Arab Land and Israeli Policy

VOL. 11


No. 1
P. 124
Arab Land and Israeli Policy



Land is frequently defined as a space with three dimensions: surface, below surface and above surface, with many characteristics such as immobility and inexhaustibility; it can be used to satisfy different demands such as food production, or the construction of houses or transportation routes. The extraction of the resources that may exist in its depth in the form of water or different minerals is equally important.

The demand for land is thus an indirect demand for goods and services that may be produced or provided by the land. In this respect, the Arab community in Israel does not differ from any other community in the world, but a problem arises from the conflict of interest between their desire to exploit the potential of their land for their own benefit and the Israeli government's interest in gaining control over this valuable resource so that the Jewish community should derive maximum benefit from its exploitation. This is the problem that I am going to explore, hoping to throw light on some of its aspects, and pointing out the problems that have been created by this conflict between the interests of the minority and those of the majority.

My starting point here will be a discussion of the problems related to land ownership and those problems related to land use; I will try to illustrate these problems by showing their impact on the Arab citizens of the country.


Although there are many types of ownership, including private owner- ship, public land, waqf land (land appropriated for religious purposes), and lands owned by local authorities, I am going to limit my discussion to the first two because these are the types of ownership at issue in the problems that we are facing today.

(A) Private Ownership. This is an exclusive right of the owner, excluding others from using the same parcel of land; this right gives the owner confidence in the future of his investment in that land. This ownership is highly respected and honoured in all countries that respect the law. However, in Israel the government has chosen to ignore these rights.

The bitter experience of the Arabs over three decades has proved that Israel has no respect for Arab ownership of the land. As early as 1917-1918, the Zionist movement promoted its scheme to establish a "national home" in Palestine with the slogan, "a land without a people for a people without a land." Israel was not satisfied with what took place in 1948, when she destroyed many villages and even towns and cities, forcing the Arab inhabitants to leave the country. Alleging security reasons to justify her action, she also added a chain of laws, each worded differently but all with the same objective - namely to take more Arab lands. Up to the present time, there are thirty-four of these laws, examples of them being: the Absentees' Property Law; the Emergency Regulations for the Cultivation of Waste Lands; the Land Acquisition (Validation of Acts and Compensation) Law; the Abandoned Areas Ordinance; the Emergency Regulations (Security Zones) Law, and the Emergency Land Requisition Law. Furthermore, the Israeli government uses the (British) Mandate Laws of 1943 for the expropriation of private land "for the good of the community," although the application of these laws is far from their original spirit. By 1960, laws related directly or indirectly to land had enabled the government to expropriate 2.2 million dunums from Arab farmers.

After 1960, preparations began to establish the town of Karmiel as part of a project to change the demographic structure of the Galilee area in favour of a Jewish majority. In spite of the different names that were given to this project, it was clear that Arab land was the main target. The amount of compensation for expropriated land was established at such a low level that it did not exceed the average yearly income of that land. Subsequent confiscations have resulted in similarly poor rates of compensation. A recent example is the law to compensate the Negev Bedouin that was enacted in 1979. According to this law, the maximum compensation for the highest quality of cultivable land is no more than 1,000IL/dunum, and 500 IL ($52 and $26 respectively at the time the law was enacted) for lower grade cultivable land. [1] 

The reason for such absurdly low compensation was explained by the Israeli authority as being "for the good of the community," since the confiscation was carried out in the public interest.

It is widely acknowledged that private ownership is not absolute and that public interest has a higher priority over private interest, but there seems to be a need to elaborate on the meaning of this concept as it is understood throughout the world, leaving the reader free to determine for himself the degree of compatibility of this understanding with the actual practices of the Israeli government.

Private land is appropriated "for the public interest" by governments for the construction of vital projects for the whole community, such as schools, hospitals and the necessary infrastructure. This, however, is not the case in Israel, where the confiscation of land to establish new Jewish settlements is always carried out at the expense of the Arabs. Furthermore, confiscating land in the public interest should not mean losing the right to full compensation. It is generally accepted that compensation should take into account the economic potential of that land after development. To illustrate this, let us suppose that a planner has decided to take a certain piece of land to be used as a site for a water tower to supply the nearby area with water for irrigation; under these circumstances it is unreasonable to expect the owner of that land to accept low compensation while his neighbours make windfall profits.

Compensation should consider the opportunity cost principle to deter- mine the compensation level, because the whole process has not been carried out in the free market where we have an owner who is willing to sell and a buyer who is offering the market price.

