On Libertarianism and Land Ownership in Historic Palestine

If we approach the question of land ownership in historic Palestine by applying Libertarian principles, who were the legitimate owners? Jews or Arabs?

I recently debated Rafi Farber on the Tom Woods Show on the question of the legitimacy of Israel’s establishment. His position was that in 1948 Jews were the rightful owners of Palestine based on a claim of 2,000 years (read my answer to that claim here). He’s written a blog post titled “Top Ten Things That Piss Me Off About Anti Israel Libertarians“, the only one he mentions by name being me. His fourth item on the list is:

Libertarians hold that homesteading is the way one comes to own property, yet anti Israel libertarians like Jeremy Hammond can hold, only in the case of Israel, that it is legitimate to own UNhomesteaded land just because some statist body says that uncultivable land can be “owned”.

Land Ownership in Palestine

His attempt to characterize me as applying a doubles-standard falls flat. First note that he isn’t actually identifying anything I’ve said or written, just vaguely accusing me of applying a standard “only in the case of Israel”.

In fact, he is the one demonstrably doing so here.

So here Farber is saying that since 16,925,805 dunams of land in Palestine were classified as “uncultivable”, therefore it is land that could not be owned.

And he is saying that in all other cases besides the case of Israel, I, too, hold that land classified as “uncultivable” cannot be owned — a nonsensical assertion. Naturally, he cannot point to another case where I make such an argument to demonstrate that I hold the opposite “only in the case of Israel”.

More to the point, it’s instructive that here Farber asserts that land classified as “uncultivable” cannot be owned, yet in a recent paper he co-authored titled “The Legal Status of the State of Israel: A Libertarian Approach”, which was published in the Indonesian Journal of International Law, he in fact argued that “uncultivable” land could be owned — if the owners were Jews.

The context is that Farber, et al, claim in their paper that Palestine was “almost unpopulated” by Arabs until they arrived in waves of mass immigration to take advantage of the economic development of the Jews. This is a lie, which they attempt to by citing demonstrable hoaxes. I’ll write more on that in the future, but to stay on point here, in an attempt to further support their claim that Jews legitimately homesteaded most of the land they acquired during the Mandate period (as opposed to, i.e., purchasing land under feudalistic Ottoman land laws from absentee landlords and evicting the Arab tenants who actually lived on and worked the land), they quote a source as follows:

Most of the land purchased [by Jews] had not been cultivated previously because it was swampy, rocky, sandy or, for some other reason, regarded as uncultivable. This is supported by the findings of the Peel Commission Report (p. 242): ‘The Arab charge that the Jews have obtained too large a proportion of good land cannot be maintained. Much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamp and uncultivated when it was purchased … there was at the time at least of the earlier sales little evidence that the owners possessed either the resources or training needed to develop the land.’”

So here we see that Farber is arguing that land classified as “uncultivable” could indeed be owned — if the owners were Jews! So who is applying a double-standard here? (Hint: not me.)

Carrying Farber’s logic further, we can anticipate the response that the poor Arab peasants inhabiting the land couldn’t rightfully own any of this land classified as “uncultivable” simply by virtue of not having the means to develop it, whereas it ceased to be “uncultivable” under Jewish ownership since they had the capital and technological skills to do so.

Here’s what the Peel Commission Report (cited by their source, above) had to say about this thinking:

The Arab peasant has at present neither the capital nor the education necessary for intensive cultivation. The Jew has. But the lack of these two essential requisites does not justify the expropriation of the Arab to make room for the richer and more enterprising colonist, even though the Arab’s conservative methods, and in some cases his system of land tenure, may delay development.

I certainly agree. What’s more, here are Farber, et al, commenting on the same point:

We acknowledge that the wherewithal to develop land is irrelevant to legitimacy, from the (Rothbard’s and out) libertarian point of view. All that is necessary is well founded ownership, based on homesteading principles.

Hence we see that in his paper, Farber conceded that the land being classified as “uncultivable” did not mean that there could be no legitimate claim to ownership and that indeed such land could be homesteaded not only by Jews, but also by poor Arabs who lacked the means to develop but nevertheless lived on the land.

So, again, who is applying a double standard here? (Hint: still not me.)

Now, the source cited above by Farber, et al, is Land Ownership in Palestine, 1880-1948 by Moshe Aumann, page 120. We also find on that page that

Most of the land purchases involved large tracts belonging to absentee owners.

So according to their own source, most of the land classified as “uncultivable” was indeed previously under Arab ownership.

Now, Aumann’s purpose in claiming that most land purchased by Jews was previously uncultivated is to support his contention that such land purchases did not disenfranchise Palestine’s Arab inhabitants. And Farber, et al, cite Aumann for the same purpose. However, the claim that most of this land purchased from absentee owners fell within this classification as “uncultivable” is false.

Just on the face of it, the Peel Commission used the word “much” — not “most” — to describe the amount of land previously under Arab ownership that was so classified.

Moreover, turning to the Peel Commission Report page 239, we find that Aumann’s own source makes clear that the vast majority of the land purchased by Jews — 78 percent — was in fact considered part of the cultivable land area of Palestine:

Arabs hold 12,160,000 dunums of which 6,037,000 are classed as cultivable, and Jews 1,208,000 with 939,000 dunums of cultivable land.

Now, if we apply a Libertarian standard, we must reject the means by which most of this land came into the Jews’ possession, which was by exploiting the feudalistic Ottoman land laws and purchasing land from absentee landlords without regard for the rights of the Arab peasants who actually lived on and worked the land. We must also recognize that those who had actually homesteaded the land (i.e., those actually lived on and worked he land) were its rightful owners.

So, to conclude, we see that Farber asserts that, if it is Arab ownership of the land that is in question, land classified as “uncultivable” cannot have been owned, but if it is Jewish ownership in question, that same land can have been owned!

And he has the chutzpah to accuse me of applying a double standard!

Moreover, we can see that most of the land Farber, et al, claim was legitimately homesteaded by Jews was in fact under previous ownership by Arabs, and, further, that most of this land was indeed classified as “cultivable” and hence, even by his own double standard, able to be legitimately owned by Arabs. And, indeed, many Arab tenants were displaced from their land under these land purchases.

Finally, return to the table above, which comes from the Survey of Palestine prepared for the 1946 Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. Note that according to 1943 statistics, Jews owned 1,514,247 dunams out of a total land area for Palestine of 26,320,505 dunams. That is, Jews owned only 5.8 percent of the land.

Even by the time the Mandate ended and the Zionists proclaimed the existence of the state of Israel, the Jewish community owned only about 7 percent of the land in Palestine — the remaining 71 percent or so that became part of Israel having been acquired by force and the ethnic cleansing of most of the Arab population from their homes.

This is the truth Farber is attempting to obfuscate by falsely — and hypocritically — accusing me of applying a double standard.

As former Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan put it:

We came to this country which was already populated by Arabs, and we are establishing a Hebrew, that is a Jewish state here. In considerable areas of the country we bought the lands from the Arabs. Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because these geography books no longer exist; not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahalal arose in the place of Mahalul, Gevat—in the place of Jibta, Sarid—in the place of Haneifs, and Kefar Yehoshua—in the place of Tell Shaman. There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.

So much for the claim by Farber, et al, that “the Jews did not come in and destroy Arab towns and build over previously homesteaded territory. The fact is Jews for the most part homesteaded unoccupied areas.”

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