The Land Question in Palestine - The issue of land ownership is crucial to understanding the evolution of Zionism in Palestine and the genesis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The issues surrounding the Land Question are not simple, and they have been the subject of numerous claims and counter-claims since the start of the British Mandate. The proportion of rhetoric on this question, relative to the amount of hard data, has always been very high.
The two major Palestinian claims are 1) that Zionists were systematically dispossessing Arab fellahin in the period 1917-1948 and 2) by 1948, the Zionists had purchased less than 8% of the land of Palestine, while the Arabs "owned" about 45% and the rest was government land.
Introduction and summary - It appears that while Zionists had purchased about 6-10% of land, depending on how it is figured, the actual share of Arab holdings was probably much lower than is stated and the share of government land was much higher. There was never a systematic survey of Palestinian lands. The inability of Zionists to acquire land was due in part to the fact that the mandate government violated the conditions of the mandate and tended to make government land available at cut rate prices to Arabs rather than to Zionist purchasers. The high figure of Arab ownership was apparently generated by counting all village and town land and other dubious claims as "Arab," though under the terms of the mandate, Jews and the Zionist organization should have had a share in ownership of public land. None of this land was ever purchased by any Arab, but it was assigned as "Arab land." Arab "ownership" was further inflated by chaotic registration policies that legitimized squating after the fact, and by counting land as "owned" when in fact it had been leased. Most of the land in Palestine registered in the name of individuals was not held privately, but was registered as "Miri" holdings, that gave the user the right to the usufruct of the land. The land itself remained property of the government. If the land lay fallow for three years, it should have reverted to the government. There was an unknown but large area of such unused land that was not reverted to government use because of the wishes of mandate personnel to please Palestinian Arabs.
The Arab Fellah had been steadily displaced or "dispossessed" from the land by factors other than Zionist purchases. These included gradual industrialization and urbanization which was taking place throughout the Middle East and was accelerated by Zionist settlement, as well as the poor administration and unfair nature of archaic Ottoman land laws. The number of landless Arabs was apparently deliberately exaggerated in the Hope Simpson report by misrepresentation of statistics.
The Jewish Agency and other Jewish organizations and individuals had purchased perhaps a third or even half of the available arable agricultural land in in what would become Israel by 1948, and the Jewish sector produced twice as much in tax revenues as the Arab sector, though it accounted for only a third of the population of Palestine. Nonetheless, it is difficult to make a case that Zionist settlement affected the Arabs of Palestine adversely. Arab standard of living rose steadily in Palestine except for drought years and the self-inflicted misery of the Arab general strike. Jewish land purchases affected fairly small numbers of Palestinian Arabs who had been engaged in extensive agriculture and usually found better paying employment or better land. The Arab population of Palestine grew steadily. There was no evidence that Arabs were leaving Palestine for economic reasons.
Zionism, Palestine land purchases and dispossession of the Arabs
The Zionist goal of purchasing land in Palestine both under Turkish rule and under the British mandate was in part frustrated by acute lack of funds, and by various regulations imposed by the Turks and the British, despite the fact that the British were supposed to be facilitating the construction of a Jewish National Home under the terms of the mandate. A chief complaint used by the Grand Mufti Hajj Amin Al Husseini to incite rioting, especially in the Arab Revolt was that Zionist land purchases were "dispossessing" Palestinian Arabs, who would soon have no means of livelihood. Given the lack of orderly statistics on land ownership and displacement, and an objective criterion for such displacement, these claims, echoed by modern writers as well, are difficult to investigate and evaluate. They have been elevated to a dogmatic claim that Arabs were being dispossessed systematically in Palestine, but there is in fact little substantial evidence for this prior to 1948 (See Zionism and Its Impact).
