The Myth: Jewish Theft of Arab Land

The Myth: Jewish Theft of Arab Land

By Alex Grobman, PhD

One of the most persistent canards Arabs have exploited against Israel is that she stole Palestinian Arab land, which explains why this dispute remains intractable. This fabrication has led the media to label Israel as occupiers of Palestinian Arab lands. An examination of what the Jews found as they returned to their ancestral homeland, the enormous obstacles they encountered and how they overcame them should debunk this lie. 1

Those Jews who settled in the Yishuv, the Jewish community in the land of Israel before the establishment of the Israeli state, came to a land that was sparsely populated and economically underdeveloped, with sizeable regions of desert, semiarid wilderness and swamps. Before the British arrived in Palestine at the end of World War I, the Ottoman government had practically no involvement in regulating land use, health and sanitary conditions or controls on the construction of private and public buildings. Except for a few roads and a rail line that projected imperial power, there were few public works projects. Resident Arabs, traditional in outlook, had no interest in new plans for their communities. For Herzl and other European Zionists, Turkish Palestine, was inviting because of its lack of government accountability, absence of local Arab initiative, and the “empty landscape.” 2 

Condition of the Land

The task facing the early Jewish pioneers in purchasing land and resurrecting neglected desert regions, malarial valleys, swamps, hills and sand seemed almost insurmountable.3 Walter Clay Lowdermilk, a soil conservationist who reclaimed lands throughout the world, found Palestine “a land impoverished by erosion and neglect.” The “soils were eroded off the uplands to bedrock over fully one-half the hills; streams across the coastal plains were chocked with erosional debris from the hills to form pestilential marshes infested with dreaded malaria; the fair cities and elaborate works of ancient times were left in doleful ruins.” 4  

Henry Baker Tristram, an English clergyman and biblical scholar, describes the situation in the mid-19th century: “A few years ago, the whole Ghor [the Jordan Valley] was in the hands of the fellahin, and much of it cultivated for corn. Now the whole of it is in the hands of the Bedouin, who eschew all agriculture, except in a few spots cultivated here and there by their slaves; and with the Bedouin come lawlessness and the uprooting of all Turkish authority. No government is now acknowledged on the east side; and unless the Porte acts with greater firmness and caution than is his wont, it will lose the last vestige of authority on the right bank also, and a wide strip of the most fertile land in all Palestine will be desolated and given up to the Nomads. 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 20 villages have been thus erased from the map and the stationary population extirpated. Very rapidly the Bedouin are encroaching wherever horse can be ridden; and the Government is utterly powerless to resist them or to defend its subjects.” 5

Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster Abbey, added what he saw in Palestine in 1853: “In Judea it is hardly an exaggeration to say that whilst for miles and miles there is no appearance of present life or habitation, except the occasional goat herd on the hill side, or gathering of women at the wells, there is hardly a hill-top of the many within sight which is not covered by the vestiges of some fortress city of former ages. Sometimes they are fragments of ancient walls, sometimes mere foundations and piles of stone, but always enough to indicate signs of human habitation and civilisation…. But the general fact of the ruins of Palestine, whether erect or fallen, remains common to the whole country; deepens and confirm, if it does not create, the impression of age and decay, which belongs to almost every view of Palestine, and invests it with an appearance which can be called by no other name than venerable.” 6

In 1894, Scottish theologian George Adam Smith published his comprehensive investigative report on the Holy Land in which he said:  “Judah has lost his eyes, and his raiment is in rags.” 7

Urgency of Buying Land

Unless the Zionists could purchase their own land, they could not expand the number of immigrants, build and enlarge settlements or create the foundation for the society and nation they envisioned. Even with the restrictions enacted by the Ottoman government and the growing public Arab hostility against such purchases, the Zionist’s succeeded in buying more than 420,000dunams (4 dunams=1 acre) by 1917. As more Jews entered the country, the demand for additional real-estate increased as did the willingness of the Arabs to sell their land.8

