for indemnity. The Arab owners, aware of this policy, have refrained from engaging tenant farmers to cultivate their lands."4

  • "Acquiring land with the fewest number of fellaheen occupants was also a priority since this meant reducing the number of contacts between the JNF and Arab sellers."5
       It was only after property completely free of tenant farmers could not be found that Jewish organizations began purchasing land used by them. This inspired "apprehensions concerning the fate of Palestine's Arabs in a Jewish state. Most of the Arabs were farmers; what would become of them once the country passed to the Jews? They would be dispossessed, 'and without land, the Arabs will have nothing to do.'"6

How Many Landless Arabs?
       As defined in the introduction, these were Arabs who were dispossessed and never secured any alternate land to live and work on. How many Arabs were rendered landless directly because of Zionist land purchase? The quick answer is approximately 3,300. How I arrived there is detailed below.
       "The ultimate official but inaccurate estimates of landless Arabs displaced by Jewish land purchase were achieved through the efforts of the Development Department... That estimate, based upon the narrowest of definitions of what constituted a landless Arab, found that less than 900 Arabs were displaced because of Jewish land purchase. There is little doubt that Jewish land purchase and Arab land sales forced a greater number of fellaheen from land they had traditionally cultivated and used for grazing. But in the absence of accurate information on the former status of cultivators, or of the intermediary activities of Arab landlords, merchants, lawyers, and other individuals who acted as land brokers, no true assessment of landless or displaced Arabs could then, or now, objectively be made."7
       It seems a more accurate estimate can be made using data from Lewis French's in-depth investigations into Arab landlessness. French was Britain's Director of Development for Palestine and using data from his reports, it appears closer to 3,300 Arabs were displaced by Jewish land purchases. French's methods for counting landless Arabs are explained in detail:
"The tribunal which was appointed to investigate claims decided to admit as entitled to resettlement Arabs who have been displaced from the land which they occupied in consequence of those lands having passed into Jewish hands, and who have failed to obtain other holdings on which to establish themselves or equally satisfactory occupation, subject to the following exceptions:--

1. Persons who have themselves sold their land, that is, owners who of their own free will have sold their lands;

2. Persons who own land elsewhere;

3. Persons who have found and are now cultivating as tenants land other than that from which they were displaced;

4. Persons who obtained land after the sale of the land from which they were displaced, but have since ceased to cultivate it on account of poverty or other reasons;

5. Persons who were not cultivators at the time of the sale, for example, ploughmen and labourers."
“The procedure being adopted in verifying claims by Arabs, who have been displaced from the lands which they occupied in consequence of the lands falling into Jewish hands, and who have not obtained other holdings on which they have established themselves or other equally satisfactory occupation is as follows: Each claim is carefully examined by the Legal Advisor ... Where the claim appears to be invalid it is submitted to me and, if I concur, rejected. Where prima facie the claim appears sustainable, papers dealing with it are sent to the Jewish Agency, who are asked to submit their views. Where they object to the validity of the claim, the Legal Assessor proceeds to the locality concerned and makes further investigation on the spot, then submitting the case with his opinion for my final orders.”9
       With the definition of who qualified to be considered a landless Arab established along with the mechanism for validating the claims, French thought “It was obvious that, whether this extensive area has been bought from large Arab proprietors or from small land holders, the acquisitions for permanent settlement by immigrants could not have been effected without considerable displacement of existing cultivators.”10.
       But the reality did not meet French's expectations. In fact, after investigating Arab landless claims for over a year with his opinion on the outcome already formed, "by March 1932 it was clear that the number of landless Arab families did not reach the figure of thousands, as expected; there were only 664 families to be dealt with.'"11 "... although 3,271 applications for re-settlement had been received from landless Arabs, only 664 had been admitted to the register, while 2,607 had been disallowed."12
       There were on average 5 members to a Palestinian Arab family.13 14 27 28 29 This means that 3,300+ Arabs were relegated to a landless class out of a total of roughly 700,000 Arabs in Palestine which is not quite one half of one percent of the Arab population. This is why the widely held conclusion is that Palestinian Arabs, largely, were not dispossessed by immigrating Jews:
  • "The old bogy that the Jew has come to deprive the Arab of his lands is being rapidly dispelled. Only a few days ago, in Safed, I was offered, for the Zionist Executive of Palestine, an immense tract of land (comprising nearly 75,000 acres) at a price nearly one-fourth of the amount demanded by the Arabs for the same land two years ago. At that time the Arab landlords really believed that the Jew was ready, willing and able to pay any price, however exorbitant, for land. He, therefore, naturally feared to part with his holdings and demanded prices that could not stand the test of economic reason. Now he has learned that 'rich as a Jew' is merely a figure of speech, and that we are too wise to pay high prices for unproductive land. Now the Jews can purchase in the open market, at reasonable prices, all the lands necessary for their future development. But, as a matter of fact, there is already more than enough land in Jewish hands for the next ten years' development."15

  • “The shortage of land is due less to purchase by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population. The Arab claims that the Jews have obtained too large a proportion of good land cannot be maintained. Much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamps and uncultivated when it was bought.”16

  • “As pioneers in Palestine the Jews have a record of which they can be proud. In Palestine there has been no expulsion of the indigenous population, and exploitation of cheap Arab labor has been vigorously opposed as inconsistent with Zionism.”17

  • "Zionist settlement between 1880 and 1948 did not displace or dispossess Palestinians. Every indication is that there was net Arab immigration into Palestine in this period, and that the economic situation of Palestinian Arabs improved tremendously under the British Mandate relative to surrounding countries. By 1948, there were approximately 1.35 million Arabs and 650,000 Jews living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, more Arabs than had ever lived in Palestine before, and more Jews than had lived there since Roman times. Analysis of population by sub-districts shows that Arab population tended to increase the most between 1931 and 1948 in the same areas where there were large proportions of Jews. Therefore, Zionist immigration did not displace Arabs.”18

  • "Economic, social, and political circumstances compelled many Palestinians to dislodge or uproot themselves. Over decades, 'landlessness' was caused mainly by the peasants' overwhelming indebted condition. It was enhanced by a perilous agricultural economy and augmented by an inhospitable bureaucracy which endorsed a 'politics of notables.' ... 'landlessness' was not due primarily to Jewish land purchase or ARab land sales. A large plurality of Palestinians who were engaged in rural occupations were in fact not landowners, though many may have been in previous decades."19

  • "Mr. GALLACHER: Is it not the case that the strike of Arabs is based partly on the fact that they are being driven off the land?
    Mr. ORMSBY-GORE [Secretary of State for the Colonies]: I cannot accept that suggestion for one moment."

