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Background: The Peasants

Such was the situation concerning the workers at the outbreak of the 1936 revolt. However, what we have considered so far dealt only with one domain in which the conflict raged between the Jewish and Arab societies in Palestine and later inside each of these societies.

The other domain is the rural areas, where the conflict assumed its primarily nationalist form because of Jewish capital pouring into Palestine. Despite the fact that a large share of Jewish capital was allocated to rural areas, and despite the presence of British imperialist military forces and the immense pressure exerted by the administrative machine in favor of the Zionists, the latter achieved only minimal result (a total of 6,752 new colonizing settlers) in comparison to Zionist plans to establish a Jewish state. They nevertheless seriously damaged the status of the Palestinian Arab rural population. Ownership by Jewish groups of urban and rural land rose from 300,000 dunums in 1929 to 1,250,000 dunums in 1930. The purchased land was insignificant from the point of view of mass colonization and of the solution of the "Jewish problem." But the expropriation of nearly one million dunums - almost one-third of the agricultural land - led to a severe impoverishment of Arab peasants and Bedouins. By 1931, 20,000 peasant families had been evicted by the Zionists. Furthermore, agricultural life in the underdeveloped world, and the Arab world in particular, is not merely a mode of production, but equally a way of social, religious and ritual life. Thus, in addition to the loss of land, the Palestinian Arab rural society was being destroyed by the process of colonization.

Until 1931, only 151 per thousand Jews depended on agriculture for a living, compared to 637 per thousand Arabs. Of nearly 119,000 peasants, about 11,000 were Jews.31 Whereas, in 1931, 19.1% of the Jewish population worked in agriculture, 59% of the Palestinian Arabs lived off the land. The economic basis for this clash is very dangerous of course but to comprehend it fully we should see its national face.

In 1941, 30% of the Palestinian Arab peasants owned no land, while nearly 50% of the rest owned plots that were too small to meet their living requirements. While 250 feudal landlords owned 4 million dunums, 25,000 peasant families were landless, and 46,000 owned an average of 100 dunums. 15,000 hired agricultural laborers worked for landlords. According to survey of 322 Palestinian Arab villages conducted in 1936, 47% of the peasants owned less than 7 dunums and 65% less than 20 dunums (the minimum required to feed an average family was 130 dunums.) 32

Although they lived under the triple pressure of Zionist invasion, Arab feudal ownership of the land and the heavy taxes imposed by the British Mandatory Government, the Palestinian rural masses were primarily conscious of the national challenge. During the uprisings of 1929 and 1933, many small Palestinian Arab peasants sold their lands to big landlords in order to buy arms to resist the Zionist invasion and the British mandate. It was this invasion which, by threatening a way of life in which religion, tradition and honor played an important role, enabled the feudal-clerical leaderships to remain in a position of leadership despite the crimes they had committed. In many cases, it was feudal elements who bought the land to sell it to Jewish capital.

Between 1933 and 1936, 62.7% of all the land purchased by Zionists belonged to landowners residing in Palestine, 14.9% to absentee landlords and 22.5% to small peasants. While between 1920 and 1922, the figures were 20.8% from resident landlords, 75.4% from absentee landlords and 3.8% from small peasants.33 The laws passed by the Mandatory Government were designed to serve the objectives of Jewish settlement; although they were framed in such a way as to suggest that peasants were protected against being evicted or forced to sell. In reality they provided no such protection. This was illustrated in the cases of Wadi al-Hawarith, an area of 40,000 dunums, the village of Shatta with its 16,000 dunums and many other villages where the land was seized by Zionists after having evicted its inhabitants. As a result, the 50,000 Jews who lived in agricultural settlements owned 1,200,000 dunums - an average of 24 per inhabitant - while 500,000 Arabs owned less than 6,000,000, an average of 12 dunums per inhabitant.34 The case of the 8,730 peasants evicted from Marj Ibn Amer (240,000 dunums), where the land was sold to Zionists by the Beirut feudal family of Sursock, remained suspended until the end of the Mandate in 1948. 35

"Every plot of land bought by Jews was made foreign to Arabs as if it had been amputated from the body of Palestine and removed to another country."36 These words were those of a big Palestinian feudal leader. He added: "According to the Jews, 10% of the land was purchased from peasants, and the rest from big landlords...But in fact 25% of the land belonged to peasants."37 This apologetic attitude on the part of the feudalist does not change the fact that (as reported by Jewish sources) of the total land acquired by three large Jewish companies by 1936 (which accounted for half the land purchased by Jewish capital up to that date), 52.6% belonged to absentee landlords, 24.6% to residing landlords, 13.4% from the government, churches, and foreign companies, and 9.4% from individual peasants.38

This transfer of land ownership created an expanding class of dispossessed peasants who turned to seasonal salaried labor. The majority eventually made their way to the cities and sought unskilled labor. "For a peasant who was evicted from his land, it was impossible to secure other land, and the compensation was usually very small except in cases where the Mukhtar (Mayor) or other village notables were involved."39

