by Danny Rubenstein | Haaretz | October 11, 2005
The Turkish government on Sunday gave the Palestinian Authority a copy of the Ottoman archive containing all documents pertaining to land ownership in pre-state Israel through 1916.
The PA requested the records to support Palestinian land claims. The Palestinians say that these documents reflect the "true" ownership of the land. One year later, in 1917, Britain drove the Ottomans out of the country and issued the Balfour Declaration, expressing support for the establishment of a Jewish state in what was then called Palestine. The Palestinians say these evens represented the start of "a Zionist takeover
of their land, under the auspices of British imperialism."
Even before 1917, Jewish and Zionist institutions had purchased large tracts of land in Palestine from absentee landlords, who lived mainly in Syria and Lebanon. These landlords had previously leased their property to local farmers, but were happy to sell it for the right price, without giving a thought to their tenant farmers. Nevertheless, Palestinians view these sales as more legitimate than those that took place during the
British occupation that began in 1917.
Under Ottoman rule, a substantial portion of the land in Palestine was registered as state land. Some of this land was later sold or transferred to pre-state Jewish institutions. Other portions belonged to the Muslim waqf (religious trust), and these, according to Islamic law, cannot be sold. However, there was no orderly registration process; ownership was determined primarily using records such as tax payments.
Ever since 1948, Palestinian institutions dealing with the refugee issue have been trying to obtain accurate records on the land and property that were lost when Israel was established. This effort has gained steam in recent years, but no Palestinian institution has come close to collecting all the relevant data. One reason for the lackadaisical effort may be the Palestinians' understanding that the data has little practical value other than for public relations. At most, it will be used in the bargaining over compensation for refugees, if and when such negotiations take place.