Labour Monthly

Is Palestine Prosperous ?

By British Resident

Source : Labour Monthly November, 1936, No.11
Publisher : The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London
Transcription/HTML : Salil Sen
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

[The LABOUR MONTHLY publishes below a portion of a pamphlet now going through the press whose subject matter deals with the theme indicated by the title to this article. In addition to giving the background of the whole situation in Palestine, the author of this pamphlet provides illuminating facts both with regard to the conditions of the still nomad sections of the population, the Bedouin, and also of the urban population, just as he does for the Arab peasantry below. We are sure that these facts and information will, be of great value in enabling readers to assess the character of the present Palestine situation; they provide them with authoritative arguments to refute the view which has been sedulously fostered that in Palestine, even under the present system of imperialist control, there is still plenty of room for many more Jewish people; that such unrestricted immigration not only does not cause any expropriation of Arabs from their land or displacement from their work with its consequential poverty, but that it will bring still further prosperity and a higher standard of living to the whole of Palestine. These claims the writer deals with exhaustively and shows that the very opposite is the truth.]

Judged purely from the Arab point of view, their economic position was never as strong as it is to-day, and they were never more firmly rooted in the soil than they are to-day. (Mr. T. Williams in the House of Commons Debate of June 29th, 1936.)

The wages paid in Palestine since the Jews were introduced are treble or even quadruple what they were when they first went there. The Arabs are enjoying a much higher standard of living than they had before. (Mr. Lloyd George in the same Debate.)

It is not, in my opinion, at all unfair to compare what is happening in Palestine with what is happening in Kenya. In both these countries you are dealing with the impact of an economically more active and more highly developed race upon a more primitive and backward race. Undoubtedly that impact means more development, more progress, more prosperity for the backward people as well. (Mr. Amery in the same Debate.)

Zionists often declare: "Even granted that Zionism has assisted British imperialism in thwarting the Arabs in their struggle for independence, from the Arab point of view that disadvantage has been amply compensated by the prosperity which Jewish immigration and the introduction of Jewish capital have brought to them."

This argument -- the argument "a prosperiori" -- is worth considering in some detail. It is at present the favourite weapon in the armoury of Zionist propagandists and their sympathisers. An examination of the argument should at the same time lay bare the effect of British rule and Jewish immigration upon the economic situation of the Arabs, and show how far, from an economic point of view, their demands for independence from British rule and the stoppage of Jewish immigration are justified.

In order to judge how far the present reported prosperity of the Palestine Arabs is fact or myth, it will be worth while to consider one by one the various sections of the Arab population, 1 and to inquire how far each has become prosperous through Jewish immigration.

Landlords, Tenants, and Small-holders.

Many Arab landowners have certainly become prosperous by selling their land to Jews. It was estimated by the Jewish Agency for Palestine that between 1918 and 1930 about 575,000 acres of agricultural land were bought by Jews from Arabs at a total cost of not less than £3,000,000.

The official figures for Jewish land purchases since 1930 are as follows :

Area purchased (approximate) in acres Price paid (approximate)
in £s
1931 4,500100,000
1932 4,700 149,000
1933 8,000 855,000
1934 15,500 1,548,000
1935 18,2001,699,000

That is to say that since 1930 an additional 50,900 acres have been bought at a cost of an additional £4,351,000. The Jews are now officially estimated to possess about 300,000 acres out of a total cultivable area of about 3,000,000 acres, or 10 per cent. The land which they possess is all situated in the most fertile areas of Palestine. According to evidence given by Dr. Ruppin before the Shaw Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August, 1929, "of the land purchased by the Jews …. relatively small areas not exceeding 10 per cent. (i.e., 10 per cent. of the total land purchased) were acquired from peasants. The other areas have been acquired from owners of large estates most of whom live outside Palestine and, in consequence, leased their land or allowed it to be worked on various conditions of tenure." 2 That is to say that up to 1929 at least 90 per cent. of the land bought by Jews from Arabs was bought from large landlords, most of whom were absentees. One of the most considerable of such purchases was of twenty-two villages in the Vale of Esdraelon -- a total area of about 50,000 acres -- which were sold between 1921 and 1925 for £726,000 by the family of Sursoq, rich Christian Arabs living in Beirut. 3 The already prosperous Sursoqs certainly became more prosperous as a result of this sale. What happened to the villagers?

