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:
- Internal wars and Bedouin raids that resulted in flat out land theft and the destruction of cultivated plots.
- 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.
- 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.
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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 Avneri, Aryeh L. The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs, 1878-1948. New Brunswick, [N.J.] USA: Transaction Books, 1984. 20-21.
2 Avneri, Aryeh L. The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs, 1878-1948. New Brunswick, [N.J.] USA: Transaction Books, 1984. 21.
3 Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad, or, The New Pilgrims' Progress: Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City's Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Land. The world's best reading. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader's Digest Association, 1990. 255.
4 El-Eini, R. I. M. "Government Fiscal Policy in Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s." MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES. 33. 3 (1997): 570-596.
5 El-Eini, R. I. M. "Government Fiscal Policy in Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s." MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES. 33. 3 (1997): 570-596.
6 French, Lewis. Supplementary Report on Agricultural Development and Land Settlement in Palestine. 1932.
7 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
8 El-Eini, R. I. M. "Government Fiscal Policy in Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s." MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES. 33. 3 (1997): 570-596.
9 Strickland, C. F. Report on the Possibility of Introducing a System of Agricultural Cooperation in Palestine. [Jerusalem]: Government of Palestine, 1930.
10 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
11 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
12 Avneri, Aryeh L. The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs, 1878-1948. New Brunswick, [N.J.] USA: Transaction Books, 1984. 64-65.
13 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
14 Stein, Kenneth W. Legal Protection and Circumvention of Rights for Cultivators in Mandatory Palestine
15 French, Lewis. Supplementary Report on Agricultural Development and Land Settlement in Palestine. 1932.
16 French, Lewis. First report on agricultural development and land settlement in Palestine. Jerusalem ;London: Crown Agents for the Colonies], 1931
17 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
18 Stein, Kenneth W. The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. 26.
19 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
20 Blumberg, Arnold. Zion Before Zionism, 1838-1880. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1985. 97