Israel as a Failing State

Blog 25: Prelude to the 1936 Arab Revolt:

Changes in Land Ownership and Population

The official political name of the British Mandate was not Eretz Israel but the name inherited from the Ottoman Empire – Palestine in English and Philistinia in Arabic – filasţīn (فلسطين) and pālēśtīnā, and, in Hebrew, פּלשׂתינה. When the third official language Hebrew was used, the initials aleph-yod were added to stand for Eretz Israel, using initials not to upset the Arabs.

literacy had played a key role in the competition for power between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine under the British Mandate. Almost all Jews were literate; even though they were a minority in the population, more of them could read and write than the total of Muslims and Christians combined. Several thousand Jews read Arabic; hardly any Arabs, even Christian ones, read Hebrew. This meant that Jewish Palestinians had full access to Arab Palestinian writings unreciprocated by Arabic access to Hebrew tracts, pamphlets and books. Even more importantly, Jews could play a disproportionate role in the drafting of official government documents into the three official languages, including the 1926 Correction of Land Registers Ordinance, legislation to protect cultivators, and the definition of a landless Arab.[i] However, those advantages has been greatly overestimated.

Though important for intellectual development, the impact of literacy was greatest in the economic and political spheres. Hence, it was a Jew, Pinhas Rutenberg, who won the concession for supplying Palestine with electrical power. He founded the Palestine Electric Company in 1923 by receiving from the government concessions, for both the Jordan and Yarkon Rivers. The concessions allowed his company to use the water resources of the two rivers both for irrigation and the production of electricity.

However, the greatest effect in the competition for influence was in the distribution of land ownership. Given the divisions between the landed classes and the fellahin within Arab society, the Jews could use their negotiating skills and knowledge of the law to negotiate land purchases from Arabs who owned large tracts of land.[ii]

In the West, we take for granted the registry system for privately owned land. It allows the ownership history and claims against property to be searched in government system of guarantees of title. Transfers are made by the registration of a deed of title and individuals have an absolute guarantee to that title. Although governments can exercise their rights of exclusive and eminent domain to expropriate land, they have to pay at least market value.

At the time of the 1936 Uprising – and this time it was a revolt against British rule and not just a matter of mob violence targeting Jews – one million of the five million dunams of the privately held lands in Mandatory Palestine were owned by or assigned by long-term leases to Jews. (A dunam is almost 10,000 square feet; an acre consists of 4.047 dunams.) But the vast majority of land at the time was state-owned – an additional 21.4 million dunams. Whichever party controlled the state, or had the greatest influence on the British government through either literacy or, alternatively, the threat of violence, controlled most of the land.

By 1945, the ratios shifted. Instead of Arabs owning or privately controlling land in a 4:1 ratio, they did so in over an 8:1 ratio. By then, over half the state land had been transferred to private legal or de facto ownership. 12.8 million was either owned or held in indefinite lease by Arabs, 75% of it arable. 1.5 million was controlled by Jews, 80% of it arable. Further, of the remaining 12.3 million dunams remaining under state control, 10.6 million were in the Negev desert. Only 1.7 million dunams of arable land remained directly under state ownership, and most of that was of marginal agricultural quality. After the British obtained the mandate, the privatization of land begun by the Ottomans in 1858 became a torrent.

Given the results of the re-distribution, it is very questionable to suggest that the Arabs lost the 1936-39 revolt. Though Jews made up a disproportionate part of the British bureaucracy, in the aftermath of the rebellion, Arabs made the greater gains in land ownership.

What about the population? What about demography? At one time there was a very fiery debate over the ratios of Palestinians to Jews that had migrated to Palestine by 1936. Certainly, Arabs had been immigrating to and emigrating from Palestine over the previous century and longer. As a result of a famine in Egypt at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Egyptians had migrated to Palestine, mainly Gaza. Further, Palestinians inherited a strong distaste for military conscription. Part of that was because they resented enforced military service for the Ottomans. But a good part may also have been because numbers of Palestinians were descendants of Egyptian soldiers who had deserted when Egypt lost the second Egypt-Ottoman War (1839-41) almost a century before the 1936 uprising. The numbers have been estimated as at least 15,000 and, perhaps, up to double that figure; 500 families alone (2,000 Egyptians) settled in Jaffa and many others on the coastal plain.

In the nineteenth century, Algerians migrated to Palestine. So did Kurds and Bosnian Muslims after 1878. Many Palestinian have the surname of Bushnak. The nineteenth century also witnessed an ingathering of Bedouin into Palestine so that at the time of the 1922 census, there were 73,000 Bedouin largely in the Negev, but many in the urban area of Nablus. In 1922, the total population of Palestine consisted of just three-quarters of a million people, almost 600,000 Arabs, about 70,000 Christians and, by then, slightly more Jews than Christians.

