Charles Anderson. Middle Eastern Studies. Volume 54, Issue 2. 2018.
In January 1936, just months before the Palestinian rebellion that would come to be known as ‘the Great Revolt’ began, Colonial Secretary J. H. Thomas delivered a distressing message to the Cabinet in London. What concerned him was nothing short of the prospect of the Palestinian peasantry’s total dispossession and its conversion thereafter into a landless lumpenproletariat that would perturb the country’s security and economic future. Describing in brief the dilemma he foresaw, he wrote that:
unless there should be some fundamental change in Jewish policy, the process of land purchase may be expected to continue, if it is not checked, until practically the whole of the agricultural land of the country which it is profitable for the Jews to buy has passed into Jewish hands, with the exception of the citrus estates of relatively large Arab landowners.
The scale of the change that Thomas imagined was immense. Citrus grove owners and large Arab landlords together comprised some seven per cent of the population dependent on agriculture, which itself constituted roughly two-thirds of the Arab community. The dispossession of the Arab countryside would entail the complete transformation of the Palestinian population, wiping out the agrarian way of life that underpinned the majority’s heritage and driving urbanization, which had by the early 1930s created dismal, growing slums around major cities, to unknown heights. More immediately, the ramifications of the country’s burgeoning landlessness were made plain by the High Commissioner for Palestine, Arthur G. Wauchope, who had a fortnight earlier warned that unless action was soon taken to stem the flow of lands out of Arab hands, a new round of ‘disturbances’ such as occurred in 1929 might be on the horizon. The answer to the conundrum of landlessness, as the High Commissioner saw it and as the Colonial Secretary concurred, was to institute a set of land-transfer controls that would ‘protect owners against themselves’ by preventing them from selling all of their lands and requiring them to retain inalienable subsistence-providing lots.
The ironies of the moment were many. For one, while the Colonial Secretary raised the alarm in 1936 in a dramatic fashion, the High Commissioner had only 16 months earlier rejected the idea that any protection was necessary for owner-cultivators, asserting that they were at no risk of displacement. Yet the would-be sudden appearance of widespread landlessness was in fact anything but a surprise. The government had known of the growth of an Arab ‘landless class’ since the Palestinian uprising of 1929, after which Arab agriculturalists were studied in a flurry of major reports that demonstrated the fraying of the rural order. Perhaps the crowning irony, however, was that proposals to ameliorate Arab landlessness had already been the center of ferocious and extensive debate during the early 1930s, only to be left to wither on the vine owing to Zionist opposition. This was a dangerous and fateful decision, since the Palestinians saw in landlessness a microcosm of the political and economic dispossession they feared awaited them at the hands of the British-Zionist partnership. The crisis of the countryside spurred the quickening of Palestinian anticolonialism in the 1930s and helped produce what Palestinians call the Great Revolt (1936-1939), a war of independence by any measure which for a brief period of time pushed the colonial government to the brink of collapse.
This article examines the development of Arab landlessness in the early 1930s and its treatment within colonial policy. Oddly, given its critical importance to the events of the time, the growth of Arab landlessness and its emergence as a key political question have not been well explored. Many accounts of the period that are partial to Zionism have focused on the controversy over the 1930 White Paper, framing this moment as one of dire jeopardy for Zionism which it evaded at the 11th hour while largely ignoring or dismissing the crisis of the Arab countryside. In addition to denying the crisis of Palestinian landlessness, such arguments typically depict Zionist growth, in trickle-down fashion, as a net benefit to the Arab population and presume that it was a source of income, employment and higher living standards. As will be shown, these are deeply mistaken assumptions. On the other hand, accounts critical of Britain’s Zionist policy or its handling of the rural sphere, while often acknowledging the growth of landlessness, have tended not to delve into the subject and the lively debates around it in much depth. The effect, on occasion, has been to unwittingly occlude the social origins of the 1930s revolt and to represent it instead as the fruit of radical political parties, intelligentsia, or elements of the middle classes.
The premise of the present investigation is that endemic landlessness and the crisis enveloping the rural Arab social order were both major inflection points in Palestinian Arab history and central political questions of their day, the mishandling of which concatenated not only into the most vigorous revolt Britain faced in the Arab world in the interwar era, but into endless policy turmoil that cascaded throughout the remainder of the Mandate. The study of landlessness thus lends insight into pivotal transformations reshaping Palestinian society and politics under colonial rule while revealing the hidden centrality of British policy toward the Arab countryside in the making of the Mandate’s history.
Landlessness and the decomposition of the Arab peasantry presented a challenge to the prevailing conception of settler developmentalism—the idea that it was (only) through Jewish settlers and the Zionist movement that economic development would come to Palestine. Barbara Smith has noted the paradoxical status of settler developmentalism within British colonial thinking and policy. It was axiomatic that Jewish settlers, ‘with their superior education, technological know-how, and capital’, would produce economic growth that would lift all boats. Yet, in actuality, a firewall was constructed to insulate and protect the advancement of the Jewish National Home irrespective of evidence of any harm that this caused to Arab livelihoods and society. As an ideological notion relating ‘race’ to (differential) human capacities for social, economic and political advancement, settler developmentalism had long molded British imperial thinking. As an organizing principle of British rule, it held unrivalled sway in the first decade of the civil administration (1920-1929), and, as will be shown here, its dominant position was maintained, if uneasily, in the more contested environment of the early 1930s.
The first part of this examination revisits the familiar contest over policy that ensued in 1930, focusing in particular on its relationship to the advent of mass landlessness, which has often been eclipsed in the existing literature. It argues that the critics of His Majesty’s Government’s (HMG’s) Zionist policy, beginning with High Commissioner Chancellor and culminating in the 1930 Passfield White Paper, believed that, in view of the dangerous emergence of a ‘landless class’, the best way to preserve British rule in Palestine was to rewire the Mandate and equalize its obligations to Arabs and Jews. Subsequently, the article turns to probe the continued growth of landlessness and its re-emergence as a question of policy, despite its political suppression in 1931. As landlessness continued to spread, the remedies that were put forth from 1931 to 1935 were constrained by both the terms of policy laid down in the MacDonald letter and by the official rejuvenation of settler developmentalist thinking. What amounted to a policy of treading water was subsequently recognized as jeopardizing the stability of the Mandatory government, but by the time landlessness was ‘rediscovered’ and new land controls were on their way to promulgation in 1935-1936, the Arab countryside was just months away from determined revolt.
From the Emergence of a ‘Landless Class’ to Its Occlusion
The issue of growing Palestinian landlessness burst onto the political stage following the bloody Palestinian uprising of August 1929. Often referred to in English as the ‘Wailing Wall riots’ and known afterwards in Arabic as thawrat al-Buraq (the Buraq revolt), the unrest of that year cannot accurately be described as riots, at least not in the main. Although it is infamous for Arab massacres of dozens of Jews in Hebron and Safad and intercommunal violence in Jerusalem, the uprising represented the most serious offensive against Zionism since Jewish colonization began almost a half century earlier. Over half of the Jewish colonies in the country were attacked while urban Arabs fought with settlers and the police in Nablus, Haifa, Jaffa and Beisan, as well as Jerusalem, Safad and Hebron. Six or seven colonies were destroyed and a number of others were temporarily evacuated. Settlers also abandoned efforts to implant colonies in Acre, Nablus, Beersheba, Ramle, Tulkarm, Beisan and Gaza, effectively withdrawing from the interior hill country, save for Jerusalem. Elite Arab leaders quickly banded together after the first day of clashes to issue a cross-factional call for an end to disorder, but they were ignored by the popular elements in revolt—villagers, Bedouin, workers and youth. In the week of violence, 133 Jews were killed and at least 339 more injured, many seriously. Jewish counterattacks and British suppression, including the use of airpower on a number of villages, in turn cost 116 Palestinian lives with 232 other casualties. The bloodshed was followed by reciprocal, communally defined economic boycotts (Arabs avoiding Jewish businesses and ‘Jewish products’ and vice versa), demographic separation in urban regions (with Jewish merchants withdrawing from mixed areas of Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa), and a months-long insurgency around Safad by an organization calling itself the Green Hand (al-Kaff al-khadra). The country had never been more starkly divided and anti-British sentiment mushroomed in the aftermath.
The extent and quality of the violence came as a great shock to the British regime, which had grown used to what it previously described as the ‘tranquility’ of the country. Although the uprising was touched off by competing religious and national claims to the holy sites in Jerusalem at the Haram al-sharif (Noble Sanctuary)/Temple Mount complex, it was not primarily religious in character. This was attested to by both Palestinian and British evaluations. Palestinian lawyers issued a forceful statement castigating British rule for stoking conflict within the country on a scale unseen for centuries by ‘put[ing] lawmaking in the hands of Zionism’ while locking the Arabs out of government. The Arab Executive (AE), the foremost Palestinian nationalist association, similarly charged that the violence was ‘a direct product of the Zionist-British policy which aims at the extinction of the Arab nation in its natural home in order to replace it with a non-existent Jewish nation’. These strident broadsides reflected deep Palestinian fears of political and economic displacement, which, perhaps unexpectedly, found somewhat sympathetic echoes in subsequent British assessments.
High Commissioner John Chancellor, who condemned the violence by Palestinians as savagery, attributed it to Arab nationalist sentiment and, critically, to fervent political opposition to the Balfour declaration and the privileges held by the Jewish settler community under British rule. In an extended dispatch in January 1930, he highlighted underlying structural tensions within the Mandate and causes of instability within Palestine. These concerned not only the absence of a modicum of Arab self-rule, but what he believed was an immanent contradiction between the open-ended expansion of Zionist settlement and the government’s obligation, as per Article 6 of the Mandate charter, to safeguard the ‘rights and position’ of Palestine’s Indigenous population. The result was a burgeoning crisis in the countryside, driven in no small measure by a shortage in cultivable land. The doubling of the yishuv‘s territorial base over the 1920s had increased the competition over land, but the Mandate had failed, as Chancellor saw it, to protect Arab agriculturalists, particularly tenant farmers and shareholders in collectively owned lands (mushac), from dispossession. Chancellor stressed that there were no remaining arable lands that were not occupied by tenants or owners, meaning that further Zionist territorial growth would of necessity come at a cost to Arab agriculturalists. Left unchecked, the dynamic within the country would undermine Mandatory rule and risked the creation of what he called a ‘landless class’.
As is well known, Chancellor argued in the aftermath of the revolt for a change of course that was intended to constrain the growth of the Jewish National Home and thereby stave off the threat posed to British rule by mass landlessness and violent Arab discontent. In his view, the colonial government’s policy had become untenable and could only be maintained by force, against the will of the Arab public. The High Commissioner traced the weakness of Britain’s position to inequities in the government’s treatment of the Arab and Jewish populations, contending that the Balfour declaration had been consistently interpreted as if only the clause favoring the Jewish National Home existed while ignoring HMG’s obligations to protect Arab interests. The favoritism shown to Zionism, embedded in Articles 2, 4, 6 and 11 of the charter, was ‘prejudicial to the rights of the people of Palestine’ since it conflicted with Article 22 of the League of Nations covenant, which stipulated that the Mandates were to prepare subject peoples for independence. He therefore called for modifying the Mandate charter to remove the privileged status it accorded to Jews and the Zionist project.
To stem Arab dispossession, Chancellor recommended freezing the geographic scope of the Jewish National Home and, to a lesser extent, limiting its demographic growth. He made no specific recommendations concerning urban immigration (which represented the vast majority of Jewish settlers), but held that immigration to agricultural colonies should only be permitted to meet the (labor) needs of existing settlements. This proposal was paired with a call for land-transfer controls that would prevent the sale of properties by Arabs to Jews, except with the permission of the High Commissioner himself. In his view, this was not a discriminatory measure. Just as the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was bound not to alienate land to non-Jews, Chancellor conceived that the Arab community necessitated similar measures to preserve for itself land adequate to its own needs. He rejected the idea that this could be done by the Arabs themselves through self-regulation or action independent of government. Such an approach shirked what he believed was rightfully the obligation of the Mandatory power as per Articles 6 and 11 of the Mandate charter, which, in his reading, assigned a positive and active role to the government in preserving the Indigenous population’s ‘rights and position’ in the country.
