Abstract

This article discusses the rise and failure of private horticultural farming by Palestinian leaders and middle-class developers in the Beisan valley in the 1930s. This focus broadens and deepens our understanding of the colonial encounter in Palestine. Although the Palestinian middle class appears prominently in the political narratives of the struggle, this group has been paradoxically deemphasized in the social history of capital and settler accumulation and dispossession. By correcting this bias, the article seeks to develop a more inclusive narrative concerning private property in land in the settler-colonial predicament as a process of double loss: of Indigenous land relations and ecologies, on the one hand, and national life and territory, on the other. To do so, the article privileges an actor-based history, which captures both the development of political and economic practices and traditions, as well as the long and deep effects of governmental structures of dispossession.

In the early 1930s, Palestinian leaders, intellectuals, government employees, professionals, and traders rushed to take advantage of new possibilities of horticultural farming in the Beisan valley. They either established private farms or bought shares in shareholder companies to develop agricultural production. They were motivated by the promise of good financial returns as well as the pride of answering the national call to engage in “economic struggle” to prevent land sales to Zionist settlers. Quite quickly, however, problems arose, and a series of obstacles reduced their efforts to shambles. To minimize their capital losses, many decided to sell their land. Shadow buyers awaited, and many of their properties ended up in the possession of the what was then the strongest Zionist land-purchasing agency, the Jewish National Fund (JNF). These Palestinians’ efforts to save the nation's land became enmeshed in a general narrative about elite complicity with colonial rule and the settler-colonial movement that uprooted them as a nation from their land.1

The aim of this article is to retell the stories of these middle-class Palestinian owners in Beisan. To tell these stories from the 1930s and 1940s, I found it important to return to the late Ottoman period, to understand the political imagination that motivated people in choosing certain forms of investment and the conditions of (im)possibility of those investments. Through exposing the nuances and specificities of individual stories and reading them in the long historical arc of property relations and political violence, I argue against eclipsing the native elite's history within the settler-colonial narrative.2 Palestinian criticism of the national elite had, paradoxically, accepted the basic premise of this narrative, regarding the Palestinian elite as a mediatory class that was structurally dependent on and hence politically subservient to the colonial state.3 With this framing, important questions on the structures of power and the complex transformation of Palestinian society under colonial rule and settler-colonial power were eschewed. Sherene Seikaly's recent book on the Palestinian business class in the 1930s and 1940s offers a model for a more nuanced critique of colonial modernity and class formation that enriches our understanding of Palestinian history.4 Bringing the Palestinian middle class into the picture of the land struggle also furthers this approach. From this angle, the history of private property in land appears as a process of double loss. First, there is a loss of Indigenous land relations and ecologies to capitalist developments that put the interests and needs of the state and its elites ahead of the needs of people living, working, and subsisting on the land. Second, there is a loss of territory to the settlers, a distinct process of concentration of political violence masked by narratives of universal property rights.

The article proceeds with an overview of the existing literature, followed by two main segments. First, it traces the rise of private farms in the Beisan valley in the context of late Ottoman state-sponsored “enclosures” that gave birth to a new class of absentee landlords and opened a limited space for settler-colonial accumulation. The discussion explores the rise of a counterdevelopmental discourse and its manifestation in Beisan, which framed middle class land developers as the true agents of national development, as opposed to the wealthy capitalist landed elite. The discussion then moves to trace the impact of colonial land allotment on this middle-class project. While increasing the powers of private property rights, colonial rule both exacerbated peasant loss to the local elite and left the latter profoundly insecure and venerable to national dispossession by the settler project. The discussion ends with an attempt to rethink the meaning of private land gains and losses as symptoms of this double process.

Literature Overview

There is a plethora of writings on the land question in Palestine before 1948, but most of the analysis in this literature lacks a synthetic framing, especially one that can capture Palestinian lives and land struggles over time. Mainstream narratives narrow Palestinian agency to individual acts of sale, which are paradoxically laden with signification and yet detached from both personal meanings and structural dimensions. Identifying major gaps in the literature may be useful to clarify this point.

Broadly, there are three major approaches in the academic debate (I leave out the plethora of propagandist literature on the subject) that pertain specifically to the question of Palestinian land loss: the quantitative/absolutist, the socioeconomic, and the juridical/discursive. There are certain overlaps between these approaches, but it is still useful to distinguish between them. First there is the quantitative/absolutist, by which I mean the recurring question of how much land was sold to the Zionists and by whom. The mainstream Zionist narrative refers to the fact that enough Palestinians, especially members of the elite, either sold land or were complicit (as lawyers or brokers) in land sales in numbers sufficient to empower the Zionist project.5 Palestinian scholars have long debunked this claim. In a rebuttal with Kenneth Stein in 1987–88, Rashid Khalidi emphasized that the total amount of land that the settlers had acquired or received in concessional grants from the British throughout the entire seven decades of colonization before the Nakba amounted to only a little more than 6 percent of Palestine, or about 20 percent of the agricultural land. Moreover, he argued, most of this spare amount was sold by absentee Lebanese and Syrian landlords, not Palestinians. The percentage of Palestinian land sales by both large and small landowners was very small in comparison. Khalidi did not minimize the significance of these sales and acknowledged that settler acquisition formed a measure of territorial continuity and a basis for the Zionist military buildup of force in 1948, but he ridiculed Stein's attempt to use partial facts to delegitimize the Palestinians as a people.6 The question that remained unasked in this debate, however, is how the colonial rule of property impacted Palestinian society. Critical scholarship of settler colonialism has forcefully shown how the rule of property rights implies in the settler colony a rule of racial dispossession, even when property rights may be formally extended to the natives.7 In the context of Palestine, the dynamics of dispossession have been examined from the settlers’ point of view as a formative process of settler ideology and institutions.8 The effect of the juridical structure of property on the Palestinians remains only partially explored.

