New Documents Reveal Early Palestinian Attitudes Toward Zionist Settlements

Petitions sent by locals to the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul reveal the complexity of early encounters between local villagers and new European immigrants.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In the history of Zionism, the Zarnuka incident of 1913 has gone down as one of the first violent encounters between Jewish settlers and the local Arab population.

The clash, which left two Jews and one Arab dead, broke out between Rehovot settlers and residents of neighboring Zarnuka. It appears that members of "Hashomer," the newly founded Jewish defense organization, confronted two villagers who were stealing grapes from a vineyard belonging to Rishon Letzion settlers. The confrontation led to a mass brawl and ensuing acts of revenge.

The Halutzim naturally wrote their version of events: "One day, during the grape harvest, two Zarnuka thugs, sons of wealthy families, passed through the vineyards of Rishon Letzion, on their heavily loaded camels, and on their way, reached out to harvest some of the grapes," author Moshe Smilanski wrote. "One of Hashomer guards, from Jerusalem, a new 'green' recruit, confronted them. Realizing he was no hero, the Arabs ridiculed him, and even took his gun and beat him up."

As in so many incidents that enfolded in the early years of Zionism, often researchers have only had access to the version of events written by the Jewish side. At times, one could find another narrative – the official account of events as recorded by the local Ottoman administration. Still, a new document referring to the Zarnuka incident was discovered recently by researcher Yuval Ben Bassat, in the Istanbul Archives, a petition written to Sultan Mehmet V by heads of families in the area.

The petitioners present themselves as, "We, the residents of villages neighboring with the Jewish colonies of Daran [Rehovot] and Lun Kara (Rishon Leztion)," and complain that the Jews "wanted to strip the camel owner of their clothes, money and camels, but these men refused to give their camels and escaped from Lun Kara with their camels, protecting each other [to seek refuge with] men of the law The above mentioned Jews attacked our villages, robbed and looted our property, killed and even damaged the family honor, all this in a manner we find hard to put in words."

The villagers continue to voice their grievances about the Jewish attitude, the amassing of forbidden arms in the Jewish colonies, and even of bribery: "By payments they do whatever they want, as if they have a small government of their own in the country."

The Zarnuka petition is but one of thousands of petitions sent from Palestine to Istanbul at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. A reading of this correspondence sheds light on the way rural Arabs viewed the first Zionist settlements, as well as irreconcilable differences between the local population and the new European immigrants.

A huge gap is evident concerning the concept of land and property. As far as the Jews were concerned, purchasing the land from its owners – usually landowners who lived elsewhere – gave them full control of all rights concerning the land. The local Fellaheen and Bedouins saw things differently, however. They believed that the fact that they had lived and cultivated the land for centuries granted them rights on the land.

Thus, for example, in 1890, a Bedouin tribe who cultivated the lands that would later be Rehovot, wrote: "Lately, the supreme government has sold the place to certain people of the land. We did not protest since the new owners of the land clearly knew that the place was cultivated and handled by us for many centuries but, still in this condition, the land was suddenly sold to a group of foreign Jews [Asralin] who arrived with funds They began to expel us from the land we lived on the farm, which was ours since the times of our fathers and grandfathers, was forcefully taken from us by the strangers who do not wish to treat us according to the accepted norms among tillers of the soil, and according to basic human norms or compassion.

In short, they will not accept us, even as their slaves." The tribe requested that the sultan issue a decree allowing them to remain on their lands, or, alternatively, allocate other land for them.

In a paper soon to be published in the prestigious Catedra periodical of the Institute for the Study of Eretz Israel and its Settlement, Ben Bassat presents the Jewish point of view on this event: According to the Jews, they were the owners of the lands that were bought through Yehoshua Hankin, who was responsible for many land purchases. As a gesture to the Bedouins, they enabled them to continue cultivating the land for a certain period of time.

"We understood that after purchasing the land, paying its price and receiving the purchase deed from the government – then we are the owners of the land, and no one else has a say about it," Levin Epstein, head of the Rehovot settlement committee, wrote in his diary. "We asked them to leave the land, and they argued that they had leased their lands for two years and have planted seed only once, for the summer harvest, and therefore are entitled to plant winter seeds, harvest and thresh them, a process that would last all summer, and only then will they leave Hankin told us that the Bedouins are right. So we then compromised with the Bedouins, and agreed that they would remove their tents from our land, but could come and cultivate the leased land until they reap their winter grain. Thus, the first conflict between us and our neighbors ended well."

The petitions were discovered by Ben Bassat in the Istanbul archive as part of the research for his Ph.D at the University of Chicago, which focuses on the relations between the Ottoman Empire rule and the Arab population of Palestine. The petitions were a common means of voicing grievances to the rulers. As modern times set in, with the invention of the telegraph and the improvement of the mail delivery system, petition became ever more accessible. "This is a deep-rooted ancient Islamic method," says Ben Bassat, "But if once, you had to approach the ruler by yourself or send a delegation, people discovered they could simply go to the post office and send a letter. That discovery vastly increased the volume of the requests."

Ben Bassat found thousands of petitions from Palestine during the Ottoman rule, the vast majority dealing with other issues, apart from the conflicts with the Jews. Most petitions protested taxing, abuse by governmental clerks, and complaints against other Arab groups. Ben Bassat, who now teaches at Haifa University, is soon to publish a book based on the study of these petitions.

The petitions were formulated by professionals, the "azrohalajes," who had knowledge of the proper style for writing such petitions and boasted the rhetorical means of getting the message across to the regime. Ben Bassat says that, for the first time, the professional writers gave a voice to a practically mute population.

In contrast to the Jewish settlers, the vast majority of local villagers did not read or write, and after their villages were destroyed in 1948, and they dispersed, only few oral accounts remained. In the first decades of Zionist settlement there was little Arabic-language press. These petitions – or rather their translation to Turkish in the Empire Archives – are an almost sole witness of life under the Empire as perceived by Ottoman Palestine Arabs.

The petitions reveal that in contrast to present concepts, the rural Arab society was more cohesive and organized than previously thought. Thus, for example, only four days after the violent incident at Zarnuka, dozens of Mukhtars, leaders of villages, came together to sign a petition to the sultan, revealing networks for passing information and cooperation between the villages.

"This is the first time we see how they describe things from their point of view, "Ben Bassat says." It's not a matter of being for or against Zionism – it simply shows how complex this meeting was, and that can't be learned anywhere else."

The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet V. Credit: P.S. Rogers
A deadly clash arose over grapes.Credit: Haim Taragan



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