Roger Owen, ed., Studies in the Economic and Social History of Palestine in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982).

The social and economic history of Palestine has received less attention from scholars than its political history. The drama of the political struggle in and for Palestine in this century between colonial settlers and the indigenous Palestinian Arabs is the main reason for this. Others include the difficulty researchers can encounter in obtaining reliable data (for the nineteenth century in particular), and the slowness with which Middle East historians have adopted concepts and categories developed to analyze other regions of the world, such as Africa and Latin America. This collection of four essays is a welcome addition to the small body of literature on recent Palestinian economic and social history.

Alexander Schölch’s “European Penetration and the Economic Development of Palestine, 1856-1882,” makes a number of interesting points. Foremost among them is Palestine’s remarkable economic upswing prior to the beginning of substantial European colonization in 1882. Palestine’s agricultural production and import-export trade activity grew, as did its towns and urban production. Much of this growth was a response to increasing European interest in the country. But European demand is not the full explanation, since internal Ottoman markets (including Egypt) also stimulated production of Palestinian agricultural and manufactured goods. Schölch calculates that Palestine had a trade surplus in most of the 1856-1882 period, counting foreign and intra-Ottoman trade together.

Palestine was being integrated into the world economy in these years. For instance, cotton production greatly expanded in the late 1850s and early 1860s when cotton prices rose and supplies to Europe from North America were interrupted by the US civil war. Two structural changes which this integration brought about were the creation of a commercial bourgeoisie linked to trade with Europe, and the creation of large areas of landed property. The coastal regions, including the country’s ports and much of its best land, were most affected by these developments. But Schölch argues that the Palestinian economy was not peripheralized in the period up to 1882. The basic structures of Palestinian economic life did not change, as artisanal crafts continued to flourish and agriculture remained diverse and flexible.

Schölch marshals data from published and archival sources, including German and Austrian diplomatic archives. His clear presentation and careful analysis of this information are commendable. “European Penetration” is a good example of the kind of basic research which needs to be done in the field of nineteenth-century Middle East economic history.

In “The Political Economy of the Jabal Nablus, 1920-1948,” Sarah Graham-Brown characterizes the hill country as a “periphery within a periphery” due to the uneven development of the Palestinian economy under the Mandate. She focuses her attention on one hill region, Jabal Nablus (today part of the West Bank), examining the changing relations of production there. Borrowing criteria developed by G. N. Kitching for Kenya, she studies to what extent products of surplus labor, means of production (especially land) and labor power were converted into commodities. “The main purpose of selecting the [Jabal Nablus] region is to examine changes in economic conditions in an area where the direct effects of Jewish colonization and land-buying were of negligible importance.” Her evidence is drawn in large part from Palestine Government records and publications. It suggests that, despite the “backward” and apparently static character of Jabal Nablus’ economy compared to that of the coast, the Jabal was in fact bound to and affected by the “dynamic” sector of the Palestinian economy and the world market.

Relations of production in agriculture are Graham-Brown’s principal concern. She portrays a peasantry “which had only one foot in the market economy and retained a substantial part of the crop for its own consumption.” Most peasants in Jabal Nablus had to seek off-farm work to supplement their agricultural income, and a small number were able to take advantage of the commodity market to improve their economic position. But a class of rich peasants or kulaks did not emerge. Likewise, sharecropping in various forms remained prevalent in relations between large landowners and their tenants. These phenomena buttress Graham-Brown’s main thesis, that the people of Jabal Nablus did not experience “a straightforward progression towards social formations appropriate to capitalism.” In terms of Kitching’s three criteria, only the products of surplus labor had been converted into commodities in Jabal Nablus by 1948. Means of production and labor power were not converted to the same extent.