Land sold by Arabs to Jews accounted for 40 percent of all registered sales in Palestine between 1929 and 1946 according to economic historian Jacob Metzer. No similar statistics are available for the 1920s. From a high of 54 percent of all Arab land sold from 1929-1939, the number declined to 22 percent from 1940-1946. The decrease in the 1940s probably occurred as a result of government imposed restrictions on land sales to Jews when the Land Transfer Regulations were decreed in 1940, since the percentage of unregistered (and therefore not recorded) transactions undoubtedly increased in order to evade government controls. This assumption is indirectly corroborated by the increasing disparity between the number of officially registered Jewish land purchases and the Jewish Agency for Palestine’s projected total land purchases.9  

Did The Jews Buy All The Prime Land At Inflated Prices and Then Dispossess the Arabs?

Auni Abdul Hadi a lawyer, member of the Arab Higher Committee and leader of the Istiqlal (Arab nationalist party) he established in Palestine in 1932, charged the Jews with buying all the prime land at inflated prices and then dispossessing the Arabs. Who could resist such outrageous sums offered by the Jews, he asked. Some individual Arabs were becoming wealthy, positions for other Arabs were continually being lost. 10 

Is this attack justified? The Palestine Royal Commission (known as the Peel Commission head by Lord Peel), sent to suggest modifications to the British Mandate following the six-month-long Arab general strike concluded: “The Arab charge that the Jews have obtained too large a portion of good land cannot be maintained. Much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes, or swamp and uncultivated when it was purchased. Though to-day, the light of experience gained by Jewish energy and enterprise, the Arabs may denounce the vendors and regret the alienation of the land, there was at the time at least of the earlier sales little evidence that the owners possessed either the resources or training needed to develop the land. So far as the plains are concerned, we consider that, with due precautions, land may still be sold to Jews.”11  

Furthermore, “The shortage of land is, we consider, due less to the amount of land acquired by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population,” 12 which rapidly grew as a result of better conditions created by the Jews. Between 1931 and 1942, the non-Jewish rural population increased by 160,000, and the percentage of the non-Jewish rural population decreased only somewhat.13 

In terms of disposing the Arabs, The Commission found:  “The Jews had made… careful enquiry into the matter of landless Arabs and they had discovered only 688 tenants who had been displaced by the land being sold over their heads; and that of these some 400 had found other land. This enquiry related to the period 1920 to 1930.”14 

The British Partition Commission determined “The Arabs would be would be no better with a larger population than to-day on the same amount of land, unless, they learn to cultivate their land more intensively and unless in addition they can find supplementary employment in the towns. And neither of these two things can be brought about without the assistance of Jewish taxable capacity and Jewish capital.” 15 Lowdermilk agreed: “Our observations in Palestine convince us that Jewish settlement not only has done no harm to the Arabs but has actually raised their status far above that of the Arabs in the neighboring lands.” 16 

In response to Auni, Dr. Judah Magnes, first president of The Hebrew University, argued that there was sufficient undeveloped and fallow land in the country, which if cultivated using farming procedures they had perfected, would allow for a greater concentration of people. At the turn of the 19th century, for example, a farmer needed at least 250 dunams to subsist. In 1934, the same Arab or Jewish farmer required only 50 dunams that produced even more income than they had previously. 17

In explaining the difference in the relationship of Palestine between Jews and Arabs, Magnes said, “For us, the Land was everything, and there was nothing else. For the Arabs, Palestine was only a small portion of the large and numerous countries.  Even when the Arabs became a minority in Palestine, they would not be a minority in their territory, which extended from the Mediterranean coast to the Persian Gulf, and from the Taurus Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.”18

Ben-Gurion said the Arab position would be similar to the English minority living in Scotland. As part of the United Kingdom, the English were in the majority, even while living in Scotland. The Jews needed to be in the majority in Palestine, otherwise they would become a minority. Auni said the Arab intelligentsia in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Tunis and Morocco felt they were part of “one culture, one past and one nation” although he was not sure the masses shared this view. 19

