Palestine: The history of how the land was lost

On March 30, Palestinians all over the world celebrate Land Day. It marks the pivotal events in 1976 when Palestinians in the Galilee region rose up to collectively resist Israeli expropriation of their land. The history of Palestinians is one of constant struggle to protect their land.

Of all the accusations cast around in Egypt against Palestinians, the most provoking is the condemning of them for “selling” their historical homeland and not actively resisting the influx of Zionists. 

A brief (selective) summary of the history of Palestine, from the start of the Zionist immigration in the 19th Century to the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948, demonstrates how this cannot be further from the truth. It seems essential that we keep narrating this history.


The land problem in Palestine started with the Ottoman Land Laws of 1858 and 1861, which made it mandatory to register communally owned land in the name of individuals who would be liable to pay taxes. Many Palestinian farmers didn’t consider the importance of this process, and therefore didn’t register the lands they had historically inhabited under their names. In other cases, farmers who had registered the lands under their names became unable to pay the imposed taxes, which resulted in them becoming mere tenants on the lands they had inhabited and farmed for hundreds of years after they was confiscated and sold to the highest bidder. This led to the appropriation of large areas of land in Palestine by wealthy non-Palestinians in Damascus and Beirut, and it was these individuals that the Zionist project generally approached when trying to buy land in this period. At the beginning of the First World War, all Zionist land purchases amounted to less than 1.6 percent of the total area of the future British Mandate. Of the lands purchased, 58 percent were bought from absentee non-Palestinian landowners, 36 percent from absentee Palestinian landowners, and the remainder from local wealthy families and farmers.

By 1917, the British had occupied Palestine and issued the Balfour Declaration in violation of their earlier promises in 1915-1916 to the Arabs, as per the Hussein-MacMahon correspondence between the Sharif of Mecca (the traditional steward of Mecca and Medina, descendants of Prophet Mohamed) and the British High Commissioner in Egypt, concerning land under the Ottoman Empire. As a result, Muslim and Christian Palestinian notables held a meeting and adopted a platform opposing the Balfour Declaration and calling for a representative government, in what was later referred to as the “First Palestinian National Congress.”

When it became apparent that the British had no intentions of leaving and were also favorable towards Zionism, the Palestinians initiated major demonstrations and riots in the early 1920s. One of these demonstrations coincided with the visit of Winston Churchill and attempted to block his train. Many Palestinians were killed as British troops opened fire on more than one occasion.

With the British mandate officially endorsed by the League of Nations in 1922 and the sustained increase in Zionist immigration and settlements, mass scale Palestinian resistance intensified in the following years, leading eventually to the large scale Buraq uprising in 1929, which was suppressed by the British Police and led to the death of more than one hundred Palestinian Arabs. The continued favoritism by the British towards the Zionists and the rise of Nazi Germany resulted in a notable increase in Zionist immigration and land ownership in the following years. The Palestinians were incensed and it was the killing of Ezzeldin al-Qassam — the founder of the Black Hand, who was trying to spark an organized armed revolt in Palestine — by British Police that eventually sparked the famous 1936-1939 second Arab Revolt. 

The events of the Great Arab Revolt started with a nationwide general strike that lasted for almost six months and was considered by some as the longest general strike in history, before it turned into an armed uprising in the spring of 1937. The Palestinians effectively took control of large areas of land from the British, including older parts of the cities of Jerusalem, Hebron and Nablus. Tens of thousands of British troops were deployed and the revolt was suppressed with difficulty over the course of 18 months of intense fighting by the combined forces of the British Army and Zionist forces, with the catastrophic loss of more than 5,000 Arab lives. In total, 10 percent of the adult Arab male population was killed, wounded, imprisoned, or exiled by the end of the Great Arab Revolt, with a high proportion of casualties being the experienced military commanders and the most unyielding fighters, a loss that would prove vital in the following years. 

Despite being brutally crushed, the massive and bloody Great Arab Revolt is credited with leading the British to issue the Macdonald White Paper (WP) in 1939, which clearly rejected the idea of the creation of a Jewish state and the partitioning of Palestine. In addition, it limited yearly Jewish immigration to 15,000 people over five years, and called for an independent state with an Arab majority to be established within 10 years, which was a severe blow to Zionist efforts. The result was that the Zionist settlers refused to abide by the WP of 1939, organizing a series of illegal immigration efforts in the years that followed, which intensified with the Jewish persecution in Europe. The Zionist paramilitary groups supported this effort by conducting a series of terrorist attacks against both the Arabs in Palestine and also the British forces, now considered their enemy.

By 1945, official studies by the Anglo-American Committee revealed that Zionist settlers had acquired 1,393,531 dunams — a measure of land area used in parts of the former Turkish Empire. 1 dunan is equivalent to about 1000 square meters. Roughly 850,000 dunams of the land acquired by Zionist settlers was purchased under the British Mandate, and the rest was purchased when the area had been under Ottoman control. This constituted about 5.3 percent of the total land area of mandatory Palestine. In all, it is estimated that the Zionist settlers held seven percent of the total area of the British Mandate of Palestine just before the infamous United Nations Partition Plan in 1947, which granted them 56 percent of the land after the Zionist Lobby pressured the United States to bribe and threaten several countries like Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines and France to vote for the plan. The partition plan led to a full scale conflict in Palestine, followed by the first intervention of Arab States in the conflict commonly known as the “Nakba,” which resulted in Israel occupying even more territory, bringing the total area under Zionist control in 1949 to 77 percent of the lands of the British Mandate of Palestine.

Map of land ownership in Palestine by sub-district in 1945

Map of land ownership in Palestine by sub-district in 1945

To add to the plight of the Palestinians, Transjordan, which had initially participated in the 1948 war with its own agenda of territorial expansion, formally annexed the area west of the Jordan River, which it had occupied in the war, calling it the West Bank, while Gaza was brought under Egyptian administration with a nominal Palestinian government. This was of course against Palestinian wishes and, as a result, Palestinians held no effective control over any lands after the first Arab-Israeli war, as opposed to them holding most of the lands under the British Mandate before the Partition Plan.

No words can describe the anger and frustration felt by some Egyptians because of the passiveness of their country in the Palestinian conflict and Egypt’s participation in the Gaza blockade. Having said that, one can understand the limited military or economic capabilities that Egypt now possesses. But, instead of swallowing the shame, for some people to vocally support and justify the Egyptian state’s position by accusing Palestinians of historical treason, is just becoming unbearable.


Note: All percentages of land ownership are assessed based on the area of the British Mandate of Palestine being 26,320,505 dunams, as stated in “A Survey of Palestine,” which was “the official research prepared by the Government of Palestine (then under British military occupation/Mandate) for the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1946.”

Mohamed Seif El Nasr 

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