Notes on Samih K Farsoun and Christina E Zacharia’s Palestine and the Palestinians


The modern history of Palestine before al-Nakbah—Palestine’s catastrophic destruction—begins around 1800 and ends in 1948. It is divided into two main historical periods: The first covers the nineteenth century and World War I (1914-1917), and the second begins after WW1 with the establishment of the British Mandate of Palestine under the auspices of the League of Nations. The transforming forces of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries affected the social history of the entire Arab Mashreq and the whole Middle East. Their particular configuration in Palestine, however, had consequences far more devastating for the indigenous Arab population of the country. Together, these powerful forces may be summarized in one phrase: European interventionism.

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This process of intervention started slowly in the early nineteenth century but intensified and accelerated in the second half of the century after the conclusion of the Crimean War (1853-1856), which hastened the opening of the Ottoman Empire, especially Palestine.

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Over the 150 years, economic activity and productivity in trade, agriculture, industry, and services expanded substantially but became more closely linked to and dependent on Europe, especially Britain, the emergent hegemonic colonial power. European interventionism accelerated all the indigenous processes in place since the eighteenth century and propelled Palestine from a largely subsistence and semifeudal, tribute-paying mode of existence into a market economy and finally, before its destruction, into dependent capitalist underdevelopment. Most significant, it created the conditions for the destruction of Palestine and the dispossession of its people in 1948, the year of al-Nakbah.

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All the hill country in Palestine and other mountainous regions of the eastern Mediterranean were, up to the nineteenth century, characterized by a highly autonomous peasantry, resistant to externally imposed authority, organized in patrilineal clans, surviving by farming small plots of land, and living by norms, customs, and values anchored in their Islamic civilization (except of course for the native Christian communities). Peasants were typically armed, and the Ottoman authorities did not have a direct military presence in or control over the hill regions. They relied on indigenous leaders, often rural shaykhs, for control, administration, and taxation until the centralization drive of the mid-nineteenth century. Thus the hilly regions of Palestine collectively developed a unique and distinctive political economy and social formation: the musha‘a land use system and the hamula structure of social organization.

The land-equalizing musha‘a village had four basic features:

“The cultivated land was divided into several sections, each of which was fairly homogeneous with regard to soil type, terrain, access from the village and other advantages [in other word, equalization was according to quality, not value]. Each share was entitled to an equal portion of the common cultivated land as a whole, and of each of those sections. Finally, all of the common arable land was periodically redistributed, usually by lot in proportion to the number of shares held by each titleholder.”

Of course each of these features was subject to variation. By the nineteenth century, however; redistribution progressively ceased.

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Further, the coownership in the musha‘a system did not contradict the 1858 reformative
Ottoman land codes, nor was its dissolution required. The musha‘a system
provided the peasantry with subsistence and a surplus with which to pay
taxes. Its slow change in the modem era of exchange or market economy
was due to the lack of cash, which became available only as the peasant
earnings increased over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Of course cash was available to the peasant patrons and protectors—the
shaykhs and notables—who were in good positions to acquire such land.

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When feuds and conflicts emerged within or among the hamulas or clans (groups of hamulas), district officials or urban notables (wujaha and a‘yan) with tax-farming interests would exploit such divisions and manipulate the hamula shaykhs to their advantage.

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The Palestinian rural political economy was not isolated. Rural surplus not only was appropriated as tax by the Ottomans and local leaders but also was part of a larger economic system of trade, exchange, or barter with the nearby city or commercial center. Besides being commercial centers, the cities of nineteenth-century Palestine were also loci of manufacture, crafts and artisanal work, administrative offices, and religious and judicial activity. They were populated by Ottoman officials (Turkish and local Arab), local merchants, craftsmen, artisans, shopkeepers, innkeepers, laborers, ‘ulama (theologians), and qadis (judges) of the sharPa courts. In the city of Nablus, textile, soap, and other manufactures gave the city a central role in Palestine as the Ottoman period progressed. Artisans and craftsmen were organized into guildlike groups that regulated the process of production, pricing, and standards. The political economy of the Nablus included bedouins who supplied it with an important resource, qilli, an alkaline powder made from burning certain desert plants and used in the production of soap. Doumani estimates that the population of Nablus increased from 4,000 or 5,000 in the late sixteenth century to 20,000 by the midnineteenth century.8 Although soap manufacturing made Nablus famous in the nineteenth century, soap was exported throughout the region already by the end of the eighteenth century.

