Propinquity, labor, and zoning

Al-Tuwani is a small village in the southern end of the West Bank (I visited once, for a different project than the one I was working on, got the chance to chat with some people). Several people I spoke to there were adamant that the residents didn’t work in the settlements. The explanation was that they had “national spirit.” Also, the conditions of village—daily struggles with the military, pretty constant attacks and confrontation—meant that the violence of colonization was always present. You can’t work for someone who attacked you yesterday, one of the men told me, you can’t give a blessing to theft. I was curious to learn more, to try to understand why this didn’t necessarily hold for other places, but I never did.

Al-Tuwani’s land struggle was mediated less through ownership and more through zoning. This happens in a lot of places, usually in Area C, where the Israeli Civil Administration does not update zoning designations, but instead keeps the plans created under the British Mandate or the Jordanians. Basically, since all these plans are decades old, they are totally inadequate to natural population expansion. When people build outside of the out-dated zones of the master plan, they are technically “building without a permit” and thus risk that their homes, greenhouses, and the like will be demolished. In 2009, people began an organized battle for a new master plan, and 5 years later, in 2014, they got it. It was a very publicized fight, with local mobilization and international pressure. They even got Tony Blair (remember when that guy was fashioning himself as a diplomat of peace?) to visit.

With the new plan, however, there is a bind. People had the sense that with the old plan, buildings would get destroyed, but not all the time, that there was some flexibility or ambiguity. Now with the expanded plan, there is more security inside, but everything that falls outside of it is demolished for sure. Yael Berda talks about the danger of fixed rules in her book, and this seems like an example of clarity leading to future closure. Maybe.

There’s another village in the north named ‘Azzun. Its one of the villages that is surrounded on almost all side by Israel’s wall. The wall goes up and down the West Bank, and those that get caught near it, or worse, are surrounded by it, lose their land, can’t access their crops, and, if they’re trying to build, have a hell of a time getting a building permit. But, it seems, that perhaps in certain areas one is more likely to get a work permit as well to go through gates, or at least more likely than someone who doesn't live there in the first place.

Someone told me this story 5 years ago: After the Wall was built, people would try to get their residency changed to the village. You could do this by borrowing electricity payment and rent payment stubs to the village. This in turn would allow them to pass through the gate and easily access Israel for work. A few years ago the Israelis caught on to this and changed the procedures, making it more difficult to get through and requiring more documents. People still like to try to marry women from ‘Azzun though, I was told, as this allows one an increased chance of getting a permit, and perhaps getting through the gate. While these places are tough (if not impossible) to live in physically, it seems that living there on paper has some benefits.

One young man who was from around the area worked some pretty difficult jobs in Israel. Its an old note, from 2013:

He has worked there for three months, previously worked as a laborer in Ramallah, where he learned the trade (not exactly sure what it is, but it is related to repairs, windows, and metal work). Not happy with it there, seems mostly because the pay is bad. He works in Jerusalem for 150 shekels a day for a company. He sneaks in through Qalandiya, in a big car, but private, pays 200 shekels for the ride, someone arranges things with the soldiers, pays them off. It doesn’t always work, he says, but often enough. 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. He said 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 one is Arab, young, walking along Yaffa St. or somewhere else it is quite possible you’ll get stopped and checked. He stays for big chunks of time inside, working in different cities and then having a vacation a few days back in the West Bank. He has been doing this three months, and said that Jerusalemites 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. Its easy to get taken advantage of, but he seemed to have found a good boss through people he knows, someone who is not going to cheat him.

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, how when he was little they used to be able to go to the beach, and in general 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 an 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 it was mentioned that lots of people work in the settlements). He said he used to go a lot, was friends with Bassem (in Bi’lin), 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 (his words), and its not going anywhere. The second thing 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 was something “small,” and was truly shocked about how developed, entrenched it is. And if the PA is unable to provide jobs to keep people out of the settlements, what is it good for?

Um al-Kheir

Um al-Kheir is a small Bedouin village south of Hebron. I visited with a local activist as part of a short project on home demolitions.

The propinquity is quite intense. They really live a stone's throw from the fence that separates them from the settlement, and the differences are stark. What’s more, they get hassled if they get too close to the fence, if they build too close to the fence, if sheep wander too close to the fence, and all the rest of it. Especially given that sheep don’t understand no-go zones, it means that the army bothers them every day.

