From Time Immemorial – Evidence of Unrecorded Arab Immigration (Part 5 of 6)

by | Apr 20, 2002

The central thesis of Peters’ book is that a significant proportion of Arabs living in the area that became Israel were actually immigrants or migrants from other parts of Palestine, who made up a large proportion of the 590,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948. Peters’ population study claims to show that 170,000 Arabs had migrated inside […]

The central thesis of Peters’ book is that a significant proportion of Arabs living in the area that became Israel were actually immigrants or migrants from other parts of Palestine, who made up a large proportion of the 590,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948. Peters’ population study claims to show that 170,000 Arabs had migrated inside Palestine into the Jewish-settled areas by 1948 [p. 257]. Some additional number had immigrated from outside Palestine, but Peters regards the official count as inaccurate. On p. 381 she estimates at least 200,000 immigrants by 1939, while on p. 275 she had argued that the “incidence of Arab illegal immigration during the British mandatory period… was evidently an immigration movement great enough to compare with admittedly immigration-based increase of the Jews,” a figure of roughly 370,000.1 Thus Peters’ total from internal migration and immigration would lie between 370,000 and 540,000, a figure that would make most of the refugees recent arrivals.2

Others have also argued that significant undocumented Arab immigration occurred, but put the figure far lower.3 Arieh Avneri, in Claim of Dispossession, estimates 100,000 legal and illegal immigrants and their offspring.4 Moshe Braver, whom Peters cites, also would put the number at around 100,000, and gives some indication that internal migration was relatively minor.5 Peters’ immigration estimates run twice to four times as high.

No Hidden Immigration?

Finkelstein argues that Peters’ own population study refutes all such estimates, showing no net Arab immigration into Palestine.6 The study calculates how many Arabs would have been living in different parts of Palestine in 1947, had population growth been the result of natural increase alone. Peters compares these results with the actual 1947 population to show that Arab population growth in the Jewish-settled areas had to have been supplemented by arrivals from elsewhere.

Peters’ study rests on figures from the 1893 Ottoman census and a factor for the Arab natural increase between 1893 and 1947. Recall that Peters believes the official figures for Arab natural increase were exaggerated and masked hidden immigration. Instead, she uses a figure she believes is more representative of the true rate: that of the Arab population in non-Jewish areas, where population growth would not be influenced by hidden immigration [p. 428]. Yet that rate of natural increase turns out to match the overall rate of Arab population growth in Palestine.7 In other words, taking the Arab population in Palestine as a whole, Peters’ own figures would show that practically the entire growth in Arab population in Palestine from 1893 to 1947 came from natural increase.

The explanation for this anomaly lies in Peters’ figures for 1947, which come from “British census data [p. 428].”8 But there was no census in 1947. As Gottheil explains,

Census data for Palestine is available only for the years 1922 and 1931…. Since 1931, population estimates were derived by applying natural rates of growth and registered immigration to the 1931 numbers. Because these population estimates make no attempt to measure unrecorded immigration, the reliability of these numbers is considerably less than those of the census years.9

In other words, the data Peters used for 1947 already assumes no unrecorded immigration occurred; her population study can only indicate a pattern of relative migration within Palestine (which she calls “in-migration”) and has nothing to say about immigration. Finkelstein’s criticism, then, is without merit.

In-migration and Peters’ Population Study

Peters’ study is only as good as her initial 1893 population figures. As was seen earlier, her apportionment of the 1893 Arab population to various geographical regions cannot be verified because she does not specify her procedure. Given the tendentiousness with which she handles evidence, there is reason to be skeptical about her results.10

Finkelstein wrongly accuses Peters of falsifying the numbers in her study because he errs in deriving the figure she uses for the rate of natural increase.11 Nevertheless, he is correct that she misuses her figures in estimating the number of 1948 Arab refugees originally from outside Israeli territory. Peters’ Areas I, II and IV are the ones that became Israel; according to her study, this area experienced a net in-migration of 99,100 Arabs [p. 425]. Yet in her table “Actual Numbers of Arab Refugees–1948” on p. 257, she lists an in-migration of 170,300.