The Shaw Commission, the official inquiry into the 1929 violence, largely adumbrated the High Commissioner’s general analysis of the problems of the Mandate, though without the indictment of Britain’s Zionist policy. Delivering its report in March 1930, it concluded broadly that the unrest among Palestinian Arabs stemmed from ‘the disappointment of their political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future’. The commissioners lent significant emphasis to the economic anxieties of the Arabs. The steady and considerable infusions of foreign money on which the yishuv depended and its able and forceful leadership had created the impression that not only were the Arabs locked in an unequal contest over determining the future of Palestine and its identity, but that the settler movement had little incentive to compromise: ‘To the Arabs it must appear improbable that such competitors will in years to come be content to share the country with them.’ Scrutinizing the effects of colonization under British rule more closely than most estimations of the time, the commission further concluded that contrary to the frequent claims of the Zionist movement (and the government), ‘the direct benefit to individual Arabs, which alone is likely to be appreciated, has been small, almost negligible’. If anything, since the First World War Jewish colonization had become less oriented toward mutually beneficial relations with the Arabs. This was visible in the mounting contest over land, which indicated that ‘economic pressure upon the Arab population was likely to increase’.
To illustrate its point concerning land, the commission’s report examined two major land transfers from the previous decade. In the first case, the purchase of 240,000 dunams of prime, fertile land in the Marj Ibn Amir (known in English as the Jezreel Valley or the plain of Esdraelon) from absentee Lebanese landlords had yielded the evacuation of 22 Arab villages and their replacement almost one-for-one by 23 Jewish villages. The Shaw Commission believed that the Zionists could not be faulted in this case since they had gone out of their way to pay extra compensation to the tenant farmers displaced by the change of ownership, but underlined that this was not the view of the Palestinians, who repeatedly raised the case as an example of ‘the failure of the Palestine Government to prevent the creation of a large landless class’. The second example, on the other hand, alarmed the commissioners. At Wadi al-Hawarith on the coast south of Haifa, the JNF had acquired lands amounting to 30,800 dunams at auction, again from absentee owners, and had initiated legal proceedings to evict the current tenants—impoverished Bedouin that were resisting their removal. The commission anticipated that the residents would lose not only their land, but their corporate identity, with eviction likely to render them ‘a scattered community’. It also worried that the police might regularly be required to enforce mass evictions. The impression that these transfers left was discouraging: a ‘state of extreme apprehension’ gripped the Palestinian public at large, whose members feared that they too would suffer the same fate of displacement at the hands of Jewish colonists.
Like Chancellor, the Shaw Commission underscored that the absence of unoccupied lands was a serious problem confronting the Mandate. As it explained, ‘In the past, persons dispossessed have in many cases been absorbed in neighboring villages; … this process, though it may have been possible four or five years ago, is no longer possible to-day; the point of absorption has been reached’. This situation could only mean that under existing conditions ‘a landless and discontented class is being created’ which threatened to expand to absorb ‘large sections of those who are now cultivators of the soil’. The commissioners argued that not only was this destabilizing for the Mandate, but that Arab agriculturalists, and particularly the tenants whose lands were sold from under their feet, held a ‘strong moral claim’ against dispossession, which derived in part from pre-existing hereditary rights to habitation and usufruct. Again the commission echoed Chancellor’s lines of critique regarding the lapses of the colonial state in defending the interests of the rural population. The colonial government had erected laws for the protection of tenant farmers that were entirely ineffective and which, in the case of the Protection of Cultivators Ordinance (POCO) of 1929, were suspected of actually intensifying the problem and exacerbating landlessness. What was needed were real safeguards for agriculturalists that would prevent the tide of dispossession from growing and, although agnostic about a specific solution, the commission’s report averred that this would require some form of land-transfer controls. Further, barring a transition to intensive cultivation, the rural landscape was at maximum population capacity and could not sustain new flows of Jewish colonists without displacing Palestinians.
Chancellor’s January dispatch and the Shaw Commission report broached the issue of landlessness in a manner unknown to Britain’s tenure in Palestine. More than any previous reports had done, they established that the growth of Zionism disturbed the fragile equilibrium of Arab society. Some of their conclusions controverted core claims mobilized by the Zionists and the colonial government in defense of the Jewish National Home policy. Chief among these was the idea that Palestine contained ample tracts of ‘sparsely populated’ or empty lands which the Zionist movement could turn to good use. Privately, Arthur Ruppin, the pre-eminent Zionist land expert, had already poignantly noted this dilemma in his diary in 1928:
Is it impossible to provide the ever-growing number of Jews in Palestine with a field of activity without oppressing the Arabs? I see a particular difficulty in the limited amount of land. Before long, the time will probably come when no vacant ground will be available, and every Jew who settles will cause the removal of a fellah (except in the coastal region, where a fair amount of land suitable for plantations remains.)
Yehoshua Hankin, head of the Palestine Land Development Company (an arm of the JNF), similarly believed that arable lands were in short supply. He told John Hope Simpson during the latter’s investigations in 1930 that Jews could only acquire another 100,000 dunams without further displacing Arabs and effectively blocking their ability to be resettled elsewhere on productive parcels.
The strong criticisms of HMG’s position and its Zionist policy were not well received in London. Chancellor’s long memo elicited consternation in the Colonial Office, which interpreted it, as scholars have since, as proposing the end of the Jewish National Home policy. Officials charged that it was colored by ‘pro-Arab opinion’ and asked exasperatedly what the Mandate would be without the development of the yishuv and the Zionist project as its mission. As one of them bluntly put it, withdrawing from the Balfour policy would remove the British ‘excuse for remaining in Palestine’. Consequently, Chancellor’s proposals were withheld from Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald for over two months until the Shaw Commission report, which could not be suppressed, was completed and debated in Parliament.
The Shaw Commission embarrassed the government considerably. Prime Minister MacDonald’s own Labour Party panned it, approving the minority report by Lord Snell (a member of the commission) who stolidly supported settler developmentalism while pouring scorn on the idea that Palestinian peasants were capable of independent political thought or action. The Prime Minster himself believed that the commissioners had exceeded their mandate by touching on elements of high policy (that is, immigration and colonization) and suggested in a meeting with Chaim Weizmann and Zionist critics that his government sought a means to ‘wash out’ the report. At the same meeting, Weizmann, Zionism’s leading statesman, inveighed that the contest over land was ‘a fight between a Jew and a goat’: one needed only ask whether Jewish citrus plantations or mere Arab herdsmen should delimit Palestine’s future. With the Zionists outraged and parliamentary opposition piling on to MacDonald’s minority government, Whitehall authorized a new review of land and immigration in Palestine by John Hope Simpson.
By contrast, Palestinian political circles were cautiously optimistic about the Shaw Commission and the AE seized on the moment and sent a delegation to London to press its case. The delegation called for a complete halt to Arab land sales to Jews, for the return of lands from which Arab cultivators had been evicted, and for the reversion of lands taken from Arabs by the colonial administration owing to the absence of written deeds. Echoing earlier demands made by Palestinians, they also called for an agricultural bank to be ‘re-established’ (a reference to the Ottoman Agricultural Bank, shuttered by the colonial state) and for a tariffs and customs policy that would protect, rather than cripple agrarian producers. As the AE had done on occasion after the 1929 rising, members of the delegation brandished the prospect that renewed unrest was likely if serious concessions were not forthcoming.
Under pressure from Chancellor and in view of the idea that some rebalancing of its policy was advisable, the MacDonald government informed the Palestinians that it was preparing to move forward with new land control legislation. The Prime Minister also assured the Grand Mufti, al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni, that measures would be taken to stem the flow of peasant evictions. When the talks ultimately broke down, London issued a statement declaiming the delegation’s push for ‘sweeping constitutional changes’, announced the government’s intention to protect the rural population, and deprecated the view that British authorities were jeopardizing the continued existence of the Arabs in Palestine, whom it referred to in the euphemistic parlance of the Mandate as ‘non-Jewish’ communities.
Three months later, the Hope Simpson report convinced Colonial Secretary Passfield, who had been tasked with reconfiguring British policy on Palestine, that essential changes were necessary to protect the Arab peasantry and preserve Mandatory rule. Passfield, a believer in race theory and an anti-Semite, did not think that the Arabs were a fully mature ‘race’ and was not a partisan of their cause. He and the Prime Minister both embodied the racialized colonial paternalism that was then in vogue in the Labour Party, seeing colonized populations as wards of Western empire, incapable of self-government and requiring protection from the full brunt of capitalism. As Paul Kelemen has argued, the key to Passfield’s turn toward limiting the Jewish National Home lay in Hope Simpson’s argument that the British had ignored their commitments toward the Palestinians, which they were no less sworn to uphold than those to the Zionists.
Hope Simpson’s report underscored that Palestine, and especially its Arab population, was in economic crisis. It offered the most detailed portrait yet of rural distress and deduced that blame lay with all parties: Zionism for the manner of its growth, the Arabs, whose society and land system were purportedly retrograde, and the colonial government, which had mismanaged the country’s economic development. More than previous inquiries, Hope Simpson provided an overarching analysis of economic development in Palestine, which was found to be sorely lacking. This was nowhere more apparent than in the state of the Arab population, which Hope Simpson strikingly concluded was no better off under the British than it had been under the Ottomans.
Hope Simpson’s analysis raised a number of troubling questions about the consequences of Zionism’s growth in both the rural and urban sectors. His report agreed with the view that there was no more vacant land available for Jewish settlement and found additionally that colonization was causing a host of other negative side effects, from breeding plagues of crop-devouring field mice (on lands held as uncultivated reserves) to inducing skyrocketing rents in areas adjacent to Jewish colonization to inflating real estate prices. Likewise, he echoed Chancellor and the Shaw Commission on the absence of adequate protections for tenants, underscoring that without legal ‘occupancy right’ for tenant farmers there would be no chance of stemming their dispossession. Perhaps his report’s most surprising line of critique pertained to Jewish industry, which had long been regarded as the best hope for Palestine’s economic modernization. It found that the nascent industrial core’s dependence on government tariff protections was invidious to the interests of the country, since ‘The rest of the population is taxed in order that the proprietors of these industrial concerns may be in a position to pay the wages of their labourers and to make a profit for themselves’. Far from being a panacea for development, the clutch of Jewish industries in Palestine required government supports that directly hurt rural producers.
If Zionism had harmed the interests of the Arab majority, the Palestinians were not spared their own dose of criticism. Echoing earlier appraisals, Hope Simpson’s report found that Arab agriculture was ‘eminently backwards’. The land regime required urgent changes, at the core of which was the need to make private property (secured by written, legal titles) its universal, normative unit. The primary obstacle athwart this goal was the Arab commons (mushac), which some surveys had suggested might comprise 40-50 per cent of the country’s arable lands and which was (mistakenly) believed to be a major impediment to productive investment. These lands would be more profitably and efficiently utilized if partitioned and converted to private domains.
In spite of his catholic appraisal of its causes, Hope Simpson largely placed the onus for the crisis afflicting the Arab rural sphere on the colonial state and imperial policy. The central agrarian tax, the tithe (cushr), was sapping peasant producers, claiming well over 20 per cent of their net income. As Hope Simpson learned, peasants were so indebted that tax collection caused them further losses. To pay the tithe peasants sometimes took out loans, usually from moneylending merchants who charged exorbitant rates that ran up to 50 per cent interest for a single season (the official maximum annual rate of 9 per cent being a ‘dead letter’). Poor peasants had liens placed against their produce that stripped them of the ability to optimally market their goods (interfering with the timing of their sales and hence the prices they fetched) while forcing them to pay for guards posted to secure the crops. Consequently, the tax was contributing to the shrinkage of average holdings, as cultivators sold portions of their lands in order to discharge their obligations. The overhaul of the tithe in the late 1920s had unintentionally made matters worse. By fixing ‘redemption prices’ for crops at rates considerably above actual market values, the reform had actually increased taxation. The pincer effect for agriculturalists as they were caught between the tax and the late 1920s crash in commodity prices (following the global depression) was withering. Where previously the average annual net income of owner-cultivators and sharecropping tenants had been respectively estimated at 35.2 Palestinian pounds (£P) and £P20, with current values in 1930, these sums were slashed to a mere £P11.8 and £P3.6, bringing agrarian proceeds to what Hope Simpson aptly called the ‘vanishing point’. Given that the average family’s debt was put at £P27, the result for smallholders was penury and disaster.
