Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 promised to establish in Palestine a ‘national home’ for the Jews contrary to the self-determination rights of the Palestinian national majority. At the time, Jews, mostly Ottoman subjects, possessed no more than 2% of the country.
The Zionists managed to incorporate the Balfour Declaration in the Mandate terms. Its articles called for facilitating Jewish immigration to Palestine and ‘close settlement by Jews on the land’.
During the British military administration (1917-1920) the Zionists prepared for the eventual take over of territory in Palestine. Chaim Weizmann headed the newly formed Zionist commission for Palestine and appointed Herbert Samuel, the Jewish future High Commissioner, as the head of its Advisory Committee.
Weizmann urged the British to close Land Registry books to prevent rise in land prices and called for forming a Land Commission to examine land status in Palestine.
The most urgent task was to possess as much land as possible, particularly the ‘state land, waste land’ and uncultivated land, whose definition was left to interpretation.
The land was held under Islamic law for centuries. The meaning of state or waste land was defined by the latest Ottoman Land Code of 1858 and its amendments.
When Samuel took his post as High Commissioner of Palestine under the Mandate, he changed all that. During his tenure (1920-1925) he issued dozens of ordinances changing or modifying land laws in order to enable Jews to possess land. He formed Land Commission to evaluate available land for Jewish settlement. Most of the legislation he initiated was legally flawed as he had no authority to do so under the Mandate before Turkey signed the peace agreement in 1924.
Contrary to general practice in which country surveys started with topographical maps to describe the earth surface, there was great rush to produce cadastral maps. The aim was to undertake “legal examination of the validity of all land title deeds in Palestine” in Weizmann words. Thus the extent and identity of private land ownership will be determined. All else would be ‘state or waste land’, open for Jewish settlement.
A survey department was hastily established using the services of highly experienced British colonial officials, particularly from Egypt. The haste and lack of direction to define land ownership wasted almost 8 years.
Finally the Australian Torrens system was adopted and the necessary ordinances were promulgated in 1928. Torrens system describes the land in terms of blocks which are divided into parcels, all defined by geographical or other coordinates. This replaced the Ottoman system of descriptive title deeds. Application of Torrens system required both cadastral survey to define the property and Land Settlement procedure to settle disputes and verify the identity of the legal owner. This meant that the Mandate government effectively held all land in Palestine under its control and released only those lots for which the owner provided absolute proof of his ownership. Since many lands were held by Custom Law–by long term recognition of ownership–or held in common ownership or used for grazing or woods, this system, and particularly the Zionist motives behind it, was resisted by the Palestinians, to the extent of chasing the surveyors away or destroying their equipment.
The cadastral survey proceeded in fits and starts, through the Great Revolt of 1936-1939 and the WWII. By the end of the Mandate, the land title was “settled” in less than 20% of Palestine, in areas where Jewish colonies were established; in the coastal plain, Marj Ibn Amer valley and north of Lake Tiberias by River Jordan.
The topographical maps were completed for all of Palestine, excluding lower Naqab. These were very valuable for military purposes during WWII.
In spite of all difficulties and political motives the Survey of Palestine produced valuable data which documented Palestinian patrimony and immeasurably helped the new Israeli state.
In its 9 chapters, the book goes in detail describing the problems of establishing the survey department, the selected survey system, the difficulties in land title settlement and the final topographical maps.
The author had an unparalleled opportunity to document this unknown history. Not only he reviewed what is left of the Mandate archives in the UK, but he had access to all the Survey Department documents, maps, even printing plates and RAF aerial surveys seized by the Israelis in 1948. Lorries sent by the British, destined for the ‘Arab state’ carrying their share of maps were also diverted back to Tel Aviv. All these documents are now housed primarily in the Survey of Israel offices, the Ministry of Agriculture in Tel Aviv, Hagannah and Ministry of Defence archives and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
It is therefore disappointing to surveyors and geographers to find much of the book to be anecdotal, describing squabbles and conflicts within the department and elsewhere. Little of substantive material is waiting for the specialist who would be the expected reader. Further, there is very little information about land ownership (5.5% Jewish) or about the important British aerial survey. There are 3 informative tables. Only 13% of the figures are significant, the rest are illustrative of surveying scenes.
Chapter 9 is an exception. It contains useful data about the 1:100,000 topographical series. The references are not always rigorous. Quotation of the Royal Commission on “the primitive indigenous population and the progressive immigrants” (p. 186) does not exist. The Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry is confused with the UN Special Committee on Palestine (pp. 198-199). The UN General Assembly resolution # 181 for the partition of Palestine was attributed to the Security Council (p. 248).
The author’s reference to Arab “armed gangs” (p. 184) Arab “terrorism” (p. 192) and Arab claims of ownership being “false” (p. 172) or “marginal and petty” (p. 173) and his expanded description of the contribution of Jewish surveyors could well fit the Hebrew edition, not the English.
The book, originally a Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was first published in Hebrew in 1991 under the title “Land and Map” in 297 pages. Compared with the English edition, some chapter titles are changed, some appendices are replaced by others and colour plates are replaced by BW. It is not clear what changes were made to the text.