Mohammed Abu Yussef al-Affendi, a 67-year-old Palestinian refugee in the Dehaishe Refugee Camp, displays the original key and title deeds to the home his family owned when they fled their village of Deir Aban in 1948 when Palestine was ethnically cleansed. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
Ottoman land deed.
This Arabic-language contract (circa 1909) concerns the rental of properties purchased for Ahuzat Bayit.
Village of Amwas 1900-1920
A fellahin family group from Siloam, Palestine. Picture by Palestine Exploration Fund
Fellahin is the plural form for fellah
Fellah in Palestine, is a farmer who works the land in which they also own the title.
Fellahin was the term used throughout the Middle East in the Ottoman period and later to refer to villagers and farmers. Nur-eldeen Masalha translates it as "peasants," although Palestinian anthropologist Nasser Abufarha says that translation misrepresents Palestinian fellahin society, because traditional European usage refers to someone who does not own the land they farm, whereas the fellahin of Palestine own the land, and the means of production, together.
Palestinian Land Ownership
The majority of the lands in Palestine were the properties of the Palestinian rural population, the fellahin. Understanding the culture of the fellahin is key to understanding the system of land ownership in Palestine. Referring to the fellahin of Palestine as peasants, as they are often referred to, is an unfair misrepresentation of Palestinian society and culture.
A peasant in European culture is a farming worker with little or no land ownership. The fellahin of Palestine are rural farming communities with communal shared ownership of the land and own the means of cultivation.
The concept of the peasant did exist in the culture of the fellahin and the term applied to it is qatruz. The qatruz is a farming worker with little or no land ownership that has no possession of working animals. The qatruz would work for landowners for a share of the harvest. Although the concept of the peasant (qatruz) existed in Palestinian society, it was not widespread due to the communal nature of the culture of the fellahin.
To understand the land ownership system in the society of the fellahin, one needs to understand the concept of the feddan. There is widespread misconception that the feddan is a unit of measurement for an area of land. The feddan is a measurement of a share of land that varies in size from village to village and may vary from year to year, even within the same village.
Villages owned their land collectively by the village residents or by the hamoula (family). Physical features and traditional names of lands were used to describe the boundaries of a certain village land and were respected by neighboring villages. In the plowing and seeding season, lands were divided between village residents every fall based on ability to cultivate. Zalameh wa 'ammal (a man and a working animal) would get one feddan share. A man without 'ammal would get half a feddan. A man would get half a feddan for each additional working animal he owned that was available for work.This system was used by the villages for the distribution of ardh as-sahil (the lands of the fields) for cultivation.
The concept is still used today in some villages in the West Bank. In the village of Sanour between Nablus and Jenin, residents of the village have collective ownership of Marj Sanour (the Sanour Plains). The residents of Sanour divide the land among themselves every year based on manpower. With the introduction of tractors, the working animal is no longer counted.
The new measurement of share today is zalameh (a man), which is based on the man only. People get a zalameh, half a zalameh, or a quarter zalameh as their share today. In the mountains or the hillside, people had individual or family ownership of orchards or land with trees (ardh mushajjara). Ownership was based on planting and maintaining trees or by inheritance. Boundaries marked by the cactus trees or sinisleh (walls built by collecting stones and stacking them at the boundaries) were respected by everyone. Boundaries for grazing grounds for the semi-nomadic tribes were also respected out of tradition with reference to land names.
In 1858 the Ottoman Authority introduced the law of tabu to establish rights of land ownership. Landowners were instructed to have their property inscribed in the land register. The tabu was resisted by the fellahin. They saw a threat to their community in registering their land for two main reasons:
1) the cultivated fields were classified as ardh ameriyeh (the land of the emirate) and were taxed, so owners of registered fertile land were forced to pay tax on it;
2) data from the land register were used by the Turkish Army for the purpose of the draft. Owners of registered lands were often drafted to fight with the Turkish Army in Russia.
The Turkish Land Register was not able to document the state of land ownership in Palestine. People continued their traditional communal ownership of the land. This tradition continued with the exception of some families or individuals who took advantage of the loose manner in which the tabu registered lands. They registered large pieces of land that were not necessarily theirs in their names, especially those who held positions in government.
Under the British system, the Land Settlement Ordinance was introduced in 1928. Rights of ownership were confirmed only after the land survey was completed. The registration of land was to be in the names of specific individuals and not in the name of the village, the family, or the tribe. This was an attempt to break village or tribe solidarity and an effort to promote the capitalist system of private ownership and individualism. The British Land Settlement Ordinance was resisted by fellahin society mainly because it did not allow for their tradition of collective ownership. Individual ownership posed a threat to the power structure in the village social order. The village mukhtar and wujuh el-'alih (the notables of the family) and the Bedouin tribes' sheikhs took their power from this system of collective land ownership.
In addition to the practical reason mentioned above, the fellahin saw the land register as an insult to tradition. This system had been working for generations as an efficient and fair use and distribution of the land. The fellahin were also too proud to involve the government in the protection of their land. It has been said that when the land register arrived at the village of Al-silehal-harthiyeh, west of Jenin, to register their land, the reply by the mukhtar of the Jaradat family was "lesh insajilha, hay il-ardh u hay el-asayel fiha, khalli izalameh yiqareb alayha" (Why register it, this is the land and here are the Arabian horses on it. Let he who dares come near it). The Arabian horses are a symbol of power. The Jaradat family still cultivates their land today and does not have any form of deed or title to it.
At the time of the state of Israel cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and its success in taking control of the majority of Palestine, most of the lands in the rural areas were owned by the villages collectively and there was little individual land ownership in the countryside or for the members of the Bedouin tribes. This traditional system of ownership that existed for generations on the land was not recognized by Israel.
Furthermore in the process of the creation of the state of Israel, over 418 Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed. Bedouin semi-nomadic tribes were displaced and 104 Palestinian populated villages remained under Israeli control. This had a massive impact on the fellahin and their culture.