A study by Kenneth W. Stein (Stein, Kenneth W., The Land Question In Palestine, 1917-1939, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984 and Stein, Kenneth W., Palestine's Rural Economy, 1917 - 1939, Studies in Zionism, Vol. 8, no. 1 (1987); pp. 25 - 49 ) concluded that Palestinian Arab fellahin were being systematically displaced from the land, but that this was an ongoing process that had begun in Ottoman times, and was not related to Zionist settlement. Rather, he attributed it to the archaic land laws, the Tanzimat reform of those laws which favored the rich, competition from inexpensive imports and the depredations of World War I, which had ruined Palestinian agriculture and put many poor peasants hopelessly in debt. The eagerness of owners large and small to sell their land no doubt increased as the prices that others were willing to pay increased. As in all countries at the beginning of the twentieth century, agriculture became less and less capable of supplying a livelihood and could not compete with other land uses and labor opportunities. Greedy landlords found ways to evict tenants and sell the land or put it to more productive uses, subverting laws intended to protect tenant farmers. The land was usually not sold to Zionists or Jews.
Different statistics have been advanced by each side to prove whatever point they wished to prove at any given time, and actual statistics of land ownership and utilization are very scarce and non-systematic.
About 17%-20% of the land area that was British Mandate Palestine is now estimated to be arable, the total area being 26,625,600 metric dunam (a metric dunam is 1000 square meters; the Turkish dunam was somewhat smaller) between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean. Cultivable land was estimated at about 6.4 million dunams out of 26 million. In the 1930s, Maurice Bennett, seconded to Sir John Hope-Simpson (who was to prepare the Simpson report) made far different estimates of arable land, which are given below
Table 1: Estimated Cultivable Land in Palestine by region, 1936*
*from Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, Page 4
It is none too clear precisely what each of the above districts includes. The "Hills of Judea and Samaria" probably includes Jerusalem and the approaches to it, and is not restricted to the area known today as the "West Bank." Gaza was eventually separated from the Beersheba subdistrict. Other estimates found about 7 million or as high as 12 million metric dunams of "cultivable" land, depending apparently on how "cultivable" was defined (Stein, Land Question, pp. 106-107). For example, if one excludes swamps and marshland, because these areas could not be cultivated without development, there was considerably less land than if one includes the swampland.
Jewish land purchases at the time were concentrated in the Jezreel valley, plain of Esdraelon and coastal plain. (see Buying the Emek for an account of some of the land purchases). It is difficult to estimate the total effect of Zionist land purchases. In the Jezreel valley, the largest single purchase of the Zionists, 240,209 dunams were acquired, of which 129,254 were tenanted. In total 688 families had lived on those lands (348 dunam per family on average), and received 27,434 pounds in compensation (Stein, page 60). In total, the Zionists purchased 1,393,531 dunams of land to 1945 (Stein, Land Problem, Appendix II p. 226) , of which roughly 850,000 dunams had been purchased under the mandate, and the rest had been purchased when the area was under Turkish control. This constituted about 5.4% of the total land area of mandatory Palestine (these figures exclude land purchased in the Hauran in Syria). The above figures do not include additional lands acquired by unregistered transfers, legal transfers made after 1945 and various concessions. In all, Stein estimates that the Jews had acquired about 2 million dunams of land by 1948 (Stein, Land Problem, Appendix II p. 227). This would be 7.6% of the total area of the British mandate, 14% of the land of the UN partition plan (about 30% excluding the Negev, which was almost all government owned) and about 10% of the area within the Green line. Granott gave a figure of 1,734,000 dunams (Granott, Abraham, Agrarian Reform and the Record of Israel, Eyre and Spottiswood, 1956 p. 28) The land almost all fell within the area eventually allotted to the Jewish state by the UN partition plan, and the land eventually within the green lines. Small parcels in the Jerusalem area and Hebron were lost to the Jordanians in 1948 and recovered to Jewish ownership in 1967. Jews had also purchased about 4% of the land in Gaza, and less than 1% in the entire West bank.