As far as land sales, Ben-Gurion asserted the issue was non-negotiable.  “We had been compelled to come and settle without the consent of the Arabs, and we would continue to do so in the future if necessary, but we would prefer to act on the basis of an understanding and mutual agreement.” This arrangement would work if the Arabs “recognized our right to return to our land, while we would recognize the right of the Arabs to remain on their land.” If the Arabs agreed to this arrangement, the Jews would assist them financially, politically and morally to achieve the “rebirth and unity of the Arab people.” 20

Chaim Weizmann, Zionist leader and statesman, responded to the same charge:  “Very often I heard from quite benevolent Arabs… you have come to Palestine and you have in your hands the best land in the country. In fact, some of them whom I know said, well, you have really cheated us; we have sold you this and that piece of land very, very cheaply; if we had waited another ten years we could have sold it to you at double or triple the price… My answer to them was, gentlemen, you seem to have forgotten that we have made it into good land; we have made it into good land because we have sunk so much effort into it. If you would do the same, your land would be just as good if not better than ours. Do not reproach us for having improved that part of the land which you have sold us because you could do nothing with it.” 21

By May 1948, Jews owned 1.621 million dunams and leased 181,000 dunams of state land, amounting to 11.4 percent of non-desert area. Sixty-six percent of Jewish land was in the northern valleys and the “fertile accessible coastal plain.” In 1945 they owned 23 percent of the coastal plain, 30 percent in the northern valleys, and four percent of the hill country. 22 Though this was a moderate amount of territory compared to the entire mandated area or the land that became part of Israel’s 1949 armistice lines, this was far less than the five million dunams the Zionists had projected in 1925 to purchase according to historian Kenneth W. Stein. Only the lack of funds impeded Jews from buying more land before and after the establishment of the Mandate. With all the difficulties the Zionists encountered with Arab opposition to land purchases and government legal regulations and restrictions, the land they obtained from the Arabs played a vital role in enabling them to create a Jewish national home.  Their success in procuring property demonstrated that the Zionist dream of redeeming the land could be achieved immediately. 23

A number of factors facilitated this process. The Arab peasants were poor throughout the Ottoman and Mandatory eras.  Inadequate precipitation, dearth of animals capable of hauling heavy loads, ineffective management of agricultural land, small tracts of land, absence of investment capital, indebtedness, and overall disenchantment with government aided the Jews. Indifference of the Palestinian Arab elite to the fellaheen and their willingness to sell their land to Jews further helped the growth of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine). Though the Palestinian Arabs were in the majority during the Mandate, their own lack of economic resources provided the Jewish minority a clear advantage in the attempt to control Palestine. 24

At the same time, the increased sales limited the opportunities available for non-Jewish buyers.  In some cases, Zionist demands for land elevated the cost of the properties beyond their true value. Large purchases by the Jewish National Fund and the Palestine Land Development Company (PLDC} of the Zionist Organization might have prevented price rises since sellers were competing with other buyers. Economists call this monopsonistic when one buyer is offering their product to many sellers. 25 

Financial Risks Involved in Investing In Underdeveloped Rural Land

Not mentioned were the financial risks involved in investing in undeveloped rural land or the Zionist enterprises that failed. Though some early settlements producing oranges became prosperous, a number ended in disaster. Many individuals were ruined or suffered significant financial loss. Diversified settlements and plantation colonies such as Poriah and Rama in the north and Ruchama in the south ended in failure. Some settlements lost capital and their land.  This occurred with the American Achuzah society’s Poriah settlement with 3,545 dunams.  In 1928—17 years after being founded—after losing most of their money, the land ended in forced auction. 26

