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

It is not surprising Arabs fail to mention that prominent Arab leaders and nobility sold land to the Jews, while publicly opposing the sales. Historian Kenneth W. Stein found that although the Arab leadership vigorously protested selling land to Jews, large and small Arab landowners were constantly offering to sell their land before and after the British Mandate came into existence. [1] Arab protests against land sales were hypocritical according to Dr. Heinrich Wolff, the Nazi German consul in Jerusalem. In a cable sent to his Berlin office in 1933, he said, these nationalists “in daylight were crying out against Jewish immigration and in the darkness of the night were selling land to the Jews.” [2]


Arabs also acted as intermediaries. Even during the period when anti-Zionist and anti-British opinion had reached a feverish pitch, Palestinian Arabs were more preoccupied with their own individual concerns than the emerging Arab national movement. Arab society was split socially and politically, allowing the Zionists to procure land without serious opposition. Additionally, Palestine’s rural economy was “weak” before and during World War I and “purchasers knew about the perennial economic distress of the Arab fellaheen (peasants).” The Palestinian Arabs with small tracts were more inclined to alienate their land in the 1930s when their economic existence was their principal incentive. [3]

Once the British administration established effective and enforceable administrative directives, the Arab notable, merchant and effendi classes (Arab property owners) were not able to acquire land without any restrictions. Those who had significant land holdings were able to preserve their social status and local political influence. At the same time, “the dominant and domineering position the effendi classes enjoyed over many fellaheen…began to erode severely in the early 1930s when the inflow of Jewish capital into Palestine reached all-time highs. Land once inviolable became a fair-market item. “ Once the effendis no longer had the economic resources or access to the British bureaucracy, they were not in position to bid on any existing or unoccupied land. In order to sustain their economic standards of living and maintain their local political status during the period of the Mandate, the Arab notables began progressively selling land for capital. [4]

Of the 89 members elected to the Arab Executive (Palestinian nationalist umbrella group founded in 1920), between 1920 and June 1928, “at least one-quarter were identified, personally or through immediate family members, as having directly participated in land sales to Jews.” Of the forty-eight members of the Arab Executive in attendance at the Seventh Arab Congress in June 1928, at least fourteen had by that date been involved in land sales. Members of the various Palestine Arab delegations to London in 1921, 1929, 1930, and 1939 appear to have been deeply involved in the land-sale process. For many of the individuals that reality did not preclude a previous or subsequent hostility

to land sales. Zionists did not disclose information to the British about the sales, since the sellers might be participants in future transactions. [5]

In the Palestinian Arab community, efforts in 1931-1932 to raise funds to buy lands from potential Arab sellers to Jews to deflect those sales to Jewish buyers proved a non-starter. In the early 1930s when the British attempted to find out how extensive Arab land sales to Jews had become to determine how many Arabs had been made landless by Jewish purchase, “the British High Commissioner and his staff were stone-walled by Arab notables in providing such a list.” [6]

On land sold by Jamal-el Husseini, a member of the Gaza branch of the el-Husseini family, kibbutz Kefar-Menachem was established. In a letter to the Palestine Land Development Company on October 4, 1937, he asked that the mortgage be released on the portion of the land not sold to the Jews, acknowledging that the sellers had completely fulfilled their obligation. Another 120 dunam was purchased from the el-Husseini family to settle with the Arab tenant farmers still living on the land. [7] Fahmi el-Husseini, the mayor of Gaza, amassed and sold considerable tracts of land to the Jewish National Fund. Kibbutz Beeri was established on this land during the first week in October 1946.

Other members of the el-Husseini family sold land as well: Ismail Bey el-Husseini near Petah Tikvah to the Jewish National Fund; Jamal el -Husseini in Idhniba; Tawfik el-Husseini, Jamal’s brother and one of the founders of the Arab nationalist youth organization, sold his share owned together with Musa Alami; and the sons of Mussa Khasem el-Husseini, Chairman of the Arab Executive. [8]

The prominent Nashashibi family of Jerusalem were also involved in selling land to Jews. Jaduth Nashashibi, a member of the Arab Executive, sold his land in the village of Dileb to the Jewish National Fund before World War I, which is now Kibbutz Kiryat-Anavim. His partner in the sale was Nusseiba Zaki of Jerusalem, who was also a member of the Arab Executive. Ragheb al-Nashashibi, the Mayor of Jerusalem from 1920—1934, a founder of the “National Defense Party” and a member of the Arab Higher Committee since 1936, sold land on Mt. Scopus to The Hebrew University. During WWII, Ragheb attempted to sell his land in the village of Yalo, but since the asking price was so high, the sale did not occur. [9]

