Drunken insults

In February 1959 two men – one who worked for the Ministry of Agriculture and the other who was a soldier in the Jordanian army – are sitting together playing cards in a coffee shop in Bethlehem. A third man walks in, “in a state of drunkenness”. And then (this is recorded in spoken Arabic) he says (or probably slurs): “You’re a good man, but your uniform is no good” and then rambled on and perhaps insulted some higher ups. Worse, even though everyone there attests to said behavior, the Ministry employee and the soldier cover for the guy, so the former gets busted by his employer. Not world historical by any means. That this warranted a back and forth by the Jordanian government seems a bit ridiculous, but it made me chuckle. I guess the state is always watching? 


Two different land stories or, more impossible choices

Excerpts of interviews from a village up north, from a man who is a long-time organizer as well as local landowner.  Both have to do with Plia Albeck, who served as the assistant to the attorney general, and as far as liberal Zionists are concerned – the ones that love the rule of law and wonder what went wrong – she is the devil incarnate. Anyways, it turns out there are all sorts of ways to fight the state, and even more ways to lose.

On Plia Albeck. He knew her well, and remembers dealing with her at the court and in the village, where Albeck did multiple visits. The first time she came, he served makloubeh to them in his house, and she didn't eat because she was Orthodox. He remembered this, and the second time he served her fresh cheese. In 1987, settlers burned some 500 of his trees. Albeck ended up in the village a few years later, as part of her inspection to determine the extent of cultivation [uncultivated land could revert to the state, and thus the control of whatever Israeli settlement was in the area]. He tells me that when she visited his land, she noticed that small green branches were growing again from the burnt trees. She also counted the number of fruits on the small branches, and she concluded that the land had been planted and cultivated, and thus was not state land. 

Here is another Albeck story. At one point, she was trying to get someone to surrender one dunum of land for the construction of a reservoir that would later serve the settlement that was built nearby. Her was offer was this: if he would give her one dunum, she would recognize the other 39 dunums as private land. He refused to do so. In the end, the land I think the entire plot was confiscated. 


What changes and what doesn't

Last spring, I spent some days sitting in the lower level of the Birzeit library reading through older issues of Samed al-Iqtisadi from the early 1980s. This was a PLO magazine about, mostly, economic issues. (Raja Khalidi has a nice piece about Samed, and the ways in which economic projects were conceived as part of the liberation movement, in Jacobin.) I was reading through a lot of older writing on agriculture, which even at that time was formulated in the language of “development”. And in terms of the occupation, there was a ton of writing on military control, import/export policy, commodity dumping, and other such things that were warping and destroying the productive growth of the agricultural sector. 

What struck me though is how similar all of this writing – the same concepts, the same framing, the same form of argumentation, and the same conclusion – is to the reports and academic writing you’d read today. If one was so inclined, it would probably be possible to pull quotes from Arabic in Samed in the 1980s and find almost identical ones in UN and NGO reports from the 1990s onwards. 

The big difference is that, 40 years ago, the art was better. The Darwish/Khalifeh collaboration is still waiting to be surpassed. I’m usually pretty critical of nostalgia and golden age thinking, but sometimes the past was just cooler. Here are some gems from Samed:

Commercial soundscapes

Ramallah has a very different set of commercial sounds than the places that I've personally experienced in the United States. In the suburbs where I grew up and the cities I've lived in since, commercial activity is by and large confined inside certain spaces and, while advertising saturates everything, it does so rather silently. (Actually, given how much I hate shopping and thus do everything I can in my power to avoid going to markets, its quite possible I have no idea what I’m talking about here.)

Not so in Ramallah. There are the the trucks that rove the neighborhoods selling scrap metal, broadcasting the the same lines over and over (aluminium kharbon lil biya'...). In the summers, young men with coolers full of ice-cream also fan out from the center, calling out the name of the ice-cream store they're selling from (ruuukab!). The opening of a new shop is accompanied by gigantic speakers, very loud pop music, and promises of deals. And of course, there is the fruit and vegetable market, where men call out their daily prices, each with a unique pace and intonation. This spills out into the main squares and roads where sellers stand by carts loaded with whatever fruit is in season.

My favorite cafe is located on a main thoroughfare that runs from the center of the city and down through to one of its most expensive neighborhoods. I was working there early in the spring when suddenly, even though I was wearing headphones, I heard a blast of pop music coming from the street. Looking up, I saw the first in perhaps five or six semi-trucks, each equipped with massive speakers, and each carrying a number of brand new cars. 

