Palestinian Studies

2020 Workshop

Munir Fakher Eldin

Assistant Professor in Philosophy and Cultural Studies, Birzeit University

British Land Reform and the Frontier Situation in Palestine

There has been a growing interest in recent years in the question of British colonial policy in Palestine, focusing on land reform and related governmental and bureaucratic technologies. While previous scholarship seemed to have been preoccupied with social actors as agents of change/continuity, this recent literature is interested in state power, law, technology, and discourse. Our knowledge of the British policy, its working details and political agenda has grown significantly due these scholarly efforts. There is ample evidence to show how, for instance, while encouraging Zionist colonization, the British also recognized the Palestinians as property owners. As Martin Bunton has put it, British policy cannot be reduced to a simple pro-Zionist project, as it had “multiple frames of reference” including also Ottoman, local, and wider British-colonial ones. Nonetheless, British rule remained a field of power that rearranged social and political relations and produced new hierarchies of power. Put differently, the shift towards the state invites us to rethink the question of agency. If the state is justifiably ascribed to such a fundamental role, more attention towards the power field which it produces is due.

This paper argues that the unifying or homogenizing legal and bureaucratic environments created by the Ottomans and the British must be seen as political fields, in which various actors and institutions (among and across the divide of natives and settlers) interacted with each other and with the state. Each in its different ways, and to varying effects, these fields allowed new concentrations of power and allowed drastic changes in the conditions of competition for land. They opened up Palestine as a frontier for capital accumulation, colonization, and various social and political struggles, which cannot be all neatly reduced to a single logic of private property or settler-colonialism. This argument differs from previous usages of the notion of the frontier in the context of Palestine, which had conceived of it basically as a product of the settlers’ attitudes and actions. Instead, I argue that the frontier must be seen as a situation, or a field of power, in which state-led transformation of land tenure and marketization of land are key. At the same time, rather than remaining with a top-down or structuralist view of state, power, discourse, or policy, I ague for the need for nuanced sociological approaches to make sense of how people and land, both mediated, and were affected, by change. The paper draws on examples from the Beisan land settlement (1921-1948) and other land struggles in order to illustrate this argument and relate it to the wider literature and narratives of land ownership in Palestine.