Second, the socioeconomic approach to land and property dominated a major thread in this literature. That is, the notion indicated above of a traditional Palestinian social structure that functions either implicitly or explicitly as a way to explain Palestinian land loss. In the colonial narrative, an aristocratic class of urban landlords is assumed to have controlled feudal-like rents and exploited peasant labor. Lacking a true sense of attachment to the land, this class presumably treated land as a mere commodity and avoided any investment risks that would enhance labor conditions or production in general. According to this narrative, it logically follows that the traditional land relations sustained by this elite had to give way to a more advanced settler landholding that could make better use of less land, exemplifying both a national and a modern spirit that neither the local elite nor the peasantry possessed.9 The debunking of this colonial narrative through bottom-up examinations of Palestinian social history and land relations also has a long history.10 Nevertheless, a major knowledge gap remains regarding the effects of governmental structures on social history.

The third dominant trend in the literature focuses on the legal/discursive approach. Over the last three decades, research in this vein highlights an analysis of colonial land governance and politics. This literature brought the state land-reform projects back to the center of discussion, but for very different ends and from radically different perspectives. For Zionist scholars, the colonial state “endowed” Palestine with the most advanced governmental technology of land registration available at the time—the colonial Torrens system and modern mapping—which had come about to meet the needs of Jewish settlers.11 Palestinian scholars have responded with analyses of the discursive violence of so-called land reform as well as its biased procedures.12 However, these studies seem to allow more room for the state's gaze and less for people's interaction and agency. Intervening in this literature on the legal and institutional history of the land reform, Bunton argued for a more nuanced reading of the multiple “frames of reference” of the British land policy.13 Building on Lorenzo Veracini's insight that the empire and the settler colony “each wanted essentially different things,”14 Bunton asserted that the British did not only do things in keeping with the interests and wishes of the Zionist settlers; rather, they followed Ottoman and local practices and infused them with colonial and European notions of property. More than one study on subaltern landless tenants who resisted eviction and negotiated with the government for many years support this argument. They reveal how contestable and gray the colonial rule of property was.15 The history of contestation, however, ought to be seen in a broader political-historical context and not simply on the narrow grounds of colonial law.

An Ottoman Frontier for Capital

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottomans launched a major land reform process to increase state control over land resources, especially regions deemed under-cultivated.16 Two major laws were introduced to this effect: the 1858 Land Code and the 1859 Tapu (Land Registry) Law. While falling within a larger process of bureaucratic centralization and state reform (known in Ottoman history as the Tanzimat, 1839–76), the language of these legislative maneuvers reproduced the classical Ottoman fiscal conception of land revenue as a form of rent and of peasant land tenure as a form of usufruct rather than property right. The significant change envisioned was to end the intermediary class of tax farmers and the constitution of the cultivator-possessor as a direct subject of taxation.

However, to address the state's financial needs, a new policy of large “enclosures” was enacted in the 1870s. Armed with the new laws, land commissions targeted various nomadic and seminomadic regions with the aim of investigating possession rights and tax liabilities for the new Tapu records. Vast domains were found mahlul, that is, land deemed legally “abandoned” by its possessor-cultivators and hence escheat to the state for redistribution to other possessors. A wholesale privatization followed to secure immediate cash returns for the state.17 The beneficiaries of this policy were not small peasants but a new class of absentee landlords consisting of rising merchant families from Beirut and other cities connected by trade with Europe. These landlords depended primarily on flexible sharecropping arrangements with local tenants and seemed to expand their land revenues through tax farming and moneylending, which often ended in new foreclosures directly from nearby villagers.18 This context of capital expansion and land fungibility allowed European financiers to enter local land markets as mortgagers. In this same process, European Christian churches expanded their properties. Also, groups of German religious settlers known as Templers, along with some bankers (such as the Bergheim family in Abu Shusha) and proto-Zionist Eastern European Jewish settlers, were able to secure direct access to land.19

Although serving the state in times of need, land fungibility became increasingly alarming to the Ottoman rulers, especially under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (r. 1876–1908/9). Islamoglu has suggested for this period that Ottoman reformers began to qualify the language of property rights, which had been foundational for the Tanzimat discourse, out of concerns about rural social instabilities.20 The Ottoman rulers were also worried about the legitimacy the language of property granted to foreign influence in the Ottoman domain, on the one hand, and to the bureaucratic methods of power that meant decentering the sultan and his realms and methods of influence, on the other.21 Taken together, these socioeconomic and political concerns may shed light on the one major counterpolicy adopted by Abdulhamid II.

