Munir Fakher Eldin traces Palestinian struggle against Zionist land grabs in Beisan valley in new book chapter

Dr. Munir Fakher Eldin, director of the Master’s Program in Israeli Studies at Birzeit University, has recently contributed a chapter on Palestinian struggles against land allotment during the British Mandate era as part of a forthcoming edited collection on colonial land privatization, allotment, and dispossession by Daniel Heath Justice, of the University of British Columbia, and Jean M. O’Brien, of the University of Minnesota. 

The book, which will be entitled “Allotment Stories: Indigenous Land Relations Under Settler Siege,” discusses the ways and methods through which colonial forces took control of indigenous lands and the multitude of ways by which native landowners resisted these attempts. 

The edited volume contains 12 stories of native resistance, from the use of homesteading by nineteenth-century Anishinaabe women to maintain their independence, to the struggle of the Sakhina community in the Beisan valley against land grabbing attempts by the Zionist movement under the legal cover of the British Mandate government at the time. 

In his chapter, Fakher Eldin discusses how the Sakhina community’s steadfastness in the face of land grabbing attempts represented a change in the Palestinian struggle from communal strategies to resist emerging capitalist relations in land, to confronting the Mandate’s legal system and pressing for Palestinian national rights before British imperial policymakers. 

The Sakhina community in the Beisan valley, as Fakher Eldin explains, first experienced land allotment under the rule of the Ottoman ruler Abdulhamid II in the late 1800s (1880–1890). Under the policy of imperial estates (jiftlik humayuni), Sakhina farmers lost the deeds to their lands to the Ottoman authorities, but they gained a protected life under the banner of the sultan. 

Under the British Mandate, however, a colonial land settlement policy was introduced. While this policy “returned” the land to the Palestinian farmers under a private registration scheme, it increased indebtedness, forcing members of the Sakhina community to accept an offer from an influential man of Lebanese origins residing in Palestine, Suleiman Nassif, and his partner, an Englishman in the name of Captain Ross residing in Nablus, to register the land in Nassif’s name and become his tenants on what was originally their land. 

This step, Fakher Eldin notes, was pivotal in the history of the Beisan valley. Nassif and Ross were, in reality, brokers who sold the lands of Sakhina farmers to the Zionist Jewish National Fund, thus beginning “Nakbat Filastin”, a term that the Sakhina community used in 1935, nearly a decade and a half before the term Nakba was coined for the great Palestinian exodus of 1948. 

Over nearly a decade, the Sakhinites resisted eviction and mobilized national solidarity networks to support their cause. During the Great Revolt (1936-1939), they were the first to face the new type of militant Zionist colonies known as “Wall and Stockade,” when the Hashomer Hatzair settler movement establishment the first colony of this kind, named Tal Amal or Nir David, on their lands. 

After the revolt, the Sakhinites were forced to evacuate, but the Mandate government was compelled to admit them in a nearby land it had possessed as part of a program for resettling landless Arab tenants who lost their tenancy as a result of Zionist landownership elsewhere in Palestine. During the 1940s, the Sakhinites forced the Zionist settlers out of their original lands on several occasions. The Palestinian community remained steadfast in their struggle until their forceful eviction by the organized settler militias in 1948.

Fakher Eldin’s chapter, overall, takes a critical historiographical stand by transcending the bourgeoise concept of land ownership, which assumes a pure commodity form in land as the measure according to which Palestinian history is usually narrated. Instead, the chapter reconstructs the popular concept of land as a communal heritage, as a zone of life, and as part of one’s homeland which cannot be alienated under economic pressures. In this sense, land registration simply meant a form of tenancy under indebtedness, not an absolute claim of property by the registered owner.