  • "In the early 1930s, Arab land sales and Jewish land pur­chases contributed to the evolution of an Arab landless class. But the principal factor influencing Arab landlessness was the fellaheen's dete­riorating economic condition."21

       Is roughly one half of one percent of a population ending up landless enough to serve as a major contribution to such a grand struggle? It doesn't seem to add up. Even if every single case of a landless Arab served as an example of harsh and unjust Zionist treatment, half a percent of the population being evicted from land they often times didn't own just doesn't sound like a mobilizing factor in itself.
       As it turns out, there wasn't much harsh or unjust treatment going on. These landless Arabs were not left to roam Palestine without regard for their well-being or future livelihoods. Many of them reached agreements with the Jewish purchasers to evacuate the land willingly:
  • "An overwhelming preponderance of the tenants for whom we have records preferred monetary compensation to a maintenance area."22

  • "There were surprisingly few claims to tenancy rights from Arabs with respect to Jewish-owned land. This lack of claims was evidence that Jewish landowners were finding little difficulty, by means of payment of liberal compensation, in persuading Arabs who claimed rights to abandon their claims."23

  • "The most unanticipated result of the POCO was its stimulating effect upon land transfers. Many landowners who still possessed reasonably large estates of 1,000 dunams or more sold their lands to Jewish purchasers rather than run the risk of tenancy claims."24

  • "Nevertheless, Arab tenants gladly took compensation to vacate their holdings. Some relished the opportunity while others were reluctant to accept anything but land. Ultimately, the peasants were defenseless against the process of dispossession and the legalized but relentless pressure that went with it. Such pressure emanated simultaneously from Arab sellers, Jewish purchasers, and an agricultural economy that was precarious at best. Many who received monetary compensation saw these lump sums as means toward debt extrication. Most squandered the money given them. Very few invested the proceeds in other, more profitable commercial or agricultural pursuits."25

  • "In the 1920s and 1930s, there were hundreds of examples of Palestinian Arabs voluntarily emigrating away from new or imminent Jewish settlements and enclaves because of economic reasons, Arab sales, and Jewish purchases. For example, when the Palestine Land Development Company purchased land for the Jewish National Fund (INF) in the Acre area and Jezreel Valley in the 1920s, more than 688 Arab tenants and their families from more than twenty Arab villages comprising more than 250,000 dunams (one dunam equals a quarter acre) vacated their lands after each tenant received financial compensation from Zionist buyers. Most of these former tenants remained in northern Palestine; some were given the option of purchasing other lands with money they had received as compensation; others remained as tenants on the same land for a period of six years. 30  In testifying before the Shaw Commission, which investigated the disturbances in Palestine in 1929, the Palestine Director of lands noted: A[n Arab] vendor would come along and make a contract for sale and purchase with the Jews. We would know nothing of this until four, five, or six months later when the transaction would come to the office. We then instructed the District Officer to report to the tenants. He would go to the village and in some cases he would find that the whole population had already evacuated the village. They [the tenants] had taken certain sums of money and had gone, and we could not afford them any protection whatever."26

       In addition to favorable agreements being privately reached between Jewish buyer and Arab tenant, a slew of laws and ordinances were passed with these landless Arabs in mind, whether to keep them from becoming landless in the first place, or to assist them in the event they ended up that way. The next page will look at this in depth.

Did the Arabs Dispossess Palestinian Arabs?

*This article is part of a series*
       The Arabs' role in dispossessing rural Palestinian Arabs did not stop when the Jews showed up. One should be careful to avoid the mindset that it was originally moneyed Arabs who were oppressing Palestinian farmers, but then the Jews arrived and became the primary antagonists. The same Arabs who had formerly dispossessed the Palestinians of their lands in the first place continued playing a fundamental role to this dispossession throughout the British Mandate through a variety of methods, both passive and active.
       If there was something inherently unjust about Jews buying land because of the subsequent effects on Arab peasantry, what conclusions do we then make about the Arab sellers? After all, the complaint that "Jewish land purchases were dispossessing Arabs" could be rephrased as "Arab landsales were dispossessing Arabs". Assuming the bedrock issue here is that Arabs were being dispossessed rather than who was dispossessing them, both parties to the transaction should be seen as equally reprehensible in the eyes of the critic. Half of the equation in most land sales was an Arab seller1, and when Arab-to-Arab land sales are factored in, the Arabs played a more significant role in dispossession than the Jewish buyers.
  • “References are made ... in the Arabic press to the part played by some members of the Supreme Moslem Council or Arab Executive in sales by Arabs to Jews; ... the chief risk—an ever-present one—is that the progress of comparatively large growers, backed by plentiful financial resources, which weight the scale so heavily against the independent small Arab proprietor, will mean the entire and permanent displacement of the latter from the soil.”2

  • “There are two serious economic dangers which threaten Arab peasant proprietors in Palestine: the reduction in the size of holdings below a self-supporting minimum: and the unrestricted transfer of land by sale or mortgage to Jews or to Arab capitalists, leading to “displacement.”3

  • "There is irrefutable statistical proof which shows that from 1933 through 1942, 90 percent of all Arab land sale transactions to Jewish purchasers were made by owners of areas of less than 100 dunams. In one sub-district in the hill regions of Palestine, an estimated 30 percent of the land was transferred from Arab small property owners to Arab capitalists and then to Jewish buyers. So widespread was the alienation of land by Arab small property owners that, on the eve of the 1936 disturbances and general strike, the Palestine administration sought to arrest small sales."4

  • “In the hill tracts, there are two directions in which unrestricted transfers of land are proceeding. In some parts, it means the advance of the Jews ... in reinforcing the class of landless Arabs. In other parts, it is the absorption, gradual but inevitable, of the Arab peasant proprietor by the Arab effendi or capitalist landlord. Both facts need to be faced. Some form of protection for the small owner appears vital, in order to ensure that the concentration of numerous small holdings into the hands of large proprietors does not lead to the same evil as is anticipated from excessive expropriation by the Jews. In one sub-district in the hilly tracts, it is reported that in a decade no less than 30 percent of the land has passed from Arab peasants to Arab capitalists.”5

  • "In the two years between June 1934 and August 1936, Jews bought more than 53,000 dunams in 2,339 land sales. Of these, 41 sales involved more than 500 dunams and 164 involved 100 to 500 dunams. The vast majority - 2,134 sales - were of plots of less than 100 dunams. This means that thousands of Arabs of all walks of life - poor and rich, Christian and Muslim, members of the political mainstream and oppositionists, city dwellers, Bedouin, and villagers - acted contrary to the norms laid down by their national movement."6

  • "Laurence Oliphant, in describing the plight of the peasants, wrote that they were rapidly losing all titles to their lands, unable either to meet their tax obligations or to satisfy the exorbitant demands of the usurers. While the smallholders were being led to ruin, the number of the newly rich landowners kept growing. We have further testimony from G.A. Post, who reported that in the vicinity of the town large tracts of lands were falling into the hands of big landowners. Oliphant reports that the village sheikhs were in many cases in league with the tax collectors and the usurers. … According to the report of the Palestine Royal Commission of 1937, citing a survey by Lewis French, the Director of Development of the Mandatory Government, in one mountainous area the effendis took over 30% of the fellaheen’s land."7

  • "Finally, the most obvious factor contributing to JNF land purchase was the constant stream of Arab offers to sell. Arab willingness to sell their patrimony gave vital fuel to the Zionist leadership who were already skeptical of the sincerity of emerging Palestinian Arab nationalism."8

  • "Despite their noisy patriotism - which they have discovered only within the last years; the danger began to threaten in earnest because orderly conditions would appear in the country which would make further exploitation of the [peasant] inhabitants impossible - they would indeed rather sell the land for a high price to the Jews than for a lesser price to the Arab farmers."9

  • "We are selling our lands to Jews without any remorse. Land brokers are busy day and night with their odious trade without feeling any shame. ... One looks at the quantity of Arab lands transferred daily to Jewish hands, [one] realizes that we are bound to go away from this country. But where? Shall we move to Egypt, Hijaz, or Syria? How could we live there, since we would have sold the lands of our fathers and ancestors to our enemies? Nobody could show us mercy or pity, were we to go away from our country, because we would have lost her with our own hands."10