Seizing the process of escheat and reassignment of large land resources, Abdulhamid II registered vast territories under his name and established a special imperial commission to administrate them (these estates became known as jiftlik humayun, or imperial estates, henceforth jiftlik).22 Applying this policy in Beisan, the sultan effectively blocked the eastward expansion of the Sursuq estates, which had emerged earlier in the adjacent interior plain of Marj Bin Amir (the Jizreel valley). Although seemingly identical to the Sursuq estates as a form of revenue control, the jiftlik in Beisan meant the pacification and mobilization of tribal structures into the imperial project under the protection of the sultan. As Selim Deringil has shown in a well-received analysis on the ideological project of Abdulhamid II, the sultan's regime projected an image of a modernizing empire that understood the spirit of the age, but it often reverted to traditional idioms of power and religion to solidify popular legitimacy and secure cooperation.23 The local communities cast the sultan's claim to the land as a measure of protection, governed by the sacred duty of the ruler to distribute justice among his subjects.24 This language and these idioms of land and political power left their mark beyond Abdulhamid II's reign.

With the constitutional revolution and the removal of Abdulhamid II from power in 1908–9, the jiftlik estates were confiscated by the state and regarded as mudawwara, a special legal-administrative category meaning “turned around,” which basically allowed the government to treat the ex-sultan's private-imperial possessions as state property. In the following years, with increasing hostility to Abdulhamid II's legacy and in the context of war needs in North Africa, Ottoman officials sought to revert to the old policy of large-scale liquidation of land resources.25 In 1913, the government considered a deal with a businessman from Beirut to sell him a concession on the mudawwara lands. The liberal atmosphere in the post-Hamidian era witnessed significant relaxation of state restrictions on Zionist land purchases and settler-immigrant movement to Palestine, as an economic matter rather than a political one, which led many to believe that the wholesale liquidation of the mudawwa land would inevitably feed the settlers’ hunger for land.26 The notables of various towns in Palestine as well as influential Arab and Turkish lawmakers in Istanbul joined efforts to pressure the government to abandon the plan, which it eventually did.27

The political equilibrium that prevented privatization in 1913 must also be read against the material and social changes already underway in the valley. In 1904 the Haifa-Damascus connection of the Hijazi railroad—one of Abdulhamid II's salient modernization projects—traversed the sultan's estates in Beisan. A major midpoint station emerged near the town of Beisan. This revolution in transportation was accompanied by new urban construction projects that included new roads, a municipal building with a modern public garden, a new marketplace, and a caravansary. Beisan began to attract newcomers, small merchants, craftsmen, and small farmers, from Nazareth, Tiberias, Nablus, and even Damascus. In the few years before World War I, private farmers with more material means and a different social and ideological outlook also arrived in the valley. With private investments in swamp drainage and land reclamations they leased prime locations near the water sources west of the town of Beisan, known as Tall al-Shok and Ashrafiya. These landowners were interested not in a subsistence economy but rather in new profitable cash crops, such as tobacco, cotton, and horticulture. The style and layout of their property differed from the surrounding landscape. Some of them had higher education in agricultural sciences and had the outlook of modern intellectuals, possessors of a mission to lead societal reform in the spirit of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Arabic Nahda, or modern reform discourse. With increasing land sales by absentee landowners to the Zionist settlers, the image of big landowners as agents of progress was shattered, and they appeared instead as a morally defunct class who had to give way to patriotic, middle-class Ottoman citizens.28 World War I interrupted these late Ottoman dynamics in Beisan. Some of the middle-class developers left the valley temporarily.29 Others reverted to traditional cereal cultivation and sharecropping with local tenants.30 After British occupation, they regathered their forces and began to play a bigger and more critical role in the valley's affairs.

Property and Insecurity

Soon after their occupation of Palestine, the British envisioned a policy of public grants through which “state domain” could be transferred cheaply to Zionist institutions.31 The ex-sultan's jiftlik in Beisan became an obvious target. Upon his appointment as the first high commissioner to Palestine, Herbert Samuel—known for his support of Zionism and influence on British imperial policy in this regard—formed a land commission to propose practical steps regarding these estates. The commission reported back with a proposal to distribute large parts of the jiftlik to Zionist organizations, as well as to a British landowner residing in Nablus.32 The Nahda rhetoric emerged in this context as a powerful native answer to colonial discourse—a proof of Indigenous agency and capacity of nationhood and civilizational progress.

Two among the Ashrafiya landowners, Jubran Kazma (originally from Nazareth) and Yusuf Zamriq (originally from Damascus), became increasingly active in the emerging Palestinian national movement, promoting a holistic notion of economic, social, and political nahda. They represented the region in the Palestinian National Conferences beginning in 1919 and served as members of the executive committees that sprang out of these conferences (known as the Arab Executive) in the early 1920s. They were successful in introducing the Beisan land issue into the daily agenda of the leaders in Jerusalem, as well as in mobilizing and building a local momentum of popular resistance to British rule.33 These tactics pushed Samuel to visit Beisan in April 1921, which only stiffened resistance against his plan.34 In November 1921 he agreed to launch a “land settlement” to allot the land to the existing cultivators, naming “the original owners and descendants of original owners of the land.”35 A legal agreement with the force of law was signed between representatives of the Beisan communities and the government. The settlement recognized customary land practices that had emerged underneath the official gaze of the Ottoman state as the basis of a new order of property rights. It also recognized the principle of local representation in the governmental machinery. Jubran Kazma and Mubarak Zu‘bi (originally from the village of Sirin) were elected as community representatives in a special commission, along with a British president and a government representative from the Land Department, to carry out the process of investigating and deciding on individual rights. Despite these positive aspects of the settlement, it was a deeply transformative measure with radical consequences. A full exposition of its various dimensions is beyond the scope of this paper, but some aspects pertaining to Nahda politics are revealing.