Peters conveniently forgets to account for about 71,000 out-migrants from Area IV, though she remembers to include Area IV in each of the other columns in her table. Thus, according to her study, some of her “in-migrants” actually came from inside pre-state Israel; fewer than 100,000 came from elsewhere in Palestine.12

Peters’ strange labeling of the various areas within Palestine lends credence to the idea that she is trying to put something over on the reader here. Why are the regions that eventually made up Israel labeled I, II and IV and the rest of Palestine III and V? As Finkelstein writes,

[I]n the chart on p. 425, Areas I, II and II are boxed off from Areas IV and V. It is very easy to forget that the first of the latter two regions (IV)–from which, as we have seen, there was very significant out-migration–became part of Israel. Why did Peters section off Area III, and not Area IV, with Areas I and II? Another example: in the legend to Peters’s Appendix V (p. 424), Areas I, II and III are bracketed off and labeled “contained most of Jewish population”; Areas IV and V are similarly bracketed off and labeled “contained very little Jewish population.” But… Area III contained no Jews.13 By grouping the five regions in this highly misleading and altogether erroneous fashion, the distinct impression is again left that the first three areas became Israel while the remaining two fell within the jurisdiction of the Arabs in 1948: Area IV easily gets lost in the shuffle.[Finkelstein, p. 52]

Documenting Illegal Arab Immigration

Peters never indicates how she arrives at her estimate of at least 200,000 Arab immigrants entering Jewish-settled areas of Palestine between 1893 and 1947; this figure is just a guess. Yet the evidence she provides to document the existence of unrecorded immigration is often misrepresented :

  1. Peters’ “smoking gun” is the Permanent Mandates Commission’s reference to 30,000-36,000 Hauranis entering Palestine during a few months in 1934. As Finkelstein writes:

    Peters cites the Mandates Commission reference to the report in La Syrie on seven different occasions (pp. 230, 231, 272, 275, 297, 319, 431). She classifies this reference in the Commission minutes as “hard evidence” (p. 297) and lists this reported entry of 30,000-36,000 Hauranis into Palestine flat out as a fact in her chronology of significant events in the history of the British mandate (p. 319; see also p. 272, where this item is again presented, without qualification, as fact)… [she] states that the Mandates Commission “verified” (p. 231) and “recognized” (p. 319) the influx, in the space of just a few months, of 30,000 to 36,000 Hauranis, and that the Commission “took special ‘note’… that the Hauranese, not merely passing through, had indeed settled” (p. 230).14

    Yet here is what the Commission’s minutes actually say:

    Lord LUGARD said that La Syrie had published, on August 12th, 1934, an interview with Tewfik Bey El-Huriani, Governor of the Hauran, who said that in the last few months from 30,000 to 36,000 Hauranese had entered Palestine and settled there. The accredited representative would note the Governor’s statement that these Hauranese had actually “settled”.

    …Mr. MOODY expressed the view that the statement of the Governor of the Hauran was a gross exaggeration.

    M. ORTS did not know how much value could be attached to the statement, but the statement itself was quite definite. The Governor even referred to the large sums remitted by these immigrants to their families, who remained in the Hauran.

    Mr. MOODY said he had read the article in question. As he had said, he thought that the figures must be grossly exaggerated, because the Palestine Government had taken special measures on the eastern and north-eastern frontier with a view to keeping out undesirable people.15

    Peters never notes that the figure was disputed nor does she supply any other references to support it. Her claims that the Commission “verified” or “recognized” the number are false.16

    We have already seen the Peel Commission reporting that Haurani migration was largely temporary and that approximately 2,500 illegal Hauranis remained in Palestine as of 1937. And Peters herself documents the “hasty leavetaking” of the Hauranis in 1936 [p. 272].17 In a definitive gesture, the British bulldozed the Haurani encampment after the Hauranis’ departure.18

    The Isaacs, in their article defending Peters, mention that she has provided “very soft evidence indeed, for… there was no way El-Hurani [sic] could know three months after the exodus whether it was permanent or not.

    Actually, Miss Peters has much better evidence on this point which she ignores. In the testimony given before the Palestine Royal Commission by the Jewish Agency’s Eliahu Epstein and Moshe Shertok, and on the very pages from which she elsewhere quotes effectively and extensively, there is a lengthy discussion of the immigrants who came from the Hauran in 1934. Epstein complained to the Commission about this Haurani influx; his estimate was that 20,000-25,000 had entered, of whom 6,000 to 8,000 had settled in Palestine. Epstein had done genuine research on the issue, visiting 30 villages in the Hauran to determine how many migrants had been seasonal and how many had left permanently. (He published some of his findings in the Journal of the Royal Asian Society in 1935.) One can only speculate that Miss Peters felt El-Hurani’s numbers–30,000 to 36,000–made her case more dramatically than Epstein’s better documented account of 6,000 to 8,000. But a serious scholar obviously does not operate in this way.19

  2. The same Haurani immigration is discussed by the Anglo-American Survey of Palestine. Peters writes, “Under the heading ‘Arab illegal immigration,’ a 1945-46 report noted that ‘…the “boom” conditions in Palestine in the years 1934-36 led to an inward movement into Palestine particularly from Syria.’ [p. 517 note 49]” But the complete context is as follows:

    Arab illegal immigration is mainly of the types described in the first paragraph of this memorandum as casual, temporary and seasonal…. For example, a crop failure in the Hauran may lead to a movement into Palestine, almost entirely masculine in character, so that the migrants may acquire funds with which to recoup their losses and, on return to their own villages, invest in their normal agricultural pursuits…. Similarly, the “boom” conditions in Palestine in the years 1934-36 led to an inward movement in Palestine particularly from Syria. The depression due to the state of public disorder during 1936-39 led to the return of these people and also a substantial outward movement of Palestinian Arabs who thought it prudent to live for a time in Lebanon and Syria.[Survey, p. 210211]20

    In other words, the Survey states that all the Haurani immigrants eventually left Palestine. Even had Peters provided evidence to the contrary, her use of the citation would still be misleading and incomplete.

