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Jews and the Land of Israel: Part XIV: Did Land Sales Cause “Displacement and Uprooting” of Arabs?

*Editor’s Note: This is the fourteenth installment in the most recent series of articles from Jewish Press Online contributor, Alex Grobman, PhD

The Arab allegation that the growth of the Jewish national home precipitated the displacement of the Arabs is not true. Political economist Arthur Ruppin, known as “the father of Zionist settlement,” who served as the director of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization, responsible for procuring land and establishing Jewish settlements throughout Palestine, and Eliezer Siegfried Hoofien, director general of the Anglo-Palestine Bank, rejected the claim that Jewish immigration and development had adversely affected the Arabs. In testimony before the Shaw Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August 1929 established by the British to investigate the violent rioting in Palestine in late August 1929, Hoofien noted the role Jewish capital had played in the development of Palestine after WWI. Ruppin explained although Jewish land companies were not legally bound to provide financial compensation to Arabs whose land had been purchased, the companies had voluntarily paid sizeable sums to facilitate Arab tenants ability to procure or lease land elsewhere after the Esdraelon Valley, in northern Israel, had been purchased. [1]

“I am very much concerned” declared Lieutenant-Colonel F. H. Kisch, Chairman of the Jerusalem Zionist Executive, at the “agitation…among the Arabs against further Jewish land purchases in the Emek [Yisrael, The Valley of Jezreel]. “This agitation,” he wrote in his diary on September 24, 1924, “is fundamentally political, but is being given the character of a movement to safeguard the interests of the fellaheen. We are, of course, always careful to make generous arrangements for the benefit of any Arabs who may be living on land which we acquire.” [2]

Ruppin refuted the view that Palestine could not sustain a larger agricultural population by suggesting that the proper use of irrigation could make the land significantly more productive. Moshe Smilansky, a universally respected authority on Palestine, cited Rehovot as an example: 38 years before the Jews purchased the land, it was a barren area where only a dozen Arabs lived. After the Jews cultivated Rehovot, there were 2,500 people living there, benefiting both Jews and Arabs. The funds Arabs received from selling part of their land enabled them to pay their debt to the effendis (Arab property owners) and improve their farming methods. Compared to their previous position, they were experiencing “prosperity and a high standard of living.” [3]

Throughout the Ottoman and Mandatory eras, the Arab peasants were poor. Insufficient precipitation, scarcity of animals capable of hauling heavy loads, ineffective administration of agricultural land, small size of tracts of land, absence of investment capital, indebtedness, and overall disenchantment with government aided the Jews. Indifference of the Palestinian Arab elite to the Arab fellaheen and their willingness to sell their land to Jews further aided the growth of the Yishuv. As historian Kenneth Stein concluded, “the Palestinian Arab community was unquestionably a numerical majority throughout the Mandate, but its own financial distress gave the Zionist minority a distinct advantage in in the struggle to control Palestine.” [4]

At the same time, the increased sales limited the opportunities available for non-Jewish buyers. In some situations, 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 monopolistic when one buyer is offering their product to many sellers. [5]

Not discussed were the economic risks entailed in investing in undeveloped rural land or the Zionist enterprises that failed. Though some early settlements producing oranges became prosperous, a number of them 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. In some cases, the settlements lost capital and even 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.[6]

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 analysis of mixed results with regard to Jewish colonization since 1930. 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.” [7]

Every acquisition was designed to advance the Zionist goal, not for commercial speculation. Jewish Zionist companies created to purchase the land did not compete with each other for the same parcels, even if the transaction would have yielded substantial profits for them. Whatever profits resulted from

their activities were used to further development of Eretz Israel. 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. [8]

From 1917 to 1939 the Zionists “created a territorial nucleus for a Jewish state.” They were determined that their objective would not be deterred either by the “splintered Arab community” or by the “British administration that became increasingly paternalistic toward the Palestinian Arabs.” ([9] Kirsch confirmed this British attitude when on June 15, 1930 he “referred to a tendency apparent in some [British] official circles to regard Jewish colonization in Palestine as something to be tolerated in so far as it benefits the Arabs, but to be neither encouraged nor tolerated for its own sake.” [10]


[1] Palestine: A Study if Jewish, Arab, and British Policies Esco Foundation for Palestine, Inc. Volume One (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947), 618.

[2] F.H. Kisch, Palestine Diary (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1938),144; 154-155.

[3] Palestine: A Study if Jewish, Arab, and British Policies op.cit. 618-619, 654.

[4] Kenneth Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917—1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984),34.

[5] Jacob Metzer, The Divided Economy of Mandatory Palestine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998),87.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.) The failure of these and several other settlements left many “embittered and desperate,” with no option but to leave Palestine; A.Granovsky, op.cit. 14-17); Joseph B. Glass, op.cit.138-139, 151, 156-180,186-187.

[8] 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.

[9] Stein, op.cit. 34.

[10] Kirsch, op.cit.312.

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