The Nahda landowners and intellectuals in Beisan were caught in the contradictions of this new remaking of property rights. They became brokers of the new settlement, not only practically (gaining official power to decide on rights and resolve disputes) but also ideologically. They saw the settlement as a launching pad for their vision of national reform. The extension of property rights to the small peasantry was akin in their mind to what we call a process of universalizing civil society—that is, turning peasants into independent economic and political agents, thereby creating the citizenry of the desired nation. Between 1921 and 1924 Kazma wrote many letters to Jamal Husayni in Jerusalem, then secretary of the Arab Executive, relaying the affairs of national mobilization that he and his colleagues (Zamriq, Zu‘bi, and others) carried out in the valley.36 Kazma pressed the leadership to adopt a new outlook, to spread national ideas through special pamphlets and salaried agents, and to collect donations in the form of standardized, regular membership fees from the rank and file of the nation, rather than depending on the generosity of the notables, as “in the old Ottoman times.”37 The idea of instilling a sense of affiliation and belonging at the level of the private individual was fundamental for Kazma. Ironically, Kazma promoted his vision as he expressed bitterness toward and frustration with “the herd mentality of the people” and “some unpatriotic tribal leaders.” On more than one occasion Kazma informed Husayni about dissent and infighting as well as failures in cultivating the “pure instincts” of the peasants, upon which he believed the success of national work ultimately depended.38

The land settlement came in the wake of war devastation and ongoing peasant indebtedness. British economic policy in general, and in the land settlement in Beisan in particular, added to this hardship. The settlement required “registration fees” that exceeded the financial capabilities of the cultivators. An installment program was devised to spread the new debt over fifteen years, with the first six years free of interest fees. No transfer of title to outsiders was permitted before this period. However, the annual installment amounted to twice or more the annual tithe, which, in the given circumstances of Beisan, was impossible to pay. After paying debts to moneylenders and the regular tithe/rent to the government, the cultivators had little to subsist on.39 Pro-settler British officials pressed for a change in the policy of repayment and transfer of title to outsiders, but Kazma and Zu‘bi fiercely resisted these proposals. This stand put the community representative in conflict with some tribal and family leaders who wished to take advantage of land sales. By lobbying Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem they were able to achieve the government's reaffirmation of the original agreement.40 Still, this was a legally and politically unstable situation. Recognizing the dilemma, Kazma saw one strategic solution to the crisis. He called on wealthy Palestinians from Bethlehem—famous for their new wealth from religious tourism, trade, and migration to the Americas since the late nineteenth century—and other cities to either extend cheap credit to the peasantry or step in to purchase and develop the land by themselves. When opportunity arose, Jamal Husayni and his close circles of leaders and activists were among the first to answer the call, and many followed their lead.

In 1928, the Mandate government made a one-sided change of policy to legalize early land sales. Beneficiaries of the settlement were allowed to arrange transfer of title to external buyers, who could pay the full transfer fees at once. Archival evidence links this policy to constant pressure from the settlers and the World Zionist Organization in London, but only partially. In 1927, Haim Weizmann, then chairman of the World Zionist Organization, corresponded with the colonial office to renew the old Zionist demand for a large land grant in Beisan. The financial failure of the land settlement served as a new pretext.41 The British, however, were willing to extend only limited privileges to the settlers (allowing in one transaction payment of the fees in six annual installments). By and large, they remained committed to an open land market policy. Land sales to Palestinian buyers (other than the original cultivators) were permitted already in 1926 and more regularly after 1928. The government encouraged Palestinian capital investment in land in both direct and indirect ways. Around the time of the 1928 policy, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries began to promote banana cultivation for domestic consumption and exportation to England, Egypt, and central Europe. The intention was to diversify in horticultural production and open new venues in the Jordan valley, outside the citrus-dominated coastal plains.42 An internal departmental report from around 1928–29 saw Beisan as one of the few promising locations in Palestine that enjoyed a semitropical climate suitable for bananas.43 The Palestinian press, especially the Jerusalem-based Mir'at al-Sharq, referred to the ancient Arab knowledge of banana cultivation and saw the new opportunity as national economic revival in the face of Zionist colonization. Along with political encouragement, this coverage included detailed scientific and experience-based instructions on the right methods of banana farming.44