Noting that ‘everywhere there is the complaint that many of the cultivators have lost their land’, Hope Simpson cited the recent work of the Johnson-Crosbie commission, which had found in an examination of 104 villages believed to accurately serve as a cross section of the agricultural population that 29.4 per cent of families owned no land and subsisted as laborers. This did not include those whose primary income derived from sharecropping, who also tended to be legally landless. The Johnson-Crosbie commission had found an average holding (counting sharecroppers and owner-cultivators together) of 75 dunams and that no family in possession of less than 120 dunams was able to get by without selling labor power on the side. Recalling the Shaw Commission’s estimate that the minimum measure of land needed to maintain an agricultural family, known as the ‘lot viable’, was 160-320 dunams, depending on soil types, Hope Simpson underscored his own conviction that the minimum was 130 dunams on dry-farming land. Based on his questionable calculations—which undercounted the number of rural landowning families—he found that the average holding among Arab cultivators was 91.1 dunams. This meant that ‘the average fellah holding is insufficient to maintain anything like a decent standard of life’ and that the landless crisis would spread as more families found it impossible to pay their debts and taxes and to sustain themselves.
Hope Simpson’s answer to the troubles he catalogued was to recommend a large-scale development program to be headed by a new department of the Palestine government. Only by pursuing an active agenda of agrarian development could Britain’s dual obligation to Jews and Arabs be fulfilled. Such a policy held out the potential for creating common ground between Arabs and Jews, and would afford the ability to reabsorb the landless population by resettling them on new lands acquired for such purposes where they would practice intensive (that is, irrigated) agriculture in place of the ubiquitous dry farming of Arab Palestine. The transition to intensive cultivation would free up land, thus reconciling the otherwise conflicting imperatives of the Mandatory government to seek the ‘close settlement’ of Jews on the land while preserving the ‘rights and position’ of the Palestinians. Combined with other reforms such as the abolition of the tithe and the partition of the Arab commons, the Arab countryside could be rescued from its straitening circumstance and the status of the British Mandatory secured.
Hope Simpson was not as averse to Zionism as has sometimes been depicted, and was favorably impressed by a number of Jewish settlements he toured, but he remained persuaded that the Arabs were ‘economically powerless against such a strong movement’ and thus needed protection. He was also wary of the gulf between Zionist rhetoric and practice, observing that ‘The most lofty sentiments are ventilated in public meetings and in Zionist propaganda’ but that the JNF and other organs of the movement did not uphold or embody a vision of cooperation or mutual benefit with the Arabs.
The Zionist response to the emergence of Palestinian landlessness as a major political issue was at times to deny that the phenomenon existed. In April 1930 Weizmann published a letter in the London Times that held that there really was no ‘landless class’ in Palestine, asserting that 90 per cent of those who had been displaced had since been ‘re-established on the land’ with Zionist aid. Such public claims to cooperation were turned on their head in private. At a parley with the Colonial Secretary in July, Weizmann bluntly castigated the policy of dual obligation, announcing that Zionism was ‘not interested in building up a country for the Arabs’. The purpose of the Jewish National Home was to erect ‘a great Jewish settlement’ and therefore to ‘pack as many Jews into Palestine as was at all possible’.
Taking a different tack, and encouraged in part by the parliamentary undersecretary for the colonies, Dr Drummond Shiels, Zionist representatives also argued that land would not be the subject of contestation between Arabs and Jews were Transjordan open to Zionist settlement, or alternately, that HMG should consider the idea of ‘transfer’, that is, the removal of the Palestinians (or the dispossessed among them), to Transjordan or Iraq. Pinhas Rutenberg, who sat on the Jewish Agency’s (JA) Executive and chaired the Vaad Leumi (National Council) of the yishuv, drafted a proposal which promised a £1 million Jewish financial commitment to resettling Palestinians in Transjordan on condition that the latter was opened to Jewish colonization. While the Colonial Office and the Treasury Department quickly shot this plan down, such ideas continued to hold some appeal in governing circles in London, for instance with Lord Snell. Whitehall, however, predicted that transfer would only provoke greater Arab resistance.
Although the Zionists pushed back at virtually every step, MacDonald’s government lurched toward a new basis for policy that would take account of the landless issue. While Hope Simpson’s investigations were under way the government issued a statement of policy in May that announced a preference for checking the tendency toward dispossession and clearly intoned that this would require the institution of some new form of land controls.
Hope Simpson and his report clearly informed the thinking of officials in the Cabinet Committee on Palestine who were involved in drawing up the new policy. His initial proposal was for the settlement of 20,000 new Jewish colonist families and 10,000 dispossessed Arab families on lands to be purchased and managed by the Jerusalem government. The Treasury Department estimated the plan would cost some £6-8 million. This relatively colossal sum was equal to roughly three years of the Palestine government’s entire budget and, given the global economic contraction of the depression years, Treasury Secretary Snowden quickly blocked the plan’s approval. In the negotiations that followed, HMG’s financial concerns ran increasingly at odds with the government’s solicitude for dispossessed Arabs. Colonial Secretary Passfield lowered the plan’s budget to £1 million, but Snowden balked again and the sum was reduced to £400,000. Reconsidering the situation, the Cabinet Committee outlined its own development scheme in September, modifying Hope Simpson’s plan and strongly affirming an interest in arresting Palestinian dispossession.
The Cabinet Committee’s scheme jettisoned the Jewish settlers and budgeted only for the resettlement of displaced Arabs, using the prior cost estimates to arrive at a sum of £2.5 million. It justified itself by explaining:
up to the present the various Jewish organisations have acquired in all about 300,000 acres of land of which they have settled about 175,000 acres, leaving a reserve of about 125,000 acres for future settlement. Prior to the settlement of the 175,000 acres that land was tenanted by Arabs who were dispossessed of their holdings to make room for the Jewish settlers. It is estimated that those dispossessed Arab families number about 10,000.
While the idea that every dunam acquired by the Zionists had previously been inhabited was certainly false, the Cabinet Committee regarded rectifying the plight of the landless as a moral obligation and, identifying the Jewish National Home with growing Palestinian dispossession, asked whether HMG’s commitment to Zionism should be effectively terminated. Short of having such authority, it urged that Jewish land purchasing should be frozen for five years and that immigration should only be permitted, as Chancellor had originally suggested, to the lands already in Jewish hands. In the same vein, it also called for occupancy protections for tenants.
The story of the subsequent White Paper, issued the following month, and its rapid retraction under Zionist pressure, has been told many times before. Here what deserves further examination are the arguments made in the White Paper and in the debates that succeeded it regarding the issues of landlessness and the ‘rights and position’ of the Arab community.
The 1930 White Paper sought, in its own terms, to promote a measure of cooperation, or at least coexistence, in Palestine by attempting to square the ‘inevitably… conflicting interests’ of Arabs and Jews, the land’s two ‘races’. It contended that the Jewish National Home could only be realized and prosper in a peaceful country, but inequity and disparity between the two peoples inhabiting it was jeopardizing its future. The Palestinians ‘possess[ed] few resources of their own with which to sustain the struggle for existence’, while on the other hand, the Jewish settlers had adopted ‘independent and separatist ideals’ which had led them to a more exclusionary path of development. The situation had reached a ‘critical moment’ requiring government action: ‘In the past it may be said that the Government has left economic and social forces to operate with the minimum of interference or control, but it has become increasingly clear that such a policy can no longer continue’.
The White Paper’s treatment of land and agricultural development were central to its orientation and closely followed the findings of High Commissioner Chancellor, the Shaw Commission and especially Hope Simpson. It affirmed that given present cultivation techniques, there was no land available for Jewish colonization outside of the uncultivated areas already held by Zionist organizations, and suggested that the only path forward for substantial new flows of agrarian colonists would lie in moving toward intensive cultivation. State lands were equally unavailable for colonization, and were there unoccupied parcels in the government’s possession, they would not be opened to Zionists but rather would serve to resettle the landless Arab population. The White Paper adduced the Johnson-Crosbie committee’s estimate of landlessness (29.4 per cent, not counting sharecroppers) and Hope Simpson’s calculations regarding the average Arab holding (90 dunams) and the lot viable (130 dunams). The shortage of land meant that just as intensive agriculture would be necessary for the expansion of the yishuv, so too the Palestinians required it in order to ameliorate prevailing conditions and uplift the lives of the fallahin. On this note, the White Paper also suggested that peasants would benefit through occupancy rights for tenants, regulation of land rents, the creation of rural cooperatives (to provide affordable credit), the partition of mushac lands, and the universal registration of individual deeds.
Just as its intellectual and ideological predecessors throughout 1930 had done, the White Paper rejected the notion that the dual obligation of the Mandate was and should be hierarchical, privileging the Jewish National Home over the Indigenous Arab population. It also rebuffed the associated settler developmentalist contention that Zionism and the yishuv alone would produce prosperity throughout the country. In a sharply worded passage it suggested that Zionist claims that Jewish land acquisition ipso facto benefitted the Arab community were an ‘unconvincing, if not fallacious’ representation of the situation. Given the shortage of land and the emergence of Arab landlessness while Zionist authorities held substantial lands in reserve, the White Paper endorsed the idea that Chancellor had originated of putting the government in Jerusalem in charge of the land market. The country’s immigration system was also faulted as an economic stress and cause of political antagonism:
So long as widespread suspicion exists, and it does exist, amongst the Arab population, that the economic depression, under which they undoubtedly suffer at present, is largely due to excessive immigration, and so long as grounds exist upon which this suspicion may be plausibly represented to be well founded, there can be little hope of any improvement in the mutual relations of the two races.
Arab unemployment must henceforth be a factor in determining immigration allowances. This, it was maintained, was in line with both the Mandatory’s obligation to protect the ‘rights and position’ of the Arabs and the 1922 White Paper, which stipulated that immigration should not ‘deprive’ the population of employment.
The Passfield White Paper set off such a storm of vituperative protests and denunciations among Zionists and their allies that within less than a fortnight Prime Minister MacDonald had begun the process of scuttling it. As talks opened in November between Zionist representatives and the British government in London, Palestinian leaders’ initial optimism gave way to worries that the government’s new policy would be thrown over. It was with this in mind that the AE submitted its response to the White Paper in December.
The chief problem, as the AE saw it, was that there was ‘not the slightest difference between the principles laid down in the White Papers of 1922 and 1930’, the former having established Britain’s role as seeking to foster the yishuv‘s development—a policy formulation that left the door wide open to permanent occupation and the denial of the Arab majority’s self-rule and sovereignty. The Palestinians, the AE asserted, would not be content with the economic and social measures outlined in the Passfield White Paper, but only with the actualization and advancement of their ‘national rights and economic interests’.
Reading the Mandate charter in view of Article 22 of the League of Nations covenant, the AE put forward an interpretation of key constitutional questions that reversed the Mandatory’s privileging of the Jewish National Home. Questionably interpolating that Article 6 of the Mandate charter acknowledged the existence of an Arab nation in Palestine, it nonetheless pointed out that in it the Jewish National Home’s development through land acquisition and immigration were made conditional on the protection of the ‘rights and position’ of the Indigenous population, while Arab rights had no equal conditionality. The AE’s supposition was, therefore, that in any clash of interests between the two communities the conditional right had to be understood as holding lesser standing.
Pointedly, the AE’s statement linked the growth of communal tensions within Palestine not to the emergence of Zionist settlement, but to the transition from Ottoman to British rule. Under the first High Commissioner alone, the British built a state structure that was allegedly eight times the size of its predecessor, the purpose of which was the advancement of the Jewish National Home. On this argument, the price for the radically enlarged state apparatus—itself conspicuous in its costly defense and police outlays that were integral to securing British rule -was paid by the agricultural majority. The countryside suffered from ‘heavy taxation’ and a welter of policies that pushed peasant producers toward bankruptcy and dispossession. Using calculations the basis for which was not fully elaborated, the brief claims that peasant taxation was roughly two-thirds higher under the British. It repeated Hope Simpson’s conclusions on landlessness and the Arabs’ insufficient land base (that is, holding sizes beneath the lot viable) and added that under colonial rule, peasants were being completely dispossessed and removed from the land for the first time (since in the past legal ownership between Arabs could change but tenants would remain in situ). State lands had been opened to Jews but not to Arabs, though the latter needed them to reabsorb the landless. Moreover, the state had arrogated lands to itself illegitimately in uncultivated areas and by disregarding the customary claims of Arab agriculturalists (those who lacked written titles). Among laborers unemployment had reached unprecedented proportions.
