Even today, the West Bank is thinly populated: about 60 percent of its territory is settled by a mere 1 percent of the Palestinian Arab population. In the early nineteenth century, Palestinian Arabs lived predominantly in the hills except for minor communities in Jaffo, Akko, and Jerusalem. When the citrus boom started, Palestinians began acquiring land in the plains. But—and this is very important—the plains were titled to Palestinian notables who received the lands from the Ottoman occupiers by hook and by crook, but never through homestead. The world now rejects the legitimacy of Israel titling and selling the West Bank lands under her occupation. But Arab notables received Palestinian plains from the Ottomans in exactly the same manner: an occupier disbursing the occupied land. Palestinian Arabs never owned the plains as a community; only a few notables did. Likewise, Jewish notables own huge land-tracts in Australia, Argentina, and Ukraine—but that doesn’t allow the Jews to claim national homestead or sovereignty there.

Arabs owned the land on the hills as communal property; village elders redistributed the land among the villagers once in a while. No similar communal institution existed for land ownership in the plains and coastal areas of Palestine. The Ottoman land law of 1858 introduced titles for the land, thus allowing Palestinian notables to register empty lands in their names; previously, land ownership had been proved by cultivation. From the 1870s, Palestinian notables started selling the plains to Jews; thus the Palestinian ownership of the plains existed for years, or decades at the most—a far cry from de facto statehood, and much less than the time for which Jews have subsequently owned those lands.

Palestinian hill communities were self-governed: Turks, Egyptians, and the British rarely ventured into the Palestinian hills, but employed Palestinian notables as liaisons. No similar self-government existed in the plains, which were worked rather than settled. Nor have the plains always existed. Most of the Palestinian plains were desert and marshes, which were subsequently developed by Jews. The 10 percent of the Palestinian lowlands Jews had purchased before 1948 amounted to about half the arable land; a group which settles half the land is surely entitled to self-determination. Even by the early twentieth century, the coastal areas and plains were almost unsettled, with about 5,000 Jews and not a much larger number of Arabs living in the agricultural communities there.

To summarize, Palestinian Arabs have a good legal claim to about 40 percent of the West Bank they intermittently settled for centuries, taking off to pursue Bedouin life during droughts. They have no homestead claim to 60 percent of the West Bank—which they don’t settle even now—nor to the plains, which they had never settled before the Jews took them over.

Speaking of human feelings, it is futile to argue in terms of formal law. Arabs note correctly that no amount of land purchases by Jews gives us the right to statehood. In no country can a landowner claim sovereignty by virtue of purchasing a large enough parcel of land. Still, Arabs resented and fought the massive purchases of land by Jews even before the Jewish state became a reality. Look at how modern Israelis resent foreigners purchasing housing units in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, or Arab construction in Galilee. No one likes to live alongside aliens, still less when the aliens are aggressively expanding their influence into one’s habitat. Israel unreasonably restrains its natural xenophobia. Arabs protested even the British plan to print “Palestine” on stamps in Hebrew alongside Arabic, but Israel adopted Arabic as an official language. Far from soothing their grievances, Israel’s move inflamed Arab nationalist hopes.