Sursock Purchases

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The Sursock purchase (see red dotted circle) illustrated on a map of Jewish land purchase in Palestine as at 1944; the dark blue represents land then owned by the Jewish National Fund, of which most in the circled area had been acquired under the Sursock Purchase. The Sursock Purchase shown on the Palestine Index to Villages and Settlements, showing Land in Jewish Possession as at 31.12.44.jpg
The Sursock purchase (see red dotted circle) illustrated on a map of Jewish land purchase in Palestine as at 1944; the dark blue represents land then owned by the Jewish National Fund, of which most in the circled area had been acquired under the Sursock Purchase.

The Sursock Purchase of the Jezreel Valley and Haifa Bay, as well as other parts of Mandatory Palestine, was the largest Jewish land purchase in Palestine during the period of early Jewish immigration; [1] [2] the Jezreel Valley was considered the most fertile region of Palestine. [3]


The Sursock Purchase represented 58% of Jewish land purchases from absentee foreign landlords identified in a partial list in a 25 February 1946 memorandum submitted by the Arab Higher Committee to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. [4]

The buyers demanded the existing population be relocated and as a result, the Palestinian Arab tenant farmers were evicted, and approximately 20–25 villages depopulated. [5] Some of the evicted population received compensation that the buyers were not required under the new British Mandate law to pay. [6]

The total amount sold by the Sursocks and their partners represented 22% of all land purchased by Jews in Palestine until 1948, and, as first identified by Arthur Ruppin in 1907, it was of vital importance in allowing the territorial continuity of Jewish settlement in Palestine. [7]


Through much of the period of Ottoman rule, the low-lying land of Palestine had suffered from depopulation due to the insalubriousness of conditions on the plains, and the insecurity of life there. This was not peculiar to that region, but rather reflected a general trait also common to all the littoral regions north and south of the Mediterranean. [8] Zionism's concept of the conquest of labour by Jewish workers meant excluding wherever possible employment of the local Arab workforce. [9]

Sursock purchases from the Ottoman Government

In 1872, the Ottoman Government sold the Jezreel Valley (in Arabic, Marj ibn Amir) to the Sursock family for approximately £20,000. [10] The family went on to acquire more than 400,000 dunams (90,000 acres or 364 km2). [11] [12] These purchases were sustained over a number of years. [13]

According to Frances E. Newton's testimony at the Shaw Commission noted the genesis of the Sursock purchase: "...these lands came into the possession of Sursock through a loan he had made to the Turkish Government. The Turkish Government never had any intention of turning the Arabs off the land, it was more of a sort of mortgage, and Sursock was collecting the tithes interest on his money... Sursock did not become possessed of the lands by virtue of Title Deeds in the original instance. Later Sursock applied to the Government to give him title deeds." [14]

In 1878, Claude Reignier Conder explained as follows: [15]

One curious fact, as showing the infamous condition of the administration, we here also ascertained. A Greek banker named Sursuk, to whom the Government was under obligations, was allowed to buy the northern half of the Great Plain and some of the Nazareth villages for the ridiculously small sum of £20,000 for an extent of seventy square miles; the taxes of the twenty villages amounted to £4000, so that the average income could not be stated at less than £12,000, taking good and bad years together. The cultivation was materially improved under his care, and the property must be immensely valuable, or would be, if the title could be considered secure; but it is highly probable that the Government will again seize the land when it becomes worth while to do so. The peasantry attributed the purchase to Russian intrigue, being convinced that their hated enemy has his eyes greedily turned to Palestine and to Jerusalem as a religious capital, and is ever busy in gaining a footing in the country.

Jewish purchases

The Sursock Purchase shown on the PEF Survey of Palestine.jpg
Illustrations of the Sursock Purchase before and after; A) the first map shows the Palestinian villages which were sold (circled in blue) marked on the older 1870s SWP map; B) the second one is a 1925 Palestine Land Development Company map showing the Sursock Purchase lands in yellow, with some of the then-new Jewish settlements.

Early discussions

In 1891, Yehoshua Hankin, who had immigrated to Palestine from Russia a few years previously, began negotiations to acquire the Jezreel Valley; the negotiations ended when the Ottoman government enacted a prohibition on Jewish immigration. [16]

On 10 March 1897, Theodore Herzl wrote about the Sursock family in his diary, noting the onset of negotiations with the Jewish Colonisation Association for the purchase of 97 villages in Palestine: [17]

The Jewish Colonisation Association is currently negotiating with a Greek family (Soursouk is the name, I think) for the purchase of 97 villages in Palestine. These Greeks live in Paris, have gambled away their money, and wish to sell their real estate (3 % of the entire area of Palestine, according to Bambus) for 7 million francs.