However, credit for encouraging people to join the new adventure must go to the broadcasting of personal stories of success, especially that of Jamal Husayni and his brother-in-law, Musa Alami. The two had successfully planted bananas in their Jericho estates and in 1928 decided to copy their experiment to Beisan. News about their success and the promise of quick, large returns from bananas encouraged people from Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Nablus to take the risk of investing their money in the new experimental business. The story of Yacoub Al Ama of Bethlehem is a good example. In 1925 Yacoub invested money in trade in Beisan through his son Anton. At first, Anton rented three shops in the government-owned marketplace, but his business did not seem to flourish, and he accumulated debts. In 1928, Anton joined Ashrafiya farmers in forming a cooperative to promote banana farming and marketing. He convinced his father to take advantage of the new opportunity and invest more. Yacoub visited Beisan in November 1928 and passed on to Anton additional sums to pay off his debts and purchase two plots of land for banana farming. Yacoub also bought the three market shops from the government. A family photograph of him and his son in the municipality garden commemorated the event (fig. 1). To further help his son, Yacoub sent a symbolic present to the mayor of Beisan and kept a precise record of the cost. His hope for developing a successful business, however, was soon dashed. In 1932, one year before his death, Yacoub sent a sad letter to Anton informing him that “from now on we will be strangers to each other.” He added: “I will not ask about all the money I gave you, but only the rent you collect from the shops to be sent to me.” The family records do not tell us more about the reasons behind the failed business and the spoiled relationship between the father and his son.45 But the general context is perhaps revealing.

Between 1928 and 1934, the number of banana farms multiplied. The growers competed for land, water, labor, and organic manure, causing a significant rise in the cost of production. Rushing to buy, investors were not always careful or able to pick and choose locations; they followed market offers. Much of the purchased land was not very suitable because they were drained swamps with heavy soil that required special preparation and constant care. Competition for irrigation water led some growers to channel new amounts from faraway springs that contained high levels of salt and did not suit the banana plants. Experts had warned growers about the need to invest in windbreaks because of the unstable winds in the valley, but many preferred to reduce expenses and rushed to plant. In certain areas their decisions had detrimental consequences. For two consecutive winters, cold northern winds descending from snow-covered Mount Hermon caused irregular temperature drops and left many groves in total ruin. In the following seasons the growers tried to recuperate, but they were short on cash and in vain turned to the government for help with long-term loans. The growers were also pressed by severe market competition. Cheaper bananas arrived from Syria and Lebanon, and the promise of European markets did not materialize. Governmental officials laid blame on the local growers and their lack of cooperation, offering them only scientific advice. Many growers sold the land and returned to their original towns; only a handful of growers remained, facing growing challenges and lack of governmental empathy.46

Attempts to establish shareholding companies to minimize individual risks also failed. One example was the Arab Agricultural Company, founded in Nablus by Mohammad Izzat Darwaza, a famous intellectual and national activist who served at the time as the superintendent of the Islamic waqf in Nablus. In his published diary decades later, Darwaza spoke about how the good returns expected from bananas encouraged him to form the company and to convince people to buy shares. The company acquired one contiguous plot of one thousand dunams of good soil, suitable for bananas and citrus. After the banana crop failed, the company shifted under his supervision to citrus. But it did not survive. Darwaza was transferred in his post to Jerusalem, leaving the company in the hands of another manager whom he blamed for the failure. In 1937, the manager convened a general meeting of the shareholders. According to Darwaza, the manager bought the land for a cheap price, leaving investors with both economic loss and a sense of moral loss.47

Another initiative was the Tall al-Shok Company, formed by the Ashrafiya farmers. Their aim was to purchase the Tall al-Shok estate and block possible sale to the settlers. The initiative was publicized by two of the major newspapers of the period, the Haifa-based al-Karmil and the Jaffa-based Filastin. The papers provided updates on meetings and the progress of share sales. Both newspapers celebrated the fact that government officials, educated men, and professionals were moving to invest in the domain of national economic struggle.48 Seeing economic corporation as a democratic political formation, al-Karmil's editor encouraged shareholders to participate in the elections for the directorate of the company. Most likely deriving lessons from the organizational failure of the Arab Agricultural Company, he insisted that choosing the right individuals for leadership positions was the decisive factor for success.49 And yet, the idea did not materialize. After several months of hard work, the company was dissolved. The Mandate administration stepped in at that time to purchase the Tall al-Shok estate. The British had pursued a new conception of colonial development in the wake of the 1929 anti-colonial uprising in Jerusalem. Their aim was to mitigate Palestinian opposition to Zionist colonization by playing an active role in the welfare of dispossessed Palestinian tenants. They designated Tall al-Shok for a resettlement program of Wadi al-Hawarith and other tenants who were evicted from their traditional land by the Zionist settlers.50

