Rethinking the paradigm of Ottoman land-tenure reforms in Palestine in light of new evidence

By susynne McElrone
Submitted to Session P4735 (Hebron in the Modern Period: Social, Political, and Economic Dynamics in Southern Palestine, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The significance of the legal legacy of Ottoman land-tenure reforms first promulgated in 1858 can be read in property laws throughout the Middle East until today. In contrast to their enduring significance, the predominant historical narrative asserts that Ottoman landholders evaded Land Code reforms en masse, fearing that registering ownership on a title deed (tapu) would lead to an increased tax burden and conscription. In Palestine, this supposed evasion has long been viewed as a main factor leading to rural landlessness and impoverishment in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
Newly uncovered evidence on the implementation of Ottoman land-tenure reform in the villages of the Hebron district compels us to revise this paradigm. A 337-page property-tax assessment register follows the trail of an Ottoman emlak commission through the 50 villages of Hebron in 1876, recording in each locale the names of owners and shareholders of its immovable properties, agricultural lands, and trees; a valuation of each property; and the amount of the new property tax (vergi-i cedid) for which its registered owner(s) were responsible. I use this register to analyze inter- and intra-village landholding patterns, and the methods that villagers and officials employed to comply with reform while allowing landholders to preserve individual, family, and traditional, communal (mushac) ownership. Identifying both geographical and organizational patterns of landholding and tracing the extent of properties registered to particular individuals, extended families, and villages communally, I argue that property ownership in rural Hebron as recorded in the emlak register demonstrates a remarkably thorough implementation of reform in the district, in contradiction to common understanding. Concomitantly, through analysis of land-dispute cases brought before the Hebron district’s Islamic-law court in the post-reform period instead of the newly established civil-law courts, I argue that the post-Ottoman, British and Israeli administrations’ insistence on tapu records to prove historical land tenure, seen as upholding the status quo, is artificially narrow, since tax payment and oral testimony continued to be accepted alongside tapu records as proof of property ownership in Ottoman law.
In conclusion, through a close examination of rural responses in Hebron to registration of immovable and landed properties for tax purposes in the era of land-code reform, and of subsequent land-tenure disputes, this research offers revision of the longstanding paradigm of land-tenure reform as an Ottoman “failure” and sheds new light on the neglected subject of rural Ottoman social history.