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‘They Stole Our Land’ vs. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem
Posted By David Meir-Levi
The cornerstone argument in the Arab narrative against Israel is that the Zionists in the 19th and early 20th centuries came to the Land of Israel and stole Arab land. This is a very simple assertion, easy to visualize, seemingly logical and amenable to a brief presentation: after all, Zionists did come from Europe to what was then Palestine, and the Arabs were already living there. So obviously when the Jews came they took Arab land.
Although there exists voluminous evidence to the contrary in Arab and Turkish and British sources indicating the exact opposite, it is difficult to present this contrary evidence and explain its importance in as brief and simple a manner as is done with the Arab assertion. There are too many variables: Arab demographics, Jewish demographics, Zionist agrarian reclamation technology, land purchases, crown land vs. privately owned land, absentee landlords, etc. This imbalance puts the advocate on behalf of Zionism and Israel at a disadvantage, even though the evidence supporting the Israeli narrative and contradicting the Arab narrative is vast and thoroughly vetted. For an excellent compilation and analysis of this evidence, see Kenneth Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939 (University of North Carolina Press, 1984, reviewed here and here).
However, there is one testimony from an unimpeachable source stating that the Jews stole no land, but rather bought land in vast quantities from willing sellers who were the legal owners of the land that was sold. This unimpeachable source is so unarguably innocent of any pro-Israel or pro-Jewish or pro-Zionist sentiment that there can be no rational question regarding the veracity of his testimony. That source is the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the Hajj Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini (1895 to 1974).
El-Husseini was a key figure in the creation of the concept of Palestinian nationalism and the most high-profile leader of violent and incendiary opposition to Zionism from the 1920’s onward, until the creation of the State of Israel rendered his leadership irrelevant. He used his powerful political and religious position as the Grand Mufti (supreme religious leader) of Jerusalem to promote Arab nationalism, incite violence against the British, and preach Jew-hatred and the annihilation of the Jews of British Mandatory Palestine. He was an ally of Hitler before and during World War II, recruited Muslim legions in Bosnia to serve on the eastern front in Hitler’s Weirmacht, and developed full-blown plans for concentration camps in Palestine in imitation of the German “final solution.” During the 1948 Israel-Arab war, he represented the Arab Higher Committee and rejected the UN partition plan of November 29, 1947 (for a brief biography of el-Husseini and a list of book-length biographies see here).
As the highest official representative of the Arabs of British Mandatory Palestine, el-Husseini was interviewed by the Palestine Royal Commission led by Earl William Robert Wellesley Peel, hence known as the Peel Commission.
The Peel Commission was a Royal Commission of inquiry sent to British Mandatory Palestine in November of 1936 for the purpose of examining and reporting on the causes of the Arab-Jewish violence in Palestine and suggesting possible resolutions. After months of research and interviews of major Zionist and Arab leaders, the Commission published its report in July of 1937. The report recommended a partition plan for separate Arab and Jewish states; but this plan was never implemented, although the Zionists accepted it, due to vociferous Arab opposition.
The Peel Commission report had some very salutary things to say about the Zionists and their impact on the land and on Arab society and economy. One of the most important for debunking Arab anti-Israel accusations is:
“The Arab population shows a remarkable increase since 1920, and it has had some share in the increased prosperity of Palestine. Many Arab landowners have benefited from the sale of land and the profitable investment of the purchase money. The fellaheen (Arab peasants) are better off on the whole than they were in 1920. This Arab progress has been partly due to the import of Jewish capital into Palestine and other factors associated with the growth of the (Jewish) National Home. In particular, the Arabs have benefited from social services which could not have been provided on the existing scale without the revenue obtained from the Jews…Much of the land (being farmed by the Jews) now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamp and uncultivated when it was purchased…There was at the time of the earlier sales little evidence that the owners possessed either the resources or training needed to develop the land.” The land shortage decried by the Arabs “…was due less to the amount of land acquired by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population.” (Chapter V in the report).
El-Husseini’s interview on January 12, 1937 was preserved in the Commission’s notes and referenced, although not published, in the full report. It has been summarized by a number of scholars, including Kenneth Stein, The Land Question in Palestine 1917-1939 (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2009) and Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to our Time (Alfred A. Knopf, 1976); and a detailed analysis with quotations from the interview can be found in Aaron Kleiman’s The Palestine Royal Commission, 1937 (Garland Publications, 1987, pp. 298ff.).