Salim Tamari discusses the concepts of “faction” and “class,” and how they can be used to understand “the inner dynamic of Palestinian social structure before 1948,” in his “Factionalism and Class Formation in Recent Palestinian History.” Factions in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Palestine have included fictive alignments (Qays and Yaman), confessional loyalties (institutionalized in the Ottoman millet system), and alignments based on regional loyalties and patronage. Each of these factional alignments played a role at different points in Palestine’s recent history. The Qays and Yaman alignments were instruments whereby rural and urban peoples allied in pursuit of common goals. (Incidentally, the existence of Qays and Yemen in the last century challenges the traditional missionaries’ and travelers’ view, still in evidence today, that Palestinian society was fundamentally divided among mutually hostile peasant, urban and nomadic factions). Qays and Yaman “lost their effectiveness as foci of clan identification when a new, more complex system of alliances was needed to meet the transformed relations between the peasantry and the urban sector on the one hand, and the Jewish social structure on the other.” The millet system among Palestinian Christians broke down as secular politics, spurred by the challenges of Zionism and imperialism, gained momentum. By the period of the Mandate, pyramidal clan-based patronage systems were the principal forms of political organization.

Tamari asks whether factional alignments “deflected” class solidarity in the Mandate period, and responds affirmatively. He points to instances when factional politics were challenged “by groups mobilized along non-factional and, in some cases, class lines.” His examples include the Qassamites (“peasant warriors” and “destitute laborers”), the Palestine Communist Party (unionized workers) and the Istiqlal Party (professionals and others of middle-class origin). But he also points to “the limitations imposed on class politics in a situation where the structural conditions for the growth of a hegemonic class did not obtain.” There was no Palestinian bourgeoisie strong enough to act politically on its own, as testified by the limitations of the Istiqlal Party. Only the landlords and their associated urban functionaries behaved politically as a class, and the patronage system was suited to their exercise of hegemony.

Implicit in Tamari’s argument is that the dynamic of certain pre-capitalist societies can be understood better in terms of factional than of class politics. At the same time, though, the factional structure of politics may itself express the interest of social classes at the summit of society — landlords in Palestine’s case.

The final essay is the late Avi Plascov’s “The Palestinians of Jordan’s Border,” which discusses the refugees and border inhabitants of the West Bank between 1949 and 1967. Both groups suffered as a result of the 1948 Palestine war. Refugees lost their land, and the best land of border villages was usually on the Israeli side of the armistice line. The essay’s value lies in the overview it provides of relations between West Bank Palestinians and the Jordanian regime, who defined their respective interests differently. While the border inhabitants and refugees wished to strengthen their economic and military position in order better to confront Israel, the Jordanian government wanted to ease inter-state tensions with Israel by thinning out the population along the armistice lines. To this end refugees were moved eastward, West Bankers were encouraged to move to the East Bank, and the state made few economic investments in the West Bank. When under popular pressure the government agreed to set up a National Guard in the West Bank, its aim was not to arm the people for self-defense, but to stop Palestinians from “infiltrating” across the armistice lines to reap from their old fields or to attack Israeli targets.

Plascov’s essay suffers in places from questionable or undocumented generalizations. The coastal economy in pre-1948 Palestine is called “British- and Jewish-dominated,” even though Arab merchants and landowners had a big stake in it as well. Plascov’s apparent purpose is to contrast the “backward” Arab economy of the West Bank with the dynamic and expanding coastal economy. A reading of Graham-Brown suggests that this sort of schematization does not accurately reflect the actual relationship between the coastal and mountain economies. Tensions between peasants and bedouins are referred to but not documented. As Tamari indicated, one cannot assume that peasants and bedouins were always on bad terms. Plascov makes intriguing references to bedouin smuggling activities across the armistice lines, but does not provide specific details or references for the interested reader.

The Israeli conquest of the West Bank in 1967 reunited it with the rest of the former Mandate of Palestine. Plascov sees only benefits accruing to the “backward” border region as a result. The conquest, he writes, “served the interests of both Israel and the border towns.” It is an assessment to which many of those conquered might take exception.

Together with editor Roger Owen’s introduction discussing problems of Palestinian historiography, these essays will be of interest to all students of Palestinian history. The price of the book is high for many people; one hopes the publisher will issue a paperback edition to make it more accessible.

How to cite this article:

James A. Reilly "Owen, Studies in the Economic and Social History of Palestine," Middle East Report 116 (July/August 1983).

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