  3. In another location, Peters again cites the Survey in support of her claim of massive undocumented Arab immigration:

    What the official Anglo-American Survey of 1945-6 definitively disclosed… is that those tens of thousands of “Arab illegal immigrants” recorded as having been “brought” into Palestine were reported by an administration that was reluctant to record Arab immigration at all. In addition, other unestimated “considerable” numbers immigrated “unofficially” or as “individuals” during the war, according to the report. Of the combined masses of Arab illegal immigrants only a small number were repatriated, and only near the end of the war (“October 1944”) was there a token effort to “put the law into force and deport to their countries of origin the Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian and other foreign labourers found to be illegally in Palestine. Since the Palestine authorities, as documented earlier, were under orders not to deport Arab illegal immigrants unless they were embarrassingly noticeable, the number deported was predictably minimal. [p. 379]

    Now look at the Survey. The document records official arrangements made to bring in 3,800 laborers from Syria and Lebanon for the Army:

    Of this number it is known that 713 deserted; 828 were officially repatriated; and 178 remained in employment at 31st December, 1945. The balance (2081) must be presumed to have been discharged in Palestine and either returned to their countries of origin of their own volition or remained in Palestine illegally.

    In addition to these Syrian and Lebanese labourers who were brought to Palestine under official arrangements, inhabitants of neighbouring countries, attracted by the high rates of wages offered for employment on military works, entered Palestine illegally in considerable numbers during the War…. No estimates are available of the numbers of foreign labourers who were so brought into the country by contractors or who entered individually in search of employment on military works. [Survey, pp. 212-213]

    So the unestimated “considerable” numbers who emigrated “unofficially” or as “individuals” were in addition to 3,800 legal immigrants, not to Peters’ “tens of thousands” of illegals. Further on, the Survey catalogs the additional illegal immigrants, yielding a total of about 14,000.21 The Survey later provides a table of the number of non-Jews deported from Palestine, which shows that almost 13,000 had been deported [p. 221].22 Thus out of roughly 18,000 immigrants–3,800 “official” ones and about 14,000 illegals by best estimate–all but 5,000 or so had been deported. This is far from Peters’ “tens of thousands” of recorded immigrants and additional “considerable numbers” of whom the number deported was “predictably minimal.”23

  4. Referring to the Hope Simpson Report, Peters writes, “[A]ccording to that Report, evidence of Arab immigration abounded: ‘Egyptian labour is being employed.’ [p. 297]” Yet Hope Simpson had actually written: “At the time of writing, even with marked unemployment among Arabs, Egyptian labour is being employed in certain individual cases, and its ingress has been the subject of adverse comment in the press. [Hope Simpson, p. 138]”24 The omission of the qualifier “in certain individual cases” exaggerates the significance of the use of Egyptian labor.
  5. In various places, Peters cites Hope Simpson’s claim that the Arab peasant “goes to any spot where he thinks he can find work [p. 201].” For example, she writes, “it has been possible to determine the surge of Arab in-migrants into the Jewish-settled area of Western Palestine, in the continuation of a traditional pattern–moving into “any spot where he thinks he can find work [p. 254].” Yet she never gives the full context of the quote, in which Hope Simpson was speaking of peasants who were emigrating from Palestine. He writes, “He is always migrating, even at the present time. He goes to any spot where he thinks he can find work. Many have left the country altogether [Hope Simpson, pp. 146-147].”

The Lure of Jewish Development

Peters’ case appears to have common sense on its side: If the Jews had created economic opportunity for Arabs in Palestine, and if the borders were porous, one would naturally expect massive illegal Arab immigration. But this account omits several crucial aspects of the situation. First, Jewish employers resisted employing Arabs. Hope Simpson notes that “[t]he General Federation of Jewish Labour has adopted… the principle of self-labour. Where self-labour is impossible, it insists on the employment of Jewish labour exclusively, by all Jewish employers. It has been sufficiently powerful to impose the policy on the Zionist Organization… [Hope Simpson, p. 128].” Thus Peters’ constant refrain that Arab immigrants were “filling the places that the Jews were clearing for other Jews [p. 175]” is untrue.25

