Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Birzeit University
In this paper I offer a new approach to a central theme in the history of late Ottoman and British-ruled Palestine (1858-1948), which continues to be an essential component of many historical and political discussions of the country's colonial condition: namely, the land issue. As it is well-known, the question of land law, or “land reform,” has been discussed in the literature primarily from the perspective of its relation to the process of Zionist colonization, much more than as a central issue in the social and governmental history of the country. I wish here to contribute to an emerging literature that aims to balance this bias in the historiography, by offering an analysis of the framework of rules within which various social and political actors interacted. More specifically, I wish to link two major questions or dilemmas related to the expansion since the Ottoman Land Code of 1858 of state-recognized legal rights of possession of miri land (read formally and cautiously, 'state land') by individuals and companies: first, how did this process undermine, over a relatively short period of time, the political power of the native population while strengthening the political power of the Zionist colonial-settler project? Second, how did the same process change the economic life (broadly conceived) of various communities, regions, and classes?
To answer these questions I will begin by reviewing some of the most advanced and critical debates in the social and economic history of the late Ottoman Empire, with particular focus on Palestine. In this part, I will suggest to bring into historical discussion an important element that has been only superficially mentioned in the literature: that is, the expansion of the Ottoman imperial estates by Sultan Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1908/9). Putting this fact within the same context of the development of large private landholdings in the fertile valleys of Palestine (later sold to the Zionist colonization companies), I offer a new interpretation of the notion of "miri land," which shows how this category ought to be interpreted, strongly and essentially, as a relationship between sultan's rights and people's rights. Even in its most radical usage as the sultan's “private property,” this category continued to be understood by the people as a political idiom of protection of local patrimonies that existed on the land for many generations before the extension of Ottoman power onto it.
Based on this revision of the Ottoman context, I move to shed light on the British colonial discourse of land reform, which while emphasizing the rule of private property as the universal rationality of all economic life, it also insisted on a claim of an "oriental principle" of state ownership of land. This discursive interpretation was critical for suspending and altering popular sovereignty for the natives; it was critical for creating a series of political differences between the people and the state; the people and the land; the economic (civil society), and the political (sovereignty, or political community). The political encounters around the governance of people’s lives and economy was directly conditioned by these series of colonial differences.
In the third part of the paper, I will delve into some aspects of the politics of land settlement in the ex-Sultan's land in the Beisan valley, in order to illustrate the workings of, and encounters within, the Mandate framework of rule. For lack of space, I will focus on the early years of the settlement (the early 1920s) and bring out some of the central questions that have general historical significance. I will then offer some conclusions that address shortcomings in the literature as well as possibilities for developing historical research and discussion in politically meaningful ways today.
Munir Fakher Eldin (Ph.D. in History, New York University, 2008) is Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies, and the Masters Program of Contemporary Arab Studies, Birzeit University, Palestine. He is also a researcher at the Institute for Palestine Studies. His research has focused on how elite and popular actors in Palestine interacted with late Ottoman and British-Mandate discourses of reform.