As is the case elsewhere, in Um al-Kheir people are planting trees in a sort of last ditch effort to secure property rights. They have 20 dunums in the back of the community, right up against the settlement, that is planted with almonds and olives. There is also a soccer field and a water tank. The trees are a year and a half old, and people told me they were uprooted the first time by the settlers (or maybe soldiers). They replanted them though, and since then they’ve managed to keep growing.

The ownership of the land in the area doesn’t go back that far. The people of Um al-Kherr originally lived inside of what would become the State of Israel in 1948, and like many Bedouin, they were expelled by force to the southern part of the West Bank. In 1952, they bought the hilltops where they currently reside from owners in Yatta, a nearby city, reportedly for 100 camels. One of the older men explained that in those days, the precise number of dunums was not important, just the general space. He also told me that the people of Um al-Kheir acquired (more?) land gradually, between 1964 and 1967, from four different clans in Yatta. (A surveyor in Hebron told me that this was not correct; instead, all the land had been purchased in 1952).

The Israeli state, probably sometime in the 1980s, declared the land was state land. I don’t know if the settlement was built before or after, but either way, state land secured, either prior to or retroactively, the legal basis. One of the younger men in Um al-Kheir told me that in the 1980s the Municipality (presumably in Hebron) appointed four lawyers, but that they really screwed things up. Other people agreed: these layers basically did nothing, “sold” the case, collected the money, and went on their way. In 2008, a new lawyer from Jerusalem took up the case, and people were more hopeful. They have the ownership papers, they said, and believe that the state should, perhaps might, respect them. At least it might prevent the settlers from coming further in, they thought. Or maybe not.

So, so close.

So, so close.

The strange, wonderful museum in Yasid

Awna Thaher is a retired teacher from Yasid. He also has rather amazing museum, in his house. The porch, the entry hall, the lower areas outside, are all covered with stuff: clothing, maps, trinkets, tools. One part of this is a sort of village history, including albums filled with pictures, newspaper clippings, Mandate-era sale contracts, and copies of old documents that all tell the story of the village. A 1953 petition to the state, signed by everyone in the village, asking the Jordanian government not to send a particular guy to teach in another village far away. Next to the petition is a picture of this man, when he was younger, holding his young son.

The photos, I think, were the best part. Awna had collected pictures of everyone, often when they were much younger. The best one was this young dude with a black afro and a mustache. Turned out to be the sheikh, who was sitting next to us and now sports all white clothing, skull cap, hair and beard. There was something really nice looking through these albums with him and the men that were there, watching how happy they were that these pictures were around, remembering things and laughing.

The house-museum is also trying to tell, in a rather idiosyncratic way, a story of change over time. There were different examples, from the more obvious ones like clothing or tools, and to the more esoteric. The most interesting of the latter was the collection of bells, which were used at different times and had markedly different sounds caused by their construction and the way you would ring them, from a metal pole to an electric pulse. Awna has an almost manic energy, and was ringing each bell to demonstrate its distinct sound, creating an uneven cacophony as diminishing rings mixed with new ones. Sometimes, it was not clear how it fit into any story, with collections of trinkets and antiques, all nicely arranged, but not clearly part of any kind of story.

Even the defining events in Palestinian history had their own twist. Refugees from 1948 often keep the keys to their homes, bringing them out to demonstrations and events. This museum had its own key of return, but with a strange addition: it was on a chain with dozens of other, newer keys attached to it. These were, according to Awna, to represent each apartment in the apartment building that Israel had built on top of the (presumably destroyed) home to which that key belonged.

Sometimes the stories told by a given collection of objects did not fit squarely within nationalist or even natural history (like the scenes of birds cut out from books that were not Palestinian at all, or the plant information in German). But this didn't seem to bother him, nor did it seem to upset the flow at all.

Unsurprisingly, Awna doesn’t want his collection to stay in Yasid forever. It seems he wants space to move the collection somewhere else, to travel it around and have it visit different places to show Palestinian history. I think that would be unfortunate. As soon as it becomes a didactic tool, a representative of "real Palestinian history" is the minute it might fall apart, as it will get compared to other, more professional kinds of representations, or to the narratives that already exist. So much wouldn't fit, so much might be cut away as junk, if it enters professional curated spaces. And its connections to Yasid, to the people that live and used to live there, would be cut off. I think its great where it is, and if you’re ever north of Nablus, well-worth a visit.

