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Myth:

Jews stole Arab land

Source:

Mitchell Bard, "Myths & Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict," AICE, 2023.

Fact:

Despite the growth in their population, the Arabs continued to assert they were being displaced. From the beginning of World War I, however, part of Palestine’s land was owned by absentee landlords who lived in Cairo, Damascus, and Beirut. About 80% of the Palestinian Arabs were debt-ridden peasants, semi-nomads, and Bedouins. 19 Jews 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.” He insisted that “under no circumstances must we touch land belonging to fellahs or worked by them.” Instead, he advocated helping liberate them from their oppressors. “Only if a fellah leaves his place of settlement,” BenGurion added, “should we offer to buy his land, at an appropriate price.”20 Jews only began to purchase cultivated land after buying all the uncultivated territory. Many Arabs were willing to sell because of the migration to coastal towns and because they needed money to invest in the citrus industry.21 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.”22 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 3,000 applications, of which 80% were ruled invalid by the government’s legal adviser because the applicants were not landless Arabs. This left only about 600 landless Arabs, 100 of whom accepted the government land offer.23 In April 1936, a new outbreak of Arab attacks on Jews was instigated by local Palestinian leaders who were later joined by Arab volunteers led by a Syrian guerrilla named Fawzi al-Qawuqji, the commander of the Arab Liberation Army. By November, when the British finally sent a new commission headed by Lord Peel to investigate, 89 Jews had been killed and more than 300 wounded.24 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…There was at the time of the earlier sales little evidence that the owners possessed either the resources or training needed to develop the land.”25 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.26 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 Abdullah27 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 underground28), 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.29 The Jews paid 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.”30 By 1947, Jewish holdings in Palestine amounted to about 463,000 acres. Approximately 45,000 were acquired from the mandatory government, 30,000 were bought from various churches, and 387,500 were purchased from Arabs. Analyses of land purchases from 1880 to 1948 show that 73% of Jewish plots were purchased from large landowners, not poor fellahin. 31 Many leaders of the Arab nationalist movement, including members of the Muslim Supreme Council, and the mayors of Gaza, Jerusalem, and s sold land to the Jews. As’ad el-Shuqeiri, a Muslim religious scholar and father of Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Ahmed Shuqeiri, took Jewish money for his land. Even King Abdullah leased land to the Jews.32

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