Assuming that the Jezreel valley purchases were somewhat representative of all land purchases, about 4,000 families or perhaps 24,000 persons over a period of over 60 years were directly affected in some way by all the Zionist land purchases, including those who received or bought alternative land. It is likely that the Valley of Jezreel purchases were not typical, and that other lands purchased were less tenanted. The lake Huleh area which had an area of over 50,000 dunam, was uninhabited for example. The Wadi Hawarith area of 30,000 dunams had 86 cultivators, which is likewise about 348 dunam of land per tenant. However the 89 cultivators in Hawarith also supported or were associated with day laborers, grazers, Bedouin and others who lived in the area, giving a total of 1,200 people were in some way affected by the sale, even if they did not lose land that they had owned or tenanted. This would mean that each 25 dunam sold affected someone, or in all about 56,000 people would have been affected in some way over a 65 year period out of a total population of about 1.2 million Arabs in all of Palestine in 1948, and perhaps 2 million or so who had lived in Palestine over that period. The upper estimate is less than 5% of the Arab population of Palestine.
An inquiry into "Landless Arabs" who had sold their land or had lived on land sold to Jews since 1920 was instituted in 1931, with a view to make restitution to those who who had valid claims. To January 1933, 3,177 claims were made - a total of 15,000 to 18,000 people may have been affected. The relative lack of claimants was explained by the Secretary of the Palestine Administration as due to the fact that most claimants had found more profitable occupations in the cities. Most of those "affected' had thus became richer. Of the 3,177 claims, about 600- 900 were ultimately accepted. Stein claims that this was nothing but a Jewish Agency political victory, but even had 5000 claims been accepted, it would still have represented a tiny percentage of the Arab population of Palestine. There was never more than 5% unemployment in Palestine during the 1930s and thereafter. Though some lost land, they benefited from urbanization and industrialization and earned more working or trading in the cities than they had on their farms. According to the criteria adopted by the British to assess "landlessness," only about 600 families, or perhaps 3,000 to 3,600 people became landless. in all this period.
Nonetheless, the Grand Mufti Hajj Amin Al Husseini and his extremist allies managed to convey the impression that large numbers of Palestinian Arabs were becoming landless and impoverished. This was also the belief of Sir John Chancellor, High Commissioner for Palestine, or at least, it was the theory he tried to disseminate, blaming the Arab riots of 1929 on this problem. The British government sent Sir John Hope Simpson to investigate. Hope Simpson, an official of the Indian administration, knew nothing about Palestine except what Chancellor told him, and he adopted Chancellor's view. William Johnson and Robert Crosbie had done a survey of Palestinian rural occupations, and concluded that as many as 29% of the Arabs did not own land. The survey did not make any claim as to why these Arabs did not own land, or whether they had ever owned land, and it did not not claim that they were dispossessed. In agricultural societies, it was normal that there would be shepherds, artisans of various types, teachers, clergy, owners of small stores, people engaged in transport, day laborers, workers in the Nablus soap factories and other small industries, blacksmiths etc. none of whom necessarily owned land or worked land as tenant farmers at any time. However, Hope-Simpson misused the survey data to claim that huge numbers of Arabs had been dispossessed (Stein, Land Question, p 109) and the result was the Hope-Simpson Report, which recommended an end to Jewish immigration, which would, it was claimed, dispossess the Arabs and leave them without a livelihood. Hope-Simpson, who exemplified the British approach in the 30s, made several other errors in addition to exaggerating the number of dispossessed Arabs and the causes of their dispossession. The approach assumed that people would continue to make a living from agriculture and that Palestine would always have a rural economy. Were that the case, Palestine could not support any immigration at all, or any population increase, because agriculture had always provided a subsistence living. With the development of inexpensive transportation, which could bring in imported food, Palestinian agriculture was doomed. The British and all other experts also assumed that it would never be practical to irrigate the land by pumping water from the sea of Galilee, and that therefore the amount of of cultivable land, and the number of people who could be supported in general in the land, would remain very limited. This idea was false as well, as the Israel National Water Carrier project proved. Another assumption was that Palestinian agriculture must always remain primarily extensive, and therefore could not use land efficiently. Only about 5% of the Arabs derived their living from intensive agriculture, (Stein, Land Question, p. 5) Hope-Simpson and his successors also ignored the salient fact that overall, the standard of living of the Arabs of Palestine had improved tremendously, a by-product of the industrialization and the relatively large investments in Palestine made by the Zionists. Neither the British nor the Arabs, made any substantial capital investments in Palestine.