Legally, according to a law which remained in force from 1925, the Palestine Government might only consent to the sale of land which way leased if it was satisfied that the tenant in occupation would retain sufficient land for the maintenance of himself and his family. In fact, how¬ever, according to evidence given to the Shaw Commission, this law was always ineffective. The purchasers regularly bribed the tenants to waive their right to be left with land sufficient for their maintenance. In the case of the particular sale referred to, the Jews stated that they paid more than £30,000 as compensation to the tenants who lost their land. The total number of tenant families displaced by this sale, according to the Jewish Agency was about 750: according to the Arab Executive the total was about 1,750 families. That is to say that the compensation received by the Arab tenants for having the land which they cultivated -- probably in most cases their only source of livelihood -- and where they had lived for generations, sold over their heads, was between £17 and £40 per family. The payment received by the landowners for losing their rents was £726,000.

Who is made prosperous by Jewish immigration? According to the Jewish Agency's evidence, the depressed tenants found land in the same district which they could cultivate. According to the evidence of the Arab Executive a large number of the tenants emigrated to America, and others found temporary employment as stone cutters and lime burners in connection with the construction of new buildings, but would have no occupation to turn to when these were completed. In view of the congestion on the land occupied by Arabs the evidence of the Arab Executive seems, prima facie, to be more likely to represent the facts than the evidence of the Jewish Agency. The enquiry of a Commission on the Economic Condition of Agriculturalists in 104 Arab villages, which reported in 1930, established that of 23,573 families resident in those villages 6,940 families owned no land and were dependent for a livelihood upon work as labourers. Of the remaining 16,633 families who owned and cultivated land, the average holding was 18¾ acres per family. The estimate of the minimum holding necessary to support a family varies, but the general opinion of experts is that on unirrigated land in Palestine, with Arab methods of cultivation, about 30 or 40 acres are required. 4 That is to say that the average Arab holding in 1930 was about half the minimum subsistence area. Since 1930 the Arab peasant population has increased and the area available for them to cultivate has decreased on account of further Jewish. purchases. In view of this shortage of land among Arabs it is more likely that the tenants dispossessed by the Sursoq sale eventually drifted to the towns, probably to Haifa, to look for work than that they found land to cultivate in the same district -- particularly in view of the great expansion of Haifa during the last few years. It may be assumed that the normal effect on the Arab tenant of the sale of the land which he cultivated by an absentee landlord is to force him to emigrate to the towns to find work and to become absorbed in the proletariat.

The effect of the sale of the Sursoq lands upon the bedouin, who, while these villages were inhabited by Arabs, used to come down from the hills after harvest and pasture their flocks on the village lands, was to deprive them of this right.

One particularly iniquitous aspect of the sale of the Sursoq land was that the real owners of part at any rate of the land sold were, apparently, not the Sursoqs, but the cultivators. Under the Turkish regime it had been the practice of peasants who owned land to make an arrangement with the Sultan or with some powerful landowner whereby they admitted his overlordship, and thus obtained, in return for an annual rent, pro¬tection against extortion and other benefits. In this way "persons of importance and position in the Ottoman. Empire acquired the legal title to large tracts of land which for generations and in some cases for cen¬turies had been in the undisturbed and undisputed possession of peasants who, though by the new arrangement they surrendered their prescriptive rights over the land which they cultivated, had undoubtedly a strong moral claim to be allowed to continue in occupation of those lands." 5

What has been done by the Palestine Government for the cultivators who have been dispossessed by these sales of land? Until 1929 nothing effective was done. In 1929 an Ordinance was enacted which attempted to ensure that cultivators received compensation for the land they lost. This compensation was usually quite inadequate to support them and their families for any length of time. Under pressure from the Shaw and Hope-Simpson Commissions which visited Palestine after the 1929 disturbances and pointed out that one of the causes of Arab-Jew hostility was the increasing Arab landlessness legislation was passed the intention of which was to make it impossible for a landlord to sell over his tenant's head the minimum area of land necessary for his subsistence. This legislation appears to have had the effect of slowing down the rate of Arab land sales but not of stopping them altogether. The figures quoted above show that in the years 1931-1935 about 50,000 acres were sold by Arabs to Jews.

Another scheme arising out of the reports of these Commissions was launched a few years ago. Its aim was to resettle on the land Arab tenants who had been dispossessed. It was a fine-sounding scheme which was to cost £250,000, and a £2,000,000 loan was voted by the British Government partly for this purpose.

