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October 5, 2015 | 22nd Tishrei 5776

Land and memory I

Galilee Diary #271
February 5, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years...
But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.

-Leviticus 25:14-15, 23

For the past year, our local political and civic leadership have been involved in attempting to resolve a dispute over the border between the Arab town of Sachnin and the [mostly Jewish] county of Misgav. So far, it is being played out quietly, in municipal council chambers, zoning commissions, and occasional handbills and letters to the editor. However, the tensions over land allocation/possession/jurisdiction in this country run deep (and go back decades), and are fraught with all kinds of emotional, social, and historical implications; lurking behind the ongoing discussions are the fresh memories of the riots of 2000 in this area – and those of “Land Day” in 1976.

When the Zionist settlers began to arrive in the late 19th century, they found a poor province of the Ottoman Empire. The Palestinian peasants lived a pre-modern agrarian life, using traditional farming methods, living in small villages, each ruled by a hereditary mukhtar (chief), in a more or less constant state of tension with the inefficient and often corrupt Ottoman bureaucracy. Although the Ottomans had instituted a system of land registration in 1858, it had not been widely accepted or consistently or fairly enforced, so that some registered titles had in fact been unfairly usurped by village leaders, and much land remained unregistered, with the local peasants relying on traditions of possession-by-cultivation, verbal agreements, and unrestricted grazing on the mountains on land which was technically not privately owned, but state property. By the time the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the First World War, the title to large tracts of cultivable land had been accumulated by wealthy landowners who lived in Beirut or other distant cities, and the peasants had become sharecroppers. The map of village jurisdictions was not formal; one tradition had it that the jurisdiction of a village chief reached as far as the sound of the muezzin of the local mosque could be heard.

The British, who took over after the First World War, tried to systematize land ownership, and enforce registration laws, and succeeded to some extent – though it may well be that in the process they simply mapped and certified many claims of ownership that were questionable in the first place.

Meanwhile, we came along and, wanting to operate “by the book,” purchased the land for our settlements, fair and square. The Jewish National Fund bought agricultural land (and even swampland), often at inflated prices, from landowning families. The problem was, of course, that the land came with its tenants, the Palestinian farmers, who did not fit into our vision of self-reliant self-redemption by cultivating the soil with our own hands. Thus, we legally purchased the peasants’ land – but were not interested in their continuing to rent it – nor were we willing to take on the role (which some settlers of the First Aliya, in the 1880s had been) of plantation owners employing them – anathema to a kibbutznik (then). And so it happened that on account of our fidelity to our ideals, our not wanting to be seen as – or to see ourselves as – oppressors, we went to great lengths to buy the land properly and to work it with our own hands. The sadly ironic result was that we were perceived as oppressors who pushed the peasants from their traditional holdings and didn’t even offer them jobs in return. So while our activity certainly spurred the economy and did create increased prosperity and opportunity overall, our image as “stealers of the Palestinians’ land” had been formed, and it haunts us still.

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