Isolation and elimination

In March 2016, I visited al-Hadidiya for a research project I was doing for the Land Defense Coalition. I spoke with Abu Saqar, an older man who weighed every word and had a strange, and for an interviewer/researcher maddening, way of interacting: he would always answer a question, but never volunteer any additional information, even if that information was relevant. It took me all day to figure that out.

There are many places like this—Susiya in the South Hebron Hills, the Jahalin in Khan al-Ahmar outside of Jerusalem, and other smaller groups in the Jordan Valley—that have been effectively isolated, their geographical distance from urban centers weaponized against them through Israel's military, legal, and administrative regimes. 

Al-Hadidya is tiny, a collection of tents trapped in-between Israel military bases and the Roi settlement. The land on which it sits belongs to owners from Tubas, and prior to 2001, people from Tubas would come and farm this land. But after the start of the 2nd Intifada, Israel banned anyone with a Tubas or Tammun ID from entering. The current al-Hadidiya residents snuck in on tractors, and have been there ever since.

These sorts of places, small populations that sort of form islands in a sea of direct Israeli control and presence, puts them in the crosshairs of settler project. Home demolition is the most effective means of removal. Abu Saqar, as one of the leaders of the community, interfaces with movements as well as all the NGOs that attempt to provide support, has probably told this story many times. As a result, its not raw, but precise with dates, times, numbers. They have been demolished 6 times, he told me: 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2015. All the other times, however, the army came and destroyed them a single time, then left. In 2015, there was a sort of hellish repetition. Here are my notes, which basically follow the cadence: 

November 25: They destroyed the road that they had made that links al-Hadidya together (he told me this after the home demolitions issue)

November 26: 7:00am demotion - 4:00pm put up tent from Red Cross - 6:00pm destroyed the tent - 10:30pm ACTED came with tents, 11:00pm destroyed.

November 27: 7:00am rebuilt tents - 8:00am destroyed it

November 28: Came and confiscated the tent - got 3 tents from the PA Ministry of Local Government and rebuilt

November 29: Army destroys tents

November 30: Rebuilt - army returns, destroys and confiscates. Run out of tents, so make shelter out of wood, rope and plastic. They wanted to cover the kids from the rain. They pulled the plastic off them while they slept.

16 days of respite, sleeping on the ground.

December 12: Decision made to (stay demotion? I have the order, Hebrew though) at the HCJ in Jerusalem.

December 13: The paper itself is brought to al-Hadidiya

December 14: ACTED brings tents, the army comes, Abu Saqar displays the paper (he can't read it), they go away.

Since then, there hasn't been any demolitions. But jeeps have often come to the community. The local commander once visited and pointed to the tents say "all these structures are new," showed him the court order and he left.

Remains of a home demolition.

Remains of a home demolition.

This politically induced isolation also intensifies other sources. Because, even under military occupation, capital continues to structure social relations, and forms like commodity exchange, private property, and the like continue to operate with their attendant compulsion and exclusions. In situations like this one, occupation creates relations of exploitation, risk, and shortage that make hanging on even harder. 

First, land ownership. Since moving there in 2001, they have effectively been farming the land ever since because the owners were forced to abandon it. There are no written contracts, only oral agreements between al-Hadidiya and these owners. Effectively, they wait for the rainy months. If there is rain in December, then they will decide to plant. They pay 5 Jordanian Dinars for each dunum they plant. If they plant nothing, they don't pay. They try to only plant if it looks like there will be rain, because again, irrigation is an issue. This whole thing is gamble, every year. 

People also planted olive trees for the purpose of establishing property rights. Another gamble that may or may not pay off.

People also planted olive trees for the purpose of establishing property rights. Another gamble that may or may not pay off.

Second, market exchange. While the families of al-Hadidiya likely get support from those who are waged or salaried in cities, for those that live in the area animal husbandry is a key source of income. This would be a problem even if there wasn't direct military occupation; herd sizes have been shrinking drastically since 1967, since it's hard to compete with Israeli dairy and also because pasture land is claimed and closed by Israel as state land. But here, it’s even more of an issue. Refrigeration and transportation leave people at the mercy of merchants who visit several times a week to purchase directly in al-Hadidya.

Goats being goats.

Goats being goats.