When it came to the settling of the Arabs, applications for admission to the register of landless Arabs were received from 3,271 families, of which only 664 were accepted by the Palestine Government. The rejection of the remaining 2,607 applications appears to have been due to the Government's refusal to include in its definition of "landless Arab" any head of a family (a) who still retained enough land to provide him (in the Government's opinion) with a livelihood; (b) who, though he had lost all his land, had found work elsewhere. That is to say that landless Arabs who had drifted to the towns and become proletarians were left to the fate of proletarians: to have a job at two or three shillings a day when there was work going, and when there was none to be desti¬tute.

Of the 664 families whom the Government has registered as landless up to the present, not more than a hundred have in fact been settled at a total cost of about 11,000 on land for which they have to pay rent and taxes to the Government. They also have to pay hack to the Govern¬ment the cost of the ploughing animals and agricultural implements with which the Government has provided them. The net income which they will be able to derive from the land on which they are settled will be, at best, the bare minimum necessary for their subsistence. They have lost their independence and homes and have been moved from the land which they, and probably their ancestors, cultivated. They are reduced to the position of paupers kept alive, so long as they continue to work, by the Government. The normal attitude among Arabs, who have become landless, to these settlement schemes is that they would rather starve than live as the Government's serfs. It is not surprising, therefore, to read in the Annual Report of the Palestine Government for 1935 that, "as none of the remaining registered Arabs (i.e., in addition to the one hundred families already settled) have signified their willingness to take up holdings upon Government estates, no new schemes have been put in hand this year."

This statement of the Government has, of course, been seized upon by the Zionist press and interpreted to mean that there are no more landless Arabs; that there is no landless Arab problem; that there is no Arab problem at all; that all Arab objections to Zionist colonisation are fictitious -- and anything else that they want to believe. What the statement in fact means is that the Government's scheme for resettling landless Arabs has broken down since the Arabs prefer to be exploited for two or three shillings a day in the towns, or even to starve (in both of which cases they retain a degree of independence), than to work in one of the Government's labour camps.

A typical case of the sort of misery produced by the dispossession of Arab cultivators is given in the Government's Annual Report for 1935. An area of about 3,000 acres in Haifa sub-district, owned by one of the Sursoq family of Beirut and cultivated by about sixty families of a tribe called the Arab Zubeidat, and by some fellahin, was sold in 1925 over the heads of the tenants to a Zionist organisation called the Palestine Land Development Company. The tenants were paid about 1,800, or less than £30 per family, as compensation by the Company. A dispute arose between the Arab Zubeidat and the Company in regard to a further area of 1,000 acres which the Company claimed had been included in, and the Arabs claimed had been excluded from, the transfer. In 1927, the Jews lodged a criminal action against two Arabs of the tribe who tried to prevent Jews from ploughing on the disputed area. The Court gave judgment in favour of the Jews. The Arabs appealed against this judgment, and in 1929 the Court returned the case to the Land Court for rehearing. In 1933 judgment was again given by the Land Court in favour of the Jews. The Arabs again appealed, and in 1934, the Court of Appeal confirmed the judgment of the Land Court. An action was then brought by the Jews for the eviction of the Arabs. Eviction was ordered in November, 1934, and carried out in January, 1935, by a strong police force. The Arabs tried to resist eviction by stoning the police. The police fired and killed an Arab. The rest of the Arabs were then evicted.

In 1931 the Government had offered to resettle fourteen of these Arab families on Government land in the Beisan Sub-district (about 30 miles to the East). This offer was refused by the Arabs because, as they said, they did not want to leave the lands where they had been born and reared and start to live and cultivate in a new place and under Government control in a climate that was too hot for them. The Government does not state whether it has renewed its offer of resettlement.

The present position appears to be that these Arabs -- sixty or more families -- are left with 300 acres of cultivable land and 700 acres of forest which they possessed in addition to the 4,000 acres which they have lost, in the neighbourhood of their old lands, and no other source of liveli¬hood: an average of five acres per family, or about one-sixth of what is normally estimated to be the minimum area on which a family can support itself.

This instance is typical, not exceptional. The process of Jewish settlement frequently involves for the Arab tenants the miserable round of sale by absentee landlords, inadequate compensation, expensive lawsuits dragging out over many years, police evictions, accompanied some times by shooting, and finally drifting to the towns to be exploited by Jewish or Arab capitalists or by the Government. So long as Jewisih land purchases continue, involving this tension and conflict between the Jews and the dispossessed Arabs, you cannot hope to see anything but tension and conflict in the general relations between Jews and Arabs.