Sir John Hope Simpson, a British Liberal politician, sent by the British government to investigate the possibilities for future immigration and settlement of Palestine, confirmed this assessment of Jewish colonization since 1930. In the Vale of Esdraelon, between Mount Carmel, Mount Gilboa and the hills of lower Galilee, Simpson reported that “In some villages there are clear signs of success; in others, the opposite is the case. The village of Afuleh, which the American Zionist Commonwealth boomed as the Chicago of Palestine, is a sea of thistles through which one travels for long distances. A plague of field mice, which has done extensive damage to both Jewish and Arab cultivation in the Vale during the present year was officially stated to be due to the fact that 30,000 dunams of the land held by the Jews are derelict and covered with weeds.” 27The failure of these and several other settlements left many “embittered and desperate,” with no option but to leave Palestine. 28

Each purchase was intended to advance the Zionist objective, which explains why the companies did not compete with each other. The Geula Company, which acquired land for development and expansion of agricultural settlements, would not sell to Jews if they might resell the land to Arabs, even if this entailed sacrificing profit or reducing loss. 29 

Arab Leaders Publicly Opposed Selling Land to Jews: Privately They Acted Differently

Though the Arab leadership vigorously protested the sale of land to Jews, Kenneth W. Stein found that large and small Arab landowners were constantly offering to sell their land before and after the Mandate came into existence.  Arabs also acted as intermediaries as we have seen. Even during the period when anti-Zionist and ant-British opinion had reached a feverish pitch, Palestinian Arabs were more preoccupied with their own individual concerns than the emerging Arab national movement. Those less educated Palestinian Arabs with small tracts were more inclined to alienate their land in the 1930s when their economic existence was their principal incentive. 30 

Husseini and Alami publicly expressed their abhorrence to the land sales. The charge is hypocritical for as Dr. Heinrich Wolff, the Nazi German consul in Jerusalem cabled his Berlin office in 1933 these nationalists “in daylight were crying out against Jewish immigration and in the darkness of the night were selling land to the Jews.” 31 On land sold by Jamal-el Husseini, a member of the Gaza branch of the el-Husseini family, kibbutz Kefar-Menachem was established.  In a letter to the Palestine Land Development Company on October 4, 1937, he asked that the mortgage be released on the portion of the land not sold to the Jews, acknowledging that the sellers had completely fulfilled their obligation. Another 120 dunam was purchased from the el-Husseini family to settle with the Arab tenant farmers still living on the land. 32 Fahmi el-Husseini, the mayor of Gaza, amassed and sold considerable tracts of land to the Jewish National Fund. Kibbutz Beeri was established on this land during the first week in October 1946. Other members of the el-Husseini family sold land as well: Ismail Bey el-Husseini near Petah Tikvah to the Jewish National Fund; Jamal el -Husseini in Idhniba; Tawfik el-Husseini, Jamal’s brother and one of the founders of the Arab nationalist youth organization, sold his share owned together with Musa Alami; and the sons of Mussa Khasem el-Husseini, Chairman of the Arab Executive. 33

The prominent Nashashibi family of Jerusalem were also involved. Jadth Nashashibi, a member of the Arab Executive, sold his land to the Jewish National Fund before World War I, which is now Kibbutz Kiryat-Anavim. Ragheb al-Nashashibi, the Mayor of Jerusalem from 1920–1934, sold land on Mt. Scopus to The Hebrew University. 34

Even Arabs who participated in attacks against Jews sold their land to them: in Hadera in May 1921, led the assault in the 1921 riots in Petah-Tikvah, became an agitator of the 1921 riots in Jaffa; participated in the 1929 disturbances, was arrested and later exiled to the Seychelles Island in 1937; became one of the organizers of the 1936-1939 riots; proved funds for a terrorist leader in the 1936 riots. 35