The majority of dispossessed peasants thus moved to cities and towns. "In Jaffa, most of the street cleaners were ex-villagers; the Arab Cigarette and Tobacco Company in Nazareth reported that most of its workers were also of village origin."40 The following illustrates the fate of migrating peasants: "We asked the Company how many workers it employed and the answer was 210. The total weekly wages paid to the workers were PL62, amounting to an average of 29.5 piastres per worker per week."41 At that time, the average weekly wages of a Jewish woman worker in tobacco factories ranged from between 170 and 230 piastres a week.42 Even in government employment, an average Jewish worker earned over 100% more than his Arab counterpart.43 In 1930, the Johnson-Crosby commission estimated the average annual income of a peasant at PL31.37, before tax deductions. The report further indicated that average tax deductions amounted to PL 3.87. If we further deducted the PL8 that the average peasant paid as interest on his loans, the net income would amount to PL19.5 annually. According to the same report, the average sum required to cover the expenses of a peasant family was PL26. "The peasants, in fact...were the most heavily taxed group in Palestine...the policy pursued by the government clearly aimed at placing the peasant in an economic situation that would ensure the establishment of a Jewish national home."44

Clearly then, Jewish immigration and the transformation of the Palestinian economy from an essentially Arab agricultural economy to an industrial economy dominated by Jewish capital, affected primarily the small Palestinian Arab peasants. Tax exemptions were granted meanwhile to Jewish immigrants, as well as exemptions covering the imports related to Jewish industries, such as certain raw materials, unfinished products, coal...etc. Customs duty on imported consumer goods rose. The average import tax rose from 11% at the beginning of the Mandate to more than 26% by 1936; 110% on sugar, 149% on tobacco, 208% on petrol, 4005 on matches and 26% on coffee.45

An illustration of government policy is provided by the following story told by Archbishop Gregorius Hajjar to the Peel Commission: "I was once in the village of Roma in the Acre district, where the inhabitants live off the production of olive oil. For a long time, they had been complaining to the High Commissioner about the Oil Company. The Company received help from the government in the form of tax exemption on its imports of ground nuts from which it extracted oil and mixed it with olive oil and sold it at lower prices. The people in the village asked that their product be protected against the Company's product, and the government formed a committee to hear the villagers' complaints. When the committee went to Roma the villagers were furious to find out that its chairman was none other than the director of the Company."46

On the other hand, the tax system was clearly discriminatory in favor of the rich. On a yearly income of PL22.37 the tax rate was 25% while salaries and earnings that exceeded PL1,000 per year were subject to 12% in taxes.47

The small and middle peasants were not only impoverished as a result of losing their land, but were also the victims of Zionist practices that were based on the slogans of "Jewish labor only" and "Jewish products only." Jewish industrialists employed only Jewish workers, paid them higher wages and sold their products at higher prices. "Jews were encouraged to give preference to Jewish products although at higher prices than those of Arab competitors."48

Raw materials were exempted from custom duty, while high taxes were imposed on imported goods, particularly if similar goods were locally produced by Jewish factories.

On the other hand, the class that was known as the "effendi class" and lived in the town, derived their income from agricultural land rented to peasants and from interests on loans to peasants. (The Effendis did not begin to invest in industry until the forties.) This form of exploitation was by far more ruinous to the peasants than Zionist colonization.

Another rural group was the "Bedouins," who counted 66,553 in 1931 (in 1922 there were 103,000 Bedouin in Palestine). They were to play a principal role in the 1936 revolt, as they did during the August 1929 uprising. It drew the attention of the Palestine Communist Party in the congress referred to previously. The Bedouins, who made up nearly 35% of the population, constituted a potential revolutionary force. "Turned desperate because of severe impoverishment and constant hunger, they were always on the verge of armed uprisings. Their participation in the August uprising showed that they could play a leading role in a mass revolt, and at the same time it appears clearly that the leaders of these tribes could be spoilt by money. They were constantly providing the army of landless peasants and semi-proletarians with new hands and mouths."49

In the meantime, the fragmented Arab urban petty-bourgeoisie was in a state of confusion, indecision and fragmentation: the speed at which society was being transformed into a Jewish industrial society gave neither the growing bourgeoisie nor the feudalists the chance to take part in or to profit from the process. It was, therefore, by no means surprising that most of the Palestinian leaders who testified before the Peel Commission in 1937, and before the previous commissions, had eulogized Ottoman imperialism and praised the way it had treated them as compared with British imperialism. They had been the instrument of the Porte, the bulwark of the Sultan and an integral part of the system of domination, oppression and exploitation, whereas British imperialism had dismissed them from the post of chief agent, because it had found a better qualified, more firmly established and more highly organized agent in the Zionist movement.

In this way, the main outlines of the fundamental role that the feudal-clerical leadership was to play were established - it was to be a "struggle" for a better position in the colonialist regime. But they could not engage in this "struggle" without rallying around their support, the classes that were eager to free themselves from the yoke of colonization. With this end in view, they drew up a programme that was clearly progressive, adopted mass slogans, which they were neither willing nor able to push to their logical conclusions, and followed a pattern of struggle which was quite out of character.

Of course these leaderships did not have absolute freedom of action, as many people like to suggest; on the contrary, they were exposed to all the pressures that were shaping the course of events, to the increasing intensity of the conflicts and to all the influences we have already discussed. This explains why there developed from time to time partial contradictions between their interests and those of the ruling classes of the Arab countries surrounding Palestine, although they upheld the same class interests. It also explains their widescale alliances within the class structure of Palestine.