This fleet belonged to Jawwal, the biggest telecommunications company in the West Bank, and it was advertising its new 3G network. Recently, the Israeli military allowed Palestinian telecom companies to access the 3G network, and each company is trying to outdo the other. Apparently Jawwal's big idea is to give away brand new cars to 30 lucky winners who join the 3G network. It seems like a bizarre marketing idea, but what do I know. 

Anyways, so there they went, these massive trucks far too big for Ramallah's streets causing a traffic jam, showing off these cars and assaulting everyone in a 6 block radius with sound. 

In the 1990s, Oslo ushered in new markets, monopolies, and ways to get rich, and Jawwal is one of these players. But the ruling companies of the West Bank seem not to have radically transformed the city's soundscape. They've just latched on to what was already there, adding another (very loud) layer.

 Sign up for 3G, win a car.

Sign up for 3G, win a car.

Dispossession and difficult conversations

Since fieldwork is often about trying to really get into the messy contradictions of a process, it often involves some sort of prying. Doing so often doesn't feel great. And since we get next to zero training in how to actually do fieldwork, developing a working set of practical ethics usually seems to happen in a kind of ad hoc fashion. One of the ways I tried to balance respecting peoples’ privacy and space, while at the same time getting my research done (which could only happen if people would talk to me), was simple: I would almost always begin by asking rather banal questions to let whoever I was talking to respond in a way that was as personal and detailed as they were comfortable getting. Sometimes though, even the most general questions ended up not being safe.

This one particular instance happened when I was brought to a village outside of Salfit. Someone at the Land Authority wanted me to speak to a woman who was head of the village council about what she thought about the PA’s land settlement and its impact on women's rights. In some places, land and women's inheritance rights is, well, quite a sensitive topic. Further, since this particular village wasn't one of my main sites, I figured I would learn what I could, but keep the questions broad and not take up too much of this woman's time.

So I drive with my Land Authority companion from Salfit along a road that descends from the town, winding through a few pine-covered hills and into the village. We park at the school, and I was introduced to Mona [name changed]. Likely in her 50s, she is married and has nine kids, and in addition to teaching (and perhaps being the headmaster as well), she was also the head of the local council at the time. I asked her about the land project, and things start out generally enough. According to my field notes, she tells me:

Like other places, people no longer work on the land much here. The village is very poor, she said to me, you probably noticed it when you drove in. I told her I hadn't, and she replied that well, from the outside it looks very nice, but people are struggling. The situation in this village is extremely dire. There are three ways one can find work, and in order to preference: 1) settlements (Ariel); 2) Israel; 3) Ramallah. In labor, construction, etc. The poorest people, she said, are the ones that work in Ramallah. 

Since Ariel and settlements came up, I asked her what she thought about the idea that land registration could prevent expropriation and hence protect land. In my notes I wrote "total bullshit", although what she probably did was just shake her head.

They can't even protect us inside our homes, she says, how would land registration protect the lands? She then told me a story, of something that happened after the 2nd Intifada. One evening, soldiers occupied her home. They didn't say way, but she surmises that they were likely searching for someone. They put her neighbors and her family (she was pregnant at the time) into one room and held them there overnight. Soldiers slept in the other rooms, eventually left the next day. 

That was surprisingly personal, and I felt not great that it went there. Mostly because when people like me go to places like this, it is almost expected that people will tell you stories about military violence, and I really didn't want people to feel like they should do that. (A guy who I knew through Stop the Wall, and who helped me out years ago in his village, would come with me to interviews, introduce me, and then say: "tell him about your suffering!" He thought that was fucking hilarious.) But then we returned to the question of rights and land titling.

But women's rights, sure. But there are many issues here. For example, her mother lives in Jordan, and her uncle has basically encroached on her rightful land. Now, she can make her claim, but it is very difficult. All the work when one is abroad -- knowing the law, finding a representative, following everything up. Her mother may be able to do it, but others will not. There are quite a number of people in Jordan, 500, that were expelled in 1967 and don't have IDs.

Land registration often meant an increase in land value, and so I was always curious what people thought about this change. It turned out to be the most crushing part of the conversation.