Peters never discusses the economic opportunities Jewish development offered Arabs after this principle of “self-labor” was adopted. Hope Simpson contended that, although Jewish development had provided additional employment opportunities for Arabs, significant Arab unemployment nevertheless existed. He wrote:

At the same time there can be no doubt that there is at the present time serious unemployment among Arab craftsmen and among Arab labourers. For this unemployment there are several causes. Motor transport, largely in the hands of the Jews, is driving the camel and the donkey off the roads, and with them the Arab camel-driver and the Arab donkey-man. The motor car, again largely owned and driven by Jews, is displacing the horse-drawn vehicle and its Arab driver. The increased use of cement, reinforced concrete and silicate brick, all manufactured by Jews, is replacing dressed stone for constructional purposes, and so displacing a large number of stone-dressers and stonemasons, nearly all of whom are Arabs. The Arab quarrymen are also being displaced.

But probably the most serious cause of additional unemployment is the cessation of conscription for the army, prevalent under the Turkish Government. The young men now remain in the villages. Formerly they were dispatched to the Yemen or to Anatolia, and many, indeed the majority, of them, failed to return. [Hope Simpson, p. 133]

Hope Simpson goes on for two pages [p. 134, 135] listing the evidence for Arab unemployment, including the volume of applications for various low-paying jobs as testified by various officials, and the decline in wage rates among the artisans. One would expect this unemployment to have tempered, if not deterred, Arab immigration.

This was the picture in 1930; we have already seen that the economic “boom” several years later attracted large numbers of Hauranis from Syria, who later left during the 1936 “Arab revolt.” The attractiveness of immigration into Palestine, then, would have depended on general economic conditions, the state of public order, and the trade of the prospective immigrant. The mere fact that Palestine had a porous border is not enough to conclude that significant numbers of Arabs were continually pouring into the country in search of work. While some illegal immigration did occur, the question is how much.

Peters uses the Hope Simpson Report to support the idea that Arab claims of unemployment were bogus: “The Report had strongly indicated…that the condition of Arab ‘unemployment’ was being blown out of all semblance to reality by the Arab leaders who had indeed found the ‘method of blocking that [Jewish] immigration to which they are radically averse’ [p. 298].” Or again: “The illicit Arab immigration from ‘Syria and Transjordan’…had ‘swollen unemployment lists’ and was ‘used as a political pawn’ toward ‘blocking immigration to which they are radically averse’… [p. 374].”

Yet Peters herself cites enough from the Report at the top of p. 298 to show that Hope Simpson is speaking of a hypothetical situation, one that would be easily defeated:

Arab unemployment is liable to be used as a political pawn. Arab politicians are sufficiently astute to realise at once what may appear an easy method of blocking that [Jewish] immigration to which they are radically averse, and attempts may and probably will be made to swell the list of Arabs unemployed with names which should not be there, or perhaps to ensure the registration of an unemployed man in the books of more than one exchange. It should not prove difficult to defeat this manoeuvre. [Hope Simpson, p. 138]

When Hope Simpson was writing, the Jewish immigration schedule took into account only Jewish, not Arab, unemployment [Hope Simpson, pp. 122-123]. Thus the Arab unemployment rate was irrelevant in determining the number of Jews to be allowed into Palestine; indeed, one of Hope Simpson’s recommendations was that the policy be changed to account for Arab unemployment as well [Hope Simpson, p. 136]. Hope Simpson’s reference to unemployment being used as a political pawn concerned the possible consequences of his proposal, not current conditions.

In fact, at the time of the Report no “unemployment lists” even existed to be artificially swollen, nor were there any employment exchanges. Creating such exchanges was another of Hope Simpson’s proposals: “[S]teps should be taken to create a machinery for the registration of Arab unemployment. Government Employment Exchanges should be created, without which determination of the number of Arab unemployed is not possible [Hope Simpson, p. 152].” Thus Peters’ reference provides no evidence that Arab unemployment was simply an invention intended to limit Jewish immigration.


Peters argues that the vast majority of the Arabs who became refugees in 1948 were leaving an area where they had only recently arrived. Her argument, however, rests on inflated numbers. Her estimate for immigration is pulled out of the air and at least double that of others who have studied the question. Her study of migration within Palestine fails to include a figure that would diminish her results by over forty percent, without explanation. Given Peters’ overall pattern of distortion and tendentiousness, it is hard to take this as a simple oversight.

