Did Jews Steal Arab Land?
In an article in the NYTimes of January 15, 2023, entitled “Will the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem Be Built on Confiscated Palestinian Land?” Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at Columbia University, accused Israel of stealing Arab lands.
Below is an article debunking this lie.
During Operation Guardian of the Walls, Hamas accused Israel of being the aggressor, even though during the 11 days of the conflict, they launched more than 4,360 rockets at Israeli population centers. Aside from wanting to slaughter and maim as many Jews as possible, Hamas sought to demoralize Israelis and convince them that their country is unjust and morally bankrupt. The late Edward Said, a pro-Palestinian Arab activist and a professor at Columbia University, accused the Zionists of being responsible for Palestinian Arabs becoming victims of Zionism, destroying their society, stealing their land, and forcing them into a dreadful exile.
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 environmental and myriad other obstacles they encountered in purchasing the land and how they overcame them, should debunk this lie.
Historian Ilan Troen explains that Jews who settled in the Yishuv came to a land that was sparsely populated and economically underdeveloped, with sizable regions of desert, semi-arid 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 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.”
Buying and Reviving the Land
The task facing the early Jewish pioneers in purchasing land and reviving ignored desert regions, malarial valleys, swamps, hills and sand seemed almost insurmountable, noted the late Judge Simon H. Rifkind. 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 choked 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.”
Islamic expert Hillel Cohen found that even with the restrictions enacted by the Ottoman government and the growing public Arab hostility against such purchases, the Zionists succeeded in buying more than 420,000 dunams (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. A reasonable observer would note that there is no evidence of coercion in these land sales and that the sellers at the time (later recriminations notwithstanding) concluded they were getting at least fair value for the properties involved, thereby contributing to the overall economic well-being of their own local communities.
Land sold by Arabs to Jews accounted for 40% of all registered sales in Palestine between 1929 and 1946 according to economic historian Jacob Metzer. From a high of 54% of all Arab land sold from 1929-1939, the number declined to 22% from 1940-1946. The decrease in the 1940s probably occurred because 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 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.
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), 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.
Is this attack justified? The Palestine Royal Commission sent to suggest modifications to the British Mandate 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 today, 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.”
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,” which rapidly grew because of better conditions created by the Jews. According to the Esco Foundation for Palestine, 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.
Did Jews Dispossess the Arabs?
In terms of dispossessing the Arabs, The Royal 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.”
The Commission determined: “The Arabs would be no better with a larger population than today 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.” 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.”
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, a farmer needed at least 250 dunams to subsist. In 1934, the same farmer required only 50 dunams that produced even more income than they had previously.
As far as land sales, David 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.”
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 10 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.”
By May 1948, Metzger said, Jews owned 1.621 million dunams and leased 181,000 dunams of state land, amounting to 11.4% of non-desert area; 66% of Jewish land was in the northern valleys and the “fertile accessible coastal plain.” In 1945 they owned 23% of the coastal plain, 30% in the northern valleys, and 4% of the hill country. Historian Kenneth W. Stein said 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 5 million dunams the Zionists had projected in 1925 to purchase. Only the lack of funds impeded Jews from buying more land. The land they obtained from the Arabs played a vital role in enabling them to create a Jewish national home.
One Final Point
Several factors facilitated this process Stein contends. 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.
Alex Grobman is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and on the advisory board of The National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI).