Agricultural loans

One thing that land titling projects make a big deal about is credit. If you don't have title, the thinking goes, you cannot use your land as collateral for bank loans. 

Apparently there was a mechanism for dealing with this in the 1960s. Landowners whose land had not yet been settled could obtain loads through a mechanism called a linked guarantee (kafala mutasalsala). I don't know if this the best translation of the term, or if there is something more comparable in English that I am oblivious to, but idea was that this loan guarantee brought together sources of authority in the village (the elders), existing documentation (records of tax payments), and not less than 5 different landowners, to issue small, year-long agricultural loans. It seems like the idea was, rather than try to impose new forms of regulation on the villages, to conscript existing sources of authority in order to turn untitled land into secure collateral; presumably, individuals would police another in case of non-payment.

I have no idea how this worked out, or if it was implemented at any sort of scale. It does seem some people were applying for these sorts of loans though, because notice #7 complains that the forms are being filled out incorrectly. Regulations beget regulations, and the notice goes on to include instructions for employees of Agricultural Credit Corporation branches to oversee the people who are filling out these requests and explain to them not to lie and only request loans for actual agricultural purposes. I imagine that this did not go well.

But there was another problem: disciplining the poor is tough when everyone who is supposed to be doing the disciplining is cutting work. Notice #12, in passive-aggressive passive voice that seems to be the preferred mode of communication by middle management everywhere, reads as follows: 

“It has been noted that some employees of the Corporation are leaving their work centers during their official shifts without asking for permission from their directors. Please, everyone observe their shifts carefully, and whoever leaves his work station without permission from me or from the general director of the Corporation at headquarters of the Corporation, or from his director directly in the branches, will subject himself to disciplinary procedures."

Israel State Archives, MGA 38/14

An executive speaks his mind

I am still trying to write a chapter on real estate capital and land defense, so I’m going through all these old interviews with Ramallah businessmen. Reading through some of them reminds me of this passage in Slouching Towards Bethlehem in which Joan Didion is reflecting on interviews. She writes: “I am bad at interviewing people […] My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” (Incidentally, this passage also always makes me feel better about doing bad interviews.) 

In 2013, when this whole project was just starting to take shape, I had some idea that I wanted to research Palestinian capitalism. It seemed the most obvious place to start would be to hang out with some capitalists. So I went and bought some dress shirts and pants, a belt that matched the color of my shoes, and some new glasses to blend in. Then, for the better part of the summer, I spent my time wandering in and out of air-conditioned offices in Ramallah.

The most memorable encounter that summer was with an executive at a pretty big Palestinian insurance company. I had been trying to meet him for awhile to talk about this weird kind of property insurance they were offering, and after a number of visits I was finally granted an audience. We sat down, and I asked him about the policy. "What kind of service does it provide, how does it protect property?” I asked. I waited for some packaged answer, something about how their company is building the Palestinian economy and fighting the occupation and doing the Lord’s work. “Its like flight insurance," he said. Given that I am unfamiliar with almost everything I choose to research, I told him that I had no idea what that meant. “OK, flight insurance," he said, "is just a way for insurance companies to make money. Not only are there a ton of situations that it doesn’t cover, but its also usually possible for the buyer of the ticket to change it himself. Flight insurance works because people don’t know how the system works. We make money because we have the money and know the legal system, and other people don’t. We just sue everyone, and we can sit through long lawsuits." 

This candor was not what was I was expecting, but it was definitely what I was wanting. And then he kept going, about how “our government is retarded” and how dealing with the Palestinian Authority was like “working with a bunch of apes.” At a certain point, I couldn’t remember my questions because I had to concentrate on not letting my mouth hang open. Then the power cut and his computer shut down, and he exploded about all the "fucking people” that live there and can do nothing right. 

I remember leaving that office elated. I loved the directness that accompanies power and the conviction that you’re the smartest guy in the room. I loved it when these guys trusted me, and it always felt OK taking advantage of that trust. But later, when I abandoned the Ramallah businessmen (it turns out they are really not that interesting) and began spending time with other kinds of people, it was different. Because during fieldwork it is really rare, I think, for it to be in someone’s best interest to talk to you. You’re looking for contradictions, conflicts, tensions, the things that people don’t always really want to share. And when people – especially people that you feel some solidarity or empathy with, some of whom may even be friends – choose to reveal something, or when the things you’re hoping to find explode out into the open when you happen to be in the vicinity, it doesn’t feel great, even though its what you’re there for. Because you know that one way or another, even the people you care about, you’re probably going to sell them out.  

