The word ‘land’ may be the shortest summary of the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the early Zionist leaders were looking for a country to colonise and make a Jewish homeland, they considered Argentina, Uganda and Cyprus. But these countries were already colonised and the imperial powers from whom the Zionists solicited support for their colonisation project, refused to provide it.
Some visionary Zionists insisted that for their colonisation project to succeed, the Jews of the world — who would be called upon to populate the new homeland — must be able to visualise the journey in dramatic and emotional terms. Only the colonisation of Palestine could offer such emotional resonance with the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land.
As the Zionists set out to marshal support for their daring project, they faced hostility from Jewish leaders afraid of jeopardising their political rights in their country of birth, and indifference from the majority of the Jewish people.
To overcome hostility and indifference, and concisely explain their project to their European audiences, the Zionists came up with a master stroke of propaganda that emphasised the Jewish people’s need for a homeland, while at the same time eliminating the inhabitants of the same land from any consideration as if the Palestinians had never existed.
The brilliantly constructed slogan claimed that the Zionist project for a homeland in Palestine was nothing more than ‘A land without a people for a people without a land’.
When the Zionist Commission arrived in Palestine in 1918, they found a sophisticated society, with a highly active professional and merchant classes, and a developed political consciousness. It was nothing like what the manipulative propaganda claimed. The Zionists in Palestine set out to strengthen Jewish institutions and foster the production and the use of Hebrew street signs.
The question of Jewish immigrants arriving in Palestine regularly, and notwithstanding regular Arab protest and demonstrations, the British civilian administration proved unable to stop the waves of Jewish immigrants that were transforming the balance of demographic power in Palestine.
Nonetheless, the ‘redemption’ of the land remained a basic tenet of Zionist ideology. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) established at the fifth Zionist Congress in Basle in 1901, was in charge of land purchase on behalf of the Jewish people, usually at the expense of the Arab farmer, who was banned from working on Jewish land.
The British Hope Simpson report confirmed the discriminatory practice and in 1930 said that Arabs were gradually being driven off the soil by Jewish land purchases and by the JNF not allowing Arab employment on Jewish land.
The process of dispossession continued unabated. During the 1947-49 war, the Zionists used expulsion, and ethnic cleansing to accelerate the dispossession and achieve the goal of transforming Palestine into a country “as Jewish as England is English”. It is ironic that the absence of a serious interest in the two-state solution on the part of today’s Zionist leaders of Israel may end up achieving the unintended goal of a bi-national state. Homogeneous ethnic purity in the developed world is a thing of the past. The dispossession continued after Israel conquered the Arab land in the 1967 war and especially after the right wing Likud led by Menahim Begin, came to power in Israel in 1977.
A Supreme Court ruling stated that a farmer, who cultivated miri (all land that lies within a radius of 2.5 kilometres from the built-up area of a village) land for 10 years and then ceased cultivating it did not lose the ownership rights. In its declarations policy, Israel decided to apply the opposite interpretation: whereby unregistered miri land which had been cultivated for at least 10 years, then cultivation stopped, becomes government property. In this way, “Israel declared large swaths of land in the West Bank as state land” when under local law they were “private Palestinian property”.
The report published by the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem describes how the Israeli state founded the colonisation enterprise on what was declared state land, and on privet Palestinian land. However, a 1979 judgment of the High Court of Justice (the Elon Moreh case) prohibited the requisition of private Palestinian land to build civilian colonies.
The B’Tselem report included an analysis of the Ottoman land code as well as the Mandatory British land law and the Jordanian land code. The report found that “Israel’s application of its declarations policy was unlawful” because it classified private Palestinian property as public land.
In addition, Israeli governments applied stringent standards to Palestinian claims of rights in rocky land. If less than 50 per cent of the land is cultivated the Arab farmer loses his land and the Israeli state declares it state land.
Adel Safty is distinguished visiting professor and special adviser to the rector at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His book Might Over Right is endorsed by Noam Chomsky.