Jewish land purchase in Palestine

Map showing Jewish-owned land as of 31 December 1944, including land owned in full, shared in undivided land and State Lands under concession. This constituted 6% of the total land area, of which more than half was held by the JNF and PICA[1]

Jewish land purchase in Palestine refers to the acquisition of land in Palestine by Jews from the 1840s until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.


The Talmud mentions the religious duty of settling the Land of Israel.[2] So significant in Judaism is the act of purchasing land in the Land of Israel, that Talmud allows for the lifting of certain religious restrictions of Sabbath observance to further its acquisition and settlement.[3]

Towards the end of the 19th-century, the creation of the Zionist movement resulted in many European Jews immigrating to Palestine. Most land purchases between the late 1880s and the 1930s were located in the coastal plain area, including "Acre to the North and Rehovoth to the South, the Esdraelon (Jezreel) and Jordan Valleys and to the lesser extent in Galilee".[4] The migration affected Palestine in many ways, including economically, socially, and politically.

Land purchases

KKL collection boxes to fund land purchases in Palestine were distributed in the diaspora from 1904

In the first half of the 19th century, no foreigners were allowed to purchase land in Palestine. This was official Turkish policy until 1856 and in practice until 1867.[5] When it came to the national aspirations of the Zionist movement, the Ottoman Empire opposed the idea of Jewish self-rule in Palestine, fearing it may lose control of Palestine after recently having lost other territories to various European powers. It also took issue with the Jews, as many came from Russia which sought the empire's demise.[6] In 1881 the Ottoman governmental administration (the Sublime Porte) decreed that foreign Jews could immigrate to and settle anywhere within the Ottoman Empire, except in Palestine and from 1882 until their defeat in 1918, the Ottomans continuously restricted Jewish immigration and land purchases in Palestine.[6] In 1882, Jews were banned from their Four Holy Cities and in 1891, after briefly allowing some Jewish immigration three years earlier, the Turkish rulers tried to again to close the empire to Russian Jews.[6] In 1892, the Ottoman government decided to prohibit the sale of land in Palestine to Jews, even if they were Ottoman citizens.[7] Nevertheless, during the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, many successful land purchases were made through organizations such as the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association (PJCA), Palestine Land Development Company and the Jewish National Fund.

Jewish rabbis purchasing land from an Arab landowner, 1920s.

The Ottoman Land Code of 1858 "brought about the appropriation by the influential and rich families of Beirut, Damascus, and to a lesser extent Jerusalem and Jaffa and other sub-district capitals, of vast tracts of land in Syria and Palestine and their registration in the name of these families in the land registers".[8] Many of the fellahin did not understand the importance of the registers and therefore the wealthy families took advantage of this. Jewish buyers who were looking for large tracts of land found it favorable to purchase from the wealthy owners. As well many small farmers became in debt to rich families which led to the transfer of land to the new owners and then eventually to the Jewish buyers.

In 1918, after the British conquest of Palestine, the military administration closed the Land Register and prohibited all sale of land. The Register was reopened in 1920, but to prevent speculation and insure a livelihood for the fellahin, an edict was issued forbidding the sale of more than 300 dunams of land or the sale of land valued at more than 3000 Palestine pounds without the approval of the High Commissioner.[9]

From the 1880s to the 1930s, most Jewish land purchases were made in the coastal plain, the Jezreel Valley, the Jordan Valley and to a lesser extent the Galilee.[8] This was due to a preference for land that was cheap and without tenants.[8] There were two main reasons why these areas were sparsely populated. The first reason being when the Ottoman power in the rural areas began to diminish in the seventeenth century, many people moved to more centralized areas to secure protection against the lawless Bedouin tribes.[8] The second reason for the sparsely populated areas of the coastal plains was the soil type. The soil, covered in a layer of sand, made it impossible to grow the staple crop of Palestine, corn.[8] As a result, this area remained uncultivated and under populated.[4] "The sparse Arab population in the areas where the Jews usually bought their land enabled the Jews to carry out their purchase without engendering a massive displacement and eviction of Arab tenants".[8]

In the 1930s most land was bought from small landowners. Of the land that the Jews bought, "52.6% of the lands were bought from big non-Palestinian landowners, 24.6% from Palestinian-Arab landowners and only 9.4% from the Fellahin".[10]

On 31 December 1944, out of 1,732.63 dunums of land owned in Palestine by large Jewish Corporations and private owners, about 44% was in possession of Jewish National Fund. The table below shows the land ownership of Palestine by large Jewish Corporations (in square kilometres) on 31 December 1945.

Land ownership of Palestine by large Jewish Corporations (in square kilometres) on 31 December 1945
Corporations Area
JNF 660.10
PICA 193.70
Palestine Land Development Co. Ltd. 9.70
Hemnuta Ltd 16.50
Africa Palestine Investment Co. Ltd. 9.90
Bayside Land Corporation Ltd. 8.50
Palestine Kupat Am. Bank Ltd. 8.40
Total 906.80
Data is from Survey of Palestine (Vol I, p245).[11][12]

By the end of the mandate, more than half the Jewish-owned land was held by the two largest Jewish funds, the Jewish National Fund and the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association.