Sheep wars

During the 1950s and 1960s, West Bankers owned significant numbers of livestock. Sheep, goats, and other such creatures are not very good at respecting private property, and it seems that shepherds sometimes pretended not to notice that their flocks were gobbling up someone's newly planted trees or laying waste to their vines. There was a crop protection law (صيانة المزروعات والغارس), which seems to have had been on the books since 1937, that basically provides a mechanism through which landowners could lodge complaints, request inspections, and get the state to force the shepherd to pay compensation. The law also seems to have had a provision that, if the owner of the animals could not be identified, then the entire neighboring community would be held responsible, which would lead to some pretty silly things, like the guy from Ramallah who basically sued every shepherd in Beituna. 

There are a few years of these complaints in the ISA, and they are fascinating. The fights are sometimes between families and neighbors (and often end with the offended party settling the issue and withdrawing the complaint), but there are a ton lodged by villages against Bedouin shepherds as well, usually with the goal of expelling them from village lands. The complaints would involve a whole host of people and institutions: the mukhtar of the village, an agricultural inspector who would have to come and check the damage, the police who would interview witnesses, and sometimes the courts, if the offending party refused to pay. 

My favorite one of these is from Beit Hanina, because we get the whole thing: the complaint, the inspection, and the witness statements. The police statements are strange documents and are often a transcription, or at least an approximation, of what the witness is saying, dialect and all. Sometimes the handwriting is terrible, but they are usually great documents because of the little details, they contain. 

'Ali Taleb, who worked as the watchman (natour) in Beit Hanina, reports seeing the a guy trespassing on his land. He tells the police that his name is 'Ali Taleb "from Beni Hasan and lives in Beit Hanina". He says that he saw about 100 sheep (gives the colors) inside the land (he gives the location). Then, he reports the conversation, which seems kind of typical: 'I went over to him and asked him what he was doing, he got mad, I told him he had to take his sheep and go, etc.' And then there is this strange detail: 'He told me: "I respect you because you aren't from Beit Hanina. If you were, I would break your head." After which he continues the report as normal: 'I went to a guy how was there, I told him to go tell the landowner, the shepherd left in the direction of Bir Nabala, I went to the landowner and told him about what happened'.

The shepherd, obviously, doesn't include this little detail in his statement.


In the early 1960s, heavy rains led to flooding, landslides, and other such things that damaged crops. For whatever reason, the village of Beit Fajjar (outside of Bethlehem) had a landslide that damaged almost everyone's land. It took a few years for the Jordanian government to do the valuation and actually deliver compensation, and the lists below are the names of each person that was to be compensated, how much they were to be paid, and their signatures that indicated, presumably, that they got what they were owed.

What struck me about this list was how varied the signatures are. There are the class markers, from the people who are illiterate, to those whose handwriting is practiced, to those who can write but whose jerky script betrays a discomfort with the pen. And then there are those who chose, or had to, sign in English. There is even one signature that looks like some sort of Cyrillic script. I think my favorite is the second English signature on the third page. It starts off so well, traveling straight along the line, and then halfway through the last name it just kind of veers off and crashes into a row and column where it doesn't belong. 


I came across a lot of these petitions in the archives, dealing with everything from pleas for tax relief to expressions of support for the appointment of a particular mukhtar. The Arabic word for 'petition' ('arida) comes from the same root as the word 'wide' ('arid), and boy did these guys take both seriously. The petitions are always the same: horizontal composition with anywhere from a dozen to more than fifty thumb prints at the bottom. Sometimes they consist of multiple pages taped together. The show of force that they perform – I can just imagine one of these unrolling off a bureaucrats desk and onto the floor – is really inseparable from their materiality.

