Photo Credit: WDR FREE

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

Great Britain was granted a Mandate for Palestine on April 25, 1920 at the San Remo Conference, and, on July 24 1922, the Mandate was approved by the League of Nations. When the Mandatory Government was established, the British found the condition of land registration and ownership “was one of chaos,” according to Albert M. Hyamson, who served as chief immigration officer in the British Mandate of Palestine from 1921 to 1934. Many of the official documents had been destroyed or removed. The remaining records were basically of no use without even a limited number of bureaucrats to administer the office. [1]


To understand the extent of the challenges he faced, Hyamson cited A Survey of Palestine prepared for the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry: “Areas were sometimes expressed in the quantity of seed required to sow them, or in dunums the number of which was arrived at by the merest guess. In other instances areas were entirely omitted. There was a loose verbal description of the boundaries by reference to the name of adjoining owners or physical features such as roads, streams or hills. The law provided that all land within given boundaries was the property of the recorded owner and that no regard was to be had to expressed areas. The result was that, in order to avoid taxation, a person owning some hundreds of dunums had them recorded as an area of, say, ten or twenty dunums. In effect the register, in so far as it functioned at all, was a record of transactions between persons and not one of transactions with reference to adequately defined plots of land.” Under Ottoman law only subjects of the Ottoman empire could own land. [2]

Over a period of time, many areas of land in Palestine had to be purchased by foreign individuals and organizations acting through intermediaries. Some owners had passed away or could not be located increasing further confusion. Cases of indebtedness, the payment of which the war and its aftermath had made it impossible, at least for a number of years, and “to liquidate which the creditors were endeavoring to get possession of the debtor’s land.”[3]

Could Have Said No

Jews purchased two million dunams of land in Palestine or 2023.45 square kilometers, mostly from landlords or families who owned large properties from the early 1880s to January 1948 noted historian Kenneth W. Stein. Although this was a comparatively small amount of the recorded lands available in Palestine, without these lands, “no viable nucleus for the state of Israel would have been created.” [4]

0nly in the area of land “could the Arabs personally say ‘no’ to Zionism and refuse to participate in a process that ultimately alienated many from their own patrimony” declared historian Kenneth Stein. “Arab offers to sell emanated from landowners who resided inside and outside the boundaries of Palestine, from large and small landowners alike; from Arab political leaders, well-to-do members of upper classes, whether of older or younger generations, from middle-class independent owners farming or grazing on their own lands, and peasant classes. All understood the consequences of land sales. The Palestinian Arab press and Arab politicians recognized the implications of complicity in land sales, especially by Palestinian Arabs themselves.” [5]

Stein points out that “When most of the large Arab land areas were sold to Jewish buyers, Arab peasants working the land were usually small in number. For example, in the purchase of the 200,000 dunams of the Sursock lands, there were less than 700 Arab tenants working there or perhaps no more than 5,000 people total. When the JNF[Jewish National Fund] purchased Shatta village lands in the Beisan area in 1929-1930 from the Ra’is and Abyad families in Haifa, there were 900 Arabs living on 14,000 dunams. In 1929-30, when the JNF purchased 30,000 dunams of land from the Beirut Tayan family at Wadi Hawarith and Wadi Qabbani, lands located south of Hedera, known also as Emek Hepher, there potential asset appreciation.” [6]

According to the Census for Palestine of 1931, there were 1,035,821 inhabitants: 759,712 Moslems, 91,338 Christians, and 174, 610 Jews, and a small percentage of other groups. Eighty-five percent of the Arab population lived or earned their livelihood in the rural area, which meant that land sales could affect the welfare of the great majority of them. Among the Arabs, there were 440,000 people who supported themselves by cultivating the land, of these, 108,765 were wage earners and 331,319 were dependents. Of the wage earners, 5,311 earned their living from the rents of agricultural land, or from “the landowning/political elites,” while 63,190 persons either farmed their own plots, worked as agricultural laborers or as a tenant on someone else’s land. [7]

In the early 1930s, small Arab owner parcels grew as a significant source for Jewish land purchase. [8] Larger estates were no longer as plentiful, Jewish demand for land continued; Jewish immigration increased and with it came small capital sums. The Arab rural sector suffered a series of terrible crop yields, and land prices steadily inched upward. The more small parcels that were acquired, or consolidated by land brokers, the larger the number of agricultural workers, grazers, day laborers or tenant-farmers were immediately affected by Jewish land purchase. [9]

The British were no in position to curb land transactions, which were not public. They could easily be overlooked, especially when the Arab sellers and Jewish buyers deliberately wanted the dealings to remain confidential. Additionally, Britain did not have “the numbers or trained personnel to thwart subterfuge or interactive cunning” of those involved in selling land. [10]


[1] A.M. Hyamson, Palestine Under The Mandate (London: Methuen and Company, Ltd., 1950), 78-94.

[2] Ibid 78; A SURVEY OF PALESTINE Prepared in December 1945 and January 1946 for the information of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry Volume I. Printed by the Government Printer, Palestine,(April 1946), 238, 244.); Kenneth W. Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917—1939 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 11-28; Leonard Stein, Leonard, “The Palestine White Paper of October 1930” (London: Jewish Agency For Palestine, November1930):83-86.

[3] A SURVEY OF PALESTINE Prepared in December 1945 and January 1946 for the information of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry Volume I op.cit.78.

[4] Kenneth W. Stein “Zionist Land Acquisition: a core element in establishing Israel”

[5] Ibid.7.

[6] Ibid. 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 11.

[10] Ibid. 6- 7.


Previous articleIsraeli TV Host Who Called Haredim ‘Blood Suckers’ to Be Reprimanded a Little
Next article‘Murdered Like Animals’
Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.