Who owned what land in Palestine?
The Ottoman land ownership laws and the status of land ownership in Palestine are crucially important in the history of Zionism, because of Zionist attempts to purchase land, Arab and British attempts to block them, and subsequent claims by Arabs that they had "owned" most of the land in what is now the State of Israel. It is also important in considering the claims of Palestinian refugees for restitution. Ottoman law divided land into several categories:
Mulk - Privately owned land in the Western sense. Only a tiny portion of the land was owned in this way. This was the only actual non-government private land in Palestine to which people had inalienable ownership rights.
Miri: Land owned by the government (originally the Ottoman crown) and suitable for agricultural use. Individuals could purchase a deed to cultivate this land and pay a tithe to the government. Ownership could be transferred only with the approval of the state. Miri rights could be transferred to heirs, and the land could be sub-let to tenants. If the owner died without an heir or the land was not cultivated for three years, the land would revert to the state.
Waqf: Land belonging to the Muslim religious endowment, which supposedly could not be alienated or sold. Some categories of this type of land were in fact purchased by Zionists at one time.
Matruka - Land left for public use such as highways, as well as communal lands and pastures. These lands belonged to the state, and not to communities or individuals. It is not clear that this category actually existed in Palestine ( Stein, Land Question, p. 14). It is however, listed in the Hope-Simpson report.
Mawat - (or Mewat) So-called “dead”, unreclaimed land. It constituted about 50 to 60% of the land in Palestine. It belonged to the government. Private individuals could purchase and register this land as their own for its unreclaimed value, but it was just as easy to simply cultivate it.( Stein, Land Question, p. 13). If the land had been cultivated with permission, it would be registered, at least under the Mandate, free of charge. Communities and individuals often expanded their land land holdings "informally" by cultivating or using such land. According to the Hope-Simpson Report Mewat land was probably of considerable extent. It was defined as any land that was more than a mile and a half from a village, and was not owned by anyone. However, no systematic survey was ever done, so it was impossible to determine the precise extent of Mewat land.
In addition to the above official categories, the following two concepts were in in use in Palestine:
Musha' - Musha' land was Miri or Mulk land that was cultivated in common by numerous owners in common. Often this was unregistered land, or land to which Miri rights had been acquired by squatting and eventual registration. About 5 million dunams of land in Palestine were Musha' land in Palestine in 1933.( Stein, Land Question, p. 14). Musha land was gradually sold out to absentee owners who lived in town, and used tenants or hired labor to work their lands. Musha and subtenanted Miri land probably constituted the bulk of agricultural land ownership of cultivated land by Arabs.
jiftlik or Mudawara - Mudawara lands were private lands that had been bequeathed to the Sultan and were therefore government property. The largest such parcel was the Beisan area land with consisted of 302,000 dunams ( Stein, Land Question, p. 62) (Originally this land was apparently about 394,000 dunams - (Stein, Land Question, pages 107-108)). According to the Hope-Simpson Report (table on p 58) the second largest Jiftlik area was apparently in Rafa and comprised 90,000 dunams. Along with other such lands it was leased to Arabs who had been there "for many years" or so they claimed. The third largest Jiftlik area was in the Jericho area and covered about 75,000 dunams. ( Stein, Land Question, p. 14). The government could lease these lands to tenants, in such a way that they were not liable to eviction as they were on Miri or Mulk land, but after 1933, it was no longer possible to acquire such tenancy. Instead, the British government had begun to sell these lands.