  • "Moneylenders and merchants are all too eager to invest their surplus capital in properties with an undisputed title. The result is that there is a gradual transfer of agricultural land from the hands of the indebted small peasants to the moneylenders. ... In the seven years from 1939 to 1946 the registered indebtedness of the peasants in- creased over three fold. The legal rate of interest is 9 per cent, but money- lenders include a heavy discount in their loans which varies from 30 to 100 per cent. This makes is impossible for the farmer to liquidate the loan. Only the most vigorous measures on the part of the central government … will help to stop the rapid transfer of land from the poorer farmers into the hands of the merchants and moneylenders."19
       It was widely known throughout Palestine that Jewish buyers preferred land free of tenant farmers. The Arab effendi sold the land knowing full well the tenants would be displaced. "The effendi landowner frequently cultivates by means of labourers—harrathin—and when asked what will become of these if he sells, his answer is usually somewhat callous: ‘They can go elsewhere or on the roads to work.’”11
       In fact, the Arab land owner would go so far as to actively expel these tenant farmers off the plot he wished to sell beforehand as to make it a more attractive purchase. All this without paying them any compensation such as the Jews paid when they enforced evictions. “Generally, it was the Arab vendors (not the Jews) who were responsible for obtaining eviction orders to give vacant possession. Whenever Arab tenants had to abandon land because of Jewish purchase, they were indemnified from Jewish funds, a practice not undertaken when Arabs sold to Arabs."12Conversely, "The Jews ... have in many cases paid displaced cultivators generous pecuniary compensation ..."13

Miscellaneous Dispossession
       The Arab effendi class did not limit themselves to landsales when perpetuating dispossession throughout the British Mandate. They also engaged in such practices as hording resources like water, forcibly rotating tenants to new plots to prevent them from establishing any tenancy protection rights, as well as the tried and true methods implemented during Ottoman times of trading financial assistance for ownership of land:
  • "The Arab League had helped finance the formation of the Arab Development Society in 1945, aimed at assisting Palestinian Arab peasants repay their debts to moneylenders, on condition that they turn their properties into (inalienable) family waqfs.14

  • "A wealthy Arab landowner, who is a co-partner with kinsmen of an extensive estate, recently described his position to me succinctly: 'I am supposed to be a rich man: in reality I own very little. I cannot plant a tree on my lands; next year they will have passed to another’s cultivation. I cannot fertilise my fields; another shareholder will get the benefit next year, and why should I spend a pound per bag for manure for another person’s advantage? I cannot build a stable for my horse or my cattle: it will belong to another next year.'”15

  • “Perhaps one of the most astonishing features of rural economic conditions is the blindness of the moneylender, who takes so large a proportion of the fellah’s grain crops, to the advantages he would derive if he assisted his clientele in growing crops from selected seed, which returns higher yields than the dirty, unselected grain to be found in the ordinary village shops.”16

  • “Intensive cultivation is spreading and the fellah (an extensive cultivator) is being steadily squeezed out; because intensive cultivation calls for a reduction in the extent of area ploughed, unless additional supplies of water are made available; and the ownership of water in the free-flow areas is tending to pass into the hands of the capitalist, who usually gets more than his fair share of water.”17

  • "... it was a regular practice of the urban landowning agent ... to move tenants or other agricultural laborers from plot to plot within a larger area of land so they could not develop any legal claim to permanence or tenancy on particular parcels of land. Having begun in late Ottoman times, this practice continued with regularity during the Mandate and was refined so that subtenants ... would not legally be able to receive land as compensation if forced to leave the lands they worked."18

       So what of the poor? What would justice have looked like for this group of people who had nothing, and who were worse still, evicted from the land they were previously allowed to use? Had these people been abandoned to wander Palestine in search of a plot of land on which to completely start over at their own expense, the conflict resulting would be expected and understandable. But such was not the case. There were in fact numerous ordinances and regulations enacted to guard against such injustices.

Safeguarding the Poor

*This article is part of a series*
       Dispossession and economic oppression flourished unchecked during Ottoman times. It was not until the arrival of British rule in Palestine that anything resembling a humane treatment of the peasant class took shape. Over the years as the British saw a need, they enacted and modified legislation to protect tenant farmers from evolving threats to their livelihood.
       Several of the measures the British instituted went so far in protecting tenant farmers that they began infringing upon the rights of owners to sell and buyers to buy. This concern was noble, as any concern for the poor is, but ultimately proved to be too intrusive into activities Arabs and Jews felt they were freely entitled to; both Arab land owners and Zionist purchasers found ways of circumventing these laws to varying degrees. Even though not all of the measures detailed below proved totally effective, it at least illustrates the concern for the fellahin that simply did not exist before.

From the 1920s and onwards, "almost a dozen major investigatory reports were written, and an unprecedented number of Palestinian laws were proposed or enacted which focused exclusively on the burdensome economic difficulties facing the majority rural population. In addition, a 'landless' Arab inquiry was completed by the Palestine administration. While the reports and statistical inquiries which were issued aimed at evaluating and enumerating the economic well-being of the rural population, the ordinances which were either proposed or promulgated focused on every conceivable means to keep the peasant leashed to his land. These Palestine laws included the 1928 Land Settlement Ordinance, the 1929 and 1933 Protection of Cultivators Ordinances and their amendments, the 1931 Law of Execution Amendment Ordinance, the 1932 Land Disputes Possession Ordinance, the proposed but not passed 1933 Musha' Lands Ordinance, the 1934 Usurious Loans Ordinance, the proposed but not passed Damages Bill of 1935, and the 1936 Short Term Crops Loan Ordinance."1

       Some of the noteworthy features of the many laws and ordinances to protect tenant farmers were:
  1. Set aside sufficient land on the purchased lot for the continued sustenance of the tenants
  2. Ban the eviction of tenants in good standing
  3. Provide alternate land for tenants to move to if evicted
  4. Give the tenant being evicted one year's notice
  5. Ensure alternate land was in the same vicinity from which they were moved
  6. Cover all moving costs to new land with government funds
  7. Irrigate and/or deep-plow new land if need be
  8. Require compensation be paid, including for any crops left behind
  9. Mandate that tenant farmers continue in a familiar occupation

  • "The first real effort made by the mandatory government to keep all classes of agricultural workers tied to land came in 1918 with the closure of Palestine's land registry offices. … Though there was considerable success at frustrating the prohibition's intent, the ultimate goal of maintaining fellahin on their land from 1918 to 1920 was accomplished."2

  • "The earliest legislation in Palestine concerned with the protection of tenants from eviction was the Land Transfer Ordinance of September, 1920. ... Under this legislation the consent of Government to all dispositions of immoveable property was required; and the Governor of a District ... was required to withhold consent to any transfer of agricultural land unless he was satisifed that the tenant would retain sufficient land for the maintenance of himself and his family. This legislation failed to achieve its purpose because tenants for the most part did not avail themselves of its provisions, but preferred to divest themselves of their rights thereunder by declaring, usually before a Notary Public, that they were not tenants entitled to its protection and accepting monetary compensation for so doing. Tenants were often induced to do this by unscrupulous pressure brought to bear upon them by their Arab landlords, to whom they stood in a quasi-feudal relation, and by their state of indebtedness. The principal Jewish land purchasing bodies at that time adopted a policy of not purchasing land unless all agricultural tenants had been removed therefrom by the vendor before the sale. Thus the provision of the law requiring retention of sufficient land for maintenance of the tenant and his family was evaded."3