The selections from the interview presented below can be found on line here and here. Sir Laurie Hammond, a member of the Peel Commission, interviewed the Mufti about his insistence to the Commission that Zionists were stealing Arab land and driving peasants into homelessness. He spoke through an interpreter.
SIR L. HAMMOND: Would you give me the figures again for the land. I want to know how much land was held by the Jews before the Occupation.
MUFTI: At the time of the Occupation the Jews held about 100,000 dunams.
SIR L. HAMMOND: What year?
MUFTI: At the date of the British Occupation.
SIR L. HAMMOND: And now they hold how much?
MUFTI: About 1,500,000 dunams: 1,200,000 dunams already registered in the name of the Jewish holders, but there are 300,000 dunams which are the subject of written agreements, and which have not yet been registered in the Land Registry. That does not, of course, include the land which was assigned, about 100,000 dunams.
SIR L. HAMMOND: What 100,000 dunams was assigned? Is that not included in, the 1,200,000 dunams? The point is this. He says that in 1920 at the time of the Occupation, the Jews only held 100,000 dunams, is that so? I asked the figures from the Land Registry, how much land the Jews owned at the time of the Occupation. Would he be surprised to hear that the figure is not 100,000 but 650,000 dunams?
MUFTI: It may be that the difference was due to the fact that many lands were bought by contract which were not registered.
SIR L. HAMMOND: There is a lot of difference between 100,000 and 650,000.
MUFTI: In one case they sold about 400,000 dunams in one lot.
SIR L. HAMMOND: Who? An Arab?
MUFTI: Sarsuk. An Arab of Beyrouth.
SIR L. HAMMOND: His Eminence gave us a picture of the Arabs being evicted from their land and villages being wiped out. What I want to know is, did the Government of Palestine, the Administration, acquire the land and then hand it over to the Jews?
MUFTI: In most cases the lands were acquired.
SIR L. HAMMOND: I mean forcibly acquired-compulsory acquisition as land would be acquired for public purposes?
MUFTI: No, it wasn’t.
SIR L. HAMMOND: Not taken by compulsory acquisition?
SIR L. HAMMOND: But these lands amounting to some 700,000 dunams were actually sold?
MUFTI: Yes, they were sold, but the country was placed in such conditions as would facilitate such purchases.
SIR I HAMMOND: I don’t quite understand what you mean by that. They were sold. Who sold them?
MUFTI: Land owners.
SIR I HAMMOND: Arabs?
MUFTI: In most cases they were Arabs.
SIR L. HAMMOND: Was any compulsion put on them to sell? If so, by whom?
MUFTI: As in other countries, there are people who by force of circumstances, economic forces, sell their land.
SIR L. HAMMOND: Is that all he said?
MUFTI: A large part of these lands belong to absentee landlords who sold the land over the heads of their tenants, who were forcibly evicted. The majority of these landlords were absentees who sold their land over the heads of their tenants. Not Palestinians but Lebanese.
SIR L. HAMMOND: Is His Eminence in a position to give the Commission a list of the people, the Arabs who have sold lands, apart from those absentee landlords?
MUFTI: It is possible for me to supply such a list.
SIR L. HAMMOND: I ask him now this: does he think that as compared with the standard of life under the Turkish rule the position of the fellahin in the villages has improved or deteriorated?
MUFTI: Generally speaking I think their situation has got worse.
SIR L. HAMMOND: Is taxation heavier or lighter?
MUFTI: Taxation was much heavier then, but now there are additional burdens.
SIR L. HAMMOND: I am asking him if it is now, the present day, as we are sitting together here, is it a fact that the fellahin has a much lighter tax than he had under the Turkish rule? Or is he taxed more heavily?
MUFTI: The present taxation is lighter, but the Arabs nevertheless have now other taxation, for instance, customs.
LORD PEEL: And the condition of the fellahin as regards, for example, education. Are there more schools or fewer schools now?
MUFTI: They may have more schools, comparatively, but at the same time there has been an increase in their numbers.
The Hajj Amin el-Husseini, the intractable opponent of Zionism, a Jew-hater on par with Hitler, admitted under questioning that no Arab land was stolen; no Arabs were wiped out, no villages destroyed. Rather, the Jews bought hundreds of thousands of dunam (about ¼ of an acre) of land from willing sellers, often from absentee Arab landowners. Moreover, thanks in part to the Zionists and the British, the quality of life for Palestine’s Arab peasantry was vastly improved, with less taxation, more schools, and an increase in Arab population.
The next time someone spouts the Arab line about how Zionists came and stole Arab land and drove Arabs out, just quote the Mufti.