In the last few years sales of land by small-holders have increased According to Zionists when a small-holder sells his land to them he only sells part of it and is able, with the capital which he gets by the sale, to develop the part which he retains. This is very nice in theory and may sometimes happen in practice. But it also frequently happens in practice that a small-holder sells all the land which he possesses; runs through the money which he receives for it in a few months or uses it to pay his debts; and is then forced, like the dispossessed tenant, to drift to the town, with the alternative of finding underpaid work or destitution.

The Arab small-holder has every inducement to sell his land. One strong motive is that the price which the Jews offer is usually far in excess of the real value of the land: (the average price paid by the Jews for land bought from Arabs during the last three years is about £100 per acre.) But the chief motive is his own poverty. According to investigations made by Sir John Hope-Simpson in 1930 the average gross income of an Arab peasant in Palestine was £29 4s. 0d. The average cost of production of his cultivation was £22. The average burden of debt was £8. The average burden of taxation was is £5. The average cost of living for a family of six (the minimum necessary to support life) was reckoned as £26. That is to say the average minimum necessary expenditure of a peasant (£61) was in 1930 estimated to be more than twice his average gross income. Since 1930 the economic position of peasants has probably slightly improved. Prices of agricultural pro¬ducts have risen, so the peasant's average gross income has increased. Taxation has been somewhat reduced. But substantially the picture given in Sir John Hope-Simpson's report is a true one. That is to say the average expenditure of the peasant on cost of living must be con¬siderably less than the £26 per annum which has been reckoned as the minimum necessary for subsistence 6 ; he is always in debt: (in 1930, the total debt of the Arab peasant population of Palestine was estimated by the Palestine Government's Commission on the Economic Condition of Agriculturalists at £2,000,000: the normal rate of interest charged by moneylenders varies between 30 per cent. per annum and 50 per cent. on a sum borrowed at the time of sowing and repaid at harvest) he is always in arrears with taxes: he never has any capital of his own to develop his land and is seldom in a position to borrow any.

Insufficiency of land, lack of capital to develop the land, debt and excessive taxation are the chief causes of the poverty of Arab peasants. The Commission on the Economic Condition of Agriculturalists referred to reported that, out of 27,573 families visited in 104 villages, only 5,477 families had enough land to support themselves without finding additional work elsewhere. Sir John Hope-Simpson, writing on the subject of land-shortage among Arab peasants, remarked:

There is also a progressive diminution in the areas of holdings; in every village visited there were complaints on this score. Portions of the holdings have been sold either to pay-off debts or to pay the Govern¬ment taxes or to obtain the wherewithal to keep the family alive.

The population of the villages is increasing faster than in Turkish times, owing in large measure to the cessation of conscription. There is consequently increasing competition for land, and division of holdings among the increased number of members of the family.

This increase in the Arab population since the war is often used by Zionists as evidence of the increased prosperity of the Arabs, due to Jewish immigration. In fact, however, at any rate as far as the village population is concerned, it is a cause of increased poverty. The cessation of conscription is not, of course, the only cause of the increase of population; the Government's health services, restricted though they are, have done something to lower the death-rate and to decrease infant mortality. But prolongation of life without at least proportional expansion of the means of life is a doubtful benefit.

The Commission on the Economic Condition of Agriculturalists recommended that an income tax should be imposed with a view to improving the miserable economic condition of Arab peasants. An expert was sent from England to look into the question, but vested interests were too strong and the proposed income tax was shelved. The result is that the burden of taxation on agriculturalists is out of all proportion to their capacity to pay, while the rich Jewish entrepreneur and highly paid British official get off almost scot free. One example of the way in which small-holders living in the neighbourhood of towns are driven by the Government to sell their lands to Jews is by imposing taxes on those lands at urban rates, although the land is used for agriculture. It was pointed out by Mr. Nevile Barbour, writing to the Palestine Post in July, 1936, that the annual tax on agricultural land in a village near Jerusalem has increased in the last few years from 3s. 4d. per acre to £5 4s. per acre, and again to £8 per acre. The annual net income from the land is probably between £1 and £2 per acre. At such a rate of taxation cultivation is of course impossible and the cultivator has no alternative but to sell.

It is of interest to contrast the economic position of the Arab peasant with that of the Jewish agricultural settler. The following are data in regard to the annual income and expenditure in three Jewish settlements collected by the Commission on the Economic Condition of Agriculturalists, together with the corresponding figures for the average Arab peasant, collected by the same Commission. The three settlements referred to are co-operative settlements, and the figures in the first column refer in their case to the average share of a family or individual in the total income of the settlement. The figures in the next four columns refer to the average share of a family or individual in the expenditure of the settlement upon the various items mentioned. It will be observed that the average annual deficit of the Arab peasant is £22.650 mils. This is, of course, an impossible figure, and is probably to be explained partly by the fact that the average Arab peasant family actually spends much less than £36 a year on cost of living. (figures of pre-1930 price fall.)