Anti-Zionist demonstration at Damascus Gate, March 8th, 1920

Peel Commission

The British government appointed the Peel Commission to investigate the reasons for the civil unrest in Palestine. Lord Peel's findings on land purchase were as follows:

A summary of land legislation enacted during the Civil Administration shows the efforts made to fulfill the Mandatory obligation in this matter. The Commission point to serious difficulties in connection with the legislation proposed by the Palestine Government for the protection of small owners. The Palestine Order in Council and, if necessary, the Mandate should be amended to permit of legislation empowering the High Commissioner to prohibit the transfer of land in any stated area to Jews, so that the obligation to safeguard the right and position of the Arabs may be carried out. Until survey and settlement are complete, the Commission would welcome the prohibition of the sale of isolated and comparatively small plots of land to Jews.


Up till now the Arab cultivator has benefited on the whole both from the work of the British Administration and the presence of Jews in the country, but the greatest care must now be exercised to see that in the event of further sales of land by Arabs to Jews the rights of any Arab tenants or cultivators are preserved. Thus, alienation of land should only be allowed where it is possible to replace extensive by intensive cultivation. In the hill districts there can be no expectation of finding accommodation for any large increase in the rural population. At present, and for many years to come, the Mandatory Power should not attempt to facilitate the close settlement of the Jews in the hill districts generally.

The shortage of land is due less to purchase by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population. The Arab claims that the Jews have obtained too large a proportion of good land cannot be maintained. Much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamps and uncultivated when it was bought.

Legislation vesting surface water in the High Commissioner is essential. An increase in staff and equipment for exploratory investigations with a view to increasing irrigation is recommended.

Report of the Palestine Royal Commission - July 1937[13]

Economic impact

The fellahin who sold land in attempt to turn "vegetable tracts into citrus groves became dependent on world markets and on the availability of maritime transportation. A decrease in the world market demand for citrus or a lack of means of transportation severely jeopardized the economic situation of these people".[4]

Influence on population

Director of Development Lewis French established a register of landless Arabs in 1931.[14] Out of 3,271 applicants, only 664 were admitted and the remainder rejected.[14] Porath suggests that the number of displaced Arabs may have been considerably larger, since French's definition of "landless Arab" excluded those who had sold their own land, those who owned land elsewhere, those who had since obtained tenancy of other land even if they were unable to cultivate it due to poverty or debt, and displaced persons who were not cultivators but had occupations such as ploughman or laborer.[14]

See also


  1. A Survey of Palestine, Table 2 showing Holdings of Large Jewish Lands Owners as of December 31st, 1945, British Mandate: A Survey of Palestine: Volume I - Page 245. Chapter VIII: Land: Section 3.
  2. Isaac Herzog (1967). The Main Institutions of Jewish Law: The law of obligations. Soncino Press. p. 51. Retrieved 27 June 2011.
  3. Yosef Zahavi (1962). Eretz Israel in rabbinic lore (Midreshei Eretz Israel): an anthology. Tehilla Institute. p. 28. Retrieved 19 June 2011. If one buys a house from a non-Jew in Eretz Israel, the title deed may be written for him even on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath!? Is that possible? But as Rava explained, he may order a non-Jew to write it, even though instructing a non-Jew to do a work prohibited to Jews on the Sabbath is forbidden by rabbinic ordination, the rabbis waived their decree on account of the settlement of Eretz Israel.
  4. 1 2 3 Porath (1977), p. 80
  5. Ruth Kark (1984). "Changing patterns of landownership in nineteenth-century Palestine: the European influence". Journal of Historical Geography. 10 (4): 357–384.
  6. 1 2 3 Jonathan R. Adelman (2008). The rise of Israel: a history of a revolutionary state. Taylor & Francis. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-415-77509-0. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
  7. Murat Ocak (2002). The Turks: Ottomans (2 v. ). Yeni Türkiye. Retrieved 19 June 2011. Even though the Ottoman government was disturbed by this decision, it was compelled to take it, in order to close all doors to the Jews in 1891, and to prohibit the sale of Palestinian land to Jews, even if they were Ottoman citizens, in 1892.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Porath (1977), p. 81
  9. The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs, 1878-1948, Aryeh L. Avneri
  10. Porath (1977), p. 84
  11. Table 2 showing Holdings of Large Jewish Lands Owners as of December 31st, 1945, British Mandate: A Survey of Palestine: Volume I - Page 245. Chapter VIII: Land: Section 3., prepared by the British Mandate for the United Nations Survey of Palestine Retrieved 4 July 2015
  12. Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Jewish Problems in Palestine and Europe, J. V. W. Shaw, General Assembly, Special Committee on Palestine, United Nations (1991). A Survey of Palestine: Prepared in December, 1945 and January, 1946 for the Information of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. 1. Institute for Palestine Studies. ISBN 0-88728-211-3.
  13. "Report of the Palestine Royal Commission — July 1937". Retrieved 2010-12-03.
  14. 1 2 3 Porath, pp. 87–88


External links

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