A similar market is created for water. The water comes from Ein Bayda, from two people, one from Tammun and one from Tubas. They have water rights there and buy the water for 40 shekels and sell it for 250 shekels in al-Hadidiya. They come every day. I asked Abu Saqar why they don't buy it themselves, and the issue is transportation: a tractor can only a small amount, and with the current price of diesel, it makes the trip not cost effective (to say nothing of time). Further, these water merchants are not the only ones with rights from Ein Bayda, but they are the only ones that sell to al-Hadidya (also they sell to Humsa, Makhul, and others that are in these military zones). I asked him why they can get away with charging so much: “the big fish eat the little fish,” he replied. But, he said, there is also the issue of risk: the others with water rights are too scared to sell it here due to risks of being fined or having your vehicle or the water confiscated. The risks are serious. On November 24, 2015 one car [I'm not sure if it was a water truck or not, I don't think so], was confiscated by the military from al-Hadidiya on the grounds that it was in a military zone. It was impounded near Salfit (probably in Ariel) for 2 months, and the owner eventually had to pay a 4,000 NIS fine to get it back.

Water tank in al-Hadidiya.

Water tank in al-Hadidiya.

Under these conditions, there are basically spaces for entrepreneurs to fill in the gaps created by the occupation and, if they are willing to take the risks, exploit the situation to make a profit. It's difficult, without seeing their books and talking to them, to get a sense of exactly how much they make, and how the justify it and talk about it (it's clearly not easy), but it seems there is a sense in al-Hadidiya that they are being taken advantage of by everyone. 

The late Patrick Wolfe wrote that settler colonialism is about elimination, and it’s an insight that really cuts to the heart of what is going on here.

Another thing here. People on the left celebrate communities like al-Hadidiya for hanging on, defending the land, for being steadfast. We should. But also, we should remember that land defense can be a miserable existence. Being forced to stay, in a sense, is being forced to live a life that one does not want to live. “Israel,” Abu Saqar told me (as he has told others) “forces us to live like Bedouin [but] we are landowners.” In other words, they are not fighting to persevere a traditional way of life: instead, a traditional way of life is forced on them. Life, he said, has basically been frozen since 1967, the world has moved on without us. 

Yasid and wheat

A few years ago, I thought I would write more about grain cultivation in the West Bank. Up ‘till the 1960s, it was still an important crop, even in the hills. Today, one is hard pressed to find any. Grain was really important in Yasid, which is a village north of Nablus. Here are some grain stories.

In the 1940s, the British attempted to force Yasid to provide flour or wheat to Burqa. This was after the war, but before 1948. The people refused to do so. The British tried to enter the village and figure things out and ended up being forced out.

The gendered division of labor for grain: there is a tool called an ‘ashaba—a small, curved piece of wood with a metal bit at the end—which was used to remove weeds and other unwanted plants from grain-planted areas. The head of the tool would be used to pry weeds out of the ground, and women were usually doing this sort of work. When chemicals were introduced, it became man's work to get rid of the weeds. 

Prior to 1950 the village grew a type of corn called “aranis.” People would mix it with flour made from “white wheat,” purchased from Haifa or Nablus (this mill, in the center of the city, hasn't been active for more than 30 years. It is now being torn down and replaced with a mall). They would buy this white flower and mix it with the local flower to make a very filling bread called "charadish." There is an expression now, when one is full, to say they ate this bread. Today, this type of corn is very rarely found in Palestine.

Sirwal (sorta like baggy pants) were made out of recycled cloth, sometimes from the bags that flour came in. After 1967, UNWRA (or would it would have been USAID or its precursor, I don't know) bags were distributed to people. On the bags there is an image of two hands shaking each other. There is a joke about people making pants from those, and having to walk around with an image of two hands on your ass.

Fellah tales

The term fellah is a loaded one. It literally means “cultivator,” has sometimes been used sociologically to mean “peasant,” and is wrapped up with the history and ideology of land politics in Palestine. The Christian explorers mapping out the Holy Land in the mid-nineteenth century didn’t quite know what to do with them. The fellah was an Arab, so as far as these Europeans were concerned, course naturally untrustworthy. But the fellah was considered native to the land, and as such was taken to be an invaluable source of information about the geographical knowledge of the bible. Weird ethnographic methods followed, of course. Later, Zionists sought not only to dispossess them, but also to convince everyone that new Jewish immigrants and the fellahin shared a common class enemy in the (absentee) landlord (the villainous effendi). And of course, nationalist movements and parties have alternatively praised the fellah as the backbone of the struggle and cursed him as conservative, self-interested, and regressive. 