Peters’ evidence of undocumented illegal immigration is full of distortions:

  • Her key evidence is the immigration of 30,000-36,000 Hauranis as verified by the Mandates Commission–which in fact did not verify it, and before whom it was disputed.
  • She claims the Commission verified the Hauranis’ settlement in Palestine, when it could not possibly have done so.
  • Her own evidence that the Hauranis left Palestine two years later is minimized.
  • She cites the Anglo-American Survey regarding the entry of the Hauranis, but omits the sentence documenting their departure.
  • She inflates the number of immigrants documented by the Anglo-American Survey by counting the same groups several times over.
  • While the Survey documented the deportation of over two thirds of the immigrants, she claims that it found only a minimal number deported.
  • She exaggerates the use of Egyptian labor by truncating the quote she cites as evidence

Peters simply assumes that Jewish development acted as a lure for Arab immigration. She does not take into account Jewish policies to hire only Jewish workers, nor observed unemployment among the Arabs. Her claim that Arab unemployment was a fiction intended to block Jewish immigration rests on a misrepresentation of conditions in Palestine at the time, as well as of the report she uses as evidence.

The true total for immigration plus in-migration probably lies between 100,000 and 200,000. This figure is not insignificant, but it does not rise to the level that justifies Peters’ thesis that most of the 1948 Arab population–or of the refugees–were recent arrivals.


1 Peters’ table in Appendix VII [p. 432] shows a figure of about 368,000 Jewish immigrants over the entire mandatory period.

2 This total is supported by other passages in Peters’ text. On pp. 262-263 she says that “illegal Arab immigrants could account for a very substantial number among the Arabs included in the 343,00 refugee figure” from which in-migration and recorded immigration had already been deducted. On p. 264 Peters claims the number of immigrants was at least as high as that of in-migrants. Later, on p. 337 she says that Arab population increase by in-migration and illegal immigration “matched or possibly even exceeded the Jews’ immigration,” which would be about 370,000. And on p. 298 she claims that Hope Simpson had proved that the “so-called ‘existing’ indigenous Arab population…was largely composed either of immigrants or Arab in-migrants,” or nearly 450,000 by 1930. (Peters provides no 1930 figures, but Hope Simpson records almost 700,000 Moslems and over 82,000 Christians in Palestine [Report, p. 160]. Peters’ table puts 57 percent of the Arab population of Palestine in Areas I, II and IV in 1944 [p. 425]; applying this proportion to the 1930 figures gives almost 450,000.)

Peters’ claim that the indigenous Arab population was largely from elsewhere is not to be found in the Hope Simpson Report. See note 14 in the “British Mandate” section above.

3 “While there are no precise totals on the extent of Arab immigration between the two World Wars, estimates vary between 60,000 and 100,000.” Moshe Aumann, “Land Ownership in Palestine 1880-1948,” in Michael Curtis, Joseph Neyer, Chaim I. Waxman and Allen Pollack, eds., The Palestinians (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1975), p. 27.

4 Arieh L. Avneri, The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs 1878-1948 (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1984), p. 282.

5 Braver claims that during 1922-1945, 20 per cent of Muslim and at least 28 per cent of the Christian population growth came from immigration [Braver, p. 14]. If roughly ten percent of the non-Jewish population of Palestine was Christian [“Palestine on the Eve,” note 8], then about 21 per cent of non-Jewish population growth resulted from immigration. Applying this proportion to Peters’ numbers for Areas I, II and IV from 1893 (218,600) and 1947 (746,900) would give a result of about 110,900. This estimate is probably too high, for it assumes the same rate of Arab immigration all the way back to 1893, and also that Peters’ 1893 figures are accurate (see note 10 below).

With regard to internal migration, Braver writes:

It was found that there had been some migration from the Hebron area to Jerusalem and a bit to Jaffa, but not to the coastal plain villages. From Beth-Lehem, Bet Jalla and several neighboring villages there had been some migration abroad, to Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa, but not to other villages elsewhere…. In conversations with the heads of the clans, the above assumption was verified, namely, that coastal plain villages (and those in the eastern foothills) received many “new residents”, most of them from neighboring countries and only a few from other regions in the land. [Braver, pp. 19-20]

Moshe Braver, “Immigration as a Factor in the Growth of the Arab Village in Eretz-Israel,” Economic Review: Problems of Aliya and Absorption (Tel Aviv) 28 (July-September 1975) pp. 10-21.

6 Norman G. Finkelstein, “Disinformation and the Palestine Question: The Not-So-Strange Case of Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial,” in Edward W. Said and Christopher Hitchens, eds., Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (London: Verso, 2001), p. 38.

7 Peters’ study uses a factor of 2.795 for the natural increase of Arab population between 1893 and 1947. Her value for the Arab population of Palestine in 1893 was 466,400 [Appendix V, p. 425]–a figure that, multiplied by 2.795, would yield an Arab population of 1,303,588 in 1947. But Peters’ figure for the actual Palestinian Arab population in 1947 (from the same tables) is 1,303,800. This would mean that only 212 Arabs immigrated into Palestine over those fifty-four years.