The greatest novelty of the AE’s critique of policy regarding agricultural affairs and landlessness concerned its analysis and explanation of the causes of land sales by Arabs. Following the catastrophic conditions of the First World War, the country had sunk into deep economic crisis under British control. Agriculturalists searched in vain for much-needed credit amid the ‘depression’ they weathered, while their earnings were crippled by tariff policies that flooded the market with commodities already produced in the country (such as wheat and olive oil), thereby slashing their prices. Peasants were driven into debt and the hands of moneylenders, and for many, the end of the road was selling their land. The ultimate responsibility for this situation was not the moneylenders or their usurious interest rates, but rather the Zionist policy of the government, which saddled the agricultural population with crushing levels of taxation. Land sales that had transpired under these conditions were, the AE averred, illegitimate. Jewish land acquisition on the scale it had attained was in contravention of Article 6 of the Mandate charter (the ‘rights and position’ clause), ergo the Arabs were entitled, as their delegation had done in London, to press for the reversion of recent land transfers and the restoration of said lands to their former owners. The White Paper’s call to vest the control of land transfers in the office of the High Commissioner was seen as both unwarranted interference in Arab commerce and inadequate as a palliative to land sales. Circling back around to the issue of peasant impoverishment, the AE opined that ‘If the Government … are really anxious to improve the condition of the Fallah, they should settle the debts problem before anything else’.
The 1930 White Paper was a far cry from a resolution in Palestinian eyes, yet the AE, keen to see some forward motion in response to Palestinian demands, urged that it be implemented as a first step in changing the Mandate’s course.
The Prime Minister’s letter to Weizmann, issued in February 1931 as a kind of correction to the White Paper, was a humiliating affair for the government, and reversed the momentum of 1930 toward a new policy. The victory Zionism scored was near total. As Kelemen puts it, the terms of the Prime Minister’s letter ‘in all but name declared the Yishuv‘s paramountcy in British policy’. The White Paper’s criticism of Zionist institutions for their ‘separatist ideals’ and exclusionary practices were repudiated root and branch. The government proclaimed that the development of the Jewish National Home was its abiding policy, from which no deviation would take place. Importantly, in spite of all of the evidence collected during 1930, the yishuv‘s development was judged once again to be ipso facto beneficial for the country and its inhabitants and generally seen as pivotal to reconciling Arab and Jewish interests and forging an intercommunal ‘understanding’.
Although it has gone little noted, in its legal reasoning the MacDonald letter undermined claims that Palestinians had strong, substantive rights and protections under the Mandate charter. Article 2’s invocation and defense of their ‘civil and religious rights’ was narrowly interpreted to mean that the government would uphold a non-discriminatory policy, but one which did not extend to the ‘private’ sphere, where discrimination was allowed. Further, it disavowed that the Mandatory was bound to safeguard the dispositions of religious rights in effect at the time of the occupation, implying that alterations in the status of said rights were not inconceivable. The letter’s gloss on the ‘rights and position’ clause of Article 6 was at once more nebulous and more damaging. This clause, it was declared, was not intended to act as a break on development and especially not that of the Jewish National Home. Its positive content or meaning, if it was construed to have any by MacDonald’s government, was left entirely unstated, making it effectively moot.
While reducing the legal and constitutional grounds for a proactive policy of protecting Palestinian rights, the MacDonald letter nonetheless did not entirely walk away from the issue of landlessness. Rebutting the calls for land controls and asserting that state and ‘other’ lands required further surveying to determine their capacity for colonization, the London government announced that, unlike its predecessors, it had taken up ‘an active policy of development’. Its agenda consisted of the expansion of colonization, a development scheme for landless Arabs, encouragement of intensive agriculture in the hill districts, and protections for tenants and ‘squatters’. Backpedaling on earlier estimates, the letter declared its support for a new assessment of landlessness. The parameters it provided for defining ‘landlessness’ were extremely restrictive and included only those who ‘can be shown to have been displaced from the lands which they occupied in consequence of the lands passing into Jewish hands, and who have not obtained other holdings on which they can establish themselves, or other equally satisfactory occupation’. The narrowness of this definition surpassed even that proposed by the JA, on which it was based. Though the notion that attaining land elsewhere mitigated any claim to dispossession could be debated, the inclusion of the clause on labor (which was an addition of HMG and not the JA) obfuscated the issue entirely since merely obtaining work, whether connected to the land or not, removed one from consideration. With these guidelines the subsequent enumeration of the landless was destined for an undercount, as even accounts sympathetic to Zionist perspectives acknowledge.
The reversal of the policy dynamic from 1930 to early 1931 was so sharp and the sidelining of the Arabs so total that the Palestinians dubbed the Prime Minister’s deposit ‘the black letter’. The AE issued a public statement in which it excoriated the British and asserted that ‘Mr. MacDonald’s new document has destroyed the last vestige of respect every Arab had cherished toward the British government’. Far from being hyperbole, the torpedoing of the White Paper helped entrench a process of radicalization. The elite conviction that diplomacy was the only viable and sensible pathway to self-determination was utterly discredited. If the Prime Minister’s about-face was a soaring triumph for Zionism, it was also, as one senior official in the Palestine government later concluded, a failure for British policy, as only a mere half decade later a rebellion far more massive than that of 1929 shook the land.
The Development Department and the Measure of Arab Landlessness
According to many accounts, the data on landlessness in the reports of the Shaw Commission and Hope Simpson was so specious and flawed as to be all but useless. Firm estimates of the exact extent of landlessness were lacking and none of the 1930 inquiries undertook a statistically comprehensive collection on the subject. The scale of arable lands in Palestine was also in dispute. Modern growing techniques and intensive cultivation, it is contended, could bring new, marginal lands under productive use while reducing the minimum sustainable holding (the lot viable) of Arab farmers. Moreover, beyond the data itself, the motives of many of the men involved in these reports (Chancellor and Hope Simpson above all) have been impugned, typically for being hostile or allegedly hostile to Zionism. Their own biases, it is suggested, warped the picture, if not manufactured the notion of widespread landlessness outright.
Yet the trouble for accounts that dismiss the problem of Palestinian landlessness in this period is that a raft of subsequent evidence substantiated the general findings of the 1930 inquiries and reports. This was hardly the intention of the home government. Having been burned by the White Paper and the diplomatic fisticuffs that surrounded it, the London government had no stomach for wrestling with determined Zionist opposition. Contrary to the hopes of both Ramsay MacDonald and the Zionists to have turned the page, however, it took little time for the landlessness issue and the decomposition of the Arab rural order to again come into view.
The Prime Minister’s call for the enumeration of the landless in Palestine set in motion the next major report on the countryside, that of Louis French, who was hired as the first Director of Development in the Jerusalem administration. French’s mandate was primarily to draw up a plan for the resettlement of landless Arabs (as per the MacDonald letter’s definition) and to investigate the potential for opening new areas of Palestine to Jewish colonization, as well as to examine the suitability of intensive cultivation in the highlands of Palestine and to study the question of credit provision to agriculturalists. His findings, delivered in a report in late 1931 while the enumeration of the landless was still under way, reprised many of the conclusions and proposals of Chancellor and Hope Simpson while offering further illustration of the crisis gripping Arab agriculture.
French’s survey again affirmed that no state land was unoccupied and in some respects added further weight to the charge that Jewish colonization was injurious to Palestinian livelihoods. While reiterating the standard colonial diagnosis of Arab economic backwardness and the need for a modern, Western property regime in the country, it highlighted two principal, intertwined factors that were endangering the peasantry’s position on the land: the shrinkage of individual holdings beneath the lot viable (defined as 30 dunams with irrigation or 130 without) and unrestricted land transfers. The latter was not only changing the coastal regions, but affected the hill districts as well. The alienation of land from smallholders thus flowed in two directions: to Jewish colonists and to Arab capitalists. Without a brake, the report speculated that landless Arabs could in the future eventually become the ‘serfs’ of Jewish landlords. More immediately, French pointed to several developments illustrating that class stratification among Palestinian agriculturalists was accelerating in tempo and scope. Most famously he noted that Arab capitalists had acquired over 30 per cent of the land in one unnamed subdistrict over the course of just the preceding decade. No less remarkably his report also estimated that half of all Arab cultivators on the land were sharecroppers, not landowners. A further index of the weakness of the lower peasantry could be found in the trade in water rights among cultivators. Use rights to water, bartered and sold as a factor of production, were increasingly being cornered by capitalists; loss of subsurface water rights, such as in Beisan, could diminish a cultivator’s harvests or even make land uncultivable and often presaged land loss.
French believed that a number of steps were necessary to arrest the process of rural decomposition. Zionism’s global support gave it ‘immense resources against which no peasantry in the world could unaided stand up’; to reduce the unequal competition that ensued he suggested the promulgation of land controls modeled on the Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900, whereby ‘Hindu moneylenders’ were prevented from dispossessing Muslim peasants. To protect resettled Arabs from being made landless in the future, French proposed that they be placed on government lands where they would enjoy inalienable leases. Contradictorily, however, French proposed that this permanent occupancy right should not be granted outright to the resettled population, but must be purchased. How broke peasants and ex-peasants were supposed to pay for these rights was left unspecified, but it was thought that having to do so would teach them a lesson about financial management and responsibility.
French’s first report was so unpalatable and so out-of-step with the spirit of the MacDonald letter that it was quickly gutted by the new officials in charge of HMG’s Palestine policy, Colonial Secretary Philip Cunliffe-Lister and High Commissioner Arthur Wauchope. The report was censored and many passages critical of Jewish colonization stripped out before it was finally transmitted to the JA and the Arab Executive for comment.
French’s second, follow-up report in April 1932 fared little better than the first. In it he tempered his criticisms of the Jewish National Home but reiterated his earlier insistence on the shortage of arable land and the necessity of implementing effective protections for both impoverished owner-cultivators and tenants. Like Hope Simpson, French’s assessment that the land regime was broadly in crisis and his advocacy for the development of systematic supports to aid struggling Arab agriculturalists represented a model of liberalism that put much stock in the state’s capacity for grand social engineering. This set French’s ideas and analysis at odds with the political managers in London and Jerusalem who were increasingly looking for a narrow, if not superficial, fix to the landlessness issue. This mismatch, combined with the strong opposition his plans elicited from Zionists, virtually ensured that French’s ideas and recommendations would be marginalized. Indeed, before the landless count he was supervising was completed, French was fired in 1932 for leaking his work to the New York Times.
The Development Department’s official tally of Arab landlessness was, in many ways, of more immediate significance than French’s reports. The end result, that 899 claims (of several thousand submitted) were judged to fit the official definition, was an unvarnished ‘Jewish Agency political victory’. The minimization of the landless issue had been a shared aim of the government and the Jewish Agency since the Passfield White Paper debacle and was secured by the JA’s influence over the assessment of claims. Following the JA’s intervention, A.H. Webb, a former district court judge at Nablus, was appointed as the Development Department’s legal officer, whose task it was to evaluate the claims. Webb distrusted the peasants with whom he interacted and disregarded statements they made concerning the sizes of their holdings. What’s more, he funneled the applications he received directly to the Jewish Agency for vetting, initially without even examining them first himself. With this arrangement in place, Arab claims of dispossession became subject to adjudication by the JA’s Legal Department as much as by the Palestine administration and the former was able to winnow the tally down accordingly.
