Palestinian Studies

2014 Workshop


PhD Candidate in History and Hebrew and Judaic Studies, New York University

Echoes of Legal Pasts: Landed Property Relations in the Negeb, 1858-1948

My dissertation research project seeks to explore the system and evolution of landed property relations in the northern Negeb, now part of Israel, from 1858 to 1948. Focusing on this region’s Arab population, my project draws on Ottoman, British, and Israeli archives, personal papers and interviews, to explore the constant emergence of land rights, law, and governance, in the context of a broader analysis of state-society relationships.

In addition to its historical scholarly value, this research project has contemporary legal and political relevance. Since the 1950s, the Israeli government has claimed that the lands which the Bedouin regard as theirs belong to the state, and is seeking to evict the Bedouin from the land through different practices, including house demolitions and their removal to quasi-urban settlements. Conflicting interpretations of Ottoman and British Mandatory land law and policies have figured prominently in this dispute. The Israeli government and judiciary argue that the Negeb is state land, rendering the Bedouins trespassers, whereas the Bedouins claim recognition of their land rights under both the Ottoman and British regimes. My research will draw on largely unutilized Ottoman and British case law, tax, land, and other legal records, to provide a fuller, more complex, historically grounded analysis and scholarly understanding of the issues involved.

Although the Negeb comprised more than half the area of Palestine and its inhabitants comprised about 10 percent of Palestine’s inhabitants in 1948, the region and its people remained marginalized in scholarship. Scholars have focused on Jerusalem and other mountain and costal cities (such as Nablus, Haifa, Jaffa, and Tel-Aviv). However, as a periphery, the Negeb and its major city, Biru Alsabi (Beersheba), have not attracted similar attention, and remained peripheral in scholarship. The rare studies on the Negeb have focused on Jewish Zionist settlements. The Bedouin usually appear in the historical narratives as an exotic or savage other, associated with raids and attacks on settlements and trade convoys. Anthropologists and, to a lesser extent, geographers who have written on the Negeb Bedouin have usually focused on Bedouin sedentarization, chiefly analyzed within a discourse of modernization, and ignored the socio-legal dynamics around land relations and the legal origins of the land dispute.

My paper for the Symposium will focus in particular on the period of 1930-1945. A thick file, with about two thousand documents, which I have located at the Israel State Archive, is of the Beersheba and Gaza land registry offices. The file includes land registration requests, taxation, land transactions of sale and mortgages from the same period, and encompassed a variety of documents that were introduced from both the Ottoman and British periods, of land (rather crop’s) taxation, ottoman land registration, customary land sale contracts, certificates of Sheikhs and Mukhtars, Muslim and Christian Religious courts’ decisions, wills and more.

A basic reading of the majority of these documents sheds an important light on the social history of the Northern Negeb. Part of the major observations are: the strong relationship between Gaza and the Beersheba area, and thus between the Urban and semi-nomads; the continuity of Ottoman practices into the British Mandatory period; the integration of the local customs and medium of knowledge into the state law and practices; the noticeable presence of women in landed property relations; as well as increase in land transactions. The archival documents will be combined with tens of decisions of the Palestine Supreme Court on land disputes from the same period, which by itself makes the increase in litigating these land cases before the State, and not tribal, courts an important question by itself.

The paper hopes to explore on the spectrum of state-society relationships, the state-customary legal dynamics, Arab resistance and input into state law and policies, and to explore the social relationships between the Jewish, Arab’ urban, and Arab’ semi-nomadic populations.

Ahmad Amara is a PhD candidate in history and Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. Before pursuing his PhD degree, Amara served for three years as a clinical instructor and global advocacy fellow with Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program. His work at Harvard focused on social, cultural, and economic rights in the Middle East and on the Law of Occupation, and he has published a number of reports and articles in this area. Amara holds an LLB and LLM from Tel-Aviv University, where he also served as a teaching assistant and a coordinator of the Street Law Clinic Program at the Faculty of Law. He is a member of the Israeli Bar. In 2005, he completed a second master’s degree in international human rights law at Essex University in the United Kingdom. In 2005, he co-founded a human rights organization, Karama (Arabic for “dignity”), in Nazareth, where he served as a senior staff attorney. Amara’s current research focuses on the legal history of property law in Palestine, including Ottoman, British, and Israeli legislation.