Ottoman Land Laws

Land Laws in Ottoman Palestine – There was no ‘stolen land’ by Jews

Ottoman rule in what is now Israel and Jordan lasted for 400 years, between 1517 – 1917. The land east of the Jordan River (today’s Jordan) was sparsely populated by nomadic tribes and largely undeveloped.  Most of the Arabs living in the area west of the Jordan River (today’s Israel) during this time were serfs working the properties owned by wealthy Ottoman landowners, who mainly lived outside of Israel – many in Damascus. 

Like any great empire, the Ottomans had to collect taxes from its residents. In response, many Palestinian Arab serfs, to avoid paying high taxes and who generally did not trust government, chose against owning deeds to the land offered to them by their rulers. To further complicate matters, Bedouin tribes, often marauding, stole crops from the Arab farmers. Vast land tracts in Israel remained uncultivated, under-utilized, and in poor condition.

  • By 1875, Jews had reached a majority in Jerusalem according to a Turkish census.
  • In 1905, out of 60,000 residents in Jerusalem, 40,000 were Jews.
  • The first land purchases outside of the Old City were not by Ashkenaz Jews but by long-term Sephardic Jewish families in Jerusalem, who wished to move out of the over-crowded Old City.  They established the first communities outside of the traditional Jewish majority cities.
Jewish Majority in Jerusalem 1864
According to the British Embassy, there was a Jewish Majority in Jerusalem in 1864

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Despite Ottoman restrictions on Jewish immigration into Palestine after 1882, Ottoman land-owners decided to make a great profit for themselves by selling the land in Israel to Jewish organizations and individuals for up to eight! times the amount it was worth. 

It was the Jews who drained the swamps, got rid of malaria, and irrigated the land. As a result, Arab immigration increased between the World Wars. Both the now arable land and the better standards of living, improved the financial situation in Ottoman-Palestine. 

In 1948, Israel had in its holding all British Government Lands in the area of Palestine that it controlled. These properties, as outlined in the 1858 Turkish Land Registry Law (before which, no person had any official deeds to prove ownership), aimed to ascertain state control of lands including:

  • Abandoned mīrī represented about 70% of all Israeli-controlled Palestine. Mīrī is cultivated or cultivable land acquired for the state through conquest or through forfeiture. An individual could gain rights over mīrī land by cultivating it and both paying taxes and completing military service; the state continued to regulate its transfer and enhancement.
  • The Ottomans divided the Land of Israel into ‘sanjaks,’ or districts ruled by an official who was responsible for the military and administrative affairs of his region.
  • Mulk lands – private land, accounted for two percent, most of those lands belonged to the Muslim Waqf and Christian churches. The Greek Orthodox Church was and is the largest non-Jewish private landowner in Israel. 
  • Before Jews began cultivating the land, only half the land was considered miri, or fertile. Many Arabs falsely registered land as uncultivated mawat (untended) to avoid taxes.
  • The British in the 1940s mislabeled Arab land as Arab-owned land, when the deeds did not exist. The British did this as an antisemitic move. 

*At the time of Israel’s independence (1948), only 8.6% of the land was Jewish-owned, 3.3% Israeli-Arab owned, and close to 17% had been abandoned by Arab owners who left after Arab countries promised that Jews would be quickly killed, and their (the Arab) return would be swift.*

  • The unclaimed land that had been in the British Mandate control, comprised over 70% of the territory inherited from the Ottomans. When the British left, the land reverted to the State of Israel, legally.  
Palestine & Syria 1915 Sanjak map
Palestine and Syria in 1915
(Ottoman Sanjak regions)

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Ottoman Sanjak Map Before WWI
Ottoman Sanjaks in Palestine on eve of WWI

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Sultan Abdülhamid II's private lands in Ottoman Palestine
Sultan Abdülhamid II's private lands in
Ottoman Palestine

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“The greater part of this 70 per cent consisted of the Negev, some 3,144,250 acres all told, or close to 50 per cent of the 6,580,000 acres in all of Mandatory Palestine. Known as Crown or State Lands, this was mostly uninhabited arid or semi-arid territory, originally inherited by the Mandatory Government from Turkey. In 1948 it passed to the Government of Israel.”

“We found it (the Beit Shean area) inhabited by fellahin who lived in mud hovels and suffered severely from the prevalent malaria. Large areas of their lands were uncultivated and covered with weeds. There were no trees, no vegetables. The fellahin, if not themselves cattle thieves, were always ready to harbor these and other criminals. The individual plots of cultivation changed hands annually. There was little public security, and the fellahin’s lot was an alternation of pillage and blackmail by their neighbours, the Bedouin.” – Mr. Lewis French, Director of Development appointed by the British Government in 1931.”