Posted by: Lister | January 10, 2008

How old injustice lives on

I’ve just been reading an article by Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel. It’s about the Ottoman Land Laws of the 1850’s. And then the implications for the modern conflict in Israel/Palestine. Because land which was once communal ended up registered in the names of a few people.

One writer observes concerning the code that “long before the Balfour Declaration, which is often seen as the fount of all contention over Palestine, the inarticulate but ancient peasantry had slipped a rung on the ladder which was to lead them down into the refugee camps in 1948.”

[William R. Polk, David H. Stamler, and Edmund Asfour, Backdrop to Tragedy: The Struggle for Palestine, (Boston: Beacon Press) 1957, p. 236, cited in Ruedy, p. 124]

When the landownders sold this land, the tenants had to try and show that they had legal entitlement to the land. But the land had been registered 1858 onwards. When the land-workers lost the court battles, they felt dispossessed. And they directed their anger at the new land-owners — though the problem stems from Ottoman law changes and the slipshod way in which land ownership was assigned.

Although previously reckoned as owners of the land “by the act of possession” these farmers had no title-deeds and therefore had little legal claim to the land. As noted above, matrūk lands were sometimes registered in the name of Mandate officials; these now become State Lands as well. Finally, “security” orders were used to “temporarily” clear certain lands of inhabitants; and after a specified time such lands were then declared uncultivated (maḥlūl), thereby transferring full legal title to the State.  In these ways antagonisms between Jews and Arabs — which continue to a great degree to center on the issue of land — were exacerbated.

The Ottoman Land Codes and Laws of 1858 and 1859, then, were issued in order to assure state control over the lands of Palestine and to increase state revenues from those lands. For a variety of reasons much of the cultivated or occupied land was never registered or was registered in the name of someone other than the individual or collective that actually worked it. The resulting concentration of land ownership and the confusion as to legitimate title contributed significantly to the development of antagonism and ill-will between Jews and Arabs in Palestine and Israel.

[see original for sources]

(via ddt at JREF).

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