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While the economic conditions of Palestine during the first three centuries of Ottoman rule vacillated between the extremes of depression and prosperity, the social and political structures remained essentially unchanged. Ottoman functionaries came and went as officials, but no Turkish colonization or Turkification took place. Palestine’s Arab character remained intact, and many of the ethnic minorities and remnants of invaders became Arabized over the years. The Ottoman Turkish administrators themselves were always a tiny numerical minority who relied heavily in their bureaucratic apparatuses on local Arabs, who typically were their coreligionists. With respect to the Christian and the tiny Jewish minorities in Palestine, the Ottomans abided by the old covenant of the caliph ‘Umai^ the second successor after the Prophet Muhammad, and formalized it into the millet (sectarian) system. The social (including family) and religious affairs and courts of the “People of the Book,” the Christians and Jews, were completely autonomous, though they had to pay a poll tax. A chief cleric of each sect (millet) was assigned to represent the sect before the Sublime Porte in Istanbul.

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As the central Ottoman authorities weakened in the nineteenth century, European states extended their protection to the local Arab Christians and other minorities. France claimed protection over all the Catholics—eastern and western—of the Ottoman domains. Eastern Catholic ranks had swelled as the Maronite church of Mount Lebanon united with Rome and as Orthodox churches splintered, some of these factions uniting with Rome as well. These sects became known as the Uniate churches. Not to be outdone, imperial Russia claimed protection over all the Orthodox churches. The British joined the trend by claiming protection over the tiny minorities of Jews, the Druze (a unique, independent splinter sect from Shi‘a Ismailism), and the newly recruited local Protestants. The European claims of protection emerged as one of the most powerful forms of leverage on the weakened Ottoman Empire. European economic, political, and cultural intervention in Ottoman Palestine and the Arab Mashreq became the overwhelming force that shaped the economic, social, cultural, and political history of Palestine and the region ever since.

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On the eve of World War I, the Palestinian Arabs were on the verge of coalescing as a nation. But Palestinian consciousness did not yet transform itself into an allPalestinian, nationalist movement or develop an independent, centralized political organization. The Palestine Arabs were thus unable to act decisively on their own behalf either against the Ottoman Turks before WWI or, as we see in Chapter 3, against the British authorities during the mandate period between the two world wars.

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Key Terms







Pages 37-48 examine the privatization of lands and conditions of possibility for early Zionist migration into Palestine.

Pages 54- examine the emergence of Arab and Palestinian nationalism

Page 57 exampines PAlestinian Response to Pre-WW1 Jewish Colonization:

Jewish agricultural land settlement in Ottoman Palestine went through two broad phases. The first (1870-1900) was unsystematic and dependent on the purchase of land and direct financial support of wealthy European Jews. Most notably, the French Jewish banker Baron Edmund de Rothschild purchased land for seven settlements, the earliest of which were Migve Yisra’el (1870) and Petah Tiqva (1878) south and east of Jaffa, respectively. Unorganized settlements between 1876 and 1900 numbered twenty-two, with a land area of 167,073 dunums. The second phase of organized settlements began when Rothschild turned over control and financing of the settlements to the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA). This came after the establishment of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Between 1900 and 1914, twenty-five settlements were established with a land area of 163,984 dunums.

Spontaneous and intermittent Jewish settlement activity became systematic and expansive with the formal launching of the Zionist movement. Although early Palestinian reaction to Jewish settlement and land purchases was localized and impulsive, it became more conscious, political, and sustained with the second and later phases. The early responses were attacks by peasants and bedouins who were shut off from their communal or grazing land by Jewish settler-colonists.105 For example, at the end of the century the ICA, with the forceful intervention of the Ottoman troops, was able to expel the peasants from and take control of more than 60,000 dunums of land in the Tabariyya area. This and another case, in ‘Afula, generated a great deal of newspaper coverage and agitation warning of the threat of dispossession by Zionism.

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