Stories of Land Sale

The high hopes for national land rescue in the face of settler colonization made economic failure politically devastating. In particular, the example of three notables from Jerusalem is telling. In 1931, Zleicha bint Abd al-Qadir al-Ansari—widow of Faidi Alami, the famous mayor of late Ottoman Jerusalem, and mother of their son, Musa (who emerged among a new generation of national leaders in 1940s)—together with the famous Palestinian ethnologist and physician Dr. Tawfiq Canaan, and a third partner, Anis Jamal, bought the Zarra‘a estates for Lp. 3,225. They hired a foreman from Damascus to oversee the farm because they could not themselves move to Beisan. In the following three years they spent Lp. 5,800 on developing the land and planting bananas. The banana failure and financial difficulties faced by one of the partners forced them to offer their property for sale. In 1935, they received an offer to sell for Lp. 12,000. Had they sold, they could have not only secured their initial capital investment and later expenses but would have in fact profited from their failed business. But the offer came from brokers working for the Zionists, which made selling almost sacrilegious to them. They categorically rejected the offer. The next year, the Great Palestinian Revolt (1936–39) broke out. Though land prices went down, brokers still offered the notables the sum of Lp. 9,000. Again, they refused. Then a man from Damascus, Yusuf Aziz Fakiani, appeared and told them that he had sold land in northern Syria and decided to move his business to Beisan. They asked their foreman, being himself from Damascus, to inquire about Fakiani, and they were assured of his “good reputation.” They agreed to sell for Lp. 7,200. Despite the drop in price, they still had a very good deal, compared to their initial purchase price of Lp. 3,225. To ensure on record that they were not being co-opted, they inserted a clause in the sale contract in which the buyer declared “that he is buying the land for the sole purpose of cultivating it himself and for his own agricultural benefit and not to sell it for others; such sale to be only done in case of force majeure.” Of course, this clause had no legal value, as they must have known. Once Fakiani finalized the deal, he passed the land to the JNF for Lp. 9,100, making an immediate profit of Lp. 1,900.51

Shortly after these transactions, the case came to public attention in a profoundly embarrassing way. In 1937, the British sent a royal commission (known as the Peel Commission) to investigate the causes of the Great Revolt. Among its many interests was of course the land question. The Zionists claimed that the native elite was happy selling land to the settlers and its anti-Zionist politics was nothing but a cover-up for its farcical nationalism. The Zarra‘a case was brought up as an example in one of the public sessions of the commission's work. Zleicha and her partners acted quickly to clear their names. They sent a letter to the commission to explain their story, enclosing a photocopy of the sale contract and pointing to the clause they inserted to prevent the buyer from selling the land. The Zarra‘a case haunted Musa Alami as well. Kenneth Stein published an appendix to his 1987 book The Land Question in Palestine, 1917–1939 in which he referenced the minutes of the eighteenth meeting of the 1939 St. James Palace Conference in London (which led to the declaration of the White Paper of 1939 and in which Alami participated), to assert that Alami and Canaan “sold 900 dunams in Beisan.” Stein did not find it necessary to explain the context. The sheer fact of “involvement in transactions to the Jews” said it all.52 As Khalidi put it, even if Stein did not put it in plain words, he had the Palestinians bear the blame for selling their homeland.53

Not all land sellers among the elite tried to find ways out of direct contact with the settlers. The broken spirit of some was beyond hiding. Yusuf Zamriq is one glaring example. After sincere work for nearly two decades, and after involvement in the tough affairs of popular mobilization and economic development as exemplified by his joining the National Conference and involvement in the banana business, he sold to the JNF directly and was engaged personally in taking legal action to free the land of its tenants.54 Personal and collective economic failure in creating a model for sustainable middle-class development may explain his flip-flop position on his legacy. But the point I wish to make is that neither Zamriq nor the Zarra‘a owners represent all stories of failure to persevere under the process of settler-colonial dispossession.

The story of Bishara Salman, another landowner who moved to the valley from Bethlehem, is one example of a different trajectory into despair. Like many people from Bethlehem, Bishara made some money during his years in Latin America, in his case a twelve-year-stay in Honduras.55 When Salman returned to Palestine he invested in real estate in Jerusalem. Then around 1932 he sold his properties in Jerusalem and moved to Beisan. His family, including sons who were married or about to marry, moved with him. He built a large family house on his farm, which contained two large barns and thousands of citrus and other fruit trees. The revolt years were not easy on him, but he and his family survived. Like many farm owners, he suffered from constant robberies and often felt like a foreigner in the land. Despite these inconveniences he seemed to make a good income from the farm. The presence of British army troops in Palestine and in Beisan during World War II increased demand for agricultural products and may have helped businesses like his.

In a letter he sent in 1947 to the Arab Higher Commission (established in 1945 as an umbrella body to unite the Palestinian leaders and factions), he wrote of how he had hoped that after the war, peace and prosperity would come. But instead, only chaos came. He told of armed Bedouin robbers shooting in the air to scare and deter him and his sons, an occurrence so frequent that they ceased to go out to the fields to watch their groves at night. He considered hiring armed guards but feared that this would contribute to blood feuds with neighboring tribes. His sons left him one after the other and he was eventually left all alone. At the point of his writing, he told how brokers working for the settlers repeatedly approached him to sell and that he refused in order not to disgrace his name. He thus asked the commission to purchase his land or to find an Arab buyer to do so. In reply, the commission regretted to inform Salman that it had no available funds and that he should wait for a new Land Rescue Bank that was about to be formed.56 This was less than a year before the Nakba and the forceful removal of the Beisan people from their homeland. We do not know what Salman's next step was. Researching in the unique records collected by the United Nations on Palestinian refugee landed properties, I found records for Anton Al Ama, Najib Nassar, and many others who never sold and were forcefully dispossessed and removed by the settlers’ army.57 I found no records of Salman. He may or may have not found the buyer he wished for.