Most of the large landowners in Palestine were in the Arab nationalist movement. Some families were selling land to Jews for three generations, even though the younger family members understood Zionist goals and openly opposed them. In other families, some members were in politics and communal activities, while others were in business including administering to real property the family owned together. In these situations, politicians could vigorously insist the sale of land to Jews be prohibited, while their ownership in property could be sold profitably to Jews. Some politicians concealed their dealings through multiple transfers of title to fictitious agents so their names did not appear on any official documents. Still there are sufficient well-documented records of nationalist public notables who sold land to Jews to prove that they were trying to have both ways. They eagerly sought the economic rewards Zionism generated, but did not want a state with Jews or Zionists. 36  

The Arab community clearly knew their leaders were selling land to Jews, even though the leadership attempted to suppress the facts. This became a public issue when Lewis French, the first director of the British Mandatory Governments Department of Development, wrote in a memorandum to British Government revealing that some members of the Moslem Supreme Council had sold land to Jews and that Arab leaders did not oppose selling surplus land to them. In response to the Arab press’ insistence on printing the seller’s names, the Arab Executive convened a special meeting to assess the demand. The names were never published after many members refused to attend and ultimately the Executive stopped functioning completely. The political leadership reorganized only after the 1936 Arab riots began. 37  

A Final Note

Ways to find a solution to the impasse fell on deaf ears. Speaking for the Palestinian Arab leadership at the London Conference in February 1939, Jamal Husseini was adamant about: preventing further Jewish immigration lest they become the majority in Palestine; precluding Jews from purchasing Arab lands; abandoning the idea of establishing a Jewish National Home; abrogating the British Mandate and replacing it with a treaty comparable to the one between Great Britain and Iraq, creating an independent Arab state in Palestine. 38   

The Palestinian Arab delegation and the British Government could not have predicted that the independent Jewish state of Israel would be founded in less thanten years later in an area 77 percent of the area of Palestine west of Jordan. Neither would they have envisioned that the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that invaded the new state would be defeated by the Israeli army—even though the population of the invading countries totaled 30 million, and that of the restored state of Israel numbered 650,000. 39

For all the aforementioned well documented reasons, the evidence is clear that Jewish purchases of the tracts of formerly Arab-owned landed was part of a systematic Arab disposition of real property for which they envisioned no productive return by further holding on.  The transactions were made freely, with no coercion, and with well-defined, recognizable economic benefit to the sellers, but significant financial risk to the purchasers.  Any argument to the contrary defies fact and proof.

