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Land Ownership in Palestine/Israel
By Nasser Abufarha

Control over territories, land use, and ownership are central issues to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. What follows is a historical overview of the system of land ownership in Palestine, including an examination of the methods by which the Israeli government and Jewish agencies acquired land in Palestine.


Palestinian Land Ownership

The majority of the lands in Palestine were the properties of the Palestinian rural population, the fellahin. In the process of the creation of the state of Israel, over 418 Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed. Bedouin semi-nomadic tribes were displaced and 104 Palestinian populated villages remained under Israeli control.

Understanding the culture of the fellahin is key to understanding the system of land ownership in Palestine. Referring to the fellahin of Palestine as peasants, as they are often referred to, is an unfair misrepresentation of Palestinian society and culture to say the very least. A peasant in European culture is a farming worker with little or no land ownership. The fellahin of Palestine are rural farming communities with communal shared ownership of the land and own the means of cultivation.

The concept of the peasant did exist in the culture of the fellahin and the term applied to it is qatruz. The qatruz is a farming worker with little or no land ownership that has no possession of working animals. The qatruz would work for landowners for a share of the harvest. Although the concept of the peasant (qatruz) existed in Palestinian society, it was not widespread due to the communal nature of the culture of the fellahin.

To understand the land ownership system in the society of the fellahin, one needs to understand the concept of the feddan. There is widespread misconception that the feddan is a unit of measurement for an area of land. This is an inaccurate understanding of the concept. The feddan is a measurement of a share of land that varies in size from village to village and may vary from year to year, even within the same village.

Villages owned their land collectively by the village residents or by the hamoula (family). Physical features and traditional names of lands were used to describe the boundaries of a certain village land and were respected by neighboring villages. In the plowing and seeding season, lands were divided between village residents every fall based on ability to cultivate. Zalameh wa 'ammal (a man and a working animal) would get one feddan share. A man without 'ammal would get half a feddan. A man would get half a feddan for each additional working animal he owned that was available for work.

This system was used by the villages for the distribution of ardh as-sahil (the lands of the fields) for cultivation. The concept is still used today in some villages in the West Bank. In the village of Sanour between Nablus and Jenin, residents of the village have collective ownership of Marj Sanour (the Sanour Plains). The residents of Sanour divide the land among themselves every year based on manpower. With the introduction of tractors, the working animal is no longer counted. The new measurement of share today is zalameh (a man), which is based on the man only. People get a zalameh, half a zalameh, or a quarter zalameh as their share today. In the mountains or the hillside, people had individual or family ownership of orchards or land with trees (ardh mushajjara). Ownership was based on planting and maintaining trees or by inheritance. Boundaries marked by the cactus trees or sinisleh (walls built by collecting stones and stacking them at the boundaries) were respected by everyone. Boundaries for grazing grounds for the semi-nomadic tribes were also respected out of tradition with reference to land names.

In 1858 the Ottoman Authority introduced the law of tabu to establish rights of land ownership. Landowners were instructed to have their property inscribed in the land register. The tabu was resisted by the fellahin. They saw a threat to their community in registering their land for two main reasons: 1) the cultivated fields were classified as ardh ameriyeh (the land of the emirate) and were taxed, so owners of registered fertile land were forced to pay tax on it; 2) data from the land register were used by the Turkish Army for the purpose of the draft. Owners of registered lands were often drafted to fight with the Turkish Army in Russia.

The Turkish Land Register was not able to document the state of land ownership in Palestine (Falah, 1983). People continued their traditional communal ownership of the land. This tradition continued with the exception of some families or individuals who took advantage of the loose manner in which the tabu registered lands. They registered large pieces of land that were not necessarily theirs in their names, especially those who held positions in government.

