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."