The Zionist Organization considered the Jezreel Valley as the most strategically attractive area to acquire, even more so than the coastal region of Palestine. This is because of the opportunity to carry out large scale agriculture in the area, and the speed at which settlement could be carried out due to the large landowners; in the coastal region smaller parcels of land were available for purchase, and the land was less fertile. The Ottoman government made a number of attempts to limit mass land acquisition and immigration, but these restrictions did not last long due to European pressure under the terms of the capitulations. [18]

1901 Jewish Colonisation Association purchases

In 1901, the Jewish Colonisation Association, having been blocked from land purchases in the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem, made its first major purchase in the north of Palestine in an acquisition of 31,500 dunums of land near Tiberias from the Sursock family and their partners. [19]

1910–1911 Fula affair

1911 cartoon: Saladin (right) protesting the Sursocks' sale of Al Fula, and Yehoshua Hankin (left) handing out money. Haifa satirical newspaper al Himara al Qahira ("The Stubborn Donkey"). Al Fula Affair as depicted in al Himara (Beirut) newspaper, 1911.jpg
1911 cartoon: Saladin (right) protesting the Sursocks' sale of Al Fula, and Yehoshua Hankin (left) handing out money. Haifa satirical newspaper al Himara al Qahira ("The Stubborn Donkey").

Another of the early Zionist purchases from the Sursocks became known as the "Fula affair" (sometimes erroneously referred to as the "Afula affair"). In 1910–11, Elias Sursock sold 10,000 dunums around the village of al-Fula, located at the foot of the Nazareth mountains in Marj Ibn 'Amir , [20] to the Jewish National Fund. The Palestinian peasants refused to leave the land and the qaimaqam (district governor) of Nazareth, Shukri al-Asali fought to overturn the sale, and refused to finalize the transaction. [20] The villagers themselves sent a petition to the grand vizier complaining of the oppressive use of arbitrary power (tahakkum). In particular, they claimed that Ilyas Sursuk and a middleman had sold their land to people, whom they called 'Zionists' and 'sons of the religion of Moses,' (siyonist musevi) who were not Ottoman subjects, and that the sale would deprive 1,000 villagers of their livelihoods. [20] In earlier petitions concerning lands disputes Jews had been customarily referred to as 'Israelites' (Isra'iliyyun). [20]

The existence of a Saladin-era Crusader castle located within the land area was used to allude to the battle against the Crusaders. [21] The political activity against the sale is considered to be “the first concerted action against the growing Zionist activities”, and the sale can be considered "the most significant [ Anti-Zionist ] event that took place in the period before the outbreak of the First World War." [22]

1918 purchase

The Ottomans had refused to authorize numerous sales, such that the Sursocks were unable to sell significant land to Jewish purchasers prior to World War I. In 1912, the Palestine Land Development Company (PLDC) arranged to purchase a large area in the Jezreel Valley from Nagib and Albert Sursock, but the transaction did not complete due to World War I. [23] On 18 December 1918, the agreement was concluded; it covered 71,356 dunams in the Jezreel Valley, including Tel Adashim. [24]

1921–1925, and depopulation

Following the start of the British Mandate, the Land Transfer Ordinance, 1920, removed all such restrictions. [25] Between 1921 and 1925 the Sursock family sold their 80,000 acres (320 km2) of land in the Vale of Jezreel to the American Zion Commonwealth (AZC) for about nearly three-quarters of a million pounds. The land was purchased by the Jewish organization as part of an effort to resettle Jews who inhabited the land, as well as others who came from distant lands. [26] In 1924 the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association (PICA) was established to take over the role of the Jewish Colonisation Association; PICA became the largest Jewish landowner in Palestine. In parallel, the PLDC acted as the purchasing organization for the Jewish National Fund. [27] The high priority given to these lands owes much to the strategy pursued by Menachem Ussishkin, who found himself opposed by other members of the JNF board. The result of the costly purchase was that much of the organization's capital was tied up for the ensuing decade. [28]