Under the British system, the Land Settlement Ordinance was introduced in 1928. Rights of ownership were confirmed only after the land survey was completed. The registration of land was to be in the names of specific individuals and not in the name of the village, the family, or the tribe (Falah, 1983). This was an attempt to break village or tribe solidarity and an effort to promote the capitalist system of private ownership and individualism. The British Land Settlement Ordinance was resisted by fellahin society mainly because it did not allow for their tradition of collective ownership. Individual ownership posed a threat to the power structure in the village social order. The village mukhtar and wujuh el-'alih (the notables of the family) and the Bedouin tribes' sheikhs took their power from this system of collective land ownership.

In addition to the practical reason mentioned above, the fellahin saw the land register as an insult to tradition. This system had been working for generations as an efficient and fair use and distribution of the land. The fellahin were also too proud to involve the government in the protection of their land. It has been said that when the land register arrived at the village of Al-silehal-harthiyeh, west of Jenin, to register their land, the reply by the mukhtar of the Jaradat family was "lesh insajilha, hay il-ardh u hay el-asayel fiha, khalli izalameh yiqareb alayha" (Why register it, this is the land and here are the Arabian horses on it. Let he who dares come near it). The Arabian horses are a symbol of power. The Jaradat family still cultivates their land today and does not have any form of deed or title to it.

At the time of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and its success in taking control of the majority of Palestine, most of the lands in the rural areas were owned by the villages collectively and there was little individual land ownership in the countryside or for the members of the Bedouin tribes. This traditional system of ownership that existed for generations on the land was not recognized by Israel.

Jewish Land Ownership in Palestine

The process of land acquisition by the Jewish agencies and the Israeli government in Palestine is a rather complex intertwined process. An effort is made here to shed light on these processes as briefly as possible. Most of the information presented here is compiled from Sabri Jiriye's work on the subject, which is based on Israeli government records.

Once the Zionist movement adopted the idea of establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine, it approved buying land in Palestine at its sixth convention in 1903. The movement was successful in buying the first land in 1905 and in 1907 the Jewish National Fund (Kayron Kayem) was officially registered in Britain. Its goals were declared to buy lands in Palestine. This was the Zionist central arm for land acquisition in Palestine (Jiryis, 1973).

After 42 years of organized well-funded efforts on the part of the Zionist organization, the total Jewish ownership of land in Palestine in 1947 was 1,734,000 dunums or 1,734 square kilometers, which is 6.6% of the total land. The Jewish National Fund owned 933,000 dunums out of the total Jewish-owned land of Palestine (Jiryis, 1973). Some of these lands were sold to the Zionist Agency by individuals who were not the rightful owners of the land, but used their positions in previous governments to register large portions of lands to their names.

The Palestinian land confiscation for Jewish settlement started well before the establishment of the state of Israel. The British Authority in Palestine was preparing the country for the creation of the Jewish national homeland. The mandatory authority introduced the Woods and Forest Ordinance in 1920, which was designed to confiscate lands that were largely utilized as grazing grounds by the Bedouin community and the rural population. These lands were then classified as state forest owned by the state. Table 1 shows the acceleration of this confiscation process. The forest reserves were defined by the British Authority as "provincial reservation of scrub areas which are being protected so far as possible pending land settlement" (Falah, 1983, p. 29).

Table 1: Forest Reservation in Palestine Under the British Mandate 1926-1947

Area in Dunums
Northern Region
Area in Dunums
Southern Region

Source: Adopted from Ghazi Falah, the role of the British Administration in the Sedentarization of the Bedouin Tribes in Northern Palestine, 1983.

With the establishment of the state of Israel on May 15, 1948, these lands were regarded as Israeli state lands. As Israel took control of all the territories that were allocated to the Jewish state in addition to nearly 50% of the territories allocated to the Arab state under the 1947 UN partition plan, a total of 15,025,000 dunum were considered state lands. These lands include the lands that were classified as forest by the British Authority and any other lands that were not titled to individuals i.e. village lands (Jiryis, 1973). The state also implemented measures and passed various laws that were employed to transfer land ownership to the Jewish agencies and settlements.

On May 13, 1948, two days before the declaration of independence of the state of Israel, Ben Gurion summoned the administration of the Jewish National Fund, offering to sell to the agency two million dunums of the lands under Jewish militia control at a price of half a Lira per dunum. The Jewish National Fund rejected the deal but accepted it after the declaration of independence (Jiryis, 1973).

