Palestine Peasantry

The present High Commissioner for Palestine, Sir Arthur Wauchope, is called by the Arabs and especially by their press, the “Fallahin’s (Peasants’) High Commissioner,” a designation that is justified by his great interest in the living conditions of the peasants. The great personal interest which he has manifested in the problems of the agricultural class, as well as his concern for agricultural schools and experimental stations, have created relations of real sympathy between the head of the country and the bulk of its population.

The fallahin, a sober and shrewd people, recognize these friendly endeavors, and do not follow the policy of “non-cooperation” with the government counseled by the leaders in the towns.

But the government’s care for the fallahin goes much farther than this. The economic situation of the peasants after the war became very critical in Palestine, as in all the surrounding countries where agriculture was the staple source of livelihood. The fall in price of agricultural products, owing to world market conditions, produced serious effects in a country so rich as Egypt, where forty per cent of the cotton crop remained unsalable and prices were five to ten times lower than they had been a few years previously.

PEASANTS’ PLIGHT IS BETTERED

In Syria, and especially in the Lebanon (which is more highly developed than Palestine, being since 1860 an autonomous province under French influence), the most important product for the maintenance of the population —silk culture—was nearly abolished, and only a few hundred people can now live on this industry which once gave bread to many thousands.

The prices for all the other products in that country fell enormously. Iraq, with its extremely fertile soil and irrigation possibilities, also suffered great losses through the depreciation of its main products— dates, cereals, etc.

Palestine at the time of the British Occupation was an insignificant strip of land with very poor agriculture except for a small area of orange groves. The exhausted soil gives a poor harvest in wheat, barley, maize and sesame.

The prices of these commodities of Palestinian agriculture, as well as those of Palestinian olive trees, so important in the hilly villages, dropped appreciably and affected the position of the fallahin, although their general condition improved considerably in comparison with their position under the Turkish regime, as they now have no military service, and enjoy a benevolent administration, as well as better hygienic conditions.

BRITISH ALLEVIATE BURDEN OF TAXES

The government began by alleviating the tax burden on the fallahin, and granted remission of tithes and animal taxes, besides providing relief works to a total amount of $1,340,000. Moreover, these reduced taxes have also not been paid, and arrears at the end of the financial year amounted to about $500,000, which will obviously be waived. Moreover, tithes ceased to be an important source of income in the Palestine budget.

The contribution of the agricultural population, which was, under the Turkish regime, one of the two main sources of the State’s revenue, was, last year, only a little over one per cent of the revenue of Palestine, which amounted to nearly $20,000,000.

CONDITIONS IMPROVE, LOAN GUARANTEED

This almost complete liberation from tax payment and remission of previous debts, which is unprecedented in any of the surrounding countries, such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq, was made possible only because the government found other and more lucrative sources of income, namely, from the economic developments resulting from Jewish immigration.

These revenues enabled the administration to relieve the agricultural population from the payment of taxes, and to create in a relatively short time conditions leading to the economic, cultural and hygienic improvement of the peasants. These revenues, moreover, afforded the basis for the government’s guarantee of the proposed loans of $10,000,000, nearly one-half of which is to be spent for the benefit of the agricultural population.

JEWISH POPULATION CREATES MARKET

The increasing Jewish population creates a market of large and growing capacity. The Arab fallahin is enabled more and more to substitute for the traditional crops of wheat, barley, maize, sesame, etc., which hardly cover the expenses, the production of vegetables and dairy products, which find a very satisfactory sale in the towns with a large Jewish population, such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa and the plantation colonies. The government undertook public works on a considerable scale as an emergency measure in order to employ the villagers when they were threatened by bad harvests.

It is thanks to the government also that a network of excellent roads has come into existence within the last few years, connecting the remotest villages in hitherto inaccessible mountain districts with the main arterial roads. Moreover, the economic developments effected by the Jewish settlers in both town and country provide steady employment for thousands of Arab fallahin at wages unheard-of in the surrounding countries.

NO ANTAGONISM BETWEEN JEWS, PEASANTS

Jews, of course, claim that the labor possibilities created by them should be reserved for the benefit of new immigrants: this is, indeed, a basic principle underlying the establishment of the Jewish National Home. It is, however, a matter of fact that in spite of this claim Arab labor is increasingly employed; recently seventy per cent of the workers in the flourishing Jewish plantation colonies were Arabs. And it is also a fact that thousands of Arabs from the neighboring lands of Transjordania and the Hauran filter in steadily, attracted by the opportunities of employment rendered possible by the Jewish capital and enterprise brought into Palestine from all parts of the Jewish Diaspora.

It is obvious that the concern displayed by the administration on the one hand, and the activity of the Jewish settlers on the other, are two factors of equally great importance in bringing about an improvement of the social conditions of the peasant class. There is no antagonism between the Jews and the Arab peasants. Jews were among the first who called attention in the most sympathetic manner to the unenviable living conditions of the Arab fallahin, the result of centuries of oppression, and there is no truth in the allegation that Jews are endangering Arab peasants in their land ownership.

ARABS SEEK COLONISTS

Of all the land acquired for Jewish settlement, perhaps ten per cent may have belonged to peasant small holders, the remainder being the property of rich absentee landlords. The small pieces of land which could be disposed of by the peasants are not suitable for Jewish settlements, which must be large enough to accommodate the minimum number of settlers requisite for the establishment of communal institutions.

There is no feeling on the part of the Arab peasants that Jews are a danger to them. On the contrary, impartial investigation would prove that they are fully convinced of the benefit accruing to them from Jewish effort. Just recently delegates of many villages in parts where no Jewish settlements exist approached Jewish agencies insistently to buy land from them and to establish Jewish colonies in order that they, the fallahin, “could become as wealthy as the fallahin of the villages in the neighborhood of the present Jewish colonies.”

They see the enormous increase that has taken place in the value of Arab property owing to Jewish development. Where there was land in 1910-1914 that could be bought at $3.00 per dunam (one-quarter acre) it now fetches as much as $100 and more per dunam.

WILL SETTLE 889 FAMILIES

The government has decided to use $1,250,000 out of the new Palestine loan for the settlement of 889 Arab families who, as the result of a prolonged official inquiry, have been declared to have been “displaced” by Jewish settlement, the period during which such displacement occurred stretching probably over more than fifteen years. The first attempt made by the government to offer land to a number of Arabs failed, as they refused the offer, and it merely resulted in unnecessary expense.

PROGRAM FURTHERS AMICABLE RELATIONS

There is a danger that the new plan of the government, undertaken on so large a scale, may degenerate into mere philanthropy similar to what the Jewish colonization was at first. But there is room for improving the position of the fallahin, as the government intends, by planning and executing work on a commercial basis, taking into consideration all the economic factors at work in the country.

The development work to be undertaken, based on cooperation between the administration, Arab peasants and Jews, and carried out on economically sound foundations, will improve the conditions of the Arab peasants and at the same time provide room for new Jewish settlements and thus lead to amicable relations between the two sections of the Palestine population.

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