Palestinian Studies

2014 Workshop

Martin Bunton

Professor of History, University of Victoria

Frames of Reference for the Study of Land in Palestine: the Making of the 1920/1921 Land Transfer Ordinance

The question of overall frames of reference is, or ought to be, one of the first questions that arises when one studies that part of the former Ottoman Empire which following the First World War constituted the state of Palestine (Owen 1982). This paper considers or reconsiders four frames of reference that can usefully be said to have informed the land-policy making process in Palestine. In general terms, they can be defined as: (i.) Palestine as “national home”, that is, the still highly influential view that Palestine is best understood in terms of those processes that facilitated Zionism’s quest for a Jewish national home (eg, Stein 1987); (ii.) Palestine as “British colony”, the increasingly utilized approach that compares Palestine to the patterns of administration in other British colonies (Bunton 2007); (iii.) Palestine as “international mandate” – the consequential, if not decisive, post Wilsonian League of Nations order that contained the potential to challenge colonial authority; and (iv.) a “a nascent state” - the important legacy (frequently lost in discussion of Palestine) of Ottoman structures of modern state-making, begun in the mid-nineteenth century (Mundy 2007).

As a way to begin thinking about assigning the right weight to aspects of these four (sometimes overlapping) frames of reference, this paper focuses on the major piece of land legislation passed in the early years of British rule, the 1920 land transfer ordinance. This initial period of British rule in Palestine (1917-1920) provides specific insight into the multiple factors influencing the formation of government land policies. The land policy making process in particular was one in which a variety of forces and interests, with different as well as overlapping priorities, had to be negotiated. Indeed, one of the most important conclusions to be drawn from all this is the significance of periodization. To be sure, drawing conclusions from a single case study can be problematic. Nonetheless, adapting a case study approach allows one to capture the high degree of complexity which the study of property rights, with its attendant problems of translation and historical contingency, necessarily demands.


  • Martin Bunton,  Colonial Land Policies in Palestine, 1917-1936 (Oxford University Press, 2007)
  • Martha Mundy and Richard Saumarez Smith, Governing property, making the modern state: law, administration and production in Ottoman Syria (I.B Tauris, 2007)
  • Roger Owen, "Introduction." In Studies in the Economic and Social History of Palestine in the Nineteenth  and Twentieth Centuries, edited by Roger Owen, 1-9. (Southern Illinois University Press, 1982).
  • K. Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939 (University of North Carolina Press, 1987)

The bulk of my teaching has been in the field of modern Middle Eastern history, and I am especially interested in studying the history of the region in its global context. My first book focused on the making and remaking of colonial land policies in Palestine during the interwar period. The book is organised around two main themes: the legacy of Ottoman administrative practices and the borrowing of policies developed elsewhere in the British empire. These same themes also frame my organisation of the nine-volume collection of primary sources on land legislation in Palestine. My current research explores the development of land policies in Egypt during the period of British rule, 1882-1920, with a focus on land taxation, cadastral surveys, state lands, and agricultural credit.