As a result of the 1948 war and the armistice agreements Israel reached with Egypt and Jordan, Israel controlled 20.5 million dunums of the total land of Palestine, representing 78% of the land. The vast majority of these lands were owned by Palestinian residents who were evacuated from their villages or who fled their homes during the war.

In September 1948 a Trustee on Absentee Properties was appointed by the state of Israel and the state issued measures to organize the seizure and the allocation of these properties. On March 15, 1950 the Israeli Knesset passed the Law of the Absentee Properties Law #5710. This law considered, among other factors, the Trustee on the Absentee Properties as the legitimate owner of these properties and gave him the authority to sell and transfer ownership of such properties to the Israeli Department of Construction and Development (Jiryis, 1973).

In September 1953 the Trustee on Absentee Properties executed a contract with the Israeli Department of Construction and Development whereby he transferred ownership of all the lands under his control to the department. The price for these properties was to be retained by the Israeli Department of Construction and Development as a loan. At the same time, the Trustee on the Absentee Properties transferred the ownership of the houses and commercial buildings in the cities to Amidar, an Israeli company set up to settle Jewish immigrants (Jiryis, 1973).

Three months before this transfer of ownership to the Department of Construction and Development, the Jewish National Fund had executed a contract with the Israeli Department of Construction and Development whereby the department would sell a total of 2,373,677 dunums of state lands and lands of the department to the Jewish National Fund. The deal was completed after the department completed its transaction with the Trustee. Following this transaction, the Jewish National Fund "ownership" totaled over 90% of the total territories that fell under the control of the state of Israel. These properties are referred to as the "nation's land" limited to the use of Jews (Jiryis, 1973).

The third phase of Israeli land acquisition in Palestine was the confiscation of the lands of the remaining Palestinian villages in what is now Israel. The Israelis used military, acts of ethnic cleansing along with legal maneuvers to confiscate these lands.

Ethnic Cleansing and Land Confiscation

The ethnic cleansing campaign started in the 1948 war where by the Jewish militias ethnicly cleansed 418 Palestinian villages, seized their properties and depopulated 11 Palestinian cities and took them for their own use. The 1948 war was not the only cycle of ethnic cleansing, between October 1948 to November 1949, the Israeli army evacuated the villages of al-Safsaf, Iqrit, Kufr Biram, Kufr 'Anan, Khasas, Jau'neh, Qayttiyeh, al-Ghabasiyya, al-Majdal, and al-Battat and later seized all of their properties. In 1951 the Israeli army evacuated 13 villages in the triangle area and seized their properties. In October 1956 the Israeli army forced the Palestinian Bedouin tribe al-Bakara to cross the border into Syria. In October 1959 some Bedouin tribes in the Negev desert were forced to cross the borders into Egypt and Jordan. The lands for all these villages and tribes were confiscated after their cleansing (Jiryis, 1973).

Legal Maneuvers

The Israeli government was so concerned to legalize its confiscation process in the Israeli legal system in order to legitimize its ownership of confiscated properties. Various laws were introduced to accomplish this task. When the Absentee Law was introduced, it considered all the properties of the exiled Palestinians as absentee property. It also considered any person who left his home between November 29, 1947 (the UN partition of Palestine) and June 19, 1948 (the day the Israeli government declared an end to the state of emergency) an absentee as well. According to this definition of an absentee, over 30,000 Palestinians who remained in what became Israel after the war were considered absentees and their properties were confiscated. Also under the absentee law, the properties of the Islamic endowments were all confiscated (Jiryis, 1973). These legal maneuvers continued from the 1950's to the present as the Israeli government introduced various laws to present some "logic" to its policies of land confiscation from their rightful owners.

The Use of Emergency Laws

Law 125 gives the military officers the discretion to declare certain areas closed military areas where people can only enter such an area by permit from the Israeli Army Chief of Staff. The Israeli Army considered the 12 villages in the Galilee as closed military zones and prevented their residents from returning to them after orders of evacuation for security purposes (Jiryis, 1973).