Even Arabs who participated in attacks against Jews sold their land to them: in Hadera in May 1921, led the assault in the 1921 riots in Petah-Tikvah, became an agitator of the 1921 riots in Jaffa; participated in the 1929 disturbances, was arrested, and later exiled to the Seychelles Island in 1937; became one of the organizers of the 1936-1939 riots; provided funds for a terrorist leader in the 1936 riots. [10]

Most of the large landowners in Palestine were in the Arab nationalist movement. Some families were selling land to Jews for three generations, even though the younger family members understood Zionist goals and openly opposed them. In other families, some members were in politics and communal activities, while others were in business including administering to real property the family owned together. In these situations, politicians could vigorously insist the sale of land to Jews be prohibited, while their ownership in property could be sold profitably to Jews. Some politicians concealed their dealings through multiple transfers of title to fictitious agents, so their names did not appear on any official documents. Still there are sufficient well-documented records of nationalist public notables who sold land to Jews to prove that they were trying to have both ways. They eagerly sought the economic rewards Zionism generated but did not want a state with Jews or Zionists. [11]

Selling Land: A Well-Known Fact

The Arab community clearly knew their leaders were selling land to Jews, even though the leadership attempted to suppress the facts. The “disparity” between the public protests against selling land and individual Arab transactions could not be discounted. Akram Zu‘itar, a journalist, educator and a well-known activist on the national scene, explained in his diary how the problem was “becoming and more severe… the son of the mayor of Tulkarem is deeply involved in land speculation, and there is no one who will cast stones at him, much less open fire on him. A member of the Supreme Muslim Council sells land to Jews and remains a respected personage, Tulkarem is full of land brokers, and Haifa city elders make deals with Jews , and the same is true in Gaza and Beersheva. How many senior government officials who in the name of Arab nationalism and help make land deals easier, and so far, not a single land broker[simar] was boycotted, even though they ought to get the death penalty…. G-d will not bless the land brokers, nor the nation that does not strike them down.” [12]

This became a public issue when Lewis French, the first director of the British Mandatory Governments Department of Development, wrote in a memorandum to British Government revealing that some members of the Moslem Supreme Council (SMC) had sold land to Jews and that Arab leaders did not oppose selling surplus land to them. In response to the Arab press’ insistence on printing the seller’s names, the Arab Executive convened a special meeting to assess the demand. The names were never published after many members refused to attend and ultimately the Executive stopped functioning completely. The political leadership reorganized only after the 1936 Arab riots began. [13]

“The Spirit of the Nation”

Though the press did not publish the names of the sellers because of family and political connections, they did allude to the practice and warned against it. Significantly, the term simar (plural samasirah) became an insult. As a result of the backing of the press, the public began to accept the use of violence against the offenders as justifiable. (Cohen, op.cit. 47.) The campaign by the press, the mufti, the religious establishment as well as a national poets and intellectuals to ensure the public internalized that selling land to Jews “was an unpardonable religious and national sin” succeeded on one level, and failed on another. A very genuine fear of being stripped of their property for having engaged in such real estate transactions as a result of religious decrees and nationalist ideals had been instilled in the population. Being eternally marked as sinners further confirmed the need to repudiate all land sales.

All of these efforts did not stop the sales. After an Arab sold land in the village of Lifta, just west of Jerusalem, in November 1934, he was assaulted by Arab nationalists. This showed that not everyone acknowledged the authority of the national institutions, and that the nationalists were ready to punish anyone who dared violate this unforgiveable sin. [14]


[1] Kenneth W. Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917—1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.), 32, 37 70; Hillel Cohen, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917–1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008),173.

[2] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1998 (New York: Vintage, 2001), 123.

[3] Stein, op. cit. 212,216.

[4] Stein, op.cit. 216, see also 30,33, 213.

[5] Kenneth W. Stein, “Zionist Land Acquisition: a core element in establishing Israel,” Aquisition.pdf, 12.

[6] Stein, op.cit.12, for a “Partial List of Palestinian Arab Politicians and Notables Involved in Land Transfers to Jews, 1918-45,” Stein, “The Land Question in Palestine,” op.cit. Appendix 3, 228-239.

[7] Arieh L. Avneri, The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land Settlement and the Arabs 1878-1948 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 2006), 219-220.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 230-231.

[10] Ibid. 227-230.

[11] Ibid.227-231; Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917—1939 op.cit. 228-238.

[12] Cohen, op.cit. 47.

[13] Avneri, op.cit. 44, 223-234.

[14] Cohen, op.cit. 50.

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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.