  • "In November 1921 ... High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel somewhat allayed Arab apprehensions about all of Palestine being turned over to the Zionists, by conferring upon some 2,500 Arab cultivators the exclusive right to farm some of the most fertile land in Palestine."4

  • “The principle of protection of a part of a cultivator’s holding in Palestine was affirmed when, in 1928, Government issued its “Statement of Policy” in regard to the Beisan cultivators, permitting them under certain conditions to dispose of a part of their holdings provided that they retain sufficient land for the maintenance of themselves and their families.”5

  • “The rights of tenants-cultivators in this country are now adequately safeguarded by a law which was enacted in August, 1933, extending the protection given to certain cultivators by the Protection of Cultivators Ordinance, 1929, and its subsequent amendments. The new enactment creates a class of statutory tenants and provides that any such tenant who has occupied and cultivated a holding for a period of not less than one year shall not be ejected therefrom except in given circumstances. The principal change is that if the tenant has paid his rent and has not grossly neglected his holding no order for his eviction can be made unless he has been provided with a subsistence area approved by the High Commissioner. The Ordinance defines "subsistence area" as such land as will enable the statutory tenant to maintain his customary means of livelihood in any occupation with which he is familiar; the land must, as nearly as circumstances permit, be in the vicinity of the holding from which the tenant is ejected.”6

  • The Protection of Cultivators Ordinance of 1929 "provided for the payment to certain classes of tenants of compensation, not only for any improvements but also for disturbance, on their receiving a valid notice to quit a holding." An amendment to this ordinance activated in 1931"protected from eviction persons who had exercised continuously for a period of five years a practice of grazing or watering animals or the cutting of wood or reeds or other beneficial occupation of a similar character, unless the landlord had made equivalent provision towards the livelihood of such persons. Subsequent amendments tightened up the Ordinance on various points in favour of the tenant and stopped certain loopholes through which it had been found that evasion was possible."7

  • "In 1931, several further important measures were introduced for the benefit of agriculturists. First, the Protection of Cultivators Ordinance which ensures that no tenant of, or possessor of beneficiary rights over, land shall be dispossessed unless the High Commissioner is satisfied that he is adequately provided for on other land or in other occupation. Secondly, the Law of Mortgage Amendment Ordinance preserves the status of tenants in the case of the sale of land in foreclosure of mortgage: hitherto tenants' rights were deemed to be extinguished by forced sale of the landlord's estate. Thirdly, the oppressive Ottoman Law as to imprisonment for debt, which weighed heavily upon the fellahin, was replaced by an Ordinance which requires proof of means to pay, before imprisonment is ordered, and reduces the maximum term of imprisonment from 91 to 21 days.

    15. In Beersheba, where the fellahin were impoverished by the drought of 1930, a sum of £P14,000 was made available for short-term loans to enable them to buy seed for the summer sowing. Further substantial remissions of commuted tithe in respect both of 1930 arrears and 1931 dues were granted, owing to the continued fall in the price of agricultural products, and as compensation for losses from the ravages of field mice. The total revenue thus relinquished by the Government in 1930 and 1931 was nearly £P300,000.

    16. In the north, district authorities were empowered to postpone collections of arrears of tithe and werko and of instalments of agricultural loans, in any case of genuine inability to pay. This relief was of special application to the Jewish settlements.

    17. An official Committee was appointed in December to consider the replacement of the present commuted tithe and werko by a single land tax.

    18. Arrangements are also being made through a Commission of Government officers to classify comprehensively outstanding arrears of tithe, werko, and agricultural loans, with a view to consideration of the possibility and desirability of writing off arrears which are evidently irrecoverable or reducing indebtedness in cases of real hardship."

  • "In May 1931, the Protection of Cultivators Amendment Ordinance (POCAO) was enacted. ... Legislation for the first time protected grazers who had been in continuous occupation of a particular area for five years, even though lawyers for the JA feared that any fellah who merely exercised the practice of grazing could move onto the land and take possession of it and defy the landlord to have him removed, except in payment of some compensation."9

  • "In an effort to streamline, redefine, and broaden tenants' protection, a new ordinance was enacted in August 1933 superseding all previous POCO legislation. ... The principal element in the Protection of Cultivators Ordinance of 1933 provided that no "statutory tenant" (person, family, or tribe) of one year could be disturbed by the owner, unless he was provided with a subsistence area whose adequacy was determined by a governmental board. Additionally, the tenant was given security against disturbance, was protected against unrestrained rent increase, and was entitled to compensation for improvements if evicted."10

  • "Had there not been an outbreak of Arab disturbances in April and May of 1936, the mandatory government would have enacted protection for owner-occupiers through retention of a maintenance area known as a "lot viable." This would have protected the largest and most economically vulnerable agricultural class in Palestine. But as a result of the riots and general strike, such legislation awaited the findings of the investigatory (Peel) commission. No owner-occupier legislation was ever enacted."11

  • “If land be acquired in this way for the re-settlement of landless Arabs, Government will be obliged to bear the cost of providing the existing cultivators also with developed holdings, including, during the waiting period, maintenance charges and possibly subsistence allowances (if the means of livelihood cannot be obtained entirely by casual labour in the neighbourhood.) Plainly this will add substantially to the cost of re-settling landless Arabs, although the additional outlay, or some of it, may be ultimately recoverable in the form of rent."12

  • “For the protection then of the Arab small cultivator against complete expropriation or eviction, which may lead to his joining the class of landless Arabs, I have attached to this Report, as a basis for consideration and discussion, two draft Ordinances: (i) the Homestead Protection Ordinance and (ii) the Occupancy Tenants Ordinance, vide Appendices S.R.III and IV. These measures aim at affording early practical, and, in my judgment, indispensably necessary, remedies for the alleviation of the situation.”13

  • Lewis French outlined an Occupancy Tenants Ordinance with numerous articles addressing tenant farmer's rights:

    • “In Article 3 there is a provision whereby a tenant, who was on the date named above cultivating a holding, acquires a right of occupancy therein; even though that holding has been left vacant since, or has been let to a subsequent tenant, as has, in fact, occurred in numerous cases in order to prevent the acquisition of rights under the Protection of Cultivators Ordinances, 1929-31. In the latter cases, the occupancy tenant would have to apply to the Court for possession, and the Court would give his possession upon such date as is equitable, regard being had to the rights of the person who has become tenant since May 29, 1931 . It is to be remembered that in the normal course of affairs, probably, the great majority of tenant cultivate in the same villages year after year, and are to all intents and purposes hereditary cultivators.

    • In Article 5 there is a provision for fixed rents in ordinary circumstances. This follows the normal custom of the country. In Article 6 there is a provision for fixity of tenure. An occupant tenant can be evicted only for breach of the contract of tenancy. There is, however, an important proviso in sub-clause 1 (f) of the Article. It has been felt that where an owner has purchased his property before the Ordinance comes into force, not with speculative, or merely acquisitive, aims, but with genuine intention of development or colonisation etc., and has made temporary letting of the land pending the commencement of active development or colonisation, the land should not be subject to occupancy rights.