There are thus certain basic elements that have to be ensured if land confiscation is to be just. These are:

1. Private land should only be confiscated if it is in the public interest, not the interest of one community or section of the community at the expense of another. The confiscation of Arab village land to establish a Jewish settlement cannot, according to international standards, be called confiscation in the public interest.

2. Compensation should be made on the basis of opportunity cost principles.

3. Proper legal procedures should ensure that confiscation does not take place before the above conditions have been fulfilled.

(B) Public Land. The survey that was conducted by the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture during 1963 revealed that the government owns about 55 percent of the total area within the existing boundaries of the Arab villages, as shown in Table 1.


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The high percentage of public land in Arab villages requires some explanation. During the Mandate, the British government suggested that all uncultivable land should be registered in the name of the High Commissioner of Palestine, under the provision that the said land be utilized for the good of the community in each one of the Arab villages. After 1948, Israel "inherited" from the British government all the land that was registered in the High Commissioner's name, which thus became Israeli government land.

Although in legal principle there is no objection to this transfer of ownership, there is strong moral opposition to the government's clear intention of using its authority to prevent Arab citizens from utilizing this public land, and to make it legal for Jewish citizens to do so.

The official news media and local press have claimed on many occasions that land confiscation only involves public land, not private land, and that therefore the Arab farmers and villagers should not object to it. These are misleading statements, because Arabs are citizens of the country who also have rights in the public land, particularly those lands that were originally earmarked for the benefit of their own villages, and have long been used by them as grazing lands. [2] 

The close relationship between the ownership of the land by any community and its right to a homeland is widely recognized. The Israeli government wasted no time in confiscating Arab lands for two purposes: first, to undermine their future demand for a homeland, and second to convert the Arabs into suppliers of cheap labour to serve Israeli capital and know-how. To translate the above words into figures illustrating the amount of land confiscated between the creation of the State of Israel and 1972, I have chosen at random 38 Arab villages and recorded, for comparison, the changes that took place on the lands of these villages in three separate years, namely, 1945 (during the Mandate), 1962, and 1972.

When we compare the areas of these villages for each period (Table 2) it can be seen that the most drastic change took place during the period 1945-1962, when villagers lost about 68 percent of their land. With the continuation of confiscation after 1962, the loss reached 72 percent of the area they owned in 1945. To put it simply, what was left for the Arabs in 1972 was less than one third, and it is probable that today, in 1980, they own even less than this, in spite of the fact that the total population of these villages has more than tripled.

The average area per capita that was at the disposal of Arab villagers in 1945 amounted to 19.6 dunums; this fell to less than one dunum in 1962. Even taking into account the threefold increase over the period 1945-1972 in the Arab population of the villages which continue to exist in Israel, without Israeli seizure of Arab land the average area per capita would not be less than 6.5 dunums. This means that the loss per capita is 5.5 dunums; the total loss for the Arabs in Israel is 2.3 million dunums.


As mentioned above, land can be utilized in many different ways and I will now illustrate the obstacles that are encountered by Arabs when they attempt to use their land.

(A) Housing Problems. Shortage of land for building is chronic in the Arab sector because of the limitation placed on building land for Arab villages on the one hand, and the long delays in authorizing town plans without which construction cannot start on the other.

Authorization of these plans would help in determining the priorities for land use in Arab villages, and affect the activities of daily life in these villages, but in spite of their importance, the development of such plans by the Ministry of Interior proceeds very slowly. For example, some village plans were started in 1959 and are not yet completed. The number of villages and towns that have final plans does not exceed six out of a total of 105 in the Arab sector. [3] 

According to Israeli statistics, the Arab population increases at the rate of 4.2 percent per year, but the area available for building in these villages has not increased at the same rate. In order to illustrate this problem, Table 3 compares a few Arab and Jewish villages in the vicinity of Nazareth, clearly showing the gap between the two communities and the scale of the problem.


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From the Table we can see that the per capita building area in Upper Nazareth is more than three times that of Arab Nazareth. Furthermore, the per capita area in the Arab section does not exceed 180 m2 while the share per capita in the Jewish sector does not fall below 400 m2.

The high rate of population growth, combined with the limitation on land and the lack of authorization of plans, prevents the construction of new housing which has led to poor housing conditions (as Table 4 illustrates) 


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Table 4 shows that in 1974 about 45 percent of the non-Jewish families were living in unsatisfactory housing conditions by both national and international standards, while only 5 percent of the Jewish sector was faced with similar conditions.

