The Protocol Concerning Civil Affairs, an annex to the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip of September 1995, formalized the process by which Israeli authorities would transfer responsibility over land matters to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The first Oslo agreement had called for the establishment of a “Palestinian Land Authority” that could administer property matters in the areas under Palestinian self-rule. These matters include registration, surveying, and state and “absentee” lands. [1]

As they began their redeployment in late 1995, Israeli authorities transferred responsibility for land issues, as well as land records, to the PA. The PA’s Ministry of Justice has now begun the registering of land claims through its tabu department (from tapu, a Turkish word used in reference to title). The Ministry headquarters in Gaza initially handled the task of registration, but after June 1996 Palestinians could utilize tabu offices in West Bank cities. Palestinians from both Areas A and B can register land with the department. [2]

Yet problems remain. The title for much West Bank land had never been established definitively by the Jordanian government’s land settlement program which had, from 1952-1967, surveyed land and established title to usufructuary rights in some of the northern and central West Bank. [3] During the Israeli occupation, residents were forced to endure long waits to register land transfers in the tapu department and sales were generally conducted through a process known as wikala dawriyya (irrevocable power of attorney) by which the seller granted an intermediary the right to sell the land within a fixed, lengthy period of time.

This situation, combined with Palestinians’ improved ability to register land through the PA and the prospect of higher land prices, has led to an explosion in land disputes. These disputes are now being handled by the PA Justice Ministry’s civil court system. [4] Thousands of residents have flocked to PA courts seeking redress for occupation-era cases involving everything from boundary disputes to allegations of fraudulent sales. The overall insecurity of tenure during the occupation and the practice of wikala dawriyya, whereby some unscrupulous agents resold the same land more than once, worsened this situation. A number of Palestinians from Bethlehem currently living in Latin America discovered that their land in Palestine had been sold without their consent through such methods. Jordanians who possess land rights in the West Bank have similarly discovered that their rights have been disposed of improperly by other landowners in the village. While Palestinians living under the PA are able to secure their legal usufructuary rights through government agencies administered not by a foreign power but by the PA, the process of securing these rights has been fraught with difficulty, with the ultimate success of this venture dependent upon the PA’s access to historical documents.

Land records inherited from the Israelis are sometimes incomplete. Other land documents were destroyed in a series of mysterious fires and acts of vandalism in Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem and Ramallah in 1984 and 1985. [5] Since October 1995, in the absence of solid documentary evidence in the tapu registries, Palestinians have had access to the 1952-1967 Jordanian land settlement records from the Jordanian department of lands and survey in Amman. Any person related to a landowner whose name appears in the Jordanian records can purchase a map and a document known as an ikhraj qayd to bolster their land claims in Palestine. This service represents a reversal of long-standing Jordanian policy, adopted in July 1967, forbidding access to any information about land ownership for fear it could be used to facilitate land sales to Israelis. [6] Even Palestinian authorities have recognized the value of the Jordanian records: A PA representative traveled to Amman in April 1996 to discuss obtaining microfilmed copies of these records for the PA.

1948 Refugee Property

Similarly, Palestinians concerned with the complex question of 1948 refugee rights and compensation/reparations for property left behind in what became Israel have begun searching for documentary support of their land claims.

From 1953-1964, the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) used microfilms of mandate land registers donated to it by the British — one source of such information — to determine the extent of Palestinian property in Israel. Individual Palestinians have requested copies of UNCCP documents over the years to support their claims to future compensation. Additionally, the UN provided microfilmed copies of these records to Egypt, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s and 1980s.

The PLO and the PA, however, have been unable to access the PLO’s copy of the films for use in the final status talks with Israel. They are stored in Damascus and under the control of a rejectionist faction. One solution could be the use of Jordan’s records relating to Palestine, a subject already introduced in PA-Jordanian talks in early 1996. Jordan’s records relating to land in Palestine are extensive, and include not only the West Bank documents mentioned above but Ottoman and British registers for all of Palestine. The Jordanians also possess other mandate-era records as well as a microfilmed copy of the same British registers that the UNCCP holds. Jordan obtained its copy in 1952 from a Palestinian employee of the former Palestine land department who had hidden the films in Jerusalem during the 1948 fighting. Jordan later bought microfilms from the UNCCP itself as well. But Jordan has refused to grant information on land holdings from its pre-1948 Palestinian holdings to the public, a policy it reiterated in December 1996. [7]

Local Palestinian NGOs also have begun searching for records relating to refugee property. In early 1996, by soliciting information through newspaper advertisements, the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment began compiling a database of refugee properties in West Jerusalem. So too has the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem’s Orient House. Likewise, individual Palestinians have begun retaining lawyers in Jordan and Israel with an eye to obtaining historical data regarding their ancestral lands in Palestine. In some cases, Israeli lawyers have even traveled to Amman for information given the paucity of solid data in Israel itself.

One of the main challenges facing Palestinians’ ability to secure their rights to land in the wake of the Oslo accords, whether in terms of land in the PA or 1948 refugee property in Israel, has been locating vintage land records they can trust. Long-buried records from Amman to New York may thus play an important part in consolidating Palestinian rights to land-one of the most important dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.


[1] In Area C (areas outside of Palestinian towns and villages), however, the Protocol stated that responsibilities for land matters would be handed over “gradually” over an 18-month period following inauguration of the Palestinian Council.
[2] Land registration has proceeded apace under the PA. Thus self-rule, in this regard, has proven helpful to the Palestinians in Areas A and B. Due primarily to the insufficient number of employees working in the PA court system, thousands of land disputes continue to languish in the PA court system and the number is growing steadily.
[3] Michael R. Fischbach, “The Implications of Jordanian Land Policy for the West Bank,” Middle East Journal 48/3 (Summer 1994).
[4] These disputes are intra-Palestinian and concern lands under the authority of the PA, i.e., Areas A and B. Area A consists of 1 percent of the West Bank, 27 percent of the West Bank falls into the category of Area B while the remaining Area C constitutes 72 percent. Approximately 60 percent of the Gaza Strip is now under the control of the PA.
[5] See Raja Shehadeh, The Law of the Land: Settlements and Land Issues under Israeli Military Occupation (Jerusalem: Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, 1993), p. 59.
[6] The Jordanians still do not issue formal deeds for such land, a policy reiterated in December 1996. See press reports from al-Ra’y, December 15, 1996.
[7] Ibid.

How to cite this article:

Michael R. Fischbach "Documenting Land Ownership in the Palestinian Authority," Middle East Report 202 (Spring 1997).

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