Friday, December 21, 2007

The Uncultivated

During breaks in my dissertation writing and job interview preparation, I've been reading Lords of the Land, a book about the history of the Israeli settlement movement by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar. In the 1980's, a woman named Plia Albek developed the legal regime which authorized ongoing settlement projects using an old Ottoman law which was still on the Jordanian books during the Six Day War:
"Lands that (are) not in the possession of an individual, that is to say he cannot show a title deed, and have never been allocated to inhabitants of towns or villages, and are at a distance from a town or village such that the sound of the voice of a man who is at the edge of the locality can be heard there...such as rocky hills, wild fields and oak forests (these lands) are dead, and anyone who needs them may sow and cultivate this land on license from the authority, for no payment, and on condition that the right of ownership will remain in the hands of the sultan."

In this case, Israel's government takes the place of the sultan. The legal aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have never interested me that much simply because the laws are so obviously written and interpreted in response to social, economic, and political movements that it seems a bit like studying a war entirely through its weaponry. I found this interesting, however, because of the way it highlights the differing views of land ownership in the supralegal realm in which the conflict is actually fought.

On the one hand, you have an old Ottoman system where much of the land was seen as the personal possession of the sultan, which was later extended to the Ottoman government, and then to its successor states. Then you have the religious Zionist view within the settler movement that the land is Jewish because God said so, and because Jews have historically had an emotional connection with it based on history and culture. Opposing this today is the view that these lands are inherently Palestinian. Where does this come from? It's not just the idea that the Palestinian national movement is the local representative of Arab nationalism, but the very idea of a national movement that claims the land as belonging to a people collectively even where there is no government.

This is why, in historical terms, I don't buy the idea that the Zionist project was wrong simply because it involved Jews entering an Arab land, since it's not entirely clear that before the early 20th century people really thought of it that way. It was Ottoman land, sure, but the Ottoman Empire, while always a Muslim state, certainly, didn't start defining its internal community that way on an empire-wide basis until after the loss of the Balkan provinces in the late 19th century. More research obviously needs to be done on the exact interplay of these forces, but especially before World War I there was a lot more going on than a struggle between opposing nationalisms.

This is not, of course, that relevant to what I think should be done with the West Bank today. Palestinian nationalism is here now, there will have to be a state where the Palestinians can live as full citizens, and while in a vacuum I would say Jews have every right to live in Judea and Samaria, in the same vacuum I would say Palestinians have every right to live in Ramla and Jaffa. We don't live in that vacuum.

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