Peters argues that the rate of natural increase she uses is conservative and overestimates growth due to natural increase:

The rate of natural increase applied to the Arabs in the Jewish-settled area of Western Palestine was the total reported increase of all the Arabs throughout the rest of Western Palestine. Thus the study assumed all population increase among Arabs outside the Jewish-settled area was natural. Since some immigration into those areas from other lands also took place, a number of newcomers were counted as “native” population who only increased by reproduction; consequently, that rate of “natural” increase which was applied probably is higher than the one that actually obtained. [pp. 259-260]

Yet according to the demographer’s note, the study does nothing of the sort; it derives the rate of natural increase directly from birth and death rates:

The first procedure [involved]…applying the percentages of actual births and deaths as obtained from the British government censuses and reports. Natural increase was calculated from birth and death data…. The second procedure involved the following: A) using data for Arab births and deaths available from the Statistical Abstract of Palestine–1941 for the period of 1922 to 1927… [pp. 428-429]

Thus the rate of natural increase is not based on the total increase of the Arab population including immigrants, but on observed birth and death rates. If the demographer is telling the truth, Peters is misrepresenting her study as conservative.

8 Edward Said claims that Peters demographics are done in ignorance of the 1931 British census. He writes: “What neither [Farrell nor Finkelstein] noted, however, is that the last census for Palestine was done under British mandate in 1931. No population estimates of twentieth-century Palestine can avoid its findings, which show a vast native Arab majority. Peters totally ignores that census…” Edward Said, “Conspiracy of Praise,” in Said and Hitchens, eds., p. 26.

Yet Peters refers to that census, for example, on p. 222: “While the ‘Jewish population’ of Palestine was ‘predominantly immigrant in character,’ according to the 1931 census of Palestine the Muslims were assumed to be ‘the natural population’…” She mentions it again on p. 226 and uses it for the tables on the pages that follow (“Birthplaces of Inhabitants of Jerusalem District” and “Languages in Habitual Use in Palestine”). The census is cited on p. 242 (see note 33) as stating that in 1918 there had been less than 100,000 Jews and over half a million Arabs in Palestine. It appears in the notes in several other places. True, the 1931 census is not referred to in Peters’ population study (she uses data for 1922, 1944 and 1947 [p. 428]). This omission may be questionable, but Said’s claim that she entirely ignores the 1931 census is not true.

Said also claims that Peters ignores Justin McCarthy’s work, which is true insofar as his study of the population of Ottoman Syria and Iraq is concerned. She does, however, cite McCarthy’s earlier article on Egyptian population in the 19th century–e.g., on p. 529 note 79. This article is also cited in Peters’ bibliography.

9 Fred M. Gottheil, “Arab Immigration into Pre-State Israel: 1922-1931” in Curtis et al. eds., The Palestinians, p. 31.

To be precise, Peters’ study assumes all population increase after 1931 comes from natural increase. Between 1893 and 1931, her numbers show no net immigration. Both Gottheil and Avneri use census data from 1922 and 1931 to estimate illegal immigration during that period. Gottheil puts the figure at about 55,000 [Gottheil, p. 32], while Avneri estimates 44,500 of whom many may simply have been uncounted in the 1922 census [Avneri, pp. 31-32]. From 1893 to 1922, Avneri documents both immigration and emigration, as well as banishments, desertions, famine and epidemics that caused significant population fluctuations [Avneri, pp. 21-30].

10 Aside from questions about how she collated the Ottoman census figures, there is reason to believe that the raw Ottoman figures are too low. A study of the Ottoman census data by demographer Justin McCarthy of the University of Louisville, published by the University of Haifa in 1981, used statistical methods to establish an undercount of 7.51 per cent in the district of Jerusalem and of 18.77 per cent in the Beyrut province (which contained the other two districts that became part of Palestine). Farrell applies these figures to the Ottoman census data to show that Peters’ 1893 numbers were short by 47,300 Muslims across Palestine; their descendants in 1947 would number over 132,000 at Peters’ rate of natural increase. (Christians were similarly undercounted, though exact figures were not available.) Thus Arab migration within Palestine is likely to be far smaller than Peters contends.

See Justin McCarthy, “The Population of Ottoman Syria and Iraq,” Asian and African Studies 15 (1981), p. 10, 25 and Bill Farrell, “Joan Peters and the Perversion of History,” Journal of Palestine Studies XIV no. 1 (Fall 1984), pp. 127-128.