    • In sub-clause (iv) of the same Article there is a provision against attempts to defeat the Ordinance by collusive evictions.

    • In Article 7 there is a provision for sale of occupancy rights subject to the restrictions imposed in the Homestead Protection Ordinance.

    • In Article 11, there is a provision that where the immediate landlord of an occupancy tenant is a middleman the determination of the latter’s interests will not affect the tenancy except in so far as the occupancy tenant will become tenant to the superior landlord.

    • In Article 12 there is a provision that the sale of the landlord’s interest in execution proceedings will not affect the tenancy rights.

    • In Article 14 there is a provision whereby the acquisition of tenancy rights is excluded in classes where the landlord and tenant have entered into an agreement, such as colonizing bodies make with tenants.

    • In Article 15 there is a provision for the resumption of a holding from an occupancy tenant with the permission of the District Commissioner for purposes of development or colonisation, etc., upon proper provision being made for the future maintenance of the tenant.”
    • 14

  • “Moreover, the British administration and JNF went out of their way to find a temporary solution (leasing the tenants a small part of Wadi Hawarith) and some sort of acceptable and permanent compromise. Finally the government suggested that the tenants be resettled in the Beisan Valley, some 50 miles to the northwest. The tenants turned down that offer as well. All government efforts to bring the affair to a quiet and satisfactory conclusion were in vain. The tenants of Wadi Hawarith stuck to their guns: a settled Bedouin tribe from the most deprived stratum of Arab rural society, namely tenants, prevented the JNF from exercising its ownership rights and became a preoccupation of two high commissioners, Sir John Chancellor and Sir Arthur Wauchope.”15

  • “Each family of the Wadi Hawarith tenants was offered a lease on 40 to 60 dunams of irrigable land that would be drained and, if necessary, deep-ploughed at government expense; the settlers would be guaranteed appropriate housing, storage, and £2,300 in compensation for the crops left in the evacuated fields of Wadi Hawarith. Even transportation costs (people and equipment) would be covered by the government.”16

  • "If he be a displaced Arab, Government will replace him, as a son of the soil, on the land of his country and provide him with a house, farm and stock at a cost over all of, say, £10 to £12 per dunam."17

  • The Cultivators (Protection) Ordinance of 1933 provided several methods of securing tenant farmers which deserve to be quoted at length:

    • "It defines a 'statutory tenant' as any person, family or tribe occupying and cultivating a holding otherwise than as owner thereof ... includes the relatives of any person occupying and cultivating a holding who may have, with the knowledge of the landlord, cultivated such holding ... includes the heirs of a tenant; and also any person who is hired by the landlord to do agricultural work and receives as remuneration a portion of the produce of the holding which he cultivates."

    • "It provides that a 'statutory tenant' who has occupied and cultivated a holding for a period of not less than one year shall not ... be ejected therefrom unless he has been provided with a subsistence area approved by the High Commissioner. Such subsistence area is to be, as far as possible in the vicinity of the land from which he has been displaced."

    • The Ordinance also provides for the protection of the rights of persons who have exercised on land the practice of grazing or watering animals, or cutting wood or reeds, unless provision of equivalent value is secured towards their livelihood; provided that such persons have exercised the practice ... habitually, at the appropriate seasons, for not less than five consecutive years within a period of not more than seven years prior to the date when any application is made to a court for their eviction."18

  • When Arab landlords attempted to evade the above ordinance by leasing to tenant farmers for less than one year to prevent them from acquiring tenancy rights, "A Bill was therefore published in 1936 amending the definition of 'statutory tenant' so as to extend protection to any person who cultivated a holding 'for one year or a period necessary to raise two successive crops'"19. This particular amendment was not introduced to law, however, because the British Royal Commission had recommended a new committee to address all facets of the land issues rather than one at a time.

  • The legislation concerning the protection of landless Arab tenant farmers became so robust in their favor that "In 1941 the State Domain Committee expressed the view that the Ordinance had become what they described as 'a serious obstacle to the reasoned development of the country' in that it placed in the hands of tenants and trespassers a weapon with which they were able to victimise the landlords." This committee reported in 1943 that "although before 1933 it was the landlord who had abused the legislation and the tenant who accordingly needed increased protection, since that date 'it had been the landlord's rights which have increasingly stood in need of protection, so that to-day the Ordinance is widely regarded rather as an instrument to facilitate the exploitation of landlords by tenants than as an instrument for the protection of tenants from the exploitation of landlords'. They showed that the outstanding abuse lay in the exploitation of the Ordinance by trespassers and squatters whom it was never intended to benefit but who, by the definition of 'statutory tenant', are legally entitled to its protection. Such persons enter upon land without the knowledge or consent of the owner, often without paying rent, and sometimes remain on the land not as bona fide cultivators but rather with a view to exploiting the pecuniary value of their gratuitously acquired rights. The provisions of the Ordinance make their eviction by the landlord a process which is not only lengthy but which is not assured of success, owing to the difficulty of finding alternative subsistance areas as required by the Ordinance. The landlord is normally obliged to have recourse to buying the occupier off the land; he has, however, no effective gurantee that the occupier will not return to the land and acquire fresh rights and a fresh nuisance value as a 'statutory tenant'. The Committee found that the protection afforded by the Ordinance was also being abused by tenants who, having entered into a lease agreement with a landlord, refused to honour their obligations under the lease once they had acquired the rights of a 'statutory tenant', and availed themselves of the provisions of the Ordinance to remain in occupation without paying rent. The Committee reported that abuses of this nature were tending to retard agricultural development in that landlords prefer to let their land lie vacant and fallow until they are able to develop it themselves rather than to lease it to tenants whom they will not be able to remove. ... The Committee also found that the protection afforded by the Ordinance to rights of grazing and watering animals and of cutting wood and reeds operated to the detriment of sound agricultural and forest development.20

  • "The amount of money given to Arab tenants to vacate a land area prior to official transfer was often equal to or greater than the net amount of a tenant's yearly income, after rent, tax, and debt payment. A tenant's annual income was variously estimated to range anywhere from 9 to 30 Palestine pounds. Average compensation paid to the 688 tenants formerly employed by the Sursocks approximated 40 Palestine pounds per tenants and his family. ... In instances where there were agricultural workers in occupation, but not legally entitled to any form of compensation, Jewish purchasers in some cases paid amounts ranging from 5 to 15 Palestine pounds in order to give them funds to live on while not working and to find work elsewhere. It was not uncommon for the Palestine Land Development Company to make liberal payments to local village mukhtars, to better persuade their villagers to vacate their lands. The absolute cost of compensating tenants increased as legal protection was steadily strengthened and tenants became increasingly aware of their rights under the law, as the problem of land availability grew more acute, and as the price of land sharply increased. In order to ease further their evacuation from recently bought land, agents for Jewish purchasing organizations made additional payments on behalf of tenants for tax and debt arrears and for crops in the ground but not harvested. An unknown number of tenants did receive alternative land as prescribed by LTAO [Land Transfer Amendment Ordinance]. They eventually arranged to convert it into monetary compensation, left the area for agricultural pursuits elsewhere, moved to neighboring Arab villages and subsisted on per diem income, or migrated to the urban areas and often there to the building trades."21