Settlement Gross Income Cost of Living Communal Taxes and Rent Interest on Debt Cost of Production Balance or Deficit
Yavriel (per family of 6.) £121 £33
(Farm produce, £26 Clothing £7.)
£ 18 £4 £57 +£9
Kinnereth (per family of 6.) £244 £73
(Farm produce, £27: Clothing, £46.)
£25 £4 £141 +1
Ginegar (per member of group.) £83 £49
Farm produce, £14: Clothing £6. Other requirements, £14. Social and cultural expenditure, £16.)
£7 £3 £24 nil
Arab Peasant (per family) £38.35 £36 £5 £8 £22 -£22.65

These figures, though only estimates, and probably not entirely accurate as regards the present situation (owing to a rise in prices, reduction in taxation, etc.), show one thing pretty plainly, namely, that the average Jewish agricultural settler, though not rich, enjoys at present economic security, and the average Arab peasant does not. The average Arab peasant obviously does not possess an income sufficient to provide him with the bare necessities of life. The Jewish settler has an income sufficient to meet these necessities, with something to spare (in two cases out of the three selected) for comforts and pleasures. The figures also show that by failing to give economic security to the Arab peasant the Government is responsible for a situation in which the Arab is practically forced to sell his land to the Jews when a good price is offered him. The Government is in this way in alliance with Zionism to deprive the Arab of his lands and to make them available for Jewish settlement; and at the same time to create a landless proletariat to be exploited by itself, and by Jewish, and (to a less extent) by British and Arab, capitalists.

It is true that most of the Arab peasants who have drifted into the towns and work intermittently at a wage of two to three shillings a day receive, while they are in work, a money wage which is more than the income, reckoned in terms of money, which they got from their land when they worked as peasants. Against this must be set the fact that the old form of their lives has been broken up: that they are cut off from the wheat and olives, fruit and vegetables, which as peasants they had ready to hand and which they must now buy in the market at high prices: (the cost of living in Jaffa and Jerusalem is high; in Haifa at least as high as in English towns); that many of them now have to live in tin huts instead of in stone houses; that they have lost the land which gave them the assurance of a permanent livelihood -- however miserable in terms of money that livelihood may have been. Now they are at the mercy of all the currents of capitalism. From 1933 until 1935 there was a boom in Palestine -- chiefly on account of the unnaturally large influx of capital, brought by immigrants from Germany. Towards the end of 1935 a depression seemed to be beginning.

Indeed, according to the Economist of October 10, at the time of the outbreak of the strike "a first-class economic crisis was already in full swing." This crisis began in the autumn of 1935, when the Mediter¬ranean tension reached its climax. By the end of the year it was officially estimated that 6,000 Jews, or 6 per cent. of the total employable Jewish population, was unemployed. This depression the strike has of course intensified. The following figures show the sharp recession in foreign trade during the second quarter of 1936:

(April- June)
(April- June)
Imports £ P4,255,929 £ P3,000,686
Exports £ P714,863 £ P218,862

The two processes, the sale of Arab lands and the industrialisation of Palestine, are complementary. Zionist industrialism, and Government ports, roads, and railways, require an Arab proletariat, and the proletariat which they require is created by Zionist land purchases. The British Government backs Zionist activities for the reasons of imperial strategy referred to by Mr. Amery, and for business reasons. A Zionist industrialised Palestine makes a far better market for British goods and a far more profitable field for British investment than a purely Arab peasant Palestine could have made. Presumably, therefore, this mutually profitable partnership between Britain and Zionism that has now lasted for sixteen years will not be terminated by anything short of national revolution in Palestine or social revolution in England.


1. Treatment of the other sections, the Bedouin and the urban population, will be found in the pamphlet (see inside front cover of this issue).

2. In a pamphlet called Financial Aspects of Jewish Reconstruction in Palestine: How the Arabs have benefited through Jewish Immigration.

3.Report on the Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August, 1929 (Coed. 3530), page 117.

4.Sir John Hope Simpson's Report on Immigration Land Settlement (1930)

5.Report of the Shaw Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August, 1929, p.120

6.The Economist (Oct. 10) however claims that the cost: of living "has suddenly climbed in 3 months to the level ruling 3 years arm."