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.