The government’s gaming of the definition of landlessness and the JA’s role in thinning the landless count did not pass unnoticed among the Palestinians. The AE regarded the official landless inquiry as little more than a sham and expressed great skepticism toward French’s development scheme and associated legislative initiatives. In its first meeting with officials after the government broadcast its intention to resettle landless Arabs, the AE objected to the narrow and erroneous definition imposed by the Prime Minister, insisting that all of the dispossessed should be queued for resettlement. When it belatedly submitted its response to French’s two reports in March 1933 it continued to object to the illusory quality of the official landless enumeration, citing instead an estimate of 30 per cent of the population as more realistic. More broadly, the AE lambasted French’s different schemes for handling the landless crisis, arguing that his primary plan served but a small number of Arabs while making an open-ended commitment to the continued development of the Jewish National Home. Resettled Arabs would be made wards of the state while Britain would have a rationale for prolonging its rule over Palestine for decades. Moreover, in the AE’s view, what French’s plans lacked most was any recognition of the Arab public as bearing collective, as opposed to individual, rights. Returning to its familiar arguments regarding Article 6 of the Mandate charter, it cleverly reread the ‘rights and position’ clause as enjoining a collective, national measure, since presuming its meaning applied individually was deeply illogical. In this light, even French’s attentiveness to the plight of owner-cultivators and his calls for their protection from dispossession amounted to a derogation of Palestinian collective rights. The unwillingness to consider Palestinian collective rights was also evident in French’s failure to account for demographic growth or countenance that Arabs could have a need to expand their land base.
That the official landless count produced by the Development Department was far from accurate was well observed by HMG. Indeed, the Palestine administration continued to collect data that openly and widely contradicted the official landless count. The most considerable and comprehensive testament in this regard—but by no means the last—is the 1931 census. The census broadly divided the rural population into those whose incomes derived from settled agriculture and those (principally Bedouin) who made their livelihoods in animal husbandry, with the former category further broken down into four subcategories: rentiers; owner-cultivators and sharecroppers (tallied together); laborers; and those earning from specialty crop cultivation (that is, fruits and vegetables). The vast majority of Palestinian Arab families deriving their primary income from agriculture were found to be owner-cultivators and sharecroppers (59,521) and laborers (26,495), with smaller subsets devoted to specialty agriculture (7654, including 2085 families in citrus) or living as rentiers (5301). These figures show that 26.8 per cent of rural agricultural earners, supporting their families through forms of wage-labor, were landless, but since the census failed to distinguish between sharecroppers and owner-cultivators, a more exact accounting of the phenomenon is beyond its capacity.
The extent of sharecropping, the missing variable, was never ascertained with any precision, but High Commissioner Wauchope furnished a low-end estimate in early 1932, suggesting that 20 per cent of cultivators were croppers. On the other hand, as previously noted, Louis French assayed that sharecropping was far more prevalent than this, comprising up to half of the agricultural population. Applying these two estimates as lower- and upper-bound figures to the owner-cultivator/sharecropper category of the census would mean that an additional 12.0-30.1 per cent of the rural population was landless. Adding these sums to the population working as laborers (26.8 per cent), the total portion of the rural population that was landless then ranged in 1932 between a minimum of 38.8 per cent and maximum of 56.9 per cent. These considerable quanta, it bears repeating, do not match the government’s narrow official definition of landlessness, but rather describe the scale of the Arab ‘landless class’, in its full breadth, to which Chancellor and the Shaw Commission had first turned the government’s attention. This class continued to grow throughout the period preceding the 1936 revolt as the Arab rural order continued to fray.
Settler Developmentalism and Its Contradictions after 1931
Although the Prime Minister had announced in 1931 that the government was embarking on ‘an active policy of development’, no such program was forthcoming. The disavowal of the Passfield White Paper effectively returned policy to the laissez faire conditions that had predominated in the 1920s which the White Paper had faulted for bringing on Palestinian dispossession. The grand and expansive visions of liberal social engineering put forward by Hope Simpson and French were replaced by the resurgent, and from HMG’s perspective, economical model of settler developmentalism. Two more agreeable advocates of the return to the status quo ante, and the recentering of Zionism within Britain’s Palestine policy, could scarcely have been found than the new Colonial Secretary and High Commissioner.
Both Philip Cunliffe-Lister and Arthur Wauchope were settler developmentalists. The Colonial Secretary believed that economic prosperity generated by ‘controlled immigration’ was the key to securing Britain’s long-term hold over Palestine and to creating a stable political order within it. The agenda of securing growth by proxy suited the semi-austerity conditions of colonial management during the interwar era, which were all the more in force given the global economic downturn inaugurated by the US stock market crash in 1929. Although he has sometimes been seen as second fiddle to Cunliffe-Lister, the High Commissioner not only wholeheartedly agreed with the Colonial Secretary’s prescription for assuaging Palestine’s ills, he was in some senses more committed to protecting the fundaments of settler developmentalism, namely open immigration and unimpeded land acquisition.
Under Palestine’s new imperial managers, a concerted effort was made to erase the sense of looming crisis that had informed official debates over HMG’s policy after 1929. This was somewhat easier to accomplish by 1933 with the advent of the fifth aliya, which, in a mere four years, nearly doubled the size of the yishuv and brought with it an unprecedented influx of capital. In 1933, when official immigration approached eight times the rate of 1931 (30,327 versus 4075 persons), the colonial authorities trumpeted: ‘There is no question that Palestine at present offers an attractive market for investment.’ The annual report to the League of Nations left no doubt that ‘the favorable situation [in the country] may be ascribed to the arrival of capitalist settlers’, who had enlivened the economy and stimulated demand for both foreign and domestic goods (including the country’s agricultural staples). Unused capital was piling up in banks, signaling the ostensible availability of cheap credit, and the land market showed growth in new urban construction and the citrus estates that were still seen at the time as heralding Palestine’s agricultural future. The government itself benefitted tremendously in these years from Palestine’s seeming immunity to the global depression: incoming streams of capital translated into soaring customs revenues that put the budget into the black and yielded a surplus from fiscal year (FY) 1932 forward that grew to massive proportions (ultimately over £P6.267 million).
The question of landlessness, however, continued to perturb the calculus of policy. Official reports indicated that the problem was intensifying and verified that its causes were tied in no small measure to the very expansion of Jewish settlement that the administration represented as a balm to the country’s economic life and its best prospect for achieving political reconciliation. While the MacDonald letter’s strictures set the parameters for policy, they generated considerable official ambivalence toward the growth of Arab dispossession and helped exacerbate socio-political contradictions that could not long be suppressed.
In a memorandum alerting the Cabinet to the continuing problem in February 1933, the Colonial Secretary found himself incapable of keeping to the official definition of landlessness, admitting that in reality the phenomenon encompassed ex-smallholders and rural laborers as well as tenant farmers dispossessed by Zionist purchases. Noting that landlessness was growing in scale, Cunliffe-Lister lamented that there were no ready-to-hand occupational substitutes for the displaced. Indeed, his summary of the position was on the whole grim: the average peasant producer was described as ‘heavily in debt, improvident and unfitted for urban life’, all of which further rendered them open to agitation by malcontents.
High Commissioner Wauchope likewise attested to the growth of landlessness, including through sales by owner-cultivators. In a lengthy dispatch in April 1933 on the French reports he declared: ‘it is essential for financial, as well as for political and economic reasons to do all in our power to stop, or if that is not possible, to minimize the process of the displacement of Arab cultivators’. This posed a predicament since Zionist settlement in the coastal areas that were a focus of land purchasing had reached saturation and could only continue expanding at the expense of more Arab dispossession. The High Commissioner did not have an answer for the conundrum, but defaulted to protecting the Jewish National Home, urging that no remedy be permitted that would infringe upon ‘any of the existing commitments of His Majesty’s Government’, nor tamper with the ‘economic life of the country’.
Lewis French’s replacement as Director of Development, Lewis Andrews, echoed both the disposition and the conclusions of his superiors. In perhaps the strongest statement on the subject, he contended: ‘Where land is bought and taken up for the purpose of colonisation the inevitable result is that the former cultivators are displaced… there would seem to be a definite nexus between Jewish land purchasers and the existence of a landless class.’ Citing the legal assessor for the official landlessness count, Mr Webb, he emphasized that there were no more sparsely settled lands on which displaced Arabs could be relocated. On the contrary, every scrap of remotely valuable land had been claimed, even in the arid reaches of the Beersheba subdistrict. The struggle for the land between Zionists and Arabs was thus a zero-sum equation, with no simple remedy for Arab dispossession presenting itself. The oft-mentioned formula of converting Arab cultivation from extensive to intensive methods, thereby ‘freeing up’ land utilized in dry farming for Jewish expansion, could, he suggested, yield some new domains for colonization, but not without further dispossession. Pouring more cold water on this idea, he dismissed the notion that citrus estates could absorb and ‘retrain’ cultivators in intensive methods, as there was little slack within existing Arab plantations.
Hinting at his sense of the inadequacy of the situation for Arab cultivators, Cunliffe-Lister underscored for the Cabinet that there was ‘no half-way house between leaving things as they are and so aggravating the evil, and some form of legislation to control land transactions’. He and the High Commissioner both concurred that the danger that landlessness posed to the Mandate was significant. Yet given their shared concern to preserve the settler developmentalist calculus, and ‘in view of the opposition of the Jews to legislation of this nature’, the remedy that they put forward was to strengthen the Protection of Cultivators Ordinance (POCO).
POCO, which had semi-regularly been updated and amended since its creation in 1929, was a deeply conflicted block of legislations that sought to maintain a liberal land market while protecting tenant farmers. It was supposed to curb dispossession by forcing sales to include provision for tenants who would be displaced, but it was so easy to evade that it arguably facilitated rather than restrained their removal. Keeping with its predecessors, the 1933 POCO produced highly paradoxical results. While it instituted new restrictions on raising agricultural rents, it gave landlords the right to resume possession of lands for purposes of development, upgrading, or ‘close settlement’, which amounted to new means by which to eject tenants. On the other side of the coin, it created a new legal category, ‘statutory tenants’ (those in residence for one year or more), and outfitted them with permanent protection against eviction except where they failed to pay rent, to adequately keep cultivation of their lands, or in cases where the High Commissioner was satisfied they had other lands on which to relocate. Large landowners registered their discontent by variously withholding leases, keeping lands fallow, inducing peasants to leave (usually through some form of surreptitious buyout), and even by selling lands to the JNF. Others used the powers of resumption to evict tenants. In both the south and the coastal plain large areas were left uncultivated, putting precarious peasant existences and incomes in these regions under great strain. The situation was little better in the interior highlands. There the Assistant District Commissioner at Nablus reported that the new regulations had given rise to numerous disputes and that the public was ‘rapidly losing faith in the new Ordinance’. The extent of the conflicts spawned by the 1933 POCO was so considerable that only eight months after its passage the Development Officer worried that government would soon be faced with a torrent of requests from cultivators that had been turned out from their lands to be permitted back. While for the most part the 1933 POCO spurred landlords to take a range of anti-tenant measures, some tenants in turn took action of their own by initiating rent strikes.
The idea that POCO, despite its manifest problems, represented a solution to the landlessness problem, or a serious step toward its containment, was cavalier at best. This minimalist approach—which generally denied the extent of the crisis facing the Arab countryside—was all the more striking given the stormy political currents gathering force among the Palestinians. Less than a year after the MacDonald letter was issued Palestinians founded the Youth Congress, which quickly grew to become the largest nationalist association of the early 1930s, counting several thousand members by mid-1934 in branches across the country. Although it was originally intended as a means of subordinating the younger generation to the AE, the Youth Congress challenged the national movement’s factional basis, forthrightly rejected British rule, and through its stridency and tactical experimentation, played an important role in radicalizing the Palestinian struggle in the years before the Great Revolt. Similarly, the advent of the Istiqlal Party, also in 1932, was another bellwether of the rising tide of nationalist militancy. Although the Istiqlal was not a mass-based organization, its members, many of whom were journalists and writers, employed their talents in skillful press campaigns to shape public opinion and political discourse. The party’s slogan aptly broadcast its politics: ‘England is the root of the illness and the basis of all disaster’ (rhyming in Arabic: Inkilitira asl al-da’ w-asas kul bila’)—and, with the Youth Congress, it was greatly responsible for galvanizing and spreading anti-British sentiment.