Under the British Mandate, the land laws were rewritten, and the Palestinian farmers in the region were deemed tenant farmers by the British authorities. In the face of local opposition, the right of the Sursocks to sell the land and displace its population was upheld by the authorities. A number of purchased villages, particularly those in the Jezreel Valley, were inhabited by tenants of land who were displaced following the sale. [29] [30] The buyers demanded the existing population be relocated and as a result, the Palestinian Arab tenant farmers were evicted, with some receiving compensation the buyers were not required under the new British Mandate law to pay. [6] Although they were not legally owed any compensation, the evicted tenants (1,746 Arab farmer families comprising 8,730 persons in the largest group of purchases) were compensated with $17 per person. [31] [32]

Despite the sale, some former tenants refused to leave, for example as in Afula (El-Ful). [33] However, the new owners considered it was inappropriate for these farmers to remain as tenants on land intended for Jewish labor, driven in particular by the working-the-land ideology of the Yishuv. British police had to be used to expel some and the dispossessed made their way to the coast to search for new work with most ending up in shanty towns on the edges of Jaffa and Haifa. [34]

The Sursock Purchase became a focus of the 1930 Shaw Commission. [35] Palestinian American Saleem Raji Farah, son of a previous mayor of Nazareth, prepared a detailed table of the Sursock purchases as evidence for the commission showing 1,746 families displaced from 240,000 dunums of land; [35] [36] the information in this table is shown below: [35] [36] [37]

VillageSub-districtDunumsFeddansFamiliesPriceDateSellerModern location
Tel-el-Adas Nazareth 22,000120150£40,0001921Heirs of George Lutfalah Sursock Tel Adashim
Jalud and Tel el Fer30,000230280£191,0001921Najeeb and Albert Sursock Ma'ayan Harod
Mahloul 16,0007290£47,000IDF base (Nahalal is nearby)
Sofsafe-Ain-Sheika Kfar HaHoresh
Ain-Beida & Mokbey3,0002025£9,000 Yokneam Moshava
Jinjar4,0002025£13,000 Ginegar
Rob-el-Nasreh7,0004050£21,000 Mizra
Afule16,00090130£56,0001924Heirs of Michel Ibrahim Sursock Afula
Jabata11,0007290£32,0001925Heirs of Kaleels and Jobran Sursock Gvat
Kneifis9,0005060£26,000 Sarid
Sulam (two thirds only)6,0003545£40,0001925Heirs of Kaleels and Jobran Sursock and partners Sulam
Jedro Acre 52,000250300£15,0001925Alfred Sursock Kiryat Yam
Kordaneh1,5001520£9,000 Tel Afek
Kefr Etta10,0006075£3,000 Kiryat Ata
Majdal9,0005070£27,000 Ramat Yohanan
Jaida Haifa 15,00075110£45,0001925Heirs of Tueni family (Sursocks partners) Ramat Yishai
Tel-el-Shemmam8,0004050£25,000 Kfar Yehoshua
Subtotal (excluding those below)219,5001,2391,570599,000
Hartieh Haifa n.a.5060n.a.1925Alexander Sursock Sha'ar HaAmakim
Sheikh Bureik n.a.4050n.a. Beit She'arim National Park
Harbajn.a.7090n.a. Kfar Hasidim
Kiskis and Tabonn.a.3036n.a.1925Heirs of Matta Farah (Sursocks partners) Kiryat Tiv'on

Other villages sold by the Sursocks included: [29]

Jewish settlements

Following the purchase of the land, the Jewish farmers created the first modern-day settlements, founded the modern day city of Afula and drained the swamps to enable further land development of areas that had been uninhabitable for centuries. The country's first moshav, Nahalal, was settled in this valley on 11 September 1921. [39] Moshe Dayan, who grew up in Nahalal, mentioned the moshav – together with three other locations which had been part of the Sursock Purchase – as examples of there being "not one place built in this country which did not have a former Arab population": [40]

We came to this country which was already populated by Arabs, and we are establishing a Hebrew, that is a Jewish, state here... Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of the Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because these geography books no longer exists; not only do the books not exist [but] the Arab villages are not there either. Nahalal arose in the place of Mahalul, Gvat in the place of Jibta, Sarid in the place of Haneifs, and Kfar Yehoshua in the place of Tell Shaman. There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.