The Use of Security Zones Law 5709 granted the Defense Minister the authority to declare any area within a 35 Kilometer-wide stretch along the Lebanese border and near Gaza as a closed security zone and granted him the ability to order residents of such areas to evacuate for security reasons. The villages of Iqrit and Kufr Biram were declared security zones and evacuated on November 5, 1948. Later on December 25, 1951 the village of Iqrit was destroyed and its lands totaling 15,650 dunums were confiscated. The village of Kufr Biram was destroyed on September 16, 1953 and the village lands totaling 11,700 dunums were also confiscated. Also the village of Khasas near the Syrian border was evacuated under the same law in 1949 (Jiryis, 1973).

The Introduction of Utilization of Vacant Lands Laws

These regulations granted the Ministry of Agriculture the ability to acquire any unutilized lands that are "neglected" or "abandoned" by its owners to ensure proper and efficient use. Using Article 24 of Law 5709 of these regulations, the Ministry of Agriculture legalized some Kibbutz seizure of neighboring Palestinian villages' lands (Jiryis, 1973).

These laws were used in conjunction with security laws to confiscate lands. The Army would declare an area as a closed military zone, barring farmers from reaching their fields. At a later point the Ministry of Agriculture issued confiscation orders regarding these fields due to 'neglect' by their owners. And then the army officers would issue permits for the settlers to whom the lands were assigned by the Department of Agriculture.

Introduction of Measures to Confiscate Properties in the Palestinian Cities Law 5710, Article 3, grants the government the right to appoint a Special Authority that has the right to issue orders to confiscate real estate that "may be necessary for the protection of the country and general security or for the absorption of returnees or for the relief of discharged soldiers. This law at first limited the use of such properties to a period of three years. Then before the end of the term, the period was extended for six more years. And then, before the end of the six years, it was adjusted to give the right to the Special Authority to extend the term indefinitely if the Authority considers it necessary for the general security of Israel (Jiryis, 1973).

The second phase of seizing the properties of the Palestinians living in what is now Israel was the transfer of ownership of these properties to Jewish hands. In 1953 Law 5713 was introduced which granted the Minister of Finance the ability to transfer ownership of properties confiscated by the previous laws over the last five years to the Israeli Department of Construction and Development. Article 2 of this law states that if the Minister of Finance issues a certificate on a property, it must meet the following three conditions:

1. It was not as of April 1, 1952 under the control of its owner.

2. It was designated for the period between July 14, 1948 and April 1, 1952 for development, settlement, or security.

3. The property is still needed for any of the purposes in item 2.

If a property meets these conditions, then the property will be transferred to the ownership of the Israeli Department of Construction and Development (Jiryis, 1973).

During the 1950s the government of Israel transferred ownership of the majority of the lands that belonged to the Palestinians who remained in what became Israel to the state. A total of 704,809 dunums were lost from the lands of 78 populated Palestinian villages. These figures do not include an additional 26 villages.

Similarly, the Palestinian Bedouin community in the Negev desert suffered a similar loss in land in the same period. However, since the Bedouin community owned vast pieces of land as fields and grazing grounds, Israel is still on a continuous campaign to seize more of their lands by limiting their movement and forcing their urbanization through orders of security concerns. The process of land confiscation of the Palestinian residents of what is now Israel continues to this day, but on a smaller scale in the Galilee and continues on a large scale in the south region.

The next round of Israeli land acquisition was the occupation of the remaining Palestinian territories, the West Bank and Gaza, in June 1967. Israel used the same methods for confiscation of the lands in the West Bank and Gaza. The lands that were classified as forest under the British rule were confiscated as state lands. The use of the Absentee Law was used in the West Bank and Gaza in the same manner. Other lands were confiscated for military use or security purposes. The final phase of transferring the lands Israel confiscated in the West Bank and Gaza is being carried out today through the Oslo Peace Process.

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