(The above discussion and definitions are taken from Stein, Land Question, p. 11 ff)
Stein gives various numbers for State land ownership. He states that "Ottoman state land comprised 4 percent of the total land area of Palestine north of Beesheba" (Land Question, page 12). As there were about 14 million dunams, this would amount to about 560,000 dunams of land. However, he then tells us that "a considerable portion" of this land was alienated into private hands, but then he tells us on the same page that in 1931 the total state land exclusive of the Beersheba district amounted to 959,000 dunams, which is about 7.1% of the land north of Beersheba. It is unclear how much of this was Jiftlik land or Mahlul land. However, the 60% or so of Mewat land was also also government land, and this was never surveyed.
Not mentioned by Stein and other authorities are lands that are owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. The Greek Orthodox church is and was one of the largest private landholders in Israel/Palestine and particularly in Jerusalem. They hold the land under a Waqf-like policy. They will not sell it, but they have leased portions of it in long term leases to the Israeli government, including about half of downtown Jerusalem, the Knesset Building, the neighborhood of Rehavia and the Israel Museum. They continue to own the land and were never "dispossessed."
An exact assessment of the distribution of real ownership in the above categories is probably impossible. Land registration in Palestine can charitably be described as chaotic under both the Ottoman and British regimes. In 1925, three quarters of the land in Palestine was "held" by unregistered title. The Wadi Hawarith parcel of 30,000 dunams was registered as measuring 5,500 Turkish dunams ( Stein, Land Question, p. 21). Supposedly, this was because fellahin were unwilling to register title, because under the Ottoman law, it would obligate them for military service, as well as taxes. To an unknown extent, this also reflected encroachments and squatting on various forms of government land. Of the total of over 12 million dunams of land in the Beersheba district, only 50,000 were registered. While much of this land was unused, much of it was used in fact by nomadic or sedentary Bedouin, who never bothered to file any land claim, so that they would not need to pay taxes, and because they were, paradoxically, afraid that once registered, the land could be alienated from their ownership through marriage of daughters, owners dying intestate etc. (Stein, land question, p 22). In general, Ottoman administration was such that residents tried to avoid all contact with authorities whenever possible, fearing conscription, taxes and other eventualities.
Throughout Palestine, even the land that was "registered" was mostly unsurveyed:
The British never managed to overcome this chaos. They considered that land was "owned" for tax purposes if someone could be found to pay the taxes, and the figure of 45 % Arab "ownership" is based on this calculation, including village commons and other areas that were used for cultivation as well as unregistered holdings of different type, Mawat land that was "acquired" by squatting etc. Most of it, except for the tiny portion of Mulk holdings, was not owned in the conventional sense even if it was registered. The proliferation of abandoned land in Palestine had long been noted by travelers. Miri Land that was abandoned reverted to the state.
The only exact records of ownership and transfer of ownership that existed, insofar was this was possible without accurate information, were the Land Books of Jewish settlements, which were legally recognized by the Mandate government in 1926, in the framework of their attempts to regularize land registration. (Stein, Land Question, pp 32-33).
Article 6 of the League of Nations British Mandate for Palestine had stated:
This provision was never really carried out. In fact, the mandate government did the opposite, in most cases, making available Mawat and Jiftlik and other state lands to Arabs and encourage Arabs to register claims on state lands as well. The Beisan Jiftlik lands were registered to various Arab tenants for fairly nominal fees (one seventh to one fourteenth of actual value, and Jews were excluded from the agreements. The Arab tenants illegally sold their land to the Jews at full market prices, and eventually, the British relented and legalized the sales (Stein, Land Question pp 62-63), but they never allowed the Jewish Agency to purchase the lands directly. In all, according to Stein, the mandate estimated that there were about 959,000 metric dunams of State land, including all the Jiftlik lands. Manifestly, this did not include all the lands south of Beersheba, and may have been intended to represent cultivable land. Only 98,000 of these were allocated or about to be allocated to Jews in 1930. About 394,000 dunam were to be allocated to Arabs from the Beisan lands (eventually reduced to 302,000), 300,000 were leased to Arabs, on an annual basis, 52,000 were part of the Huleh Ottoman concession that eventually came under Jewish control. (Stein, Land Question, pages 107-108). The 800,000 or so dunams purchased by Jews during the early mandate years were therefore balanced out in part by transfer or leasing of government land to Arabs, land that should have been transferred to Jews if article 6 of the mandate had been followed.
