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 land sales 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."12 Conversely, "The Jews ... have in many cases paid displaced cultivators generous pecuniary compensation ..."13
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.
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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 There were non-Arab land owners in Palestine who sold to the Jews, the most notable being the Greek Orthodox church who sold plots of land in Jerusalem among other places.
2 Horowitz, David. Economic and Social Transformation of Palestine. CZA S25/5934. 1937.
3 Horowitz, David. Economic and Social Transformation of Palestine. CZA S25/5934. 1937.
4 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
5 French, Lewis. First Report on Agricultural Development and Land Settlement in Palestine. Director of Development, Jerusalem, December 23, 1931.
6 Cohen, Hillel. Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 32-33
7 Avneri, Aryeh L. The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs, 1878-1948. New Brunswick, [N.J.] USA: Transaction Books, 1984. 65-66.
8 Stein, Kenneth W. "The Jewish National Fund: Land Purchase Methods and Priorities, 1924-1939". Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 20, Number 2, April 1984.
9 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
10 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
11 French, Lewis. "Supplementary Report on Agricultural Development and Land Settlement in Palestine", Director of Development, Jerusalem, April 20, 1932
12 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
13 French, Lewis. "First Report on Agricultural Development and Land Settlement in Palestine," Director of Development, Jerusalem, December 23,1931
14 El-Eini, Roza. Mandated Landscape: British Imperial Rule in Palestine, 1929-1948, Pg. 271
15 French, Lewis. First report on agricultural development and land settlement in Palestine. Jerusalem ;London: Crown Agents for the Colonies], 1931.
16 French, Lewis. Supplementary Report on Agricultural Development and Land Settlement in Palestine. 1932.
17 French, Lewis. First report on agricultural development and land settlement in Palestine. Jerusalem ;London: Crown Agents for the Colonies], 1931.
18 Stein, Kenneth W. One Hundred Years of Social Change: The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. 1991.
19 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). 424