TRADITIONAL SOCIAL STRUCTURE
The Occupied Territories/Palestine is part of the Arab World. It shares with the rest of the Arab World, especially the countries that are its neighbours–Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria–a distinctive configuration of traditional and contemporary social structures, customs, values, and norms. These have been changing ever since the nineteenth century as a result of European intervention in what was then the Ottoman province of Palestine and the rest of the Arab “Fertile Crescent” region of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Change has also come about because of the local and regional drive toward modernisation that has been evolving ever since.
Prior to European intervention in Palestine, the province was largely based on an agrarian economy and a commensurate rural social system. It had a few small cities and towns that specialised in the production of certain products that were well known in the region. These included, among many, the famous soap, manufactured particularly in the city of Nablus; pottery and rugs in the city of Gaza; and glassware, pottery, and other products in the city of Hebron. Jerusalem, the centre of administrative, religious and legal life, attracted religious pilgrims from the three major faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Muslims and Arab Christians predominated as pilgrims. The indigenous Jews were a tiny minority in both Palestine and the adjacent Arab region. Jerusalem and its surrounding towns and villages such as Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala, and others also produced religious figurines and icons made of olive wood for the Christian pilgrims. Famous among them are the figures of the scene of the Nativity, including the infant Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the three Magi, and animals such as lambs, sheep, camels, and donkeys. In Nablus, Majdal, Ramallah, and other centres, cloth was woven on traditional hand-looms and sold locally and, to some extent, around the region.
The most important economic activity of the great majority of the population was agriculture–both for subsistence and for the local and regional markets. The dry climate of the country allowed the planting and cultivation of olive trees in the hill country of central and northern Palestine. This tree has become a symbol of Palestine, both its past and its present. From olives, which were a main staple of daily food, come olive oil, a food staple that was also used for lighting and soap making. Even the olive pits were crushed and burned in special copper or earthen containers or braziers, for home heating in the cold winter months. When burned inside the house, olive pits produced little or no smoke and much heat. In addition to olive trees, the country’s plains and flat plateau were typically planted with wheat, and in the drier areas or the south, barley and other grains were grown. These products were produced largely for subsistence but also for the local and, to a lesser extent, regional, markets. Besides olives, the farmers and peasants of the hill country also produced sesame seeds and some cotton.
The nineteenth-century European intervention pushed Palestine increasingly into a market economy and linked it with Europe through export and import trade. The single most important product that Palestinians developed for export in the second half of the nineteenth century was citrus fruit, and oranges in particular. The coastal area was extensively planted with orange orchards and the fruit was exported to England and as far north as Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia. Exported from the port city of Jaffa, the oranges came to be known as Jaffa oranges. Jaffa oranges became famous in large part because, before refrigeration, they were practically the only fruit available in northern Europe during the winter. They survived, sweet and juicy, the 23-day journey by ship from Jaffa to London and became very much valued at the time.
Palestinian farmers and landlords also exported sesame seeds to France, where they were ground into oil for use in the manufacture of perfumes. Hill wheat, called durum or hard wheat, was especially good for making spaghetti and other pastas, so it was imported extensively into Italy. Finally, one of the big exports of the nineteenth century was barley, sent to Germany to produce beer. Palestine in the nineteenth century also became a major tourist destination of Christian pilgrims from Europe and even America. In short, this economic transformation into a market economy that exported raw agricultural products had also a long-term negative socioeconomic impact on the country. This nineteenth-century pattern of exporting raw agricultural products, importing manufactured goods, and becoming a tourist attraction for Westerners are classic hallmarks leading to economic underdevelopment in