Ten years later, the Jewish population had doubled while both the Christian, mostly Eastern Orthodox, and Arab populations had increased by about 20%. More than twice as many Jews (9,000) than Arabs (4,000) had arrived as a result of illegal migration. By then, there were just over a million human souls in Palestine, slightly over the population of the Galilee alone at the time of Jesus. Relatively, Palestine remained a land without people and, for Jews, an opening for them to escape the troubles and pogroms of Europe as well as the rising menace of the Nazis.

As a result of the 1921 and 1929 Arab riots, the British increasingly restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine – so much for the promise of a homeland for the Jewish people.  Quotas were fixed and the number of immigration certificates distributed were increasingly lowered. Jewish organizations competed for the limited number of certificates. Yet Jews continued to arrive – enrolling in the Hebrew University as students – there was no limit on student visas – and arriving through “family reunification” as resident Jewish Palestinians “married” Jewish offshore brides under that loophole in the restrictive immigration regime. Others arrived on tourist visas and never left. In 1934, as the first of many, the ship Vallos was chartered to bring the first cohort of 350 illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

Ten years after the 1922 census, the population of Palestine had significantly increased and by 1947 had almost doubled even though, at the end of the 1936-39 Arab uprising, the British government under Parliamentary Document 6019 limited the Jewish population in Palestine to no more than one third the total.  Jews were on the way to becoming one-third of the population. An absolute total of only 75,000 Jews would be permitted to enter Palestine, and then only if such immigration was “economically viable.” As the document stated, “no further Jewish immigration will be permitted unless the Arabs are prepared to acquiesce to it.” Again, those who claim that violence does not pay have to wrestle with these results. But we are getting too far ahead of our narrative.

While much of the gain in the Jewish population resulted from migration, increases in the Muslim population were largely the result of the decline in infant mortality as changes in delivering health care were introduced. Contrary to the claims of a few early Zionist writers, unlike Jewish immigration to Palestine which was increasingly “illegal,” there was, by comparison, relatively little Arab illegal migration. By 1947, the vast majority of Arab Palestinians were the descendants of Arabs who had arrived in Palestine before modern Jewish migration began in 1880.

Arabs did not arrive in Palestine because they were primarily attracted by economic development with the arrival of the Jews, though many became part of the urban working class, not only as a result of the shifts in land ownership and economic incentives, but because of improved transportation, increased trade, and industrialization. However, the result was an enormous disruption of Arab society. The noble-effendi classes may have gained title to much more land; however, their control enjoyed over many fellaheen over the Palestinian villagers eroded. Social bonds frayed. Traditional norms were replaced by bureaucratic strictures. With the inflow of Jewish capital into Palestine, the erosions increased enormously as the musha’ system of rights and responsibilities disintegrated; land became alienable and transactional.  Property became a disposable commodity. Further, entire Palestinian Arab villages disappeared. Peasants were disoriented in the shift from a barter to a market economy. Lacking the education or skills to manage in the new urban environment, many became impoverished.

Thus, landlessness among Palestinians played a major role in the Arab revolt that began in 1936.[iii] Inflation and unemployment whiplashed the former rural population. Disillusion and frustration contributed to their participation in the so-called “social unrest.”  Immigrant Jews were held responsible. Jewish land purchases were exaggerated for different reasons by both sides. The increasing knowledge that Zionists wanted a state of their own significantly contributed to the antipathy towards both the Jews and the British who were held to be under the thumb of the Jews. Arab attempts to imitate some of the Jewish initiatives failed. The 1931 Arab National Fund and the 1932 organization for the Preservation of Arab Lands both went nowhere.

Arab leaders blamed the Jews as interlopers and disrupters. Issues of land ownership, however unwarranted, as well as immigration became incendiary issues of a different order of magnitude. Guilt over the Arab elite own “quiet” involvement in land sales to Jews was displaced onto the perfidy of those same Jews to whom the land had been sold. It did not help that the Jewish voices and claims about land ownership became more strident and louder as the paternalistic British systematically decreased the opportunities of the displaced peasants through legal measures rather than economic incentives and opportunities.

The effect was alienation of each group from the others – Jews against the British and the Arabs, Arabs against the British and the Jews and the British frustrated at the lack of appreciation for their efforts at being the umpire between the Jews and Arabs. The British recognized the Jewish coastal versus the Arab heartland and reinforced the separation of the two groups to keep the peace by facilitating Arab resettlement in the hill country. The de facto partition of Palestine was underway that would lead to the 1937 Peel Commission recommendation for partition.

But first the revolt and violence had to take place.  

[i] Cf. Kenneth W. Stein (1984) Land Acquisition in Palestine: 1917-1939. University of North Carolina Press.

[ii] Cf. M. Button (1999) Ottoman Land-Law during the Palestine Mandate, 1917-1936.

[iii] Cf. C. Anderson (2018) “The British Mandate and the Crisis of Palestinian Landlessness, 1929–1936′, Middle Eastern Studies 54:2.


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