As the final episode of the evictions at Wadi al-Hawarith played out in fall 1933, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police observed that Arab youth were deeply alienated by the colonial system while Arab workers and peasants bleakly anticipated becoming ‘Hewers of wood and drawers of water’ within the settler economy or emigrants compelled to leave Palestine. When immigration surged to new heights as Hitler rose to power in Germany, the new political forces within the Palestinian national movement orchestrated mass demonstrations, the second of which, at Jaffa in October, turned into a bloodbath when police fired on the thousands-strong crowd, killing 19 and injuring some 70. The ‘Jaffa massacre’, as Palestinians called it, quickly triggered further unrest, including a week-long general strike and urban insurrections that resulted in state security forces killing 7 more Arabs and wounding another 130 with gunfire. Despite the spasm of violence and his own sober estimation that more could be coming, the High Commissioner was remarkably unfazed. Projecting a view of the rural population as an excitable rabble among which ‘many… are landless and many very poor’, he believed that some measure of armed peasant rebellion was probably to be expected, but that absent an Islamic rallying cry, any ‘riot’ that might transpire would lack a firm rural basis and would therefore be containable. His confidence in this regard was buoyed by his relationship with the mufti and by the state’s leverage over the fiscal position of the Supreme Muslim Council (SMC), which was effectively used to snuff out the immigration protests by early 1934. The Air Officer Commanding, the chief military official in the country, shared the High Commissioner’s evaluation that peasant insurrection represented the most serious threat to the state’s security and that the mufti was the surest route to hold this prospect at bay. He also observed that the gamut of Palestinian political forces, from youth activists to elite leaders, was working to mobilize and organize their rural brethren.
In a broader sense, the High Commissioner was not just convinced that the colonial state had little to fear on account of its tougher crowd control protocols and the useful vessel it had built in the form of the SMC. The prolonged agrarian downturn of 1930-1933 and the desperate conditions of large portions of the countryside had pushed Wauchope, who often claimed to champion the well-being of the fallahin, to try to lighten their load. Most significantly, the state moved to replace the tithe with a new rural tax system (the Rural Property Tax) based on land quality and crop type. As early as 1930 and 1931, the tithe had become all but uncollectable, with the government issuing remissions for the bulk of its assessments and the rural population unable even to pay much of the remaining burden. By moving away from taxing crops, the government dispensed with the inefficiencies of the tithe while lowering its exactions on the most marginal producers. According to the Report to the League of Nations for 1935, its first full year of implementation, the new rural tax system reduced assessments on cereals cultivators by as much as 70 per cent. The termination of the tithe was paired with a set of initiatives to provide new credit facilities for peasants so that they might avoid moneylenders. In 1933, the government unveiled its plan for creating a network of credit cooperatives for rural Arabs. The network grew from 14 initial branches to 61 two years later, but its capital (£P40,766 in 1935) and its membership (2422 in 1935) remained modest. The shortfall was partly made up by Barclays Bank which, under agreement in 1933, steadily expanded its outlay of short term loans, reaching £P248,000 and serving over 16,300 borrowers in 1936.
Most efforts to reverse the plight of the Arab countryside were far less effective than the government asserted. Nor did they stem the growth of owner-cultivator sales and dispossession in the early 1930s. Where the majority of sales from Arabs to Jews in the period leading up to 1929 had come from large landholders and absentee owners, the 1930s witnessed a growing trend of smallholder sales. Official statistics—and their interpretation—initially did much to conceal this. The administration took solace in the fact that in 1933 and 1934, as Jewish land purchases more than doubled in volume, most land was sold in lots of over 100 dunams. In an 11-month sample during these two years only 9362 of a total of 61,567 dunams were in parcels under 100 dunams in size. This was understood, erroneously, to indicate that smallholders remained an insignificant portion of total transfers from Arab to Jewish hands. These figures are, however, misleading, since the vast majority of transactions were for sales of less than 100 dunams each. The High Commissioner later reported this to London, providing statistics showing that 606 of 673 total transfers to Jews in 1933 (90 per cent) and 1116 of 1178 total in 1934 (94.7 per cent) were for parcels under 100 dunams in size. As Stein has shown, this pattern held for sales in 1935 (88.7 per cent of 1225 transfers) and remained the same after the volume of transactions fell sharply during the Arab rebellion (ranging annually between 77.8 and 90.3 per cent from 1936 to 1939). Moreover, Zionist purchasers used land brokers to aggregate parcels from individual sellers and thus streamline the acquisition of larger chunks of land at a time.
Smallholder sales undoubtedly comprised a great deal of the traffic in land in the first half of the 1930s, if not being responsible for the lion’s share of the acreage transferred from Arabs to Jews. Although acquisitions from Arabs were minimal from 1930 to 1932 (less than 20,000 dunams annually), they grew steadily afterwards and the final years before the Arab revolt saw an especially brisk land market, with 62,115 dunams alienated in 1934 and 72,905 dunams in 1935. The turn in the market surprised both the High Commissioner and the Zionist movement. Remarkably, Chaim Weizmann complained in late 1934 about the rapid pace of land acquisitions, primarily because of the high prices it engendered (which he derided as speculation, rather than the effect of high demand). High Commissioner Wauchope agreed that ‘the transfer of land is proceeding far too fast’, and suggested that, all things remaining equal, it would be left to the state to ‘put on the drag’. By early 1935, the rash of sales had reached into the interior highlands, extending the Zionist frontier, as some 155,000 dunams were reportedly under contract for alienation. An amount almost as large was also said to be under contract in the Beersheba district.
The crisis of smallholders and the middle peasantry was also evident in inter-Arab transfers. Complementing his predecessor’s findings, Development Director Andrews revealed in August 1934 that the process of inter-Arab land consolidation was barreling forward. Surveys of the Jaffa and Jenin subdistricts, where different agricultural conditions and growing patterns prevailed, indicated that class divisions were sharpening. In each, over 60 per cent of private lands were in the possession of the top stratum of landowners, who comprised 13.5 and 10.4 per cent of owners respectively. In a perfect illustration of how the government’s priorities blinded it to greater consideration of the travails of the Arab countryside, the Development Director believed that this represented an opportunity for Zionist expansion. Without heed for Arab tenants, and in disregard of his own findings that Jewish land purchase promoted Arab landlessness (which his department had, after all, been founded to combat), Andrews suggested that 101,725 dunams in the Jenin subdistrict, two-thirds of the land in the possession of its elite, could be offloaded, thereafter leaving it only the lot viable (defined locally as 120 dunams). Andrews thus casually contemplated a scenario in which landed Palestinian wealth would be liquidated and the population reduced to subsistence. The manifest disinterest such a proposal connotes in the basic economic well-being of the Arabs, let alone their ‘rights and position’, in turn helps illuminate how the rural order’s decay was a crisis hiding in plain sight.
If the colonial state was slow to apprehend the meaning of changes in landholding and the land market for Arab society, this was abetted by an equally mistaken view of the subsequent fate of the dispossessed. Although it was more an ideological figment of settler developmentalist thinking than a material reality, British officials commonly presumed that Palestine’s growing economy, built, as they depicted it, by Jewish capital and know-how, acted as a general salve to socio-economic dislocation by affording the displaced with alternative employment. Rare official acknowledgements that this soft landing didn’t much exist, such as the Colonial Secretary’s before the Cabinet in 1933, did little to dent the idea’s appeal and currency. Likewise, its circulation remained strong even as the Zionist labor movement in the late 1920s and early 1930s renewed its long-standing pattern of campaigning for a racialized, split labor market that would accord Jews preferential status and benefits while discriminating against or excluding Arabs.
The issue of Arab unemployment, largely ignored before 1929, was given new prominence after the uprising that year. Following Hope Simpson’s finding that joblessness was widespread and acute among Arabs, the 1930 White Paper had for the first time as a matter of policy made Arab unemployment a factor in determining Jewish immigration, though this was quickly quashed in the MacDonald letter, which affirmed Hebrew labor and denied that Jewish settlement could bear any negative consequences for Arab wage-laborers. Subsequent periodic estimates of Arab unemployment showed significant weakness in the labor market in spite of the large influx of capital from 1933 forward. In 1931, Arab unemployment crested as high as 35,000 and never dropped beneath 11,000, and in 1932, it ranged from 10,500 to 21,000. Monthly statistics for 1933 and 1934, albeit incomplete, showed some 13 to 18,500 Arabs without sufficient work. Though the government later said it suspected these numbers were exaggerated, evidence suggests the contrary. In April 1934, the official count of unemployed Arabs was 14,000. The same month the High Commissioner noted that the government’s relief works, temporarily employing 8000 Palestinians, could be multiplied ‘many times’ over before exhausting the sum of workers in need—and this in spite of the fact that it was plowing season at the time. Similarly, George Mansur, secretary of the Arab Workers’ Society, a Palestinian labor union with growing appeal in the mid-1930s, estimated Arab unemployment in 1935 at 25,000. Given that the total Palestinian Arab wage-labor force, agricultural and non-agricultural, was probably in the neighborhood of 60-70,000 persons in the early-mid 1930s, it appears that core unemployment amounted to at least one-sixth, if not 20 per cent, of the Arab wage-labor force, while rates of 25-50 per cent were also recorded.
By comparison, Jewish sources suggest that between 9500 and 12,000 Arabs worked for Jewish concerns in the first half of the 1930s. The vast majority were seasonal laborers in the citrus sector—a phenomenon that grew as Jews migrated in increasing numbers from rural colonies to the cities between 1932 and 1936 in search of higher paying jobs. This meant that the majority were migrant laborers and that for most of the year far fewer were employed by Jewish businesses. Arab workers in Jewish industry were said to number no more than 1500; perhaps some 2000 Arab agricultural workers were employed in permanent positions on Jewish farms. Jewish employment of Arabs, while not insignificant, was decidedly modest in the 1930s.
Like the landlessness issue itself, the persistent unemployment crisis experienced by Palestinians before 1936 was a documented reality that the Jerusalem government largely ignored. This was ultimately ensured by High Commissioner Wauchope, who took the unusual and decisive step of dismantling the machinery for gauging the health of the Arab labor market altogether in mid-1934. Ostensibly this owed to the imprecision of the old system, yet no new system was ever erected to replace it. Moreover, this reform came just months after the Colonial Secretary had instructed in early 1934 (six months after the bloody unrest of 1933) that Arab unemployment be factored into calculation of the immigration quotas. The result was to disappear jobless Arabs. Where the prior system showed 13-17,000 Palestinians in need of work in mid-1934, the new method counted just 3000. Wauchope’s extraordinary move thus erased idle Arab laborers from official view and prevented their plight from derailing the state’s immigrant-based development strategy or altering the course of the largest aliya yet.
Toward New Land-Transfer Controls
By 1935, cracks had reappeared in the edifice of settler developmentalism. Whatever its purported long-term potential, the immediate and visible distress of Palestinian society unsettled some of its most ardent British defenders. High Commissioner Wauchope had no intention of inhibiting or slowing the yishuv‘s development, yet he also became convinced that Arab agriculturalists—owner-cultivators as well as tenants—were at risk and required government protection. His call for new land controls led the colonial government down a path toward instituting what would have been a ban on land transfers from Arabs to Jews in much of the country. In the event, the measure’s drafting was soon overtaken by the Arab revolt, which caused it to be permanently set aside.
Like the push to redraw policy in 1930, the new impetus to protect owner-cultivators was motivated by evidence of the rapid pace of change in Arab society and the ramifications this held for state security. Arab representatives continued to assert the need for bold action. In its final memorandum prior to its demise, the AE remonstrated in December 1934 that even by Zionist estimates (citing Hankin’s 1930 assessment), land sales were dispossessing Arabs. Upbraiding the administration for this and for the influx of new immigrants, it demanded that the government not ‘stand in the face of these tremendous dangers bearing down on [al-muhaddiqa bi-] a nation of almost a million people [with its] hands tied’. The same month the SMC sent the administration a demarche claiming that over 200,000 dunams were then under contract for sale to Jewish purchasers. As well as reiterating the perennial Arab demand for a land-transfer ban, the SMC decried POCO as useless and called for a measure analogous to the Five Feddan Law in Egypt to stem the flow of peasant dispossession.
Though outwardly the administration maintained its dismissive posture regarding Arab representations on land issues, it grew increasingly concerned. After the remarkable findings on Arab land stratification disclosed in the Development Officer’s 1934 report, the High Commissioner empaneled a committee under the Chief Secretary to conduct a more extensive review. Its report helped crystallize a new, bubbling sense of crisis. Jewish purchases were striking out into new zones of Arab habitation in the Ramallah and Hebron subdistricts as well as the environs of Jerusalem. It contended that only the large sums earned from sales and temporary employment on public works projects had kept the newly landless from becoming a source of unrest. The crumbling position of Arab cultivators was evident in the continued slide in average holdings per family, which was calculated alarmingly to be only 44 dunams, well below every assessment of the lot viable for sustainable dry farming.
