Plots and Deeds: Property and Formations of Land Defense in the West Bank is a study of territorial struggle in the West Bank from the vantage of Palestinian land defense. Land defense encompasses practices that block, reroute, or delay Israeli land dispossession as well as collective projects that draw on these practices to hold or expand territorial claims. Land defense seeks to both establish ownership and maintain presence, and as such is a question of political economy and law. It is always reshaped by the logic of surplus population, both as a relation to capital and a relation to settler colonial political exclusion. And, at least since 1967, it is always oriented by private property. In contrast to land struggles in other settler colonies, West Bank Palestinians are not compelled to seek state recognition of territory held in the past, but to prove private property rights in the present. It is the interplay of these two conditions, and the question of what to do with surplus and how to establish ownership, that shape all forms of land defense.
Drawing on archival materials, interviews, and ethnographic fieldwork in the West Bank’s rural highlands, I explore three types of Palestinian land defense projects from 1979–2019. The first, agrarian land defense, had its West Bank origins in the highland political economy of the 1980s and addresses the material needs and legal claims of rural landowners. The second, anti-market land defense, began as a response to private Israeli companies that employed brokers and forgeries to acquire land in the 1980s. Through a set of collective strategies, it seeks to undercut Israeli property claims and repair the social damage wrought by fraud. The third, neoliberal land defense, comes out of Palestinian Authority (PA) state building and the economic forces that took hold in Ramallah in the 1990s. It includes both PA land titling and a private real estate venture, integrating territorial defense with the expansion of private ownership and land markets.
Plots and Deeds is a story of colonization, not as an immediate rupture, but as a drawn-out, uneven process. It is one in which the means of dispossession are multiple, overlapping, and contradictory, legal and illegal, at one moment denying Palestinian property rights, and at another moment recognizing them. But it is more the story of an anti-colonial struggle. This is a struggle not only against a military, but investigators, lawyers, businessmen, and brokers. It is one of direct confrontation, to be sure, but also of negotiation, of holding out, and of impossible choices. It entangles titles, trees, maps, and reports, conscripting Palestinians as individual owners, as land users, as neighbors, as villages, and as a nation. And it is a complicated calculus of individual and collective, private and communal, mine and ours.
Today, I argue that the condition of surplus—both in terms of exclusion from the wage and exclusion from rights—is accelerating, intensified by an expansionary settler project that continues to transform the rural economy and break apart and absorb territory. In turn, the drive to own, secure, and possess land through private ownership has become more pressing, and more encompassing for Palestinians. But private property cannot alleviate the condition of surplus. Instead, the increasing depth and breadth of property in Palestinian political and social life can only highlight this disjuncture. As the divergence between what property promises and what it can deliver becomes wider, it sharpens into a contradiction that every practice and project of land defense must face.
This project is based on fieldwork carried out during the summers of 2013 and 2014, a longer stay that ran from October 2015 through the end of January 2017, and a final visit over the spring of 2018. In the West Bank, Israel, and Jordan, my research draws on a wide array of sources: documents from state and private archives; court rulings and protocols; interviews with farmers, land brokers, lawyers, land defense activists, government officials, and surveyors; and long periods of participant-observation of ongoing Palestinian Authority land titling projects. My work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the Palestinian American Research Center, and by JHU grants from the Jewish Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality programs.