1. General Topography and Population

Several adverse characteristics prevailing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shaped the economic and social conditions in the Eastern Mediterranean region: under-population, marauding Bedouin clans, poverty, malarial sickness and lack of investment in efficient and scientific land utilisation.

The many descriptions of the region provided by travellers and foreign consuls at the time were generally not grounded on hard data or academic research. They failed to take into consideration that conditions which prevailed in some parts of Palestine did not pertain in others. In examining its economic and political development, Palestine must be divided into

  • four longitudinal regions paralleling the Mediterranean Sea: (i) the coastal plain, (ii) the hilly region (the Negev and the south) (iii) Judea and Samaria in the central region and (iv) the Galilee in the north;
  • the Jordan Valley which lies to the east of the Galilee and includes the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee (Tiberias) which forms part of the Great Rift Valley;
  • the hills of Transjordan.

(see Y. Karmon, Israel: A Regional Geography, John Wiley & Sons London, 1981)

These regions differed from one another in respect of the ethnic origin, population growth and decline, agricultural development and economic vitality.

  • To the extent that land in the coastal and other plains was capable of being cultivated, wild marauding Bedouin tribes present in these areas discouraged any permanent rural settlement or agricultural development. Consequently the lower flat lying areas were more or less desolate and unproductive. In addition:
  • the Northern and central coastal plains were swamp-like and malaria-ridden as was the land around the Hula lake and the Lake of Galilee;
  • the Southern coastal plains were inundated with sand dunes;
  • Consequently, Arab urban and rural settlements tended to avoid the coastal plains and were to be found mainly in the hill country west of the Jordan River in Judea and Samaria and parts of the Galilee,
  • Jews, prior to acquiring and developing the barren coastal plains, had a significant urban presence in and around Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, Safad and Jaffa and in other smaller towns.

a.  The Land and Its Indigenous Rural Population

For many centuries, travellers to Palestine described it as sparsely populated, poorly cultivated and widely neglected – an expanse of eroded hills, sandy deserts and malarial marshes. European consuls located in Jerusalem and Cairo during the 18th and 19th centuries confirmed these opinions.

Mark Twain, who had visited the Holy land in 1867, described it as

“[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds – a silent mournful expanse… Desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action… We never saw a human being on the whole route…there was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country” (Twain “Innocents Abroad” cited in Bard Myths and Facts AICE 2001, p. 30)

The Report of the 1937 Palestine Royal Commission quotes what it believed to be a truthful and unbiased description of the Maritime Plain as it existed in 1913:

”The road leading from Gaza to the north was only a summer track suitable for transport by camels and carts…no orange groves, orchards or vineyards were to be seen until one reached [the Jewish village of] Yabna [Yavne]….Houses were all of mud. No windows were anywhere to be seen….The ploughs used were of wood….The yields were very poor….The sanitary conditions in the village were horrible. Schools did not exist….The western part, towards the sea, was almost a desert. . . . The villages in this area were few and thinly populated. Many ruins of villages were scattered over the area, as owing to the prevalence of malaria, many villages were deserted by their inhabitants”. (Cmd. 5479  p. 233)

The Report also drew on contemporary descriptions of the economic situation in Palestine, written in the 1830s and supplied to the Commission by Lewis French, the British Director of Development:

We found it inhabited by fellahin who lived in mud hovels and suffered severely from the prevalent malaria…. Large areas…were uncultivated… The fellahin, if not themselves cattle thieves, were always ready to harbour these and other criminals. The individual plots…changed hands annually. There was little public security, and the fellahin’s lot was an alternation of pillage and blackmail by their neighbours, the Bedouin”. (Cmd. 5479  pp. 259-260)

Meyer Levin, the American writer (1905 -1981) recounts in “My Search” that it was impossible to travel directly northwards from Tel Aviv to Netanya, some 25 km away without deviating a considerable distance inland because of the intervening marshland. The present-day route of the “old” Tel Aviv – Haifa road still reflects this.

Derived from the reports of foreign travellers and early settlers (Oliphant), cartographers (Van de Velde), and foreign exploratory expeditions (Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF)), Arie Avneri, in a detailed study provides a description of the topographical and demographic conditions prevailing in the various regions of Palestine immediately prior to Jewish settlement.

(Arie L. Avnieri, The Claim of Dispossession- Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs 1878-1948, Yad Tabenkin, Efal, Israel 1982 “Avnieri”)

For example, he notes the fertility of the soil but the sparseness of population and lack of agricultural development in the valleys of the Hula, Kinorot, and the Kishon, owing to their marshy and malarial conditions.

In the valleys of Beit-Shean, Jezreel, and Zevulun, located on the trade routes and where permanent human habitation was possible, Bedouin raids on the settlements – especially in drought years – discouraged any permanent Arab settlement.

Mount Carmel was also waste land. Development was ruined by foreign and local wars and its western slope was malaria ridden, all of which contributed to the abandonment of seventeen villages before Jewish settlers arrived in 1882
(Avnieri pp 49-50).