I had asked if she expected prices to go up, if that was a good thing. She said that it didn't matter, because most of the land had been sold already anway. She mentioned companies "from Ramallah, from Salfit" buying up lands; most of the land on one mountain, and all the land on another. People are poor and have no choice; if they want their kids to study, to marry. She said that, if she had any land, she would have sold it a long time ago. That is a difficult thing to hear someone say. But she continued, by the time the land titling is finished, or sometime in the near future, the people of the village won't actually own any of the village's land. 

Then she she started telling me about her family, she was close to tears. Her daughter, who got a 99.8% on the high school exit exams and I think the highest grade in Salfit, is in her third year at al-Najah University, studying medicine. But despite her grades, there are no scholarships. Getting her through school has put the family in debt. The whole thing is debt fueled, from the payment of fees to, and this is the most important part, transportation. Her daughter leaves early in the morning and gets back in the evening, and has to pay 50 shekels a day in transportation. Add that to the other kids, who are past the 6th grade and thus go to school in town, which cost 30 shekels because there is no public transportation to the village, and you have almost all of the family income going just to move the kids from place to place. 

If she had land, she said again, she'd sell it and get a house in Salfit, at least then transportation would be less. Just a few days ago, she said, her husband was seriously considering immigrating, leaving for Jordan. To where, it was unclear, but at least somewhere he could find work and support the family. Of course everyone is selling, she said, again close to tears, what choice do people have? Protecting women's rights...it can't even protect men's rights, it can't protect us from anything. 

At this point, I kind of wanted to disappear. Or better yet, go back in time an hour and spare everyone this moment. It was hard to look at her: this woman, who is about my mother's age and had accomplished so such, brought nearly to tears in front of someone she doesn't know. The only thing I could do – really, probably the most useful thing I did for most people while I was in the field – was to give her and two of her boys a ride to Salfit. As we were leaving, she pointed out the hills we had seen as we came in. That hill, gone. That hill, gone. I heard the names of the same companies and land brokers that I've heard over the course of this year, buying up dirt cheap land that will likely, as the years go by, become pretty valuable. And maybe then, after all the land is gone, someone will finally decide that the village deserves a bus route. 

Working in Saudi Arabia

I met Abu Jihad at his home in Muzari' al-Nubani, a village north of Ramallah. I was there to talk about land registration, but as often happened the conversation moved elsewhere. At some point he was telling me about his life, a good part of which was spent in Saudi Arabia. His story is memorable to me, not only because he was a very good story-teller – I don't think I ever had to really re-write the notes I took during our conversation since he never doubled back or included details that fell outside the flow of the narrative – but also because I found what he was able to do rather extraordinary. 

Abu Jihad is in his early 60s, and has 5 sons and 3 daughters and 2 wives. He began working on the land was he was 12 or 13 years old. This was 1968, and there was nothing else to do.

In the 1970s, he works "a bit" in Israel, in the building trade. What this amounted to was 3 - 5 months there, and then returning to the land in the harvest season. They don't seem to have much land, some 50 dunums (I think) shared between his 2 brothers and 7 sisters. In the 70s and 80s, their biggest market was Hebron and Gaza. There was only a single merchant in the village that would bring oil there to sell, and otherwise merchants from that area would come to buy. Not great relationships between the Nablus merchants and the villages, and sometimes when they collected on their debts, some people were left without olive oil. The paradoxical effect of labor in Israel was that by the early 1970s, when people started to have cash, they broke this monopoly. People made money, he said, but they lost the land. 

In 1986, he moved to Saudi Arabia. The reason was that his niece, the oldest girl in her family, wanted to go and work to support her family. The state had put out a call for teachers in Jordan, but she couldn't go herself. She asked if he would go with her. He agreed, and she ended up getting a job in the city of al-Shuqauiq. 

His first job, when he got there, was selling vegetables. He bought a van, took out the seats, and would drive 250 km to Khamis Mushait. The idea was that there were lots of foreign teachers from Egypt, Palsetine, Lebanon and Syria that all had meals they liked to cook, but the vegetables really were not available. So his market at first were these teachers, and he went to twice a week to buy vegetables that were imported from these different countries into the he market at Khamis Mushait. This was in the beginning. He had a wife back in Palestine, but it became too difficult to be apart, so he married again, a Palestinian teacher who was from the '48, but had fled to Gaza in after the Nakba and then to Jordan after 1967. This was his second wife.

