MYTH … Jews stole Arab land.

FACT … Despite the growth in their population, the Arabs continued to assert they were being displaced.

From the beginning of World War I, how-ever, part of Palestine’s land was owned by absentee landlords who lived in Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut.  About 80 percent of the Palestinian Arabs were debt-ridden peasants, seminomads, and Bedouins.

Jews actually went out of their way to avoid purchasing land in areas where Arabs might be displaced. They sought land that was largely uncultivated, swampy, cheap, and—most important—without tenants.

In 1920, Labor Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion expressed his concern about the Arab fellahin, whom he viewed as “the most important asset of the native population.”  Ben-Gurion said “under no circumstances must we touch land belonging to fellahs or worked by them.”   He advocated helping liberate them from their oppressors.  “Only if a fellah leaves his place of settlement,” Ben-Gurion added, “should we offer to buy his land, at an appropriate price.”

It was only after the Jews had bought all of the available uncultivated land that they began to purchase cultivated land.   Many Arabs were willing to sell because of the migration to coastal towns and because they needed money to invest in the citrus industry.

When John Hope Simpson arrived in Palestine in May 1930, he observed, “They [the Jews] paid high prices for the land and, in addition, they paid to certain of the occupants of those lands a considerable amount of money which they were not legally bound to pay.”

In 1931, Lewis French conducted a survey of landlessness for the British government and offered new plots to any Arabs who had been “dispossessed.” British officials received more than three thousand applications, of which 80 percent were ruled invalid by the government’s legal adviser because the applicants were not landless Arabs.  This left only about six hundred landless Arabs, one hundred of whom accepted the government land offer.  In April 1936, a new outbreak of Arab attacks on Jews was instigated,

MYTHS AND FACTS by local Palestinian leaders who were later joined by Arab volunteers led by a Syrian guerrilla named Fawzi al-Qawukji, the commander of the Arab Liberation Army.

By November, when the British finally sent a new commission headed by Lord Peel to investigate, eighty-nine Jews had been killed and more than three hundred wounded.  The Peel Commission’s report found that Arab complaints about Jewish land acquisition were baseless.  It pointed out that “much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamp and uncultivated when it was purchased…[T]here was at the time of the earlier sales little evidence that the owners possessed either the resources or training needed to develop the land.”

Moreover, the Commission found the shortage was “due less to the amount of land acquired by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population.”   The report concluded that the presence of Jews in Palestine, along with the work of the British administration, had resulted in higher wages, an improved standard of living, and ample employment opportunities.

It is made quite clear to all, both by the map drawn up by the Simpson Commission and by another compiled by the Peel Commission, that the Arabs are as prodigal in selling their land as they are in useless wailing and weeping (emphasis in the original).—Transjordan’s King Abdullah

Even at the height of the Arab revolt in 1938 (which began in April 1936 with the murder of two Jews by Arabs and the subsequent murder of two Arab workers by members of the Jewish underground, the British high commissioner to Palestine believed the Arab landowners were complaining about sales to Jews to drive up prices for lands they wished to sell.

Many Arab landowners had been so terrorized by Arab rebels they decided to leave Palestine and sell their property to the Jews.  The Jews were paying exorbitant prices to wealthy landowners for small tracts of arid land.  “In 1944, Jews paid between $1,000 and $1,100 per acre in Palestine, mostly for arid or semiarid land; in the same year, rich black soil in Iowa was selling for about $110 per acre.” 

By 1947, Jewish holdings in Palestine amounted to about 463,000 acres.   Approximately forty-five thousand of these acres were acquired from the mandatory government, thirty thousand were bought from various churches, and 387,500 were purchased from Arabs.

Analyses of land purchases from 1880 to 1948 show that 73 percent of Jewish plots were purchased from large landowners, not poor fellahin.  Those who sold land included the mayors of Gaza, Jerusalem and As’ad el-Shuqeiri, a Muslim religious scholar and father of Pales-tine Liberation Organization chairman Ahmed Shuqeiri, took Jewish money for his land.   Even King Abdullah leased land to the Jews.   In fact, many leaders of the Arab nationalist movement, including members of the Muslim Supreme Council, sold land to Jews.


Published with the permission of American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise – AICE.

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