Between 1922 and 1925 my great-uncle, the journalist Najib Nassar, rode on horseback throughout Mandate Palestine and the newly created country of Transjordan. He published his observations as a series of letters in Al-Karmil, the weekly newspaper he edited in Haifa. In a number of these letters Najib voiced his fears about the fate of Palestinian farmers, especially in the north of the country, where absentee Arab landowners were selling their large estates to new institutions of the burgeoning Zionist movement.
During his travels northward from Jenin to Nazareth, Najib proposed that the nature of the Palestinian struggle with the Zionist movement was in essence economic. In the north of Palestine, wealthy Lebanese landowners owned entire villages. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, a series of legal developments in the Ottoman Empire—which ruled Palestine until 1917—had enabled the growth of these large land holdings. They included the promulgation of the Ottoman Land Code of 1858, which attempted to eliminate the musha system, whereby land was held in common, and required that the cultivator-turned-owner register his land with Treasury officials. Two things dissuaded farmers from doing so: the desire to avoid paying taxes on their land and the fact that the land registry was based in faraway urban centers such as Beirut and Damascus.
These developments had nothing to do with the Zionist project. They were simply intended to help implement a more centralized and rational method for the collection of taxes. In the hilly parts of Palestine, where the land was mainly planted with olive and fruit trees, holdings were small and the arrival of the Zionists changed little. But in the arable plain and valley regions, where water was more readily available, the Zionists sought to acquire land. Soon Lebanese landlords—the Sursuk, Twani, and Khoury families—started selling their holdings in Marj Bani Amer (now called the Jezreel Valley).
These feudal landowners had little interest in supporting the Zionist enterprise; they were unconcerned with colonization. But the profits from their lands were falling, and the cotton crops they planted had failed. They were investing in large-scale capitalist ventures in Egypt and Lebanon, such as the Suez Canal Company and the port in Beirut, and they needed cash. “By selling all they had in this plain,” Najib predicted, “these landowners would be contributing to the distress of the country that would arise from the establishment of a Jewish kingdom.”
The legal processes the Ottomans had begun were continued in the years after the end of their rule—first by the British military occupation…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.