This particular petition is also pretty fascinating. There was a drought in 1963, and it seems to have hit the fruit farms around Jericho pretty hard. Jericho agriculture is rain-fed, and this petition details the multiple sources of water that a certain group of people depend on: the UN supplies of water to the camps; the municipality that supplies homes, hotels and workshops; and cisterns from some urban project. These sorts of files go to show that the kinds of class relations and agrarian politics in the Valley – which depended on irrigation, higher concentrations of financial investment, and waged harvesting – were (and are) very different than what was taking shape in the highlands of the West Bank. 

Israel State Archives, MGA 39/11.

Israel State Archives, MGA 39/11.

Bugs in wartime

From 1948 - 1967, the city of Jerusalem was divided. Jordan and Israel were officially at war. Apparently though, both the Jordanians and the Israelis were also at war with the bug infestations of Jerusalem's pine trees and at times cooperated to make sure they didn't spread. This document, dated from 1961 and part of a slightly longer correspondence, details how that went. On April 25, at 10 o'clock in the morning. four Jordanians met two of their counterparts from "the other side". The "other side" informed the Jordanians that it was importing a new, under-development pesticide, and they would let them know how it worked. They also asked the Jordanians for information about the insects in their forests so they could do tests and share the results with Jordanian agricultural advisors.

Israel State Archives, MGA 39/9

Israel State Archives, MGA 39/9

Renting trucks

In which the company that is supposed to provide trucks for wheat distribution completely ignores the Jordanian government. 

To paraphrase: "You keep telling us on the phone that the trucks are coming. But we are here and there are no trucks."

Israel State Archives, MGA 39/1

Israel State Archives, MGA 39/1

Old people have better things to do than talk to me

During fieldwork, I always dreaded doing interviews with elderly people. A good interview happens when you manage to draw someone out, allow them to (quickly) feel comfortable talking, and  hope that they are interested in the story they are telling. Only then will someone provide details that you could not have foreseen asking about.

Doing this with very old people, for me, seemed next to impossible. First, older people were always seemed far more suspicious of me. And then, if they weren't, they often didn't understand what I wanted; for them, most of my questions were so painfully obvious that they did not warrant more than a few words. Throw the deafness that afflicts those in their 80s into the mix, and well, there it is.

Of course, when I would go to a new place and explain my research, everyone always thought of the oldest people in the village I could talk to. Without fail. It sort of made sense: I wanted to learn about agriculture and land ownership from the 1950s onward, and in theory these old men were alive for the whole period I was interested in. So off we would go, often unannounced, and often when I was woefully underprepared for an interview that I would probably would have bombed even if I had been prepared. 

Going back through my notes, the best/worst one happened early on, in November of 2015. I was with a young guy - a college student in his last year - who at the behest of his father (we had friends in common) was helping me make introductions in his village. He was a good sport about it, and a few of his friends with nothing else to do that afternoon, also came along. We show up unannounced at the shop of Abu Qasem, a man who I think was in his late 80s, perhaps had hit the 90s. He has a small shop where he's selling vegetables. It was an old stone building and dark, and while I don't think there was central electricity, I think there was a TV on. Anyways, we all sit down and the boys explain who I am, turn to me, and are like: OK, go ahead and ask him whatever you want. Here is how the interview went:

"How did people make money in the 1950s? What was the main source of livelihood?"

"They grew things." 

"And what sorts of crops did they grow?"


"And, um, how did they grow it?"

"With a donkey and a plow." 

It was painful. And then I ask about 1967. The narrative here usually is that after the occupation, people quit farming and went to work as a wage labor in Israel, neglecting the land. But Abu Qasem comes up and says, in so many words:

"The problem with 1967 was that afterwards, the women and children stopped listening to men." 

Wait, what? I ask him to elaborate. The guys are probably suppressing smiles at this point, but what do I know.

And then he launches into this incredibly detailed story about his friend's wife which ends with him seeing her in the living room or something. He intended it to deliver some sort of moral lesson (directed at the young guys? Me? All of us?) but the guys with me can't hold it together. The giggles they were holding back turn into laughter. This doesn't go over well.

"After 1967, the world fell apart. Now the women are in charge and (turning his gaze upon the youth, thankfully not me) there are no men left today." 

At this point they are cracking up. I'm still sitting there trying to figure out how on earth this all went south so quickly when Abu Qasem stands up. The adhan is going off, and he needs to go and pray.

