Palestinian Studies

2020 Workshop

Paul Kohlbry

Palestinian Studies Postdoctoral Research Associate, Brown University

Ownership without Guarantees: Palestinian Titles, Settler Markets, and the Problem of the Future

In 2007, the Palestinian Authority (PA) began its first concerted foray into land registration and titling in the West Bank. Today, after a series of institutional changes, crises, and setbacks, these efforts have accelerated and expanded with the goal of titling the entire West Bank by the mid-2020s. In part, titling is a standard neoliberal prescription. Initially funded by the World Bank, the project primarily seeks to formalize private land ownership, extending the reach of PA law and regulation to foster liberal property rights, markets, and institutions. But titling is also inseparable from territorial struggle, offering a means through which Palestinians can produce property titles that could be legally legible to the Israeli courts and politically advantageous within the realm of international diplomacy and advocacy.

 Through interviews, technical documents, and extended participant observation with PA survey teams, this paper examines the relationship between these two elements of West Bank titling to illuminate the broader tension between property and territorial ownership. From critical scholarship on PA state-building, one could imagine a series of critiques of this project, from the folly of asking a weak PA to enforce property law against Israeli colonization to the antagonism between territorial defense and land markets. Curiously, landowners, survey teams, and bureaucrats not only debate, but generally agree with, these possible critiques. Yet land titling moves on, despite the fact that no one involved seems to believe that the PA is able to do the work in the present or protect land in the future. This paper explores the sorts of political futures that property ownership can anchor at a time when the proliferation of private property ownership is experienced as a set of compromised promises.

Rather than staking a claim about the efficacy of the titling project, this paper looks at how PA survey teams and village landowners operate in this impasse. I focus on the myriad practices that surveyors turn to that allow for day-to-day work to progress while holding at bay questions about the longer term legal or political viability of PA-issued title. Through these practices, I argue that deferral is the defining political temporality of land titling. For those involved, deferral captures a way of making due with the wreckage of the present that, by suspending the long-term, allows the near future to remain tentatively open. I conclude by exploring what this temporal compression means for Palestinian land politics today, and how we might explore ownership not only as a register of the past, but also as a means for thinking about the future. Property is not only a question of who owned (or will own) Palestine, but what sorts of contradictory possibilities specific configurations of ownership give rise to, especially at time when the distant future seems to be emptied of possibility.

Paul Kohlbry is an anthropologist whose work examines the relationships between law, capitalism, and territorial politics. His current book project, Plots and Deeds: Property and Formations of Land Defense in the West Bank, explores how private property has come to orient land politics in the West Bank by tracking how shifts in rural land use and ownership have intersected with transformations in property law to shape Palestinian land defense projects since the 1980s. More broadly, his work seeks to bring Palestine into conversation with a broader range of Indigenous experiences through the lens of political economy. He has also worked with grassroots Palestinian organizations in the West Bank and is interested in the relationship between critical research and the needs and concerns of movements. His writing has been published in The Journal of Palestine StudiesDialectical Anthropology, and Historical Materialism. He holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins University and is currently the Palestinian Studies Postdoctoral Research Associate at Brown University.