The [partition] gave the Zionists almost all the fertile land, including huge, main citrus groves that accounted for most of our people’s export income. It gave away the vast Negev region where the Bedouins produced most barley and wheat grown in Palestine.
– Blood Brothers, Elias Chacour, p46
Overview of the truth
The notion that Israel was awarded the fertile land while the Palestinians were left with inarable wasteland is simply false. To begin with Israel was not awarded any land, the United Nations proposed a division of the land, which Israel agreed to and declared independence. The Arab nations responded by invading and after the war the area which Israel retained became Israel.
The borders that the UN proposed are different to the area which Israel retained after the War of Independence. These boundaries (the 1949 armistice lines) are recognised by most as Israel’s borders (with minor adjustments). The overwhelming majority of the territory which became Israel was incapable of producing crops and it wasn’t until Israel developed revolutionary land cultivation techniques that the desert bloomed.
There was no theft of good land.
The shortage of land is due less to purchase by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population. The Arab claims that the Jews have obtained too large a proportion of good land cannot be maintained. Much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamps and uncultivated when it was bought.
– Peel Commission
Did the UN give the Jews the fertile land?
When the United Nations proposed the boundaries of the future Jewish and Arab states, they were based solely on demographics. The borders of the Jewish State were arranged with no consideration of security; leaving the states frontiers virtually indefensible. When the Arab nations invaded Israel; Jordan captured and occupied the West Bank, while Egypt captured and occupied Gaza. Miraculously, Israel survived the onslaught and retained the territory the Arab armies were unable to conquer. As these new borders left Israel with a defensible frontier, it retained the land.
Overall, the Jewish State which the UN proposed was to comprise of roughly 5,500 square miles (about 55 percent of Mandatory Palestine), and the population was to be 538,000 Jews and 397,000 Arabs. The Arab State would be 4,500 square miles with a population of 804,000 Arabs and 10,000 Jews. Neither state included the Jews and Arabs of Jerusalem. 1<.sup>
Critics claim the UN gave the Jews fertile land while the Arabs were allotted hilly, arid land. To the contrary, approximately 60 percent of the Jewish state was to be the desert, along with uninhabitable swamps in the north. The Arabs on the other hand, occupied most of the agricultural land.2
Did Israel steal the fertile land?
According to British statistics, more than 70% of the land in what would become Israel belonged to the mandatory government. Those lands defaulted to Israeli control after the departure of the British. Another 9% of the land was owned by Jews and about 3% by Arabs who became citizens of Israel. That means only about 18% belonged to Arabs who left the country before and after the Arab invasion of Israel. The ownership of abandoned property, in Israel, like any other nation, defaults to the state.3 Incredibly, Israel still compensated the owners of these abandoned properties and those that were not will be as part of future deal.
When the conflict died down Israel found itself with very little fertile land, a mere 14% of the land was cultivated to grow crops 4 (the majority of which had been purchased by Jews before the war).3
Was there enough fertile land to support two people?
The early Zionists explicitly stated they had no intention of taking fertile land from its owners, rather, with revolutionary farming techniques they intended to transform ownerless arid land into rich fertile soil.
Zionists draining part of the Hula Swamp in the 1930s
The Arabs and Jews who lived there in 19th century were so few in numbers that the region was as sparsely populated as Canada is today. The overwhelming majority of the land was uninhabited and uninhabitable (there were huge stretches desert in the South, Mountains in the Midlands and swamps in the North). It was in these vast and empty expanses of land that the Jews saw potential.
According to an estimate of Professor Karl Ballod. the country’s irrigable plains are capable of supporting a population of six million, to be sure under conditions of intensive cultivation and using proper modern irrigation methods. It is on vacant lands that the Jewish people demand the right to establish its homeland.
The demand of the Jewish people is based on the reality of unexploited economic potentials, and of unbuilt-up stretches of land that require productive force of progressive, cultured people. The demand of the Jewish people is really nothing more than the demand of an entire nation for the right to work.
However we must remember that such rights are also possessed by the inhabitants already living in the country – and these rights must not be infringed upon.
Both the vision of social justice and the equality of all peoples that the Jewish people has cherished for three thousand years, and the vital interests of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and even more so in Palestine, require absolutely and unconditionally that the rights and interests of the non-Jewish inhabitants of the country be guarded and honoured punctiliously.
In analysing the rights and interests of the Jews and non-Jews of Palestine, we note a characteristic difference between the two. The non-Jewish rights consist of existing assets, material or spiritual, which require legal guarantees for their preservation and integrity. The Jewish interests, which also include some existing assets, consist mainly of the age-old opportunities offered by the country, the economic and cultural potential of this semi-desolate land, the hidden wealth of natural resources and the soil which the Jewish people is destined to uncover and exploit through a creative effort and the investment of wealth and toil.
The non-Jewish interests are conservative; the Jewish interests are revolutionary. The former are designed to preserve that which exists, the latter – to create something new, to change values, to reform and to build.
– Ben Gurion 29/1/1918
Hula Valley today, after it was drained
Before the Zionists started to emigrate to Israel the land was severely underpopulated. Their arrival introduced revolutionary farming techniques which transformed the desert into a vast oasis, rich with plants and fauna.
Neither the Israeli territory within the 1949 armistice lines or the proposed UN’s partition contained the majority of fertile land, which instead lay within the proposed Arab state. Superior agricultural infrastructure has meant that Israel is now far greener and richer than its neighbours, but this is the product of formidable innovation and back breaking hard work.
Learn more about how Israel as created:
- Did Israel get all of the good land?
- Did America create Israel?
- Is it true that Israel stole Palestinian land?
- Was there ever a Palestinian people?
- Was there ever a country called Palestine?
- Was the Zionist movement a plot to colonise the Middle East?
- Were the Jews unwilling to share Palestine?
- Was the UN Partition Plan unfair to the Palestinian majority?
- Are Israel’s borders expanding?
- Is it true that Britain created Israel?
- Why should the Palestinians pay for Europe's wrongs during the Holocaust?
1. Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), p. 292.
2. Aharon Cohen, Israel and the Arab World, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), p. 238.
3. Moshe Aumann, “Land Ownership in Palestine, 1880–1948,” (Academic Committee on the Middle East: Israel, 1974), p. 18.