What Mesha’a Denotes and Connotes
From a 1937 report:
...The system of mesha’a or unpartitioned land held in customary joint ownership is described at page 31 of the Hope Simpson Report, where it is shown that the survival of this archaic system of land tenure has been the subject of investigation by a Government Commission as long ago as 1923, with no practical results. The continued existence of this joint ownership in land is, next to the want of cadastral survey, the greatest stumbling-block to agricultural development of the countryside. It is difficult for the English reader of to-day to realise the evils of the system. If he can imagine an English village where every farmer each year is compelled to pass on his lands and buildings to a neighbor for cultivation and occupation, and receive some other neighbor’s farm in exchange, he will get some inkling of what obstacles to progress can exist to agricultural development in Palestine.^
A wealthy Arab landowner, who is a co-partner with kinsmen of an extensive estate, recently described his position to me succinctly: “I am supposed to be a rich man: in reality I own very little. I cannot plant a tree on my lands; next year they will have passed to another’s cultivation. I cannot fertilise my fields; another shareholder will get the benefit next year, and why should I spend a pound per bag for manure for another person’s advantage? I cannot build a stable for my horse or my cattle: it will belong to another next year.”
Some Aspects of the Custom
30. One remarkable feature of this Arab system of customary joint ownership of land is that in theory the Ottoman Land Code (still the basis of land administration) categorically forbids it: another feature is the numerous forms that it assumes. Of these forms two examples only will be cited.
Strictly, females are entitled to share in the common inheritance; in practice, they are usually induced, for obvious reasons founded on marriage customs, to waive their rights.
One peculiar form of title is based on the present alone and is purely communistic. Every male—from the newborn babe to the old man on the brink of the grave—alive in the village on the day of partition is entitled to a share in the common heritage. Thus, the amount of the share of each copartner is constantly changing; and sales of land or permanent partition are alike impossible...
...Inadequacy of Existing Land Administration Agency: The Mukhtar’s Incapacity
44. In effect, the only local agency between the land and headquarters is the village representative known as the mukhtar, assisted more or less by a body of elders. If you go into a Palestine village (except in the case of some Jewish colonies), you will find no one on the spot to whom you can appeal for reasonably accurate local information. The mukhtar is probably quite illiterate and can only answer enquiries with the vaguest replies. His village not having been cadastrally surveyed, he is ignorant of areas based on measurements. He will describe fields by some such vague term as a “fedan,” which may be anything from 50 to 250 dunams according to the local method of reckoning the year’s work of the plough animals: or he may reply by letting you know how many pounds of seed are required to sow his dunams, all of which conveys more to himself than to his interlocutor. The mukhtar employs any chance literate person there may be in his village to assist him with his papers. Local village records of transactions in land, or of crops, or of rights and changes therein do not exist. Nor are there any registers to show the relations of tenants to their landlords. A few assessment papers detailing the taxes assessed on, or the individual assesses of, the village are the only official papers the mukhtar can produce...