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:

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:

       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.

Next Page

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  "dispossession." Free Online Law Dictionary. 12 Nov. 2008.
2  "dispossession." The American HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 12 Nov. 2008.
3  "dispossession." Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. 12 Nov. 2008.