Land sales in Beisan were not ultimately great in number, but they were intense in their interconnectedness to the changing structure of political domination and violence. Salman had desperately hoped his insecurity was caused by the war between the imperial powers, but his hope was misplaced. Encroachments on property and hostility to private farm owners was a general phenomenon that had little to do with the war; it had a much earlier origin. The land settlement had clearly disrupted local ecologies and ways of life, and it was not surprising that the norms of private property did not achieve the kind of hegemony desired by owners like Salman. The strange condition in Beisan was that chaos and insecurity of property did not affect land prices. This point is critical to emphasize. In the past people lost title to the land to moneylenders but remained as tenants on their lands. Over time they acquired moral claims of occupancy and their landlords remained far away. But with the arrival of settlers, these dynamics were shattered. In the early 1930s the settlers accumulated property rights without actual possession. Then, gradually—and especially during the 1936–39 revolt—the settlers joined the counterinsurgency led by the British army and began to take possession by constructing military-like compounds known in Zionist mythology as homa u'migdal (stockade and tower), signifying a new zeal for “defense by conquest.”58 Through surveillance and strategic threats, the structure of security and violence penetrated the fabric of Indigenous communities.59 Both settlers and Palestinian farm owners suffered from petty thefts and had to confront a local population that felt increasingly strangled by the double siege of the market economy and the settler colony. But one side continued to accumulate land as territory, and another was desperate to maintain possession. The first possessed the necessary means of violence and conquest; the second was overwhelmed by market pressures and political dispossession. This structure of power and violence was the elephant in the room in Salman's letter. He spoke about the symptoms of his nakba, not its deep causes.

Conclusion

In this article I have explored and reconstructed Palestinian stories of land loss as a result of the process of settler-colonial accumulation in the 1930s and 1940s. I have put aside the attempt to reconstruct the process itself, its ideological and institutional forces, and I even blurred to a certain degree the workings of colonial governance, to bring to the fore the Palestinians in their long encounter with capital and settler accumulation. Centering the colonial archive by reading it against the grain has led critical scholars to focus on the stories of dispossessed tenants. The colonial encounter was thus captured essentially as a process of land and labor struggle between the settlers, on the one hand, and the subaltern classes of Palestinian society, on the other. The rest who appeared prominently in the political history of the struggle fell into the cracks of the social history of dispossession. This article has shifted focus onto an under-researched group of middle-class owners who were engaged in modernizing agriculture and saw their personal development as part of their national commitment. Their stories reflect the bitter contradiction between these two commitments, exacerbated by the pressures emanating from the settler-colonial siege. Historians have long struggled with the image of this contradiction as a false, momentary appearance, an instant reflex whose function was to hide the inadequate nature of the native elite. Tracing the presence of the middle class in the land struggle back in time, and attending to personal nuances and structural changes, allowed a new light on this history. Far from reflecting simple moral choices or an immutable class nature, I have argued that the moral, economic, and political dilemmas encountered in Beisan over time are best read as signs of the conflated and conflicted processes of capital and settler-colonial accumulation. That is the ongoing complex process of double loss that continues to shape both the settler colony and Indigenous life in Palestine.

Notes

1.

Examples of this framing are abundant. Ernest Dowson—the colonial land expert who designed much of the Mandate land policies, and especially the introduction of the Torrens system of title registration to Palestine in 1928—could thus deflect blame, in typical racial language, onto the native elite: “The responsibility and the remedy alike lay entirely with local landowners themselves. . . . I knew the inability of the Arab temperament to refuse a handsome profit.” Letter to Francis Edwards, September 25, 1937. Private Papers Collection at St. Antony's College, Middle East Center, Oxford, GB165–0092. There is also a distinct Palestinian antielite narrative with a long history. A 1929 poem by the famous Palestinian poet Ibrahim Touqan that attacks affluent people who sold land to the Zionists is still reproduced today on social media. It opens: Ba‘u al-turab ila a‘da'ihim tama‘an bi-l-mal lakinnama awtanihim ba‘u باعوا التراب الى اعدائهم طمعاً بالمال لكنما اوطانهم باعوا (They sold soil to their enemies out of greed, it was their homeland they sold). A simple Google search of this verse returns thousands of results from blogs and social media profiles.

2.

Critical Indigenous studies are resurging powerfully in various contexts. I point here to a recent edited volume by Justice and O'Brien, Allotment Stories, which gathers Indigenous accounts of property, loss, and settler siege from around the world. In the context of Palestinian historiography, see also Barakat, “Writing/Righting Palestine Studies.” 

3.

Ghassan Kanafani's 1972 essay “The 1936–39 Revolt in Palestine” remains a classical example of this critique.

5.

The key example is Stein, The Land Question.

8.

For a groundbreaking study in this regard, see Shafir, Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Sabbagh-Khoury has recently pushed the boundaries of Shafir's analysis, allowing examination of the process of exclusion; Sabbagh-Khoury, Colonizing Palestine. For another critical engagement with Shafir, see Lockman, “Land, Labor, and the Logic of Zionism.” 

16.

For an important comparative perspective on the Ottoman land regime in the global context of imperial state, see Islamoglu, Constituting Modernity. I believe that contextualization of these reforms in the broader global history of settler accumulation and land dispossession in the long nineteenth century is also needed.

18.