In 1990, Yemen supported Sadam in the Gulf War, and Yeminis were expelled from Saudi Arabia as a result. So he ended up renting this bakery, which had been owned by a Yemini. It was located in the back of a supermarket. With a partner, they baked bread for the store and also long sandwich bread for the schools that were distributed to the cafeteria. This was his second job, and he worked the bakery and nights and the shop during the day. I asked why, he said he had to, to support his first wife and kids back in Palestine and his second wife there.

But the bakery was far from the vegetable shop, so he rented a room, or an apartment (I think it was the apartment next to this guy's home) from a judge who worked in Mecca and would come back once a week. He got to know this guy. This guy also owned a car repair shop, and employed Philipino mechanics. (Saudis, Abu Jihad said, can't even cook a meal, they bring people from everywhere to do work.) Basically, Abu Jihad helped the guy to collect the money from the workers, record how much they made and then lock it up in a safe at the end of the day. Apparently he was very good at this, and the guy who had done it prior was skimming from the daily earnings. So, at the end of the month, Abu Jihad has collected all the money. He distributes the paychecks to the workers, 1,500 riyals, and then gives the remainder to the judge, some 9,000. He is shocked, says that usually he had to pay the the paychecks from his own pocket. Basically, the point Abu Jihad makes is that since he was honest, the judge took him in and gave him responsibility of the shop. He sort of became a caretaker and, as a result, no longer had to pay rent.

This brings us to his fourth job. He started bringing cars that were in need of repairs, buying them, and bringing them to the shop owned by the judge. When the mechanics had extra time, they would fix the engines, repaint, get rid of dents, all of that, and resell the cars for more. 

This was until the Palestine Authority was set up in the West Bank. In 1996, he decided to return. The judge was sorry to see him go and said that he should come back every six months, to visit and to renew his residency so he wouldn't lose it. Abu Jihad left and didn't come back. Unable to find different work, he worked for awhile here on the land, and also as a taxi driver (he only retired from the latter a few years ago). To this day, he regrets the decision to return.  

There is a lot of talk about entrepreneurship in Ramallah. Every NGO promotes it, there are conferences and hack-a-thons and all that, and everyone from the founders of hopeful start-ups to the kids who have been bequeathed a company by their fathers claim the mantle. Most of it strikes me as a passing trend without much substance. But I remember thinking about all of it when I was listening to Abu Jihad and thinking damn, this guys blows all of them out of the water. 

Secret deals and forged documents

My third chapter is on land purchases by Israeli real estate companies which were overwhelmingly based on forged, fabricated, and otherwise bogus documents supplied by a small network of Arab (and less frequently, Jewish) land brokers. I focus on the early 1980s, which was probably the golden age of this form of settlement in the West Bank, although its been happening again in recent years. I had no idea how to approach people about this topic though, so after spending a few months in the archives going through old newspapers from the early 1980s, I had located a few areas where the practice seemed particularly egregious. I figured I wouldn’t bring up the issue directly, but would go talk to people in these villages about life in the 1980s and see if they felt comfortable bringing up the topic. I would usually start at the village council, and in my fieldnotes, it appears that one of my first conversations went like this:

Me: [Introduce myself and project, ask some boring, vague questions about life and economy in the 1970s and 1980s, and the history of the nearby settlement]

Village council member: So you're interested in the 1980s, the beginning of the settlements, not the wall and the current situation?

Me: Yes, the early days. I read a lot about what happened in the 1980s with [xxx] and other villages in the newspapers from that time.

VCM: What newspapers, the Arabic or the English?

Me: The Arabic, al-Fajr, al-Talia'a...

VCM: Oh, so you want to know about the forgeries.

 "Secrets of the West Bank land scam",  al-Sha'ab  1985.

"Secrets of the West Bank land scam", al-Sha'ab 1985.

And off we went. Two things surprised me. The first was that, even though I had lived in the West Bank for years prior to fieldwork, I had very little idea that this was so pervasive. And second, I was shocked by the stories people wanted to tell, how angry they still were, and how they very much wanted to name names, and have me write these names, especially of those that never were caught (something I'm not comfortable doing). In this first conversation I had, this particular villager council member went on to tell me that “Most people came after 2004 to see the wall. But they don't ask why the wall came. The wall came because of the settlements, and the settlements came because of the forgers (muzawwerin).” 

Anyways, here are two stories people shared with me. There are many more, and I’ll probably write about both of these later, but for now, just the stories will suffice to show the sorts of contradictions that land defense had to confront when settler real estate markets were involved, and the way in which these markets relied on and poisoned social relations.