Footnotes

  1. Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens, Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (New York: Verso, 1988), 1, 7-8; Moshe Aumann, “Land ownership in Palestine, 1880-1948,” in The Middle East Reader, Michael Curtis, Ed. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1986), 247-254; Mazin Qumsiyeh, “Palestinians do have options for change and resistance,” Ma’an News Agency (August 10, 2013); Hussein Abu Hussein and Fiona McKay,Access Denied: Palestinian Access to Land in Israel (New York: Zed Books, 2003); Alexander Safian, “Can Arabs Buy Land in Israel?” Middle East Quarterly(December 1997); Thomas Friedman, “Something for Barack and Bibi to Talk About,” The New York Times (November 16, 2013).
  2. S. Ilan Troen, Imagining Zion: Dreams, Designs, and Realities in a Century of Jewish Settlement (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003), 70, 90-91, 159.
  3. Simon H. Rifkind, et. al. The Basic Equities of the Palestine Problem (New York: Arno Press, 1977), .45.
  4. Clay Lowdermilk, Palestine land of Promise Third Edition (New York Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1944), 21.
  5. Henry Baker Tristram, The Land of Israel: A Journal of Travels in Palestine(London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1865), 490.
  6. Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Sinai and Palestine in Connection with Their History(New York: A.C. Armstrong & Sons, 1895), 184-186.
  7. George Adam Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land (London: The Fontana Library Edition, 1974), 208, 215); see also Philip J. Baldensperger, The Immovable East: Studies of the People and Customs of Palestine (London: Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd.), 1, 144, 247.
  8. Hillel Cohen, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948 (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2008), 25, 31-32.
  9. Jacob Metzer, The divided economy of Mandatory Palestine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 86);The Jewish Agency was recognized body by the Mandate for Palestine as the advisory body for economic, social and other areas affecting the National Jewish Home; Kenneth W. Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917—1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984),32.
  10. David Ben-Gurion, My Talks with Arab Leaders (Jerusalem: Keter Books, 1972), 18.
  11. “Palestine Royal Commission Report,” (London: England: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, July 1937): Cmd 5479:242 paragraph 66.
  12. Ibid. paragraph 65.
  13. Esco Foundation for Palestine, Inc. Palestine, A Study of Jewish, Arab, and British Policies Volume Two (New Haven: Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1947):719.
  14. Ibid. 240 paragraph 61.
  15. Esco Foundation for Palestine, op.cit. 720.
  16. Lowdermilk, op.cit.163.
  17. Ben-Gurion, My Talks with Arab Leaders, op.cit.18-21); to appreciate the issues the British encountered in dealing with the local definitions of property rights please see Martin Bunton, Colonial Land Policies in Palestine 1917-1936(New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)
  18. Ben-Gurion, My Talks with Arab Leaders, op.cit.21.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.19-21.
  21. Official Records of the Second Session of the General Assembly Supplement No.11 United Nations Special Committee on Palestine Volume III (July 8, 1947); Richard H.S. Crossman, “The Balfour Declaration 1917-1967,” Midstream(December 1967): 21-28.; Ibid. 19-21.
  22. Metzer, op.cit. 86.
  23. Stein, op.cit.39.
  24. Ibid. 34.
  25. Metzer, op.cit.87.
  26. A.Granovsky, Land Settlement in Palestine (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd. 1930), 14-17); Joseph B. Glass, American Jewish Immigration and Settlement in Palestine 1917-1939 (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2002), 138-139, 151, 156-180,186-187.
  27. Sir John Hope Simpson, “PALESTINE. Report on Immigration, Land Settlement and Development,” presented by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Parliament by Command of His Majesty (London: his Majesty’s Stationery Office: October, 1930): 17; Shalom Reichman, Yossi Katz, Yair Paz, “The Absorptive Capacity of Palestine, 1882–1948,” Middle Eastern Studies Volume 33, Number 2 (April 1997): 338-361.
  28. A.Granovsky, op.cit. 14-17; Joseph B. Glass, op.cit.138-139, 151, 156-180,186-187.
  29. Yossi Katz, “Private Zionist Initiative and the Settlement Enterprise in Eretz-Israel in the Early 1900’s”’Natiotionalist Capitalism” of Private Capital,” in The Land That Became Israel, Ruth Kark, Ed. (New Haven and Jerusalem: Yale University Press and the Hebrew University, 1990), 278,280, 283; Yossi Ben Artzi, “Traditional and Modern Rural Settlement Types in Eretz-Israel in the Modern Era,” Ruth Kark, op.cit. 133-146; Irit Amit, “American Jewry and the Settlement of Palestine Zion Commonwealth, Inc.,” Ruth Kark, op.cit. 250-271; Glass, op.cit. 141-142.
  30. Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917—1939, op.cit. 32, 37 70; Cohen, op.cit. 173.
  31. Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1998 (New York: Vintage, 2001), 123.
  32. Arieh L. Avneri, The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land Settlement and the Arabs 1878-1948 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 2006), 219-220.
  33. Ibid. 229-230.
  34. Ibid.230-231.
  35. Ibid. 227-230.
  36. Avneri, op.cit. 226-227; for a full list of Arab notable who sold land to Jews see Avneri, op.cit.227-231; Stein, Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939 op.cit. 228-238.
  37. Avneri, op.cit. 44, 223-234.
  38. Ben-Gurion, My Talks with Arab Leaders, op.cit. 216-217.
  39. Ibid. 266.