On the question of land in Palestine

Adam Smith, ISL – RCIT section in Israel/Occupied Palestine, 09.02.2024

The state of Israel holds lands via three different entities, directly via the Bureau of Israeli lands, or through two other entities, called the Bureau of Development(to bypass legal problems about holding the lands of Palestinian refugees declared “absent”) and the Jewish National Fund(as JNF charter stipulates that it cannot lease or sell land to Arab, something the state cannot do while holding the land directly). The state holds around 93% of all lands in Israel – however in practice things are more complicated.

Most of the land came to the state via Ottoman laws, particularly the land law of 1858, even if it no longer applies today in the 48’ areas(but it still does in the West Bank).

The five main categories are

  1. Mulak(from the word ownership) – private lands in urban areas or rural centers
  2. Wekaf(from the word bequeathed) – private lands for religious or public purposes
  3. Matruka(from the word to leave) – public land for private use by villagers
  4. Miri(from emir-of the state) – public land for agriculture use. Can be leased by the government for limited time
  5. Mawaat(from the word dead) – public land that is not part of a village and cannot be used for agriculture 

Most of the land belongs to the last two categories(public land).

It was assumed that any person had works Miri land for more than 10 years, had received permission to do so, and in the later years of the Ottoman and British empires, had the ability to buy and convert it into freehold property(and conversely, if it was worked on, it returned back to the state). This was no longer possible after 1948, therefore the vast majority of private land today is from land that was private before 1948, mainly in Arab villages and in jewish villages funded by private ventures(like Zikron Yaakonv by the Rotchilds), as opposed to jewish villages created by the JNF. 

Some of the Miri property that was not worked on, became Mawaat, and returned to the state. This part of the 1858 law still applies in the West Bank and is used to dispossess Palestinains this way, as well as in the Negev before 1948. In the 1930’s Zionist bought land from absentee landlords in Lebanon, selling out the fellahin on their lands – we can see clearly how capitalism goes hand in hand with Zionism and imperialism. Until 1921 it was possible to revive Mawaat land. The other main change during the British Mandate was an extensive land survey of existing owners. Ironically, the well kept record of ownership in East Jerusalem(of private jewish properties) by the Jordanians until 1967 is used to expel Palestinians today. But the British Mandate was not able to resolve the national or land question.

Even though it may seem like the state owns most of the land, the reality is that around half of all new constructions in Israel are build on private land, both because the land value is higher Tel Aviv(incentivizing construction there), and there is more private land in Tel Aviv because of historical process, and private land allows for faster building constructions – the Bureau of Land Management is hesitant to release new land for constructions, both to preserve land for future use, but in reality to keep prices high as it is a cash cow for the government, as well as encourage the Jewish population to move to the settlements – during the Olmert government it was a official policy not to build in the center areas.

Also, not all public land is available for residential use-a lot it is parks, military bases, etc. In addition, in practice, the Bureau has handed out leases for many parts of the land for 96 or even 196 years that are paid fully upfront, effectively privatizing them – another clear sign is that it allows Kibbutzim and other organizations to build large structures on the land, something that is clearly irreversible. Even when land is leased for temporary purposes and time limit, the Bureau has trouble recovering it. The main limit is the prohibition of conversion of agricultural use into residential buildings.

Another obstacle are the local planning committees which need to approve any new building plan, which takes a minimum of at least 1-1.5 years. The processes of the committees are highly kafkaesque, with different requirements, and the needed response can take an unknown time to respond, after which different requirements appear. The committee has wide discretion in approving or rejecting new plans, and the reasons are not always clear. This gives rise to corruption as the approval process can be used as leverage – if you pay, it will be fast tracked, and if you don’t have the right connections, then you will be stuck.

The other reason (other then wanting bribes) why local committees are not keen on approving new plans, is that the residential municipal taxes that pay for local services are deficient, e.g. they bring less money than the comparable business municipal taxes, and the residential municipal taxes do not cover the services needed for each new resident. This also makes the municipalities highly dependent on the central government, especially the poorer ones.

Some other factors are: the fact that most of the population owns a house – so it does not want to see its value fall – and this is doubly true for people with mortgages. There is also a process for rebuilding, by destroying low rise buildings and replacing them with high rises, but this won’t happen if the land values are not high enough, or it is not possible to be built high enough. This is why suburbanization is so difficult to overcome. A new building will require a lot of new car spaces, which will make it less dense and less profitable. And a car is required as the shopping malls and stores that are discounted and open on Saturday have moved outside the city – here we see the link between religious coercion and capitalism.

In short, as the population grows, not enough houses are being built. And the rising interest rates, as well as shortage of construction workers is not going to be over soon. This means that the system of private land, as well state capitalism, which maximizes profit, does not lead to the maximum number of houses being built(a villa can sell for more than a low rise building, but house much less) – it has failed, and is incentivized to keep prices high. Zionism, which has expropriated the Palestinians, is now also beginning to eat the land of the Jewish working class.

For Palestine red and free from the river to the sea!

For agrarian land reform – for right of return and land to the Palestinians!

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