The military in Palestine considered this state of affairs perilous. In early 1935, the Air Officer Commanding cautioned that the ‘universal depression among Arabs caused by increased sale of lands to Jews … might be converted into active hostilities’ against the Mandate. The High Commissioner concurred that the ‘extreme depression of the Arabs as they see more and more of their lands being transferred to Jewish ownership’ was worrisome. He remained convinced, however, that disorder was not forthcoming without al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni and that, his recent statements and the SMC’s activities against land sales notwithstanding, the mufti was not inclined toward rebellion or violence.
Still, by 1935, dynamics within the country caused the High Commissioner to seek a new round of land controls. The peculiar ebullience of Palestine’s economy, inseparable from the fifth aliya, had unwittingly accelerated the transformation of Arab peasants into landless laborers. As Wauchope put it, ‘although there may be no immediate distress and little unemployment, the outlook is disquieting’. In February, he began to advocate for legislation not entirely dissimilar to that requested by the SMC that would maintain cultivators, who were described as a ‘deserving and valuable class’, on subsistence lots (lots viable), which, with some exceptions, would be barred from transfer or sale. Pinning the blame for the decomposition of the Arab peasantry largely on the defective subjectivity of peasants, Wauchope explained ‘the average fellah is so improvident, and the temptation of the inflated prices offered by Jewish purchasers is so great, that I consider that the owner cultivator must be protected from himself by some legislative enactment’. The new legislation, which was presented as a refurbished version of the troubled 1920 Land Transfer Ordinance (LTO), would apply to most of the country’s arable lands, except for the south and those areas planted with citrus. Jewish purchases had only just begun in the south and by exempting it the High Commissioner hoped to blunt Zionist opposition to the law; no serious explanation was offered with regard to citrus lands, but they were said to be a world apart from the prevailing conditions. Two weeks later, Wauchope informed London that the overwhelming majority of sales were for small parcels (thereby inadvertently admitting the administration had previously misjudged the source of land sales) and that large-scale purchases were under way in the hill districts and in Beersheba and the south.
Before making the case for the new legislation to London, Wauchope invited comment from Zionist leaders, meeting with Ruppin, then head of the JA, and David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Shertok, co-chairs of its Political Department. They responded with familiar formulations, asserting that for ‘moral and political reasons’ they sought peasant uplift to the standards and level of their Jewish peers. They insisted that increasing agricultural productivity was a more fruitful route to pursue than land controls and demurred that lot viable legislation would remove any incentive toward improving growing techniques. Although the High Commissioner was reassured by their agreement that the pace of land transfers was problematic, his interlocutors suggested—with no small irony given their nominally socialist leanings—that it would be untoward to tamper with ‘the natural processes of supply and demand’. Demonstrating a new wariness with such claims, Wauchope retorted in his report to London that the market in Palestine was anything but natural and that he was convinced that Zionist money was dispossessing impoverished Arabs.
For the Colonial Office the proposed legislation brought déjà vu. As one of its senior hands, H.F. Downie, noted in a lengthy memorandum on the ‘land question’ in Palestine, the problem of Arab landlessness was nothing new, having been ‘thoroughly ventilated’ in Hope Simpson’s report and the Passfield White Paper. Brushing aside Zionist platitudes, Downie bluntly summarized the movement’s intention ‘to obtain ownership of as much land in Palestine as possible in the shortest possible time and to fill that land with Jews’, adding, ‘They do not regard it as a matter of concern to themselves that the small Arab landowner should be converted into a town-worker with no security for his livelihood in times of depression.’ Nevertheless, he endorsed the proposal, unlike Cosmo Parkinson, another key official, who saw the legislation as unavailing. Parkinson was an early (and rare) critic of settler developmentalism in the colonial bureaucracy and took Downie to task for questioning whether Arab mass dispossession could properly be regarded as injurious given that it was occurring through sales. He faulted the High Commissioner’s proposal for bias since it neglected to factor in Arab demographic growth while allowing for Jewish expansion through immigration. Parkinson suggested instead that Arab lands should be made inalienable and only open to leasing, thereby mirroring the structure of landholding in the JNF. The Colonial Secretary was not, for his part, ready for such radical measures but approached the new motion from Jerusalem with caution.
Cunliffe-Lister’s enthusiasm for settler developmentalism had by this time cooled somewhat, but he was equally reluctant to dramatically restrict the land market. Citing the failure of POCO in curtailing landlessness, he took some distance from the High Commissioner in his April 1935 reply. He disagreed with Wauchope’s contention that speculation was driving the conversion of smallholders into urban laborers, arguing instead that high prices slowed Jewish land purchasing. Picking up on his subordinates’ concerns, he noted the absence of attention in the proposal to Arab population growth and anticipated that Palestinian leaders would object that, unlike the transfer ban they sought, the new regulation wouldn’t stop Jews from bribing Arab peasants into leaving their lands. Since he expected that any new land control would please neither Arabs nor Zionists, the Colonial Secretary requested more information on a variety of topics before moving forward: the size of the lot viable, the aggregate quantity of land that the measure would preserve in Arab hands, whether inter-Arab transfers would be affected, and how the lot viable would affect foreclosure rights in mortgages. Somewhat pointedly, he also inquired whether the new control would have a beneficial impact on British relations with the Palestinians.
A long and eventful interlude followed. By the time the High Commissioner replied in late 1935, Cunliffe-Lister had been replaced as Colonial Secretary (first by Malcolm MacDonald and then by J.H. Thomas) and the situation in Palestine had devolved markedly. Flooded with a record 61,854 immigrants for the year, Palestine’s economy tipped into recession. As Jewish unemployment spiked, Hebrew Labor campaigning was renewed, producing increased altercations between Arabs and Jews. Economic woes soon gave way to political collision. In October, a large shipment of arms bound for the Haganah, including machine gun parts and half a million rounds of ammunition, was discovered at Jaffa port, setting off a firestorm in the Arab community. A month later, the pious shaykh cIzz al-Din al-Qassam, a Syrian transplant known for ministering to the poor in the Haifa region and the architect of an underground, anticolonial paramilitary organization, led some of his men into an ill-fated battle with police at Yacbad, near Umm al-Fahm. Falling in combat, al-Qassam was popularly heralded as a martyr and his sacrifice was contrasted sharply by the press and intellectuals with the political indolence and ineffectiveness of the Arab elite. His funeral drew 10,000 or more attendees, making it larger than the 1933 Jaffa protests, and featured stoning of police officers. The Arab elite, which had fragmented into clan- and personality-based political parties, struggled to keep abreast of the tide. In November, amidst the furor over al-Qassam’s death, it banded together with the Youth Congress to petition government, starkly reiterating the national movement’s longtime core demands: self-determination and independence, halting land transfers to Jews, and halting Jewish immigration. The petitioners warned—and the High Commissioner agreed—that short of tangible results, they stood to lose what was left of their (moderating) influence. In the final months of 1935, the CID and the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) intelligence wing judged that preparation for armed conflict was under way or soon would be, with youth, scout groups, and Istiqlalists at the forefront. In the north, where al-Qassam’s network had been based and where the rural crisis of the 1930s had hit quite heavily, the peasantry was reportedly ‘entirely in sympathy’ with the cause of armed rebellion. The RAF even anticipated that an insurrection might begin by March 1936, effectively predicting the outbreak of the Great Revolt in April.
In this swirling environment the High Commissioner pressed more urgently for the lot viable legislation, sending a string of communications on the issue in December 1935. His evaluation of the situation was contradictory. On the one hand, he held that the Palestinians required protection from dispossession, while on the other, he dismissed Arab grievances—political as well as economic—as ‘imaginary’. Aware that discontents were rising, he noted that the perception ‘that the Jew is “eating up the land”, is felt in every town and village in Palestine and year by year with increasing strength’. Though he believed his regime had increased peasant incomes, he admitted that land sales to Jews had not benefitted village communities and noted that the demographic and territorial expansion of Zionism were immediate spurs to Arab disaffection. Tellingly, the High Commissioner also offered his own estimate of dispossession—20 per cent of rural Arabs—which minimized its scale and ignored all of the reports and evidence accumulated over the previous half decade. Later in the month, Wauchope provided a chart of lots viable, varied by soil type and region, that ranged (for unirrigated lands) from 75 dunums in the coastal plains to 120-150 dunums in other prime areas, to 200 dunums in more agriculturally marginal regions. He also clarified that Arab demographic growth would be accounted for by productivity gains, not through any territorial adjustment, while contending that the legislation was intended to safeguard the ‘moral rights of small owners’. In subsequent messages to London before receiving a reply, Wauchope stressed that rural resentment was building and warned repeatedly, in concert with the security services, that ‘disturbances’ were likely.
In view of events in Palestine, Colonial Secretary Thomas brought the land control proposal to the Cabinet in January 1936 (as noted at this essay’s outset) and thereafter conveyed the government’s approval ‘in principle’ of the measure. The Colonial Office remained unsatisfied with a number of issues. It was concerned with potential loopholes: long-term leases acting effectively as sales and ‘fictitious mortgages’ being used to invalidate lots viable. The Colonial Secretary also evinced apprehension at provisions that allowed the geographic consolidation of lots viable. Not only had he already heard Zionists urge that this be done, he expected that this would develop into an argument for what amounted to native reserves where Arabs would be compactly sequestered, leaving the rest of the land free for purchase and colonization. While discussion continued on these items, the Jerusalem administration appointed a committee to evaluate the quantity of land that would be protected, which remained unknown.
After being apprised of HMG’s intention to move forward with land controls, Zionist leaders initially mounted a strong defense of settler developmentalism. Moshe Shertok protested on behalf of the JA that Zionism abided by the ‘rights and position’ of Arab cultivators, acting to make sure that they did not become landless or jobless in areas of Jewish purchase, and going so far as to immodestly claim: ‘As far as Arab agricultural development is concerned, it is Jewish capital which has played the pivotal part in it.’ Contrasting itself with the conservative paternalism of government and the view that Arabs were ‘improvident’, the JA referred to peasants as ‘shrewd and tenacious’ and suggested that the state’s ill-informed legislation would both close off the means of Arab development and undermine the existing ties of Arab-Jewish interdependence. As usual, the JA broadcast that ‘close settlement’ and continued Zionist economic and territorial growth was the ideal fix to the ‘land problem’ and denied that landlessness was a serious phenomenon. The practical thrust of the JA’s objections was complemented by a constitutional argument contending that the ‘rights and position’ clause of the Mandate charter was subordinate to the positive injunction on the Mandatory to aid the Jewish National Home. The JA also took umbrage at the suggestion implicit in the legislation, deemed a ‘slur’ by Shertok, that Arabs required protection from Jews.
At a meeting with the High Commissioner, these arguments were renewed by Weizmann and others, though with little effect. Wauchope rejected the constitutional plaint over Article 6 as without foundation while Weizmann castigated the controls as ‘illegal, immoral and indefensible’ before going on to attack the Colonial Secretary and fretting that key Jewish diaspora populations would believe the law meant the end of Zionism. The High Commissioner replied by contesting the idea that there was any shortage of land among the settlers and explaining that the measure was a necessary palliative, without which ‘the fellahin will always believe the Jew will eat up their land’.
Within weeks the JA seemed unusually resigned to the impending land legislation. The fervent debate over the terms of the MacDonald letter—which the Colonial Office had anticipated with considerable consternation—never fully materialized and the JA muted its other objections. Instead, it concentrated its diplomatic energies on defeating the government’s revived plan to establish a legislative council, which it succeeded in doing when the British parliament killed the initiative in February and March 1936. Regarding colonization, the JA’s approach bespoke the tradition of practical Zionism: it announced plans for major fundraising abroad (a £3 million loan) and massive immigration from Germany (250,000 people) while pressing for territorial expansion in the south, Huleh, and Beisan.