The coastal area of Samaria (Shomron) starting at the foot of Mount Carmel and stretching south to the Sharon Plain was in a state of desolation and completely ravaged after the military campaigns of Napoleon and Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt (see Section 2 below).

The coastal Sharon Plain was poorly cultivated owing to the sandy nature of the soil and marshlands created by the Alexandra River and further south by sand dunes. Those villages which did exist, described in 1874 by C.R.Condor, were miserable and half in ruins, the villagers downtrodden and browbeaten by money–thirsty absentee landlords (Avneiri p.53).

The Mountain Regions were varied in their population. Parts around Tulkarm were relatively well populated, providing a refuge from malaria and protection against Bedouin raiders. Nevertheless, internal feuds between village clans caused many villages to be destroyed, although their inhabitants tended to remain in the area. The lack of security, however, inhibited the fellahin from investing much effort in improving the soil conditions.

Villages lower down the mountain and closer to the sea, such as Auja, Sidna Ali, Ramadan, Kabani and Hadera, were scattered and thinly populated, because of the sandy soil, punctuated by swampy stretches.

Southern Judea and the Negev, although not plagued by malaria, were no better for agricultural use or permanent settlement. These regions lacked rain and were frequently drought ridden, and the soil was sandy, being often invaded by sand dunes.

By way of contrast, Gaza in 1886 was a town with a population of some 20,000 inhabitants (but see section 2 as to their place of origin). Its people were poor and lived mostly from trade with the Egyptians. In the narrow strip between the coastal sands and desert interior, some fellahin were found to be growing fruit, watermelons and vegetables.

b.  Lack of Security for Persons and Property

During the first three decades of the 19th century, Palestine, like the remainder of the Ottoman Empire, was in a general state of decline and stagnation. Despite the ten years of Egyptian military occupation of Palestine between 1831-1841 which brought in its wake significant Egyptian migration (see section 2 below), the total indigenous population of the area did not exceed 250,000.

Under Ottoman rule the Arab male fellahin were extremely insecure both in their person and economically, being eligible both for military conscription while at the same time suffering Egyptian and Bedouin incursions into their homesteads.

Bedouin terror prevented any significant permanent settlement in the principal plains of Palestine – the coastal plain and the Plain of Esdraelon – and compelled the Arab fellahin to retreat to the hill country of Judea and Samaria, which was more secure but less productive.

“According to Turkish registration books from 1596, it seems that the [coastal plain] served as home to Bedouins (Arab nomads) and Turkish and Kurdish nomads. In the eighteenth century, according to tradition, the amir (chief) of the Hawara Bedouins, who hailed from Bilad Hareth …in Eastern trans-Jordan, occupied part of the coastal plain by force. Hawara Bedouins did not cultivate the land; rather they occupied themselves with brigandage and inter-tribal wars. The outcome of their predatory activities was that Wadi Hawarith was described in the nineteenth century as abandoned, swampy, and malaria-ridden and that its passage was dangerous. The lands of the Wadi were described by the Ottoman governor of the Jerusalem region (1906-7) as abandoned lands that were sparsely inhabited by Bedouins”…

“Thus only a small part of the country was being used for agriculture.  The towns of Palestine at the beginning of the last [19th] century are best defined as large villages each built on a small area and possessing a limited economic base and a small population of up to 10,000”

(Ruth Kark, Changing Patterns of Land Ownership in Nineteenth-Century Palestine, (1984) 10 J of Historical Geography, 357, 374 ; ‘Landownership and Spatial Change in Nineteenth Century Palestine in Transition from Spontaneous to Regulated Spatial Organisation’ Inst. of Geography and Spatial Organisation, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, 1983 (“Kark 1983”) pp 185-187

Even by 1895, after the rural population had descended from part of the hilly areas and had begun to settle in plains, only ten per cent of the total area of Palestine was under cultivation, (Kark 1983 p. 189) notwithstanding that Arab urban entrepreneurs and absentee landlords had begun to assemble large tracts of land for resale, following the Ottoman land reform legislation (see section 3.c.ii. below).

c.    Fellah’s Economic Situation

Economically, the fellah was generally in a state of chronic poverty and indebtedness to his absentee landlord, seed suppliers and money lenders, owing to a number of interrelated causes: poor soil, lack of water, poor means of communication with the towns, unsuitable marketing arrangements, frequent crop season failures, and an antiquated land system. Even before the first modern Jewish settlement, established in 1855, Palestinian Arab society was already socially fragmented between the peasantry and landowning interests. This became exacerbated after the Ottoman land reform in 1858.

(Haim Gerber, The Social Origins of the Modern Middle East, Lynne Rienner, London, 1987, p.75  (‘Gerber).

Thus, while Palestine as a whole cannot be said to have been desolate and without population as claimed by the Zionists, its people were certainly not thriving. In the hilly areas, the Arab population, while not poverty stricken, was barely self-sustaining. In the plains and the valleys the travellers’ descriptions were a true reflection of the situation – vast desolate expanses devoid of permanent population, malaria infested and subject to the uncontrolled power of the nomadic Bedouin.

Aside from these environmental conditions there were a number of other factors that also contributed to the complex dynamics of the region.

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