Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.

Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949


Generalizing about the indigenous Arab population of Palestine during this period is difficult, as it was truly a heterogeneous community. In 1880 Laurence Oliphant, the British diplomat-anthropologist, identified nine different ethnic and religious groups in the farm villages around Haifa alone.[80] As Arab immigration ballooned during the British Mandate, it only increased the diversity. Most of the Sunni Muslim majority worked as small farmers, or fellaheen. In contrast, 10 percent of the Arabic speak-ing community identified by the 1931 census was Christian, and of this group only one in seven worked in agriculture. A rapidly growing com-munity of some sixty thousand Bedouin kept a distance from the perma-nent population, who feared these unpredictable nomads (seeFigure 2). Arab villages were prudently sited on the crests of hills for reasons of self-defense.[81]

With the improvement in personal security during the twentieth cen-tury, Arab villages spread out across the rural lands of Palestine, particu-larly in the coastal region, where Jewish activity was most intense. The proportion of land they controlled did not grow, despite calls in the Arab press as early as 1913 to buy state-owned lands before they were snatched by the Zionists. As land prices rose, there was little effort—and ultimately,

insufficient funds—for the systematic expansion of Arab landholdings and agricultural activity.

In practice, the new century did little to change the traditional, sub-sistence farming practices of the locals. Arab entrepreneurs such as Beirut-based Ibrahim Sursuk, who for the early years of the century hired thousands of laborers and even dabbled in swamp draining to estab-lish a modern cotton industry, suffered heavy losses.[82] The Arab fellaheen were only marginally influenced by the new technologies introduced by the European Jewish settlers, such as the more sophisticated thresher, or the “Jewish plow,” which replaced the traditional single-nail plow by the end of the Ottoman period.[83] Retention of fellah farming methods probably had more to do with financial constraints and the absence of formal extension programs (despite the educational program of the Mandate, by World War II rural illiteracy among men was still 70 percent[84]) than with ideology.

Today Palestinian agricultural experts are quick to point out the envi-ronmental benefits of the old fellah techniques.[85] The 1930 report of the Simpson Commission about conditions in Palestine (which was very neg-ative toward Zionist aspirations) reflected similar admiration; it spared no praise in its description of the diligence of indigenous Arab farming.[86] The market was less sympathetic.

The technology gap led to economic disadvantage for the fellaheen, as agriculture shifted from subsistence farming to cash crops. While far below Egyptian (not to mention European) levels, Jewish yields for cereal crops such as wheat and barley were more than twice those of the Arab farmers.[87] In particular in the lucrative citrus branch, the Arabs' mule-driven pumps could not provide the necessary irrigation for the planta-tions that expanded along with the ever-growing citrus demand from Great Britain.

With the rural population in the Arab sector doubling between 1922 and 1944 (from 375,000 to 734,000) and the available lands shrinking in the face of Zionist acquisition, subdivision led to further subdivision.[88] Reforms in the Mandate tax policy were designed to ease the burden on fellaheen, ultimately reducing their contribution to 2 percent of national collection.[89] It was not enough, however; taxes continued to exacerbate the destitution of the debt-ridden peasants. Sentimental and even environ-mental benefits notwithstanding, the old fellah methods of farming could not compete.

For a brief period, an exception to this trend, owing to government in-tervention, was the raising of olive trees. To assist the beleaguered fellaheen after Turkish plundering, the British offered olive trees at subsidized

prices. Mandate officials believed that the effect of the policy would be beneficial to the land, because it necessitated terracing and other soil con-servation practices.[90] Some one hundred thousand new dunams within the Arab sector were planted during the late 1930s. The new olives were typ-ically bought by the soap manufacturers centered around Nablus. Previously, these presses and factories had imported olives from Syria as a raw material.[91] It takes eight years for olives to begin giving fruit and twenty years to reach full production levels. Eventually, however, supply exceeded demand, and the market became glutted. Actual revenues from olive production remained a distant third behind citrus and wheat, leaving the financial profile of the fellah unchanged.[92]

The 1920s and 1930s witnessed an exodus of fellaheen from the farm to jobs in British public-works projects, Jewish industrial and agricultural ventures, and limited new Arab enterprises.[93] Already at the turn of the century, one thousand Arabs worked for the handful of Jewish farmers in Zichron Yaakov. Typical Arab wages in the late 1930s in Palestine ranged from 150 to 600 mills (25 U.S. cents to one and a half U.S. dollars) a day. While this may seem exploitive, it was more than double the going rate in Syria and three times the wages in Iraq.[94] In fact, the high salaries made Palestine a magnet for workers from the entire Arab world, much like Kuwait in the 1960s and 1970s. By 1935 large shantytowns sprung up out-side Haifa and Jaffa, the cities experiencing the most dramatic growth dur-ing this time. Relative to other parts of the region, residents enjoyed better health care and a higher quality of life. For instance, the infant mortality rate among Palestinian Arabs dropped by almost 100 percent between 1927 and 1940.[95]

The spectacular growth in the Arab population during the Mandate, therefore, was not reflected in an expansion and diversification in the Arab industrial base or even a proportionate rise in Arab agricultural productiv-ity. The soap produced from the local olive oil in Nablus, the cotton woven in Gaza, and the glass produced in the workshops of Hebron remained the best-known of the commodities manufactured in Arab cities.[96] Manufacturing was typically carried out in small workshops rather than large industrial plants. An interesting inventory of Arab industrial activ-ity in the Mandate can be found in the records of the Abandoned Property Commission, which appropriated the workshops and plants left behind by the fleeing Palestinian Arab population. In the city of Lod, this included shops for producing buttons, ice, sausages, pasta, and soft drinks.[97] These processes were not without environmental side effects. Environmental au-thorities in the Galilee today, for instance, express concern about the organic

sludge produced from the small, traditional olive-oil production units in the Arab community. Their impact is modest, however.

Although 64 percent of Palestinian Arabs still lived off the land at the end of the Mandate,[98] they had become more dependent on the burgeoning Jewish sector. Some left the country after losing their jobs during the 1936–1939 revolts (or simply fled because of the wave of internal assassi-nations that left five hundred Arabs dead).[99] The British Royal Commission of 1936 (known as the Peel Commission), however, reported that the large importation of Jewish capital into Palestine in general had a “fructifying ef-fect” on the economic life of the entire country and the expansion of Arab industry and citriculture.[100] Yet it was not an empowering influence.

Although the Arab sector may not have been a major source of pollu-tion, some of their activities were ecologically problematic. Naturalists are justifiably critical of Palestinian Arabs and Bedouin both for overgrazing rangelands and for unrestrained hunting during the Ottoman and British regimes. (Ironically with the drop in numbers of livestock, and of their car-casses due to natural death, after the Arab exodus, local scavenging birds of prey were denied an estimated six thousand tons of food and suffered accordingly!)[101] It is difficult to find precise figures regarding sanitation and sewage services in the Arab sector, but clearly these also fell behind those of Jewish settlements at the time. Nevertheless, since Arabs lacked the capital for large industrial and agricultural initiatives, the overall envi-ronmental impact of their activities was minimal. When the dust settled after the 1948 war, the number of Arab residents in Israel had dropped to an astonishing 156,000. With a tiny population, modest technologies and a low standard of living, Arab communities contributed little to the over-all pollution burden inherited by the new State of Israel.

Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949

Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.