Moshe Dayan, Haaretz, 4 April, 1969

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  1. Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, vol.2 (Une mission sacrée de civilisation), Fayard, Paris, 2002 pp.143–148.
  2. Arieh L. Avneri, The Claim of Dispossession Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs 1878–1948 (New Brunswick (USA) and London, 1984), 117–130.
  3. Hadawi 1988, p. 72: "In ancient times , Esdraelon was the granary of the country , and is regarded by the Palestinians as the most fertile tract of land in Palestine . The bitterness felt owing to the sale of large areas by the absentee Sursock family to the Jews and the displacement of the Arab tenants remained unresolved."
  4. Hadawi 1988, p. 66: "266,500 dunums out of a total of 461,250 then identified. Note that the memorandum, prepared by Dr. Yusif Sayegh, was compiled from a field survey conducted in only part of Palestine. Sayegh explained: “The real total area sold this way is definitely more. The fuller the data, the less the blame to attach to Palestinian Arabs”".
  5. Mark Sanagan (3 May 2020). Lightning through the Clouds: ʿIzz al-Din al-Qassam and the Making of the Modern Middle East. University of Texas Press. pp. 112–113. ISBN   978-1-4773-2058-7.
  6. 1 2 Hope Simpson Report
  7. Khalidi 1997, p. 113: "more than 240,000 dunums... sold by the Sursuq family of Beirut and a number of their Lebanese partners in 1924–25. Together with the other lands in the Marj Ibn ‘Amir (such as al-Fula), sold to the Zionists before 1914 by the Sursuqs and their business partners... this single bloc in one region amounts to 313,000 dunums, or more than 22 percent of all the land purchased by Jews in Palestine until 1948. This would seem to contradict Stein’s assertion that the Marj Ibn ‘Amir sale had “important sig nificance, but certainly not the political value given it by many writers.” And these figures on the size of this sale do not even touch on the purchase’s vital importance in terms of the territorial continuity of Jewish settlement in Palestine, which was first pointed out by Ruppin in 1907, and is correctly emphasized by Gershon Shafir."
  8. Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, Fayard 2002 p.143.
  9. Henry Laurens 2002 p.126.
  10. Anonymous (1877). Personal recollections of Turkish misrule and corruption in Syria, by a Syrian. p. 14.
  11. Dr. Seth J. Frantzman, Ruth Kark; Bedouin Settlement in Late Ottoman and British Mandatory Palestine: Influence on the Cultural and Environmental Landscape, 1870–1948, p.8. 2011
  12. "Zionist Land Broker". Retrieved November 12, 2015.
  14. Palestine Commission on the Disturbances of August, 1929, Volume 1, p.433
  15. Conder, Claude Reignier (1878). Tent Work in Palestine: A Record of Discovery and Adventure. R. Bentley & Son. pp. 165–66.
  16. Ruppin, Arthur (1975). Three Decades of Palestine: Speeches and Papers on the Upbuilding of the Jewish National Home. Greenwood Press. p. 182. ISBN   978-0-8371-2629-6. In order to execute this plan the Jaffa office communicated with Messrs. Kalvariski and Joshua Hankin. The latter, then a young man of twenty-five had already demonstrated his skill in such negotiations in the acquisition of land for the colonies Rehoboth and Hederah. By energetic work he succeeded, in 1891, in reaching an agreement with large owners in the Jezreel Valley Emek Jezreel and the Plain of Acco for the purchase of 160,000 dunams [160 km²] at 15 francs per dunam [15,000 franc/km²]....Before the consummation of the agreement, however the Turkish Government, alarmed by the increasing inflow of Russian Jews, prohibited Jewish immigration entirely. This blow proved disastrous for the negotiations. The Russian societies formed for the purposes of purchasing land were dissolved, failed to send in the money they had promised, and the entire magnificent project fell through...It was only in 1910 that Hankin – who, in the meanwhile, had purchased land in Lower Galilee for the ICA – resumed his negotiations for land in the Emek.
  17. The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, ed. Raphael Patai, Herzl Press and Thomas Yoseloff, New York-London, vol.2, p.519
  18. Sufian, Sandra. Healing the Land and the Nation: Malaria and the Zionist Project in Palestine, 1920–1947. University of Chicago.