Two stories about working in Israel

I'm going through interviews and observations I have about a cluster of villages between Ramallah and Salfit. My primary interest is in the creation of land markets in these areas. However, I also spent a lot of time talking to people about where they worked. Many young men - if they are lucky - find jobs in Israel or the settlements. 

Both of these conversations are from 2013. The first was with one the younger sons of a father I was staying with. He was back from work, and his face was terribly sunburned as a result of working paving streets during the summer. From my fieldnotes:

He has worked there for three months, previously worked as a laborer in Ramallah, where he learned to work with glass and metal. Not happy with it there, seems mostly because the pay was terrible. Now he works in Jerusalem for 150 NIS a day for a company. Sneaks in through Qalandiya, in a big private car. 200 NIS for the ride, someone arranges things with the soldiers, pays them off. It doesn’t always work, he says.

He works all around Israel, but sleeps in Jerusalem. His coworkers are also Palestinians. Jerusalem is the most dangerous spot to work, because of the high police presence: you can’t work in hotels or restaurants without a permit, because of the high possibility of getting your ID checked. He worries about the checks. When you are Arab, young, walking along Yaffa St. or somewhere else it is quite possible you’ll get stopped and checked for ID. He stays for big chunks of time inside, working in different cities, and then having a vacation a few days back home. He has been doing this three months.

When we talked this morning, he was heading back down to Jerusalem. It’s ours, he said, and nothing can stop us from entering. He also talked about how things used to be, about how when he was little they used to be able to go to the beach, to come and go as they pleased.

He has been arrested twice, related to his involvement in the al-Nabi Saleh demonstrations. Not held long, just for a interrogation. But enough to mean that he can’t get a permit, and is barred from working in the settlements (not that he wanted to, but lots of young men work in the settlements). He said he used to go a lot to the demonstrations, was friends with Bassem, was there when he was killed. But after all of this, he said, he wondered what the point was.

There were two things. The first is that Israel is huge. Its not going anywhere. The second is that there is no support from the PA. So what are they supposed to do? I just want peace, he said, and I’ll take anything. He said that before he started to work in Israel, he imagined it to be something small and tiny. He was truly shocked about how developed, entrenched it is. He spoke more on the PA. If it is unable to provide jobs to keep people out of the settlements, what is it good for? It needs to build factories, to produce things.

Jerusalemites, he said, they don’t really like to do the heavy work that the guys from the West Bank come in to do. They see it as below them, prefer lighter work. Not all, but most. But they treat each other well, with respect. People often take advantage of the workers, don’t pay them, etc. He found a good boss through people he knows, someone who is not going to cheat him. He was proud of his work; the boss needs him, not the other way around.

This second young man is from the same village. He was 22 in 2013, and recently married: 

M. is from [x] and was telling me that he studied at Najah. Design, possibly carpentry. He couldn’t find any work, so he went to work in the Burqan industrial zone. He says everyone from the village works in the settlement. There is no other choice, and you also make double what you would make doing similar work, if you could find it, at a Palestinian factory.

He was critical of the calls that Palestinians leave the settlements, and started talking about a scheme, presumably from the PA, to bring all the settlement workers out and find them jobs in the West Bank. This, he said, obviously didn’t happen.

He asked if I had seen the industrial zone in Beitunya, and told me that the whole thing is the size of one of the settlement factories. In terms of scale, it seems, there is just nowhere for Palestinian workers to go. He needs the job, he said, because life is so expensive. It’s not like Jordan, where things are cheap and its possible to get by on less: the high pay from the settlements/Israel is required if one wants to maintain a family.

He asked if I was surprised to hear all of this, and then showed me a special permit that he carries around with his ID. It is a permit to enter the factory, and it doesn’t allow one to go beyond that. I didn’t know these sorts of permits existed, and that settlement labor was so regimented.

Drug problems

I came across this document in the Israel State Archives when I was looking through some files on agriculture from the 1960s. It's a 1962 letter from the Jordanian Ministry of Agriculture complaining that "some farmers", especially those in the refugee camps and the "owners of coffee shops" were growing cannabis. This is obviously against the law the solution was to find it and burn it. 

I never found any other documents like this at the ISA, and doubt that these sorts of things would be saved by the Jordanians. Its a shame, since they would tell a very different story about social life in the West Bank in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Israel State Archives, MGA 39/19