(B) The Agricultural Land Problem. It was shown in Table 2 that the land under Arab ownership has been reduced to less than one third of what it was during the Mandate, in spite of the great increase in the population and the growing need for land.

It is a well-known fact that total agricultural output can be maintained through the use of different combinations of land and other factors of production. For example in figure 1, output level I at point Y1 can be produced by L1 units of land and B1 units of other resources. It is also possible to produce the same level I at point Y2 by L2 units of land and B2 units of other resources.

Higher level of output Y3 at isoquant II can be produced by L1 units of land and additional resources B11 or through combining L2 units of land with B22 units of other resources.



From this it is clear that the level of output in the Arab sector could have been maintained through compensation for the lost land by the addition of more of other resources, such as water and capital. Unfortunately this has not taken place, since development projects in Israel have not been concerned with the welfare of the Arab community in a positive sense. The Arabs, under these circumstances, interpret "development" to mean development for the Jewish community at their expense.

Admittedly, water projects have been introduced on a very small scale to help to lower the tension between the two communities to an acceptable level. Table 5 may help to give a clearer picture of the situation through a comparison of land and water available in Arab and Jewish villages in the vicinity of Nazareth. A glance at this table will demonstrate clearly the gap between the two communities. No serious efforts are being made to close this gap.

Table 6 illustrates the rate of increase in water supply to Arab villages during the period 1964/5 up to 1974/5. It can be seen that the proportion of land under irrigation in the Arab sector is less than 9 percent, compared to more than 50 percent in the Jewish sector. The information in Table 5 underlines this small amount of water available to Arabs for irrigation. The overwhelming majority of the Arab villages have no water for irrigation purposes.

Faced with this official policy of strangulation of agriculture in the Arab villages, and the absence of development projects to absorb the increasing number of workers from year to year, the Arab villagers are forced to seek employment in the nearest labour markets. Most of them are thus absorbed in construction and agriculture in the Jewish settlements.

The clear results of continuous land confiscation on the one hand, and on the other, of discouraging Arabs from privileged branches of agriculture such as dairy and poultry farming - as well as the limitation on the supply of water for agricultural needs, the shortage of capital, and rapid population growth - all led to a lower return for Arab workers and forced them to work on Jewish farms, thus enlarging the proportion of workers in this economic branch. The fact that Arab workers reached 25 percent of the total agricultural labour force a few years ago disturbed Mr. Ozan (Minister of Agriculture in the Labour government ) who declared that Arabs working on Jewish farms are a "cancer in the nation." [4] A similar remark was made by the Commander of the North, Mr. Ben Gal, concerning the Galilee Arabs. In 1976, Mr. Koenig, the District Governor of the North issued his well-known document suggesting ways and means still further to suppress Arab economic and political activities, and to keep Arabs a source of cheap labour serving Jewish capital in the country. [5] Arabs, according to the general policy, should not be allowed to work on Jewish farms unless it is absolutely necessary; Jewish settlements should not be allowed to rent surplus land to Arabs, and settlements which dare to violate this should be subjected to severe punishment.

These are some of the land problems which require immediate action before it is too late. An improvement must take place in the existing land policy, and encouragement of investment on these lands should be made in such a way as to enhance the income of the Arab citizen from agriculture according to his contribution to this branch in the labour force. In this way, the injustice of the existing situation where capital and know-how are concentrated in one community, and a labour force with limited means is concentrated in the other sector, may be avoided. The suppression of the Arab economy only serves to widen the gap between the Jewish and Arab communities, which in turn increases the political and economic instability in the country.


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Bakir Abu Kishk is Director of the Research Centre at Bir Zeit University. 


1 The exact amount of compensation is 65 percent of 1,560 IL/dunum for those farmers who have owned and operated the highest class of cultivable land previous to 1943; for those who have operated the land for


a shorter period, their share may only reach 20 percent of the above value. For average quality land the maximum was taken to be 65 percent of 780 IL under the same regulations as above.


2 The Mandate Village Statistics of 1945 show that the Arabs owned 89 percent of the cultivable land in Palestine at that time, and used all the known public land in the vicinity of their village. 


3 The statistics come from research done by myself and Dr. S. Jareisi, published as Housing Poverty among the Arab Community in Israel (Nazareth: Social Welfare Committee for the Arab Sector in Israel,


January 1977).


* With regard to the tables in this article, place-name spellings are those provided by the author - Ed. 


4 Israel Shahak, The Non-Jew in the Jewish State, p. 3.


5 Al Hamishmar, September 7, 1976.