Anyway, here are a few fellah tales.

The first was in Nablus. I was interviewing a well-known agronomist from the city, and I was trying to figure out land/tree separation. 

So Dr. F— grandfather was one of these large land owners, and had 1,000s of dunums. It turns out that much of this land was sold after it was divided amongst his brothers and him in the 1970s, and I was wondering why. There were a number of people in the room, and it was weird because as he told this story, he looked at them all and literally apologized to them (they were all from Nablus villages). He goes on to say that they had to sell the land because the villagers made it impossible to control. It was far away, and the fellahin would basically rip off the city dwellers, not giving them enough of the surplus to make it worth it. It was funny to me that he was asking them not to get offended (and rather was not embarrassed that his grandfather had acquired so much land, likely not so nicely). Then an older woman, who were worked in the office and had heard his story, told a similar story. In their village, someone from Nablus, had somehow gotten ahold of a good bit of mountainous, rocky land in the village. This land they had someone local take care of it. But even though it produced something like 4–5 tanks of oil, the cultivators would give the owners 2 bottles (tanka vs kazaz). Apparently one year the owners, not believing that their investment was only yielding this poor amount, went with them and forced them to give them full amount. But they couldn't do it every year, the land was far away, mountainous and a pain, so they ended up selling it off. 

The second was in a village outside of Salfit. I included parts of this story in the dissertation, but not the truly bizarre conclusion.

Outside of Salfit, a large real estate project has raised land prices and rendered the area of interest for land brokers and speculators. Late in the summer, I joined the a three-man survey team, accompanied by a village council guide, as they set out to survey a plot of land close to the proposed real estate project. Salameh, the owner of the plot, met us there and unlike most people, had his own map ready. As I would learn, this man was a well-known land buyer from a nearby town.

As we walked the land, Salameh made clear that he had several complaints, both of which had to do with borders. His plot was sort of at the bottom of the valley. It had high rock sides, natural, large steep rocky areas (the rocks are very big, sheets of rock in the side of a mountain) that are called arak. Usually on top of these we see the man-made sinasel (a wall made of rocks to mark boundaries). The rule that the survey team followed to decide who owns what was “from the sinsal and above,” meaning that the arak below should go to the lower owner. Salameh asked the team to mark the coordinates below the sinsal, the lead surveyor differed, citing local tradition as articulated by the ihktiyariya, or the elderly people whom, according to general consensus, are able to speak on older practices of land division. Salameh continued to repeat his response, throwing rocks at the wall where he wanted the men to spray point the coordinates. The lead surveyor did not wish to comply. After a bit of yelling back and forth, some more rock throwing, an offer by Salameh to climb down the sheer rock with the GPS and mark the spot himself (an unlikely and somewhat dangerous proposition), the lead surveyor sat under a tree and refused to do anything else until the owner of the contested plot was called.

A half hour later, two more men arrived: the owner Abu Zehed, helped along with a walking stick, and his oldest son. Salameh made some half-hearted arguments about a different interpretation of local practice, but mostly referred to his map. Abu Zehed simply articulated his personal history: the border wasn't that far down below the wall because he and his family were the ones that divided it up, and they knew the borders; he had been coming here for decades and plowing it. “It goes from the sinsal to the that kherub tree,” he said, gesturing with his stick. “That land is yours, and this is mine.” “I am a fellah too,” Salameh told us, to which Abu Zehed shook his head, saying “yes, yes, I know, we all are.”

The second problem arose when the survey continued. The teams generally used a red, gloopy paint applied by a wood stick. On the ground, however, were coordinates done with blue spray-paint that were left over from the private survey done for the recent sale of the land from the previous owner to Salameh. Unfortunately for the latter, it seems that the land he assumed he had purchased was, perhaps, not all of the previous owner’s to sell. Specifically, there was a small strip of plowed land that was a bit further down the mountainside. While the blue marks included it in the plot, Abu Zehed objected. “Its a mistake,” he tells the survey team. “I plowed that land (as you can see) and planted several trees, a fig and an olive tree. Why would I do that if the land didn’t belong to me? Why would plow someone else’s land?” Salameh, likely sensing this whole thing is quickly going south, held his map aloft and points to it: “I bought this land,” he told us, “this is the land I bought!” But it seems that Salameh, or his map, or the man that sold him the land was mistaken.