  • "In response to the practice of producing a land sale agreement at the land registry documenting that land was free of tenant encumbrances, the new ordinance stipulated that a landlord had to provide written notice at least one year prior to the termination of a valid tenancy. In instances where the tenant had failed to pay his rent within a reasonable period of time, failed to cultivate the land in accordance with good husbandry, or where an order of bankruptcy was in force against the tenant, such written notice was not required. From June 1929 until the end of 1932, no case was referred to the High Commissioner whereby the tenant was declared bankrupt or deemed to have failed to cultivate a holding properly resulting in an order for eviction made by a landlord."22

  • "The new POCO created serious problems for Jewish land purchase. Because it gave a tenant rights against the landlord and did not prejudice those rights when land was transferred, the new owner was as liable to tenancy claims as the seller. Even if the seller contracted to sell his land free of tenancy encumbrances, the purchaser could not be sure that he would not face numerous tenancy claims. As a result of tenants' rights to occupy land as protected under the Land Disputes Possession Ordinance, the Jewish owner of newly acquired land often found himself involved in very costly and lengthy judicial proceedings. Settlement with claimants to tenancy often necessitated out-of-court payments, sometimes forcing the purchaser to pay compensation to the tenants twice, once before the transfer and once after the transfer was effected. The second major criticism of the POCO lodged by Jewish purchasers concerned the limitations placed upon the landlord. By virtue of the ordinance, as soon as a tenant received administrative recognition of "statutory tenancy," he became the charge of the landlord for life. If the tenant decided that he preferred another parcel of land, for whatever reason, the landlord was obliged to reserve both the land from which he moved and the land to which he moved as maintenance areas. Since no area limit was placed upon a tenant's holding, some claimed that more land was necessary for their livelihood than they actually needed or could work, farming portions of it out to others who in turn paid the "statutory tenant" rent for its use. While many landlords, as noted, resorted to the resumption of their holdings, the ordinance deprived the landlord of absolute freedom to dispose of his land in whatever manner he wished. Land became, as a result, an illusory security forcing financial institutions to be cautious in granting credit or allowing collateral for what might well be encumbered land. The JNF argued that the ordinance perpetuated the practice of grazing at the expense of favoring more intensive use of otherwise cultivable lands."23

  • "Responding to a question by Mr. S.O. Davies about whether the fellahin's situation in Palestine has "gone from bad to worse", Secretary of State for the Colonies, William George Arthur Ormsby-Gore, replied, 'From many points of view the position of the Arab fellahin has considerably improved since the issue of the report of 1930. I may mention in this connection the protection given to tenants under the Protection of Cultivators Ordinance; measures taken to meet the problem of indebtedness, whereby the indebtedness of cultivators in the Northern District alone is said to have been reduced by at least 60 per cent.; and the reform in the system of land taxation, which has reduced taxation payable by average cultivators of cereals by as much as 70 per cent. I am quite unable to accept the view stated in the last part of the hon. Member's question.'"24

  • "British regu­lation had arrested the heretofore unchecked land-accumulation pro­cess. Landlords were not disposing of their tenants as freely as they had in the late Ottoman times."25
"The most important result of partition and land reform has been the settlement of long-standing disputes and the achievement of security of tenure. The influential landholder, under the new regime, finds it more difficult to encroach on the weak, and the holders of land in fee simple can improve their land with the assurance that they themselves will enjoy the benefits of increased yield and enhanced value. … Further, the assessment of the land tax is no longer a matter of guess work, or of the biased opinion of interested parties. The tax on land is fixed for each parcel according to its assessed value."34

Concession Through Aggression
       Despite the unprecedented effort to safeguard the peasant class, the Palestinian Arab leadership orchestrated a massive three-year-long strike characterized by rioting, violence, and murder. It was directed against the British government and Jewish communities, though it eventually devolved into an internal war among Arab politicians. Two major complaints fueling this strike were continued Jewish immigration and Jewish land purchases.
       The British caved under the pressure and exclusively penalized the Jewish community in an attempt to passify Arab outrage. A White Paper was issued in 1939 that capped Jewish immigration and severely restricted where Jews could buy land. Reminiscent of apartheid South Africa where the Land Act of 1913 prevented blacks from owning land in all but 10% of the country and encouraged segregation26, the Land Transfer Clause in Palestine (implemented in 1940) allowed for Jewish land purchases in only 5% of Palestine without restrictions. 63% of the land was entirely off limits, while 32% of the land required a special permit from the High Commissioner.27
       So belligerently racist was Britain's land restriction that a joint Anglo-American report conducted in 1946 concluded, “The Land Transfers Regulations of 1940 sought to protect the Arab tenant and small owner by prohibiting the sale of land save to a Palestinian Arab in one zone, by restricting such sales in another, and allowing unrestricted sale of land only in the third zone. Their effect has been such as to amount to discrimination against the Jews; their tendency is to segregate and keep separate Arabs and Jews."28

Ripple Effect
       The Land Transfer Clause carried unintended consequences for the Palestinian Arab community. First of all, it viewed Arabs as a people with so little foresight or understanding that their decisions had to be made for them. As if they suffered from an irresponsible lust for money that interfered with any rational choices they would have otherwise made, their option to sell was simply taken away. Jews weren't able to freely buy land in 95% of Palestine which meant Palestinian Arab small landholders were not able to sell land freely in 95% of Palestine.

"Landowners who feared that their property would lose value because it was in areas where sale to Jews was forbidden put their holdings on the market as soon as the law was published but before it went into effect. Many villagers now needed money and consented to sell their land; lawyers and government officials agreed to help conclude the deals under the table."29

       In fact, "After the application of the Land Transfer Regulations in 1940, Sir John Shuckburgh of the Colonial Office remarked that 'the Arab landowner [needed] to be protected against himself.'"30 Kenneth Stein remarks, "In 1940, the British changed their role from umpire to advocate. The land transfer restrictions were as much an effort to stop Jewish land purchase as to protect the Palestinian Arab against his own willful indiscretion."31
       "The gambit took advantage of exceptions to the areas in which Jews were forbidden to buy land. For example, such purchases were permitted when the land was offered for sale by the courts because of the landowner’s debts, or when the landlord owed money to Jews and wished to repay his debt in real estate rather than in cash. KKL found ways to take advantage of these provisions. One fairly simple method was to locate Arab landowners who were debtors and had open files in the executor’s office. KKL representatives contacted these debtors and offered large sums of money for their land. Once the property owner agreed, the sellers applied to the executor’s office and put the land up for auction. In some cases KKL offered larger sums than other bidders, and in other instances there were no other bidders; the two sides in the deal would conclude it in the presence of Jewish officials in the executor’s office in Tel Aviv before anyone else got involved.
       In spring 1943 ... [the] Jews had, since the publication of the restrictions, used this method to purchase more than 20,000 dunams in the Gaza district alone. Some in the British administration disputed this estimate, but not the fact that the method was in use. ... The debtors were free to sell as much as they wished – and some did. It was clear to all that these were voluntary transactions, and that the Arab sellers were no less interested in them than the Zionists. But the governor of the Gaza district maintained that the administration nevertheless had to take steps to halt the practice."
       Cancelling one's right to sell private property is as unjust as expropriating it, but on the other end of the spectrum. Especially since doing so amounted to preventing debt-ridden Arab landowners from taking advantage of the traditionally high prices Jews were willing to pay for land and paying off their debt with perhaps some money to spare. It also robbed Arabs of their option to sell their land and transition to non-agricultural trades that were becoming more prominent (and much more profitable) as Palestine modernized.
"Yehoshua Hankin told Hope-Simpson at the JNF office in June 1930 that 90 percent of the sellers were immersed in debt and were seeking relief by selling their lands. The economic situation of the majority rural Arab population had not improved since the end of World War I, and their economic condition in the early 1930s worsened."33