  19. Neville J. Mandel (1976). The Arabs and Zionism Before World War I. University of California Press. p. 22. ISBN   978-0-520-02466-3. In 1897, the year of the first Zionist Congress, a commission was set up in Jerusalem to scrutinise land sales to Jews... the commission effectively halted land sales to Jews in the Mutasarriflik for the next few years. Thus, when the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA — an organisation founded by Baron Maurice de Hirsch in 1891 and un-connected with the Zionist Movement) began to interest itself in Palestine in 1896, it very quickly discovered that the possibilities of buying land were wider in the north of the country... The breakthrough, from JCA's point of view, came in 1901 when the Council of Ministers ruled that JCA’s President, Narcisse Leven, could, as a foreigner, buy land in the Vilayet of Beirut under the Ottoman Land Code of 1867, provided that he undertook not to install foreign Jews on it. The very fact that this concession could be granted shortly after the 1901 regulations went into force points to another weakness in the Government's handling of its own policy. Under this concession, JCA acquired 31,500 dunams of land near Tiberias in the early part of 1901, mainly from the Sursuq family of Beirut.
  20. 1 2 3 4 Ben-Bassat,Yuval, ['Rural Reactions to Zionist Activity in Palestine before and after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 as Reflected in Petitions to Istanbul,']Middle Eastern Studies, May 2013,volume =49,3, pp=349–363, pp.355–356
  21. Khalid A. Sulaiman (1984). Palestine and Modern Arab Poetry. Zed Books. p. 9. ISBN   978-0-86232-238-0.
  22. Emanuel Beska, 2014, Political Opposition to Zionism in Palestine and Greater Syria: 1910–1911 as a Turning Point: "In 1910, the Lebanese landlord Najib Ibrahim al-Asfar began to seek a long-term lease (for a period of 95 years) of the extensive crown lands in Palestine and Syria. A false rumor spread that al-Asfar was acting in the interest of the Zionists... al-Karmil became the most important source of information on Zionist endeavors for other Arabic newspapers in Palestine and beyond. Khayriyya Qasimiyya rightly labels its campaign against the lease of crown lands as “the first concerted action against the growing Zionist activities.” As the debate regarding the crown lands was still under way another, more important event started to develop. The sale of lands of the village of al-Fula to the Jewish National Fund can be considered in this context the most significant event that took place in the period before the outbreak of the First World War. The lands of al-Fula belonged to Ilyas Sursuq, the wealthy Greek Orthodox banker, merchant, and landowner from Beirut, who in 1910 reached a deal on their sale with the Zionists... The peasant inhabitants refused to leave their village and were supported in their resistance by the qa’immaqam (district governor) of Nazareth, Shukri al-‘Asali (1878–1916), who was resolutely opposed to this transaction and became a major protagonist in the affair."
  23. Glass 2018, p. 194.
  24. Glass 2018, p. 196-197.
  25. Barbara J. Smith (1 July 1993). The Roots of Separatism in Palestine: British Economic Policy, 1920–1929. Syracuse University Press. pp. 96–. ISBN   978-0-8156-2578-0.
  26. Archived 11 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine , pg. 49
  27. Norman, Theodore (1985). An Outstretched Arm: A History of the Jewish Colonization Association . London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  28. Kenneth W. Stein, 'Jewish National Fund: Land Purchase Methods and Priorities, 1924–1939,' Middle Eastern Studies April 1984, Vol. 20, No. 2 pp.190–205 p.194.
  29. 1 2 Kenneth W. Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917–1939, UNC Press Books, 1987 p.60.
  30. Barbara Jean Smith, The Roots of Separatism in Palestine: British Economic Policy, 1920–1929, Syracuse University Press, 1993 pp.96–97;
  31. Shaw Commission Report 1930 (Cmd.3530), p. 118
  32. Mark A. Tessler, A History of the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict, Indiana University Press, 1994 p.177, writes 'The Sursock deal is known to have involved the eviction of about 8000 tenants "compensated" at three pounds ten shillings [about $17] a head.'
  33. "Buying the Emek by Arthur Ruppin, 1929 (with an introduction)". Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  34. The above two books are quoted in David Gilmour: Dispossessed: the Ordeal of the Palestinians. Sphere Books, Great Britain, 1983, pp. 44–45.
  35. 1 2 3 ESCO Foundation 1947, p. 616.
  36. 1 2 Hadawi 1970, p. 27.
  37. List of villages sold by Sursocks and their partners to the Zionists since British occupation of Palestine, evidence to the Shaw Commission, 1930, p.1074, exhibit 71
  38. Said and Hitchens, 2001, p. 217; notes 28, 29, on p. 232
  39. Bernard Reich and David H. Goldberg (2008). Historical Dictionary of Israel (2 ed.). Scarecrow Press. p.  329.
  40. Rogan, E.; Shlaim, A. (2001). The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948. Cambridge University Press. p.  207. ISBN   0-521-79476-5.