LAND OWNERSHIP IN PALESTINE, 1948

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The UN Partition Plan denied the demographic facts in Palestine no more than it did the ownership of land.
The Mandate authorities had furnished UNSCOP with statistics showing Jewish land ownership to reach no
more than 39% in any one sub-district and remain far less in all others. In December 1947,
Jewish landholdings totaled 1,734 km2, or 6.6% of the total territory. The majority of the remainder was in
Palestinian ownership, either communal or private, while state lands and nature reserves were not
extensive in the area allotted the Jewish state in the plan. The exception was the Beersheba district, where
85% of the area was state land.
As illustrated on previous pages, Palestinians were, up until 1947, a mostly agricultural, rural
people. Landownership was the foundation of the predominant culture and economy. Some 60-62% of the
labor force in 1947 were fellahin living in the countryside. Their knowledge and expertise, in contrast to that
of the Jewish population, was tied definitively to the land they lived and worked on for generations.
Long before 1948, the Zionists had confronted the question of land ownership and the obstacle it posed to
achieving the desired territorial and demographic supremacy in Palestine. 10 years prior to the war,
Menachem Ussishkin, head of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and a veteran proponent of the ‘transfer’
doctrine, had addressed the discrepancy between the mass-settlement policy of the WZO and the meager
landholdings of the JA. He told the Agency, “[w]e must remove from here 60,000 Arab families in order to
release land for the Jews.” With the outbreak of hostilities following the 1947 UN vote, Ben-Gurion
announced: “The war will give us the land. The concepts of ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’ are peace concepts, and in
war they lose their whole meaning.”
The refugees who were forced from Palestine in the 20 months following Resolution 181 left behind all they
could not carry. It is impossible to calculate the extent of the land losses with any accuracy, but in terms of
cultivated land, records show they left at least 40,000 dunums of vineyards, nearly 100,000 dunums of
citrus groves and more than 80% of Mandate Palestine’s 4.3 million dunums of field crops. Some 95% of
what became Israel’s olive groves were Palestinian owned in 1948. At the end of the Mandate, Palestinians
had cultivated some 5,484,700 dunums. At the end of the war, the entire land area left under Arab rule
amounted to only 5,948,320. Of Israel’s 20,371,680 dunums, only 7.23% had been Jewish property before
the war.
Having decided that “there could be no speaking of a return of Arabs,” the new Israeli government set about
consolidating its long-sought grasp on Palestinian land. Mid-way through the war, a Ministerial Committee
for Abandoned [Arab] Property was formed to distribute and administer the new gains. The first act of the
‘provisional’ government of Israel was the abolition of all restrictions on land transfers. After the war, Israel
passed two key laws which ‘legalized’ (in domestic terms) their illegal (in international terms) war booty. The
Absentees Property Law and the Development Authority Law gave the government and the JNF exclusive
rights over virtually all Palestinian land in the new Jewish state. Even that minority of Palestinians which
had remained within the boundaries of Israel was dispossessed by virtue of this legislation and the military
orders which accompanied it. The amount of land expropriated from this minor source in 1948 alone
exceeded all Jewish pre-1948 landholdings.
Uprooting the Palestinians from their land and taking possession thereof had - in one form or another - been
the overarching goal of Zionism for 50 years. Between 1947 and 1949, this goal was mostly achieved - and
the state of Israel was established.