Far from the glare of the media attention, on dusty shelves lining the basement of the Jordanian Department of Lands and Survey in Amman, lies a key to the political and economic viability of the Palestinian entity which may emerge out of the Oslo accords. Scores of folders documenting the details of land ownership in the West Bank, including titles to land and water rights and the location of state land, lie waiting for the PLO’s call.

Drawn up by Jordanian surveyors in the 1950s and 1960s, these documents comprise some of the most important resources by which Palestinians from the West Bank will be able to prove citizenship in the new entity. These documents will also play a crucial economic role in determining title to land in the West Bank, without which ambitious schemes for agricultural and infrastructural development will prove impossible. Their value to the nascent Palestinian administration is incalculable.

The “land settlement” records for a given village list the rights of each landowner, the surface area of each plot and its value at the time the records were generated. Just under half of the West Bank’s villages had been surveyed and settled by 1967. Copies of the records were sent to Amman for safekeeping. Jordanian authorities have provided information from them to Palestinians seeking to prove descent from West Bankers in order to obtain Jordanian passports since 1967.

Since Israel has thus far rejected any repatriation of 1948 refugees, the only Palestinians able to claim “citizenship” rights in the new Palestinian entity will be the current population and some of the 1967 refugees and their descendants. The 250,000 West Bankers who fled to Jordan in 1967 have now multiplied to 650,000 persons, of whom the PLO estimates some 500,000 will want to return. [1] Jordan is anxious for these people to return for its own domestic political reasons. The Declaration of Principles between the PLO and Israel mandates the formation of a committee comprised of Israelis, Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians to establish procedures for admitting returnees. The Jordanian land records will prove vital in determining who is, or is descended from, a West Banker.

The Jordanian survey and land settlement campaign in the West Bank, which started in 1952 and was still underway in 1967, also produced detailed topographical and cadastral maps which could prove the final arbiter in settling questions of village and municipal boundaries in the new entity. [2] They can also be used to determine exactly how much land has been seized for Israeli settlements. The political use of Jordanian maps was dramatically illustrated in the 1980s, when Jordanian officials provided Egypt with a Mandate-era British map which showed that the village of Taba lay on the Egyptian side of the contested Egypt-Israel border. Jordan also claims that its maps show that Israel has illegally occupied 321.3 square kilometers of Jordanian territory since 1948.

Additionally, Jordan’s well-trained lands department is the logical party to finish the survey, reopen the eight former land registration offices and readminister Jordanian land law, still legally in effect. The Jordanians could also train the “Palestinian Land Authority” mandated by the Declaration.

This will not be the first time that land documents have proven vital in settling questions relating to Palestinian rights. Britain turned over copies of land records to the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine in 1948. In accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 394 (V) of 1950, the Commission’s technical office studies property left behind by Palestinian refugees in 1948, based on research into these and other records examined in Gaza, Israel, Jordan and Syria, for possible compensation. In 1964, the Commission announced completion of its “technical program,” which inventoried and valuated some 453,000 individual plots of land owned or leased by Palestinians in what became Israel. The Commission’s technical office was closed in 1966 and Israel never paid compensation, but the UN has preserved the land documents and the “technical program” inventory. The General Assembly still periodically calls upon governments to provide the Commission with records pertaining to Palestinian property in Israel. Palestinians over the years have petitioned the UN for information gleaned from its collection. [3]

Jordan has long recognized the valuable functions its land records serve. Access must be approved by the Department of Palestinian Affairs of the Foreign Ministry. In October, the government uncovered a scheme to sell state lands in Jericho illegally via a counterfeit letter from the lands department. [4]

Joint Jordanian-Palestinian committees are in place to coordinate the establishment of a Palestinian administration in the territories, and lands authorities began inventorying documents for the PLO within weeks of the signing of the Oslo accord, in preparation of an expected formal PLO request to access the records.


[1] Washington Post, September 29, 1993.
[2] In 1968, Israel forbade completion of the process. See Raja Shehadeh, Occupier&rsuqo;s Law; Israel and the West Bank (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1985), p. 23.
[3] New York Times, July 24, 1964; and Yearbook of the United Nations (n.p.:Columbia University Press with the United Nations, various years, particularly 1953, 1964 and 1965). Inquiries still trickle into UN headquarters in New York.
[4] Al-Ra’y, October 24, 1993.

How to cite this article:

Michael R. Fischbach "Palestinian Land Documents," Middle East Report 186 (January/February 1994).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This