Finkelstein notes that Peters’ treatment of “in-migration” does not inspire confidence in her abilities:

Peters reserves the term “in-migration” for the movement of indigenous Palestinian Arabs from any other part of Palestine into the Jewish-settled area. Her handling of this–not terribly complex–concept is remarkably inept. See, inter alia,p. 245 (the same page on which her definition appears!), where Peters attributes the (alleged) aberrant growth in Palestine’s overall Arab population between 1882 and 1895 to Arab immigration and in-migration; p. 376, where she condemns Britain’s supposedly “cynical policy” in Palestine, by which “illegal Arab immigrants entered unheeded along with Arab in-migrants, and all were counted as ‘natives’ unless they were ‘flagrant'”; and p. 157, where she surmises that, given the “acute decline” Palestine’s population suffered before modern Jewish settlement, “[a]n enormous swell of Arab population could only have resulted from immigration and in-migration.” [Finkelstein’s emphases. Finkelstein, p. 66, note 21]

11 Finkelstein, p.51. As mentioned earlier, Finkelstein’s erroneous figure is based on overlooking the fact that nomads were included in Peters’ 1893 population figures but listed separately for 1947. When the correct figure of 2.795 is used, the table comes out as Peters would have it [cf. p. 425]:

Area Actual 1893 Projected 1947
(1893 x 2.795)
Actual 1947 Difference Notes
I 92,300 258,000 462,900 +168,100
Actual 1947:
“settled” 249,200
nomads 8,800
legal immigrants 27,300
illegal immigrants 9,500
in-migrants 168,100
+ ———-
(total) 462,900
II 38,900 108,700 110,900 +2,200
III 14,300 40,000 39,900 -100
IV 87,400 244,300 173,100 -71,200
Actual 1947:
“settled” 125,100
nomads 48,000
+ ———-
(total) 173,100
V 233,500 652,600 517,000 -135,600
Actual 1947:
“settled” 507,200
nomads 9,800
+ ———-
(total) 517,000

Peters’ table is not easy to understand as the actual population of Area I equals the sum of the settled Arabs, nomads, immigrants and in-migrants whereas the actual population of Area V equals only the sum of the settled Arabs and nomads (the out-migrants, not being present, do not comprise a part of the actual population). Yet in both areas, the projected population equals the sum of the settled Arabs and nomads; this is how the remaining figures for migration are ascertained.

12 In their response to Finkelstein, the Isaacs argue that Peters is correct to exclude the out-migrants from Area IV:

Area IV, which comprised chiefly the Negev and western and central Galilee, had a large number of Bedouin (mainly in the Negev). Even if 70,000 Arabs had migrated from Area IV to Area I and then become refugees, her case would not have been “trivial.”

In practice it is most unlikely that this happened. The nomads of the Negev did not become sedentary dwellers in the Mandatory period and thus did not become out-migrants to Area I. There were peasant villages in the northern Negev but these were largely settled by Egyptian fellahin. The area experienced little natural growth, in part because of its misfortune in serving as a frontier zone between the feuding Qaisi and Yamani factions. The Galilee had an important Christian population component, which meant that in practice its natural growth rate was lower than that of purely Muslim areas. Thus it is unlikely that there would have been even 70,000 in-migrants to account for. [Erich and Rael Jean Isaac, Commentary, October 1986, p. 15]

While this may be true, it is a possibility Peters never raises or deals with, nor does it make her presentation any more objective; she simply ignores the inconvenient figures. Furthermore, if the Isaacs are correct, Peters’ crucial assumption of a uniform rate of natural increase across Palestine yields results significantly at variance with reality. If so, her study is worthless.

13Finkelstein points to Peters’ map on p. 246 as evidence for this claim, but as he mentions on the next page, the map was revised after the seventh printing of the book to read “some Jewish settlement.” Yet confirmation that there were few Jews in Area III comes on p. 254: When Peters refers to “those regions that had little Jewish development” she lists in her note 69 Areas III, IV and V. On the next page, in Table G, Areas III and IV are listed as “Intermediate” (in between “some Jews, mainly Arab” and “Main Areas of Arab settlement–no Jewish settlement”). And in the table on p. 425, we see no 1947 figures for Jews in Area III.

As Finkelstein notes (pp. 54-56), Peters’ areas undergo remarkable changes. For example, Area V is labeled consistently as having had little or no Jewish development, but in the table on p. 425 more Jews are listed for Area V than for Area IV. Or again, on p. 254 Area II is taken to be heavily or mainly settled by Jews. On p. 255, Table G, the region corresponding to Area II is listed as “some Jews, mainly Arab,” but in the table on p. 425, there are no 1947 figures for Jews in Area II.

That the regions in Table G correspond to Peters’ five areas is verified by the fact that the population figures match exactly, cf. p. 425.

14 Finkelstein, p. 48. Note that Finkelstein’s page references after p. 425 are off by one with respect to the edition that was used for this article, because of the inclusion of the map in the appendix in later editions.

15 Lord Lugard and Mr. Orts were Commission members; Mr. Moody was Assistant Chief Secretary to the Government of Palestine. League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission, Minutes of the Thirty-Fourth Session, June 18, 1935 (search for “Syrie”). Online in the UN documents site at <>.