As from 1940, the British land regulations officially forbade or severely limited land purchases by the Jewish Agency. In fact, however, the British could limit only the registration of land, and the Jewish agency continued to purchase land. In 1940, the Jewish Agency had purchased about 22,000 dunam. In 1941, despite the land regulations, it still purchased over 14,000 dunams, and during each of the subsequent war years it purchased 8-18,000 dunam (Stein, Land Question, Appendix 2 p 226).
From the point of view of the Arabs, all these lands "belonged" to Arabs, since all of the land of Palestine "belonged" to the Arabs, inasmuch as they considered themselves the rightful owners. It is a circular definition of ownership and not very meaningful. The Arabs of Palestine had never exercised sovereignty and did not own most of the land by private purchase. It was government land that had belonged to the Ottoman empire and before that to the various Turkish and Arab empires. If there had been "actual" owners in history, they were probably Jews of 2,000 or more years ago.
A map that is often presented in pro-Palestinian accounts enhances the impression that Palestine had belonged to the Arabs and had been "stolen" by the Jews. The map was prepared by a subcommittee of the UN and shows "Jewish" and "non-Jewish" land ownership in different areas. The "catch" is that all of the land that was not purchased and registered to Jews or the Jewish agency, including government lands, is categorized as "non-Jewish." The Beersheba district, which was 99% government land, is shown as being 99% "Non-Jewish" (see Palestine Land Ownership Map 1944) It was also "99% non-Arab."
From the point of view of the Arabs, likewise, the Mandate provisions for "close settlement" of Jews on the land, and the entire mandate, were illegal creations of the Western imperialists. But the League of Nations British Mandate was international law. For some reason, the Arab concern for "international legitimacy" evaporates when such laws favor the Zionists. Moreover, the land of Palestine was for the most part virtually worthless prior to the mandate. Land prices soared because of the mandate, and this was due almost entirely to Jewish settlement and Zionist investment. The land of the Sursocks was sold in 1921 for 3 to 6 Egyptian piasters per dunam, which was 40 to 80 times what they had paid for the land. (Stein, Land Question, page 65). In effect, the British policy and the Arab "land claims" amounted to saying "we will take the money of the Jews, but we will not give them their rights).
In total, approximately 6 million dunams of land were registered as taxable by Jews and Arabs in 1936, excluding the Beersheba district, according to the Peel commission (Stein, Land Question, page 107). Taxable and registered land area in the Beersheba district was negligible, as noted. If we accept Stein's estimate of Jewish land ownership as two million dunams in 1948, and assume that all of that area was taxable, then the Jews owned roughly a third of the usable land exclusive of the Waqf land in all of Palestine, and probably about half of the usable, taxable land in the area that would be allotted to Israel. This makes sense in view of the fact that the Jewish sector of the Palestinian mandate economy produced twice as much tax revenues as the Arab sector. Given the population differences, it means that each Jew paid about four times as much taxes as each Arab. If the Jews did not own a significant proportion of the land, it would probably have been difficult for them to achieve that level of productivity.
Synonyms and alternate spellings:
Further Information: See Granott, Abraham, Agrarian Reform and the Record of Israel, Eyre and Spottiswood, 1956; Stein, Kenneth W. The Land Question In Palestine, 1917-1939 by Kenneth W. Stein, University of North Carolina Press, 1984; Buying the Emek; Palestine's Rural Economy, 1917 - 1939; Arab Revolt; Zionism and Its Impact For an example of a lurid pro-Palestinian account see Halbrook, Stepen, The alienation of a homeland: How Palestine became Israel, The Journal of Liberation Studies, Vol. V, No. 4, 1981
Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:
'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.
ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."
u>u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.
a- sounded like a in arm
ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.
'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.
o - close to the French o as in homme.
th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.
q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.
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Land Question in Palestine