At this point, the whole situation spiraled out of control. Salameh was gesturing to landmarks and hurling rocks at them. Abu Zehed was upset, but also taking pleasure in pointing out the land buyer’s errors (“thats not even a sinsal you’re pointing at” he says at one point). The lead surveyor was yelling at Salameh, another surveyor was yelling at the lead surveyor, and then abruptly gave up to retreat to a tree and play games on his smart phone. Another surveyor was still walking around, trying to find out where exactly they were supposed to map. Abu Zehed’s son threatened to rent a backhoe to carve away the side of the mountain to make it clear whose land was whose, and Salameh screamed at him that if he did so and the mountain gave way than he would be finically liable. Then, furiously shouting the everyone was against him, that his land was being eaten from all sides, and that if he continued he’ll have no land left, Salameh stated that he wanted nothing to do with land titling that day and departed. 

We were leaving the plot to find the next owner when Salaamed returned. In a final, and truly weird twist, he had an elderly man in tow. We are quite far from the village, so where this man came from is still a mystery to me. “Go and ask this man about the arak, since you don’t believe me!” he says triumphantly to the lead surveyor. The old man smiled, seemingly completely oblivious to war he was being conscripted into. But the lead surveyor, who had just spent the last half hour in an apoplectic state, was just exhausted (and, I think, genuinely surprised by the pointless tenacity of Salameh). “You’re giving me a heart attack.” he responded. “Salam ‘ala qalbak (peace upon your heart),” Salameh replied.

2016-08-31 11.17.06.jpg

Postponement and justice

Here are some things a lawyer who works with communities in the Jordan Valley told me. For context, the communities he is defending are small and usually in tents or other shack-like structures. They get demolished, they rebuild, sometimes they move around, and back and forth it often goes.

This whole game is played by first requesting a building permit:

1. Apply for building permit, which requires that you collect the necessary documents, carry out a survey, etc.  

2. Then, after they deny it, you take it to the Appeals Committee

3. Then, after they deny it, to the Supreme Court, where it can sit for as long as 2 years

4.Then, after they deny it, usually on the grounds that the area is not designated for residential purposes. Arguments about long standing pastoral connection are ignored, all the games around Jordanian law are ignored, etc. They say, in the end, this is not a place for living, go to Area A or B. So you withdraw the petition and ask for 30 – 60 days to prepare a zoning plan.

5. Then, apply for a total re-zoning of the area to the planning committee.

Of course, there are other things that can happen that can extend or shorten this process. For example, liberal judges are more open to these petitions, and conservative judges who are not. In the case I was looking at—and this is very surprising to the lawyer I was talking to—the judge accepted his statement that they can't demolish the tents again because the people would have no where else to go. 

This process can also go the total opposite direction. There is one judge who is a settler from Gush Etzion. There was another case this lawyer was working on where she (the settler judge) basically said ‘so I'm thinking of just not issuing any more injunctions, because the applications you send are clearly to waste time and not based on any substantial legal position’, which led to the response of ‘so announce that Palestinians are not subject to the law (or something like that)’ which led to other judges to quickly move the discussion elsewhere. In another worrying development, under right wing pressure the Court now has to decide cases within a year, which closes up the delay time even more.  

If people move to a different plot of land after their homes are demolished and build new ones, the army is legally required to issue new demolition orders. So in this particular case, people rebuilt their homes in another area close by the site of the demolition, and the army immediately came again and demolished them. This was illegal, they should have issued new orders, so they got a freeze on the demolition of the new units, or rather, a temporary injunction. However, this can also work in the opposite direction. One of the residents of this community, who was coordinating much of the legal effort, lost track of which structures were given which orders. 

It is impossible to ‘win’. Of the 300 or 400 responses he has gotten from the court, never once has a building permit been approved. 

This is all exhausting. So much energy, time, etc. this takes from lawyers, petitioners, people. In theory this could go on indefinitely? He said, “yes, until our side or their side runs out of energy.”  It is 99% dark and 1% light, he said, and we try to make that 1% flexible. 

The legal struggle is never about justice. Its always about delay. 

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 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.