The mukhtar of [xxx] sold plots [x] and [x] in 1981 (this belonged to him, and also his family). Because he was the mukhtar, he was able to get ID numbers for two people who would serve as witness for the sale. An Israeli businessman ended up with the land in 1990. It's hard to know, as the mukhtar I think died in 1984 or 1985. [Anyway] Ahmed Odeh [an infamous land broker, involved in seemingly every major forged sale in the northern West Bank, who was stabbed to death in 1990] and [xxx] were involved, but they didn’t know the exact location of the land they claimed to have bought, and no one was willing to show them. One morning, we woke up and found signs covering all of our land (indicating that all the land had been sold, or was going to be surveyed). So we went to go find Ahmed Odeh in his village. He was with another man, also involved in land sales, named [xxx]. We went to his house and found them both there. We told Odeh that he had no business meddling on our land, and that if he ever came back to the village, he would have to kill us, or we would kill him. Ahmed Odeh said to us, 'Let me tell you a story. There was a merchant, and he had a monkey. When this monkey saw people who were truthful, he would touch his head. But when he saw bad people, he would grab his own ass. One day, the merchant found himself at a guesthouse, and everyone was sleeping on the floor. One of the guests woke up, took an ember out of the oven that was heating the room, and poked the monkey in the ass with it. The monkey freaked out, jumped up and tried to find the person who did it. He went around to each person to see if they were sleeping, and each one was snoring. The one who poked him also pretended to snore. So the monkey went back to sleep. After he did so, the man woke up and poked him again. The monkey again went from man to man, and again was unable to find out who had poked him. Furious, rather than returning to sleep, he grabbed the oven and flung the coals across everyone who was sleeping on the floor. Do you see? I am the monkey here, and none of you will agree to show me the borders of the land (he had purchased from the mukhtar). I bought the land. What about my money?' So the next morning, we all went out to the land. Odeh came, and we showed him where his land stopped, where the borders were. We had to. 

The second story comes from a different village. Like the story of the son who, at his father’s funeral, is confronted by an Israeli claiming to own his father’s land, this story also seems to have been told and retold. It goes like this:

"In the village, there was a group of land brokers, the mayor and the mukhtar. The mukhtar was younger, mid-40s, maybe 50s. In the village there is an old man, in his mid-60s, is looking for a new, young wife. So this group comes up with a plan. They dress up the mukhtar as a women: make-up, perfume, clothing, the whole thing. They even use sponges to simulate breasts. Then, the mayor says to the old man that he has a woman for him. So he goes to see. In Arab society [the teller explains to me], you can't get close to the woman necessarily, you have to look at her from a distance. So this old man sees this woman, smelled the perfume, and gets aroused. He is an older man, and doesn't see as well. So he agrees. He can't read, and signs what he thinks is a marriage contract, and the mukhtar also signs. It turns out that he has signed away his land without knowing. But the scheme comes unraveled when he reaches out and touches the breast of his new wife, only to discover that they were not real. He flips out, but the deed is already done."

Communists and Ramadan calendars

The Communist Party was vital to the voluntary work movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and I was interviewing one older Party member about those years. We talked about organizing, and at some point he began telling me stories about the Muslim Brotherhood. Apparently they didn’t get along too well, and the Brotherhood really went after the communists. At one point, he recalled how that he and his friend had decided to sing some inappropriate wedding song in Salfit. During the song, angry Brotherhood members cut their microphone. The next day, he told me laughing, he received news that they had sentenced him to death. (The bigger joke was that they were so uptight that they didn’t even consider the dead in West Beirut to be martyrs.) 

But how did the communists fund their activities? There were a bunch of ways, from selling olive oil harvested and pressed by volunteers, to setting up local bazaars and taking a cut from the merchants (there weren’t many shops in the villages in those days), to asking for donations at the olive press from farmers during the harvest. But one of the most effective was this: during Ramadan, they would sell calendars that gave the times for prayers each day.