16 Ernst Frankenstein (a pro-Zionist writer on whom Peters relies heavily, as will be seen in the next section) cites the same source, but makes no such claims: “The Mandates Commission discussed in 1935 a declaration of the governor of the (Syrian) Hauran district that in 1934, in a few months, 30,000 Hauranese had entered Palestine and settled there.” Ernst Frankenstein, Justice for My People (New York: Dial Press, 1944), pp. 128-9.

17 She says that a smaller number left than had entered, but provides no evidence to prove it. Cf. Finkelstein, p. 48.

18 Jesse Zel Lurie, editor of the Long Island Jewish World, writes in a letter to Commentary:

I witnessed the invasion of Haifa by the Hauranis in the 1930’s, which, as Miss Peters points out, was condoned by the British authorities…. The Hauranis squatted in tin shacks without water, sanitation, or municipal services on public land on the outskirts of Haifa…. The British finally bulldozed the smelly Haurani encampment as a health hazard, but only after the Syrian drought ended and most of the Hauranis went home to plow their fields. [Commentary, October 1986, pp. 12-14]

Avneri records that the government built a housing project that lodged about a thousand Hauranis, who remained until at least 1948 [Avneri, p. 33].

19 Erich and Rael Jean Isaac, “Whose Palestine?” p. 34.

20 Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, A Survey of Palestine (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1945-46), vol. 1, p. 211.

21 Of the illegals, less than 4,000 were employed by the War Department and 380 by the R.A.F. Of these not all could be replaced, so 2,000 had been retained and the rest repatriated. On p. 214 the survey claims to have no precise figures of the number employed by private contractors, but gives a police estimate as to 9,687. This group–those “working for contractors engaged on military or R.A.F. construction or in other civil employment”–is the same as the group for whom “no estimates are available”–those brought in “by contractors or who entered individually in search of employment on military works.” Thus the context makes clear that by “no estimates” is meant “no precise figures.”

Peters apparently adds to the 4,000 employed by the War Department another 3,000 employed by the Army, but from context it is clear these are one and the same group: “(a) Those employed directly by the War Department and the Royal Air Force. Recent surveys undertaken by these authorities give a total of less than 4,000 employed by the War Department at 31st December, 1945, and about 380 employed by the R.A.F. at the same date. Over 3000 of those employed by the Army and about 300 of those employed by the R.A.F. were Egyptians… [Survey, p. 213].”

22 The table does not include those “repatriated under the official emergency arrangement [applying to the 3,800 brought in from Syria and Lebanon].” The total number so deported is listed as 12,165, to which must be added the 828 repatriated under the emergency arrangement.

23 Peters inflates the Survey’s figures wildly by counting the same groups several times over [p. 378379]. She starts with the 3,800 officially admitted, then a bit later lists the 9,687 from the police estimate. After that she refers to the paragraph concerning the roughly 4,380 illegal immigrants working for the War Department and the R.A.F. as “one group of nearly ten thousand” and says that most of them “deserted” or “remained in Palestine illegally” (though the Survey in fact says this about the first group of 3,800, not this one).

Next she produces “another group of immigrants,” referring to the “considerable numbers” who entered “in addition to these Syrian and Lebanese labourers who were brought to Palestine under official arrangements”–but this is the already-mentioned group of 9,687 from the police estimate plus the 4,380 working for the military. “Still another group” is adduced, one for whom the authorities cannot find replacements, yet this too is the same as the 4,380 working for the military. Thus, by the end of the page, she is referring to “tens of thousands” of immigrants and additional unestimated “considerable numbers.”

24 John Hope Simpson, Palestine. Report on Immigration, Land Settlement and Development, 1930, Command Paper #3686, p. 138. To be fair, Peters does provide the full citation in her note 3, but her main text is nevertheless misleading.

25 Cf. Peters, pp. 211, 213, 233, 259, 295, 297, 326, 381. Some Jewish employers did not follow the policy, however. According to Jesse Zel Lurie:

I was a reporter on the Palestine Post from 1934 to 1937 and I have some knowledge of how Jewish employers acted then. There were pockets of Jewish unemployment. The Histadrut [General Federation of Jewish Labor] tried to find jobs for unemployed Jewish labor by carrying on a struggle for avodah Ivrit, the employment of Jews, and not Arabs, in Jewish enterprises. This campaign was sometimes violent and largely unsuccessful. Those Jewish employers… preferred to hire lower-paid Arabs in order to save a pound or two…[Commentary, October 1986, p. 12]

If Jewish employers chose to hire Arab labor, however, there is no basis for asserting that the Arabs were usurping “places” that the Jewish employers had “cleared” for Jews.

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Paul Blair is former editor of The Intellectual Activist.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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