The More Significant Impact of Zionism in Palestine

*This article is part of a series*
       For centuries before Zionism brought Jews to Palestine or before WWI brought the British, the Ottoman Empire with its Arab population had opportunity to better the lives of the peasantry. No attempt was made. Both the government and the moneyed class of Arab land owners incessantly victimized the poor and dispossessed them of land ownership as has already been covered. Jewish land purchase played its part in dispossession and displacement, though by that time an unprecedented number of laws and ordinances to protect these Arabs from severe injustice were enacted. Taking this dispossession into consideration, it remains a fact that the net impact on the Arabs of Palestine due to the Jewish and British presence was positive in almost every measurable category.
  • “[Musa] Alami agreed with Ben-Gurion that the condition of the Arab fellah and worker was better in Palestine than in Transjordan and the neighboring Arab countries, but the fact was that the Arabs had lost many of their economic strongholds.”1

  • “Up till now the Arab cultivator has benefited on the whole both from the work of the British Administration and the presence of Jews in the country, but the greatest care must now be exercised to see that in the event of further sales of land by Arabs to Jews the rights of any Arab tenants or cultivators are preserved.”2

  • “The Peel Commission took the view that the enterprise of the Jews in agriculture and industry had brought large, if indirect, benefits to the Arabs in raising their standard of living. Though a very large part of the Jewish purchases of land has been made from absentee landlords, many of them living outside Palestine, it is probable that many Arab farmers who have sold part of their land to the Jews have been able to make use of the money to improve the cultivation of their remaining holdings. The improvement of health conditions in many parts of the country, while due in part to the activities of Government and in part to the efforts of the Arabs themselves, has undoubtedly been assisted by the work of the Jewish settlers. It is also argued that the Jewish population has conferred substantial indirect benefits on the Arabs through its contribution to the public revenue.”3

  • “On the average, the economic situation of the Arab population of Palestine improved substantially during the Mandatory period, despite enormous demographic growth, and was probably considerably better, on the average, than that of other countries in the Middle East.”4

  • "The Arab cultivator of Palestine is a man similar in temperament, standard of life and agricultural practices to many of the Muslim cultivators with whose conditions I have been familiar in the north-west of India. He appears, however, to enjoy a slightly higher percentage of literacy and a very acute intelligence. He may be compared favourably in the latter respect with certain of the peasant classes in Southern Europe."5

  • “It is quite true that within the Jewish economy the Jewish labour movement advocated the hiring of Jewish, and not Arab, workers. But simultaneously it embarked on a propaganda campaign in the Arab community aimed at assisting the development and organization of an Arab working class. Providing the toiling Arab masses with a strong and organized labour movement was in its direct interest, as this would help to bring about the ‘Europeanization of the Oriental economy’ and thus eliminate the competition of cheap Arab labour. Arabs and Jews – especially in the mandatory’s public sector – could then unite in a common struggle for European levels of wages and working conditions.”6

  • “It appears that by his intention to organize the Arab worker, Ben-Gurion wished, in time, to raise his wage level and improve his social conditions, thereby benefiting the Jewish worker too.”7

  • "Government expenditure on health went to hospitals, village clinics and the quarantine service, amongst other things. The low level of government participation in the social service sector was typical of colonial administrations. Few countries, the O'Donnell Commission reported, and certainly none in the Near and Far East, had so many privately owned hospitals and clinics in proportion to population as Palestine did."8

  • "In the sphere of education, expenditure increased by 21 per cent between 1933-34 and 1936-37. The government gave grants-in-aid to the autonomous Jewish sector but was more directly active in Arab education. The Jews received the financial help on the basis of a formula worked out by the government and the Jewish Agency in 1934. A grant was given to the Jews in the same proportion as the number of Arab children in the government schools to the total Arab school-age population.76 Large sums were also given towards school buildings under the `Public Works Extraordinary' allocations. A sum of P121,337 [pounds sterling] was spent in anticipation of the loan. Although the Royal Commission set up to investigate the disturbances of 1936 was very critical about the paucity of educational facilities, especially for the Arabs, intentions to increase real expenditure on this sector never materialized because of the Arab Rebellion."9

  • "The large influx of Jewish immigrants into Palestine in the 1930s led to a proliferation of banks in the country which necessitated government legal action to bring them under control. The Arabs for the most part remained dependent on the moneylenders who, as noted above, exacted high interest rates on their loans. As part of the development policy for Palestine begun, resulting from the events of 1929, the British set up an agricultural mortgage bank and cooperative societies to help the Arabs break the vicious circle of debt and poverty.

       Numerous reports, private journals and travellers' notes bear witness to the vicious circle of debt and poverty which made up the lives of the Palestinian fellaheen. With 45 per cent of the country's population dependent on agriculture for its livelihood, and 90 per cent of total exports being made up of agricultural produce, rural indebtedness was a crucial problem which the British Administration tried to alleviate. Up until 1929, it had concentrated on issuing loans for immediate needs: the aftermath of the First World War, drought, etc. It was more of a stop-gap policy. Following on the 1929 riots and the findings of the Shaw Report, and the separate inquiries by the Johnson-Crosbie Committee, which looked into the problem of rural debt; the Strickland Report, which discussed ways of introducing co-operative societies for debt alleviation; the Hope-Simpson Report, on immigration, land settlement and development; and the two French reports, the British made it part of their policy to help the fellah financially. In addition to supporting the system of rural credit cooperatives, the government continued to seek ways to increase the availability of credit through loans and the establishment of an agricultural mortgage company.

    c) Co-operative Credit Societies: The Jews were instrumental in introducing the co-operative systems in Palestine, when, prior to World War I, they set up associations for collective marketing, processing, purchasing and borrowing. On the basis of their experience of co-operative societies in India, the British provided a legal framework for the societies in Palestine to function. Little was done, however, to encourage the formation of societies amongst the Arab peasantry until 1930.

    A committee was appointed in 1930 to examine the economic conditions of the fellaheen and make recommendations on how they can be helped. The committee's report, the Johnson-Crosbie Report, based on a survey of 104 Arab villages, showed how the fellah could settle his debts with the moneylender, since on average, each fellah family owed P27 [pounds sterling] in debts but earned a net income of only P25 [pounds sterling] per year. The average interest rates charged of 30-50 per cent ensured the perpetuation of the fellah's indebtedness. The committee made strong recommendations to establish village co-operative bodies, arguing that although the Palestinian `mentality' was not favourable to co-operation, there did exist the kafalet mutasalsileh (mutual guarantee system) in villages. The British then duly sent out C.F. Strickland of the Indian Civil Service to investigate further the economy of the fellah and make recommendations on the introduction of co-operative credit societies."

