Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Palestinians: The Land and the Law, an Inverse Relationship

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Palestinians: The Land and the Law, an Inverse Relationship

Article excerpt


Prior to 1947, the Palestinians, who hoped one day to be part of a sovereign Arab Palestine, whether within Syria or as an independent state, were able to live in and move over their land freely. When they were displaced, it was almost always as a result of financial transactions (where land was bought and sold over their heads) or economic need (unemployment). Of course they had no political rights, but they maintained physical access to the land. Despite the encroachment of both the British and the Zionists, they were able to prosper in some parts of the country. (1)

Before the land was lost to them, physically in part, and politically in its entirety, Palestinians had the same type of deep attachment "to place" as other "traditional or semitraditional societies." (2) Their interest in the land was implicit, rather than obsessively verbalized, since they took it for granted as a place they had lived in for generations and which provided them with physical and symbolic sustenance. It was what the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan calls a "rootedness" characterized by its unself-conscious quality, and opposed to the "sense of place" requiring "distance between self and place." (3) And it was certainly not an attachment to the land as landscape, for that was a particularly Western phenomenon. W.J.T. Mitchell speaks ironically of the ethnocentric and self-justifying perceptions of colonialist Westerners, but his analysis of the Palestinian relation to the land prior to the 1947-48 nakba has a great deal of pertinence in that it is describing a situation in which indigenous people are both in and of the land:

   The primitive or aboriginal dweller on the land (literally, the
   "pagan" or "rustic" villager) is seen as part of the landscape, not
   as a self-consciously detached viewer who sees nature "for its own
   sake" as the Western observer does. In addition, the native dweller
   is seen as someone who fails to see the material wealth and value
   of the land, a value that is obvious to the Western observer. The
   failure of the native to exploit, develop and "improve" the
   landscape is, paradoxically, what makes it so valuable, so ripe for
   appropriation. The failure to exploit the land, its "undeveloped"
   character, also seems to confer a presumptive right of conquest and
   colonization on the Western observer, who comes armed both with
   weapons and arguments to underwrite the legitimacy of his
   appropriation of the land ... Landscape thus serves as an aesthetic
   alibi for conquest, a way of naturalizing imperial expansion, and
   even making it look "disinterested" in a Kantian sense. (4)

As historians have shown, the pre-history of contemporary Palestinian identity can be found in the particular configuration of the maqamat, or holy shrines, that peppered the territory and defined the particular form of religiosity of Palestinian mountain dwellers as well as plains people, in which attachment to a particular place within the countryside was central. Each village, or at the very least each district, had a saint (wali) who protected the villagers. The wall's name was always invoked during prolonged absences from home. (5)

The coherence of the Palestinian land, expressed economically, socially, and culturally, had made it possible and logical in the 19th century for the European powers, in the course of their maneuvers over the Eastern Question in 1840, to offer the Egyptian ruler Muhammad All control over the so-called "pashalik of Acre," with borders that have since become universally familiar, since "for the first time" five European powers had "defined the contours of that which would in the twentieth century become mandatory Palestine." (6)

In other words, while the Palestinians cared very much about their land and had done so for generations, they were entirely "in-and-of" it and thus largely unself-conscious about it until the nakba, when everything changed. …

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