The High Commissioner revealed the proposed regulations to the Arab party leaders when they submitted their memorandum on the national movement’s demands in November 1935. Their response was guarded but critical. For one, they were concerned that the legislation would take so long to enact as to be moot, given the pace of ongoing transfers. They also objected to the exclusion of the south, which made up half of the country’s territory, and the ‘citrus belt’ in the coastal plains. They saw no reason for either exception and asserted that the exemption of citrus land ensured that the Arabs would be ‘left with nothing but the comparatively unproductive land in the hills’. The High Commissioner contended that to allow lots viable in citrus land would interfere with credit relations and rationalized the Beersheba subdistrict’s exemption by pointing out that it still contained ample unused lands to which cultivators could repair, unlike other areas of the country. He also assured his interlocutors that the legislation would not be irrelevant by the time it became statute.
The conversation was resumed two months later in January 1936, when the High Commissioner again met the Arab party leaders to deliver the official reply to their national desiderata. The scene was much the same, with Palestinian leaders reprising their concerns almost verbatim, though nothing new came from the meeting. In March 1936 the Arab parties issued a rejoinder to the government on the national movement’s demands that again took up the issue of the proposed land control. Attempting to underscore the urgency of the situation, their memo reiterated grossly inflated claims concerning land sales and Arab demographic growth (supposing 600,000 dunams had been transferred and that the population had added some 150,000 persons since Hope Simpson’s report). While repeating the assertion that the law should apply to all regions of the country, the memo also held out a sliver of hope that it might have a positive impact in its actual areas of application.
This question of the legislation’s area of application was never resolved. The Colonial Office had anticipated in 1935 that the proposal would effectively amount to a transfer ban, given the conditions in the country (that is, the shrinking domains of smallholders), and Colonial Secretary Thomas similarly informed the Cabinet in early 1936 that he thought ‘a very considerable proportion’ of Arab land would be restricted from sale. The technical committee thereafter suggested revisions regarding the size of the lots viable, first estimating that they would be 150 dunams on average and then later, in its final report, providing a scale of lot sizes ranging between 50 and 250 dunams. The total area of the lands that would be affected remained unknown, though in the last record we have of the subject, the High Commissioner generally confirmed the Colonial Office’s supposition, presuming that the lot viable legislation would end transfers in the highlands while bringing them to a trickle in the coastal regions.
Conclusion: The Paradoxical Visibility of Arab Landlessness
In the first half of the crucial 1930s era in Palestine, the British struggle to apprehend the meaning of the growing tide of Arab landlessness had a Sisyphus-like quality about it. The cycle was thus: the problem of dispossession emerged to perturb the reigning settler developmentalist orthodoxy, a ‘solution’ was fashioned that explicitly or implicitly rebalanced policy toward accounting for Arab interests, and then political circumstances changed such that not only was reform stymied, but the intellectual links relating HMG’s Zionist policy with the malaise of the Palestinians were wiped away, leaving settler developmentalism intact as the Mandate’s cornerstone. This happened not only with the 1930 White Paper, but with the 1935-1936 land reform proposal as well. Just as the MacDonald letter served to suppress knowledge of the negative impacts of Zionist colonization and expansion on Palestinian society and to obfuscate the severe stresses which British rule had placed on the majority of Arab agriculturalists, the Peel Commission afforded an opportunity for another resurrection of settler developmentalist ideology. Disregarding the accrued evidence from 1930 forward, the commission declared without caveat or qualification that: ‘The economic position of the Arabs, as regarded as a whole, has not so far been prejudiced by the establishment of the National Home.’ Equally staggering, it discounted the development of mass landlessness, opining that ‘the fellaheen are on the whole better off than they were in 1920’. In a dissociative fashion, it reached these conclusions even as its investigations found that 35 per cent of holdings throughout the country were under 5 dunams in size, indicating that a large swath of smallholders was on the threshold of dispossession.
The dispossessed Palestinians themselves were often all but invisible to their British overlords, much as the latter seldom grasped the full dimensions of the escalating decomposition of rural Arab society over which they were superintending. The transformation of the Palestinian peasantry through class differentiation and, with it, the growth of landlessness, had been transpiring since the nineteenth century. Yet even as large landholding emerged and chains of indebtedness increasingly subordinated the middle and lower classes of the countryside, the agrarian elite of the late Ottoman era, or what Pappé has memorably called the ‘aristocracy of the land’, did not by and large succeed in expropriating the majority of the producing classes. After the devastations of the First World War, and as the British established a regime designed to both secure ‘the necessary preconditions for a viable settler movement’ and fund the new British state in Jerusalem without injections from the imperial exchequer, the processes of class and social transformation within Arab society were dramatically accelerated.
With the 1929 uprising, the existence of an alienated ‘landless class’ came into focus for the first time for the British. The surveys that followed, in report after report, assayed the ebbing health of the countryside and testified to the extensive quality of social change within Palestinian society. The most far-sighted among them, notably Hope Simpson, recognized that Palestinian society was in the midst of a broad socioeconomic crisis. The scale of crisis gripping the Arab countryside has not much been reckoned by scholars and historians, but by 1931, no less than two-fifths of the agricultural population, and perhaps as much as half or more, were dispossessed. This trend only deepened thereafter as the early 1930s agrarian downturn wore on and land sales by smallholders escalated, though its exact dimensions will almost certainly remain unknown. The rapid spread of landlessness was a watershed in the structural transformation of Palestinian society—one that soon caused colonial officials to forecast the disappearance of the peasantry altogether.
The uprooted segment of rural society became a de facto reserve army of labor. Some retained ties to the land through sharecropping or rural wage-labor; others were severed from the countryside and migrated to the slums of coastal cities; yet others lived between the two spheres, seeking opportunities for work as best they could find them. Many struggled to eke out a living and mass unemployment among Arabs became yet another sign of the false promise of settler developmentalism, which, in tandem with generally regressive British policy, produced growing economic dislocation while often denying this was the case. As with landlessness, only seldom did the dire conditions facing workers and the newly dispossessed receive much attention.
The successive ‘awakenings’ of the British—moments where the scale of the rural order’s devolution came into view and prompted policy shifts—were unquestionably belated and abortive. Landlessness was already a problem by 1929 and it was only substantially more so by 1935. In each case, the plight of the landless became a guiding concern of colonial officials only to soon be dropped. These reversals were immanently political. Each episode demonstrated both the susceptibility of HMG to outside pressure (chiefly Zionist and American) and the enduring imperial interest in promoting and sheltering the settler project from adverse circumstances. Each also foreclosed alternative paths that would have refashioned or significantly altered HMG’s Palestine policy by decreasing the favoritism shown to Zionism and taking substantive measures to protect the ‘rights and position’ of the Arabs.
The 1931 MacDonald letter marked a double triumph for the Zionist movement. Not only was the White Paper gutted and settler developmentalism re-ensconced as the Mandate’s credo, but landlessness was virtually defined out of existence. Cognitive dissonance followed. Landlessness went from being a primary cause motivating the overhaul of HMG’s policy on Palestine in 1930 to a peripheral issue, though one that continued to creep back into view. The official enumeration of the landless encompassed less than a thousand families even as the census and the Development Department, among other indicators, revealed a much different picture.
The intervening years between 1930 and 1935 were critical. During the fifth aliya, the yishuv grew economically and demographically at an unprecedented pace. Its leaders increasingly retreated from any vision of cooperation with the Arabs, however nominal, believing that the yishuv‘s rapid economic development would enable it to withstand Arab resistance and prepare it for victory in the expected battle over the country’s fate. The Palestinians also prepared in their own fashion for renewed confrontation, as their movement’s modus operandi switched from genteel diplomacy to popular mobilization. The radicalization of the national movement at the hands of youth, workers, peasants and dissident elites was based in nationalist longings to preserve Palestine as an Arab country and elemental fears that its Arab community would be uprooted, displaced or permanently marginalized by the Jewish settler project. Popular forces were profoundly frustrated by Britain’s continuing embrace of Zionism while at the same time anger and despair rose over Arab impoverishment and dispossession, which were themselves seen as concomitants of the Balfour policy. This explosive brew paved the way for the Great Revolt. For their part, the British evinced some unease in these years, but their attachment to the revenues generated by the fifth aliya (which validated settler developmentalism’s value for the colonial state and seemed to portend a dynamic future) and their faith in the ability of the Grand Mufti to control and restrain the Palestinians promoted a kind of stasis in policy, even as the prospects for quelling the national conflict in Palestine palpably receded.
The colonial posture toward the Arab countryside was schizoid and conflicted. Arab peasants were seen alternately—and reductively—as objects of pity and sympathy and as volatile pawns that could be used by politicians to destabilize colonial rule. As in other British colonies, policy toward the countryside was divided among partisans of laissez faire economic management, dirigiste social transformation (to deepen capitalist relations of production), and conservative impulses to preserve or protect the precolonial social order. With respect to Palestine, it is a commonplace of the literature that the violence of 1929 lent support to the conservative camp and brought about a new interest in maintaining the peasantry on the land and shielding it from rapid social change. Certainly it is true that a spate of legislations and policies directed at ameliorating the problems of the rural order followed, touching on everything from imprisonment for debt to tax reform to the expansion of rural credit. Yet these measures fell far short of containing, let alone arresting, the progressive decomposition of the peasantry. Aid and relief to cultivators was parsimonious even though the colonial administration was flush with bountiful revenues and large surpluses. In general, the government’s reforms were piecemeal, poorly conceived, or too late to make a difference. Their limitations were perhaps nowhere more striking with regard to landlessness than the serial, but ineffective focus on the protection of tenants and denial of the same for owner-cultivators. As Martin Bunton has aptly put it, ‘Restrictions on dispositions by owner-occupiers was the Rubicon that the Colonial Office… was desperately trying to avoid crossing’. By failing to stanch the flow of smallholder sales, colonial officials left the door open to further erosion of the peasantry, at both Arab and Jewish hands, though for obvious political reasons the latter became the overwhelming center of concern. In sum, for all the newfound interest in the agrarian sphere and the downtrodden, British rural policy was little short of an unmitigated disaster. Ultimately, British management of mounting rural woes in the 1930s helped convert ambient peasant alienation from the colonial regime into exactly the kind of militant opposition that London and Jerusalem officials hoped to avoid.
The two men most responsible for Palestine policy after the MacDonald letter, Colonial Secretary Cunliffe-Lister and High Commissioner Wauchope, came to have misgivings about settler developmentalism, but these arrived at the proverbial minute before midnight. For most of their tenure the two were enthusiastic champions of the view that the economic growth and development of the yishuv was analogous with the economic health of the country and offered the greatest prospect for a reconciliation of the rival claims over Palestine. In the event, settler developmentalism was, however, more of a vague concept than a concrete program for producing economic advancement across both communities. No serious explication of its purported mechanics was ever proffered, nor was there ever drafted any practical plan intended to guarantee that Zionist growth would translate into Arab opportunity and uplift. In practice, though Zionism’s growth injected monies into the Arab community via circuits of trade (in produce as well as land) and through limited opportunities for employment, its ‘positive’ impacts were much more modest than advertised, and most assuredly less substantive than the damage it did to Arab society’s structure and internal cohesion. Consequently, the notion of settler developmentalism acted most of all as a rhetorical touchstone signifying the best intentions of Zionism and the British while obscuring the negative effects each had upon Palestinian society.
Each of the two men carried this torch for years while holding Arab demands and complaints at bay, though each came to see that attending only to the interests of Zionism was a recipe for destabilization. The Colonial Secretary was the first to question the settler developmentalist orthodoxy, which he began to do after the 1933 demonstrations, when he turned against Hebrew Labor for its separatism and the frictions it caused. Wauchope at this point showed great fealty toward Zionism and the settler developmentalist ideal by disabling the colonial state’s capacity to gauge Arab unemployment, thus blunting the Colonial Secretary’s shift away from the orthodoxy. Wauchope wanted to be the bearer of light to each community in Palestine, protecting the remarkable advancement of Zionism during the fifth aliya while proclaiming himself the ‘friend of the fallah’. His own partial and tentative break with settler developmentalism began after revelations about the land market in 1934 and 1935 illustrated that dispossession was taking on sweeping new dimensions. The High Commissioner asserted new ‘moral rights’ for embattled Arab smallholders, reversing his earlier complacency. His push for new land control legislation and the protection of lots viable inadvertently became a race against time, as conditions within the country grew more explosive and the winds of Arab rebellion stirred in 1935. Like Sisyphus pressing on uphill in his perpetual battle against inertia and gravity, the new effort to secure smallholders on the land soon came tumbling down.