  • "There is certainly no incompatibility between the economic interests of the local Arab population and the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, open to the influx of Jewish repatriates. Even the most ardent opponents of Jewish statehood have ceased to use the argument that Jewish mass immigration leads to impoverishment and dispossession of Palestine’s present Arab inhabitants or prejudice to their eventual progeny."11

Economic Performance and Standards of Living in Middle East Economies: 1932-193612
 Per Capita IncomeIndustrial Daily WagesPer Capita Consumption of FoodstuffNet Productivity Per Agricultural Worker
Arab Palestinians1970-50022.9186.3

Thanks, but No Thanks
       No conflict erupted between Arabs as extortion, economic oppression, Bedouin land theft, and urban trickery stripped away ownership from among Palestine's rural population. The Ottoman government was complicit in the dispossession, not guarding against it. There was no compensation paid to Arabs kicked off land they had lived on and worked for generations by effendi Arabs accumulating it to boost their socio-economic stature. By all accounts, the conflict should have been in full swing by the time Jews arrived in Palestine if it truly derived from injustice.
       Zionism came to Palestine and paid top dollar for land. Zionist purchasers dealt directly with Arab tenant farmers on the land and reached mutually beneficial agreements for them to evacuate it. An overwhelming majority of the Arab peasants willfully abandoned the land for money and were not forcibly uprooted and expelled. An unprecedented number of laws and ordinances were passed to assist the dispossessed or landless Arabs in every imaginable way. An extensive government safety net hung underneath the dispossessed in Palestine preventing much beyond inconvenience from afflicting the poor. At the zenith of government protection the Arab tenants' and squatters' rights surpassed those of the legal owner, and the net effect of Zionism in Palestine was a drastic improvement to the standard of living for the Arab community.
       However, none of this means the Arabs weren't free to choose nationalism and racial purity in Palestine to their own detriment. If nationalist-ethnic concerns trumped those for a better economy, better health care, better education, better productivity, and all around better standards of living, they were well within their rights to prioritize the former over the latter.
       "The [Royal] Commission pointed out that all politically articulate groups among the Palestinian Arabs refused to become an ethnic minority in a country ruled by a Jewish majority and that they would continue to do so even if it could be mathematically proved that they had nothing to fear and much to gain as to their future economic, religious, cultural and civic status. Fully endorsing the Commission’s view, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava told the House of Lords on behalf of the British Government that the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine was fundamentally 'the result of conflicting ideals and not of conflicting interests;' he exposed 'the fallacy … on which Jewish elements have based many of their arguments … imagining that this matter can be solved on economic lines. It is no good to tell the Arab that his birth-rate has gone up by so many thousands, or that he is able to obtain goods at a lower price.' Five months later the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, Malcolm MacDonald, also stressed that 'the Arabs were not free to consider dispassionately the benefits which their country was getting from Jewish capital and activity. The material improvement was overlaid by a more serious consideration … They (the Arabs) were afraid that if Jewish immigration continued indefinitely, this energetic, wealthy incoming people would dominate them numerically, economically, politically and in every way in the land of their birth.'
       On July 20, 1939, in the House of Commons, Lt. Col. Sir Arnold Wilson, presenting the Arab case, made no attempt to deny 'the material benefit which has accrued to the inhabitants of Palestine' as a result of Jewish immigration. But,' he added, 'I lived long enough among Persians and Arabs to know that they are not exclusively concerned with material benefits … Nationalism is a growing force, with its good as well as bad sides. There is no possibility whatever of the Arabs accepting, as consolation for the loss of their homeland, a few more cinemas and a few more dentists, and two pairs of shoes where before they had one pair or none. There is no solution by that road here or elsewhere."
       It was this incipient nationalism brewing among Palestinian Arabs that best explains the reason conflict broke out. It was not that Zionists brought injustice to Palestine but that a non-Arab nationalism was taking root. The outrage by the political class of Palestinian Arabs about dispossession and landless Arabs was not at all because they cared for the peasantry; it was simply a political rallying cry to generate opposition. Had the most vocal critics of Zionist land purchase been at all sincere in their concerns, they would not have participated in selling land to Zionists. So let us not continue to parrot the tired, generic claim that Zionism disrupted Palestine and dispossessed its Arabs knowing full well this was nothing more than a political maneuver designed to damage the realization of a non-Arab nation.

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Navigate this series:

Part 1 - Introduction to Dispossession in Palestine
Part 2 - Arab Dispossession Methods
Part 3 - Jewish Dispossession Methods
Part 4 - How Many were Disposessed?
Part 5 - Arab Land Sales
Part 6 - Preventing Dispossession
Part 7 - Improvements for the Fellahin

1  French, Lewis. "Supplementary Report on Agricultural Development and Land Settlement in Palestine," Director of Development, Jerusalem, April 20, 1932
2  Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs - From Peace to War, Pp. 31-32
3  Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs - From Peace to War, Pg. 43
4  Avneri, Aryeh L. The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs 1878-1948. Efal, Israel: Yad Tabenkin, 1982. 178-179.
5  Stein, Kenneth W. "The Jewish National Fund: Land Purchase Methods and Priorities, 1924-1939".Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 20, Number 2, April 1984.
6  Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs - From Peace to War, Pg. 139
7  Stein, Kenneth W. The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. 110
8  League of Nations. Report by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of Palestine and Trans-Jordan For the Year 1933. 31 December 1933.
9  French, Lewis. Supplementary Report on Agricultural Development and Land Settlement in Palestine. 1932.
10  French, Lewis. "First Report on Agricultural Development and Land Settlement in Palestine," Director of Development, Jerusalem, December 23,1931
11  "The Tenants of Wadi Hawarith: Another View of the Land Question in Palestine" by Raya Adler,International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2. (May, 1988), pg. 208. (Referencing Cunliffe-Lister Memorandum to HMG, March 1932, P.R.O., C07331215/97050/9)
12  A Survey of Palestine, Vol. I, Pg. 296
13  French, Lewis. "First Report on Agricultural Development and Land Settlement in Palestine," Director of Development, Jerusalem, December 23,1931.
14  Demograhpic data coming from the Johnson-Crosbie report reinforces the estimate of 5 members per family where 23,573 families represent 136,044 rural Arabs, totalling 5.3 persons per family. Stein, Kenneth W. The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. 109
15  New York Times, June 25, 1922. (Quoting Bernard Rosenblatt on May 23, 1922) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=990DE4DD1E3FE432A25756C2A9609C946395D6CF
16  Palestine Royal Commission, Chapter IX
17  Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Chapter VIII
18  http://www.mideastweb.org/palpop.htm (Internet Archive confirms quote as of June 27, 2007)
19  Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
20  http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1936/jun/17/land-ownership-and-tenancy
21  Stein, Kenneth W. The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939, Pg. 142
22  Stein, Kenneth W. Legal Protection and Circumvention of Rights for Cultivators in Mandatory Palestine
23  Stein, Kenneth W. Legal Protection and Circumvention of Rights for Cultivators in Mandatory Palestine
24  Stein, Kenneth W. Legal Protection and Circumvention of Rights for Cultivators in Mandatory Palestine
25  Stein, Kenneth W. Legal Protection and Circumvention of Rights for Cultivators in Mandatory Palestine
26  Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
27  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1885, there were an average of 5 persons per Palestinian family. Blumberg, Arnold. Zion Before Zionism, 1838-1880. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1985. 170
28  Pinner, Walter. The Legend of the Arab Refugees; A Critical Study of UNRWA's Reports and Statistics. Tel Aviv: Economic and Social Research Institute, 1967. 52-53.
29  A Bedouin camp was recorded as having "113 families, or 563 souls" which gives us 4.98 persons per family. - Avneri, Aryeh L. The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs 1878-1948. Efal, Israel: Yad Tabenkin, 1982. 147.

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