According to a recent study, these landlords managed to extend their trade across the Mediterranean. Their use of local practices of sharecropping and tax farming gave them an edge over European capitalists who vied to enter the region. See Alff, “Levantine Joint-Stock Companies,” 159. Evidence from court records shows two stages of land accumulation: first, accumulation by purchase from the government, followed by gradual expansion and control of nearby villages, probably through tax farming and credit bondages. See Abu Bakr, “Mulkiyyat al-Sursuq.” 

22.

The sutlan's jiftlik amounted to around twenty-seven million dunams (around 6.7 million acres) in various parts of the empire. See al-Karmil, al-Karmil Said It Twenty Years Ago, in August 23, 1910.” Around seven hundred thousand dunams were registered in Palestine; see Letter by Louis Jean Bols (Chief Administer of Palestine), to Lord Curzon (Foreign Secretary), June 7, 1920, Public Records Office (later the National Archive, Kew), FO 731/5114. Nearly two-thirds of the Palestine estates were in the Beisan valley divided on both banks of the Jordan River, between Mandate Palestine and the Emirate of Transjordan.

26.

See discussion of the Fula case in R. Khalidi, Palestinian Identity, 103.

29.

See, e.g., a letter sent by Georgie Farzali to Jamal Husayni (secretary of the Executive Committee of the Palestinian National Conference), December 29, 1922, housed in the Israeli State Archive (hereafter ISA), Jerusalem: ISA, Box 410, P-3785. A critical archival note is due here. These files were marked as “Abandoned Property,” a collection in the ISA composed of private papers looted by the Israeli forces from Palestinian houses and organizations during the Nakba war of 1948. I consulted these files in 2004, and since the ISA transition into online digital services in the past few years some of these papers could not be traced. Unless indicated as “old reference,” ISA file codes cited below are online references.

30.

See, e.g., a file titled “British Mandate Collection—Tel Esh Shok (Tel Esh Shauk).” ISA-moch-mmi-000bot.

31.

This policy was declared in Article 6 in the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. See Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 110.

32.

“Second report by the Land Commission,” October 10, 1920, ISA-MandatoryOrganizations-ChiefSecretary-0010wjt.

35.

See file ISA-MandatoryOrganizations-MandateLandReg-000btvr.

36.

“Kazma's letters to Jamal Husayni,” ISA, Box 410, P-3785 (old reference).

37.

“Kazma's letters to Husayni,” February 11, 1922; June 29, 1922; July 25, 1922; August 23, 1922.

38.

“Kazma's letters to Husayni,” December 30, 1921; July 15, 1922; October 17, 1922.

39.

See letter by Mubarak Zu‘bi and Michael Kazma (Jubran's brother) to the chief secretary, May 3, 1927, ISA-MandatoryOrganizations-MandateNorthDis-000bgkt.

40.

“Kazma's letters to Husayni,” December 20, 1922.

41.

ISA-MandatoryOrganizations-MandateNorthDis-000bgkt.

42.

Citrus plantations attracted an increasing amount of private settler capital, which competed with Palestinian citrus production for land and water as well as branding and exportation. The bulk of this competition occurred in the coastal plains. See the recent study by Kabaha and Karlinsky, The Lost Orchard.

43.

See undated report in file: ISA-MandatoryOrganizations-MandateFishery-000nsrlv.

45.

I thank Goerge Al Ama, great-grandson of Yacoub, for allowing me access to the family's private papers, via Dar Al-Sabagh Centre for Diaspora Studies and Research, Bethlehem, Palestine.

46.

See report by A. Grasovsky, senior horticultural officer, December 31, 1933. Grasovsky's report was based on a handwritten report in Arabic by Subhi Shehabi, the officer serving in the government experimental station in Beisan, November 29, 1933. ISA-MandatoryOrganizations-MandateFishery-000nsrl. See correspondence between the department of registration of cooperative societies and the district commissioner, October 13, 1933: ISA, M-2606, B-79 (old reference). See also letter by Habib Wahbe, Najib Nassar, and others on the taxation of bananas, January 30, 1935. ISA-MandatoryOrganizations-SecretaryFinance-0003roy.

50.

For a brief genealogy of this project, see Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 173–74.

51.

Letter from Zlicha al-Ansar, Dr. Tawfiq Canaan, and Anis Jamal to the chairman of the Peel Commission, Jerusalem, January 19, 1937. Public Record Office (PRO), London (later the National Archive, Kew): PRO 733/345/5.

54.

ISA-MandatoryOrganizations-MandateLandReg-000bvx8.

55.

“Salman Family Tree,” document housed in Dar Al Sabagh Diaspora Studies and Research Centre, Bethlehem.

56.

Letter from Bishara Francis Salman to Dr. Hussein al-Khalidi (secretary of the Arab Higher Commission in Jerusalem), May 7, 1947. ISA-NonGovernment-ArabHigherCommittee-000o0r1.

57.

I thank the Institute for Palestine Studies for granting me special access to a database under construction, derived from the records of Palestinian refugee properties compiled by the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine in the 1950s. On this topic, see Fischbach, Records of Dispossession.

58.

Shapira, Land and Power, 253–57. This myth continues to be invoked by zealous colonial settlers in the occupied West Bank today; see Katriel and Shenhar, “Tower and Stockade.” 

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