Land reclamation and land defense

  Topographical map of the West Bank

Topographical map of the West Bank

This one comes out of reading Khalil al-‘Alul’s Isteslah wa Isteglal Aradi Al-Diffa Al-Gharbiya (Land Reclamation and Use in the West Bank), which was published in 1987 by the Arab Thought Forum. I am finally starting to write about the ways in which technical agrarian interventions become part of land defense in the West Bank after 1967. ‘Alul’s short book is a kind of proposal and feasibility study for doing land reclamation in the highlands, as well as pasture and forest projects, and it brings together the question of territory with the problem of agrarian political economy. Since unused land could be seized by the state, land reclamation can protect territory, but land reclamation only works if farmers are using their land (and, hopefully, doing more land reclamation). The catch is that farmers are assumed to only use their land if they can make a profit, or at least break even. 

In this study, every dunum in the West Bank is accounted for, either to be cultivated, forested, or turned into fenced and maintained pasture land. It has to be, given that unused land is subject to confiscation. Part of the move here is to expand, quite drastically, the total area of land used. The other move is to confront the terms ‘cultivable’ and ‘non-cultivable’. This becomes clear in al-‘Alul’s treatment of the Israeli aerial survey, which divides West Bank land into six categories, ranging from the best agricultural land to basically desert waste. While he says that the survey was carried out to serve the colonial project, he also aruges that its possible to use it in the service of planning reclamation and land use. In the process, al-‘Alul undermines the categories of the survey, which allows him to move some 2,600,000 dunums from ‘non-cultivable’ to ‘cultivable’. This is not just to demonstrate that land use could be higher, but to denaturalize categories that would obviate that possibility from the get-go. 

  Distribution of land use in the West Bank prior to proposed land reclamation projects

Distribution of land use in the West Bank prior to proposed land reclamation projects

Numbers are also important for highlighting the risks of letting land remain unused. In one table, we get figures like this: Hebron: 318,300 dunums cultivated, 10,700 forest, and 1,018,926 unused; Ramallah 245,500 cultivated, 7,000 forest, and 807,859 unused, etc. Despite the closures, there is still a great deal of “unused private land” within “every Palestinian village”; this study claims that “every inch of land” that can possibly be cultivated  should be in order to “protect it” and for the “local community to benefit from its produce”. This not only highlights the centrality of private land, but also of a kind of personal responsibility, showing that there is work that can be done even within the confines of military occupation. 

Beyond the occupation, there are important ecological, topographical, social, and technological limits to reclamation. Immigration, slope, rainfall, soil quality, and potential crops all render reclamation, in the final instance, economical or uneconomical. This is not economic determinism, but pragmatism: we are taking ‘economical’ as the limiting factor, because unless you can use the land afterwards and farm it and expand it, there is no point in doing reclamation. 

The issue of use brings us to the embeddness of this tactic, and other land defense tactics, in the wider agricultural market. The whole issue of land use is tied not only to confiscation, but to the lack of financial services for farmers, marketing problems, and wage labor. In this writing, we see this comparison: the wage is ‘quick/secure’, while cultivation is ‘slow/insecure’ (this issue of fast money bleeds into a moral critique, often directed at the youth, in other narratives). While it appears to be natural to agriculture (a result of seasonal work and profit), it isn’t; instead it is produced by conditions of occupation and, more broadly, capitalism mediated by the occupation. Indeed, these condition give land defense its central problematic: how to encourage farmers to “begin to invest their money and time in land reclamation and use” when the market is telling them otherwise.

  Soil type map of the West Bank

Soil type map of the West Bank

The answer here is a host of interventions: the rationalization of production, crop diversification, new marketing strategies, and the like. Wage labor in Israel, which is causing the desertion of agricultural lands, needs to be countered by agricultural development. Again, this depends on crop type and location. In the Jordan Valley, for example, capitalist agriculture and labor absorption is the key, which is quite different from the kinds of land use promoted for the highlands.

Ecological and topological limits also mean that cultivation simply isn’t feasible everywhere. What about non-productive uses of land? al-‘Alul makes an argument for the social and economic benefits of forestation, but we run into problems. First, there is the issues of land confiscation. He argues that it is a misconception to equate forested land with state land. Here, private property is key: there is lots of forested “private" land that is untouched (not confiscated), and he thinks that as long as land is planted, it can be exempted from state lands declarations. This is the first time I’ve heard this (most other accounts say the opposite), and its interesting, since it is a move away from ‘cultivation’ to ‘use’, although I don’t know what the legal ramifications are. Second, there are problems with long-term planning, scale and private property. While land has to be private to be protected, it throws up considerable difficulties when trying to scale up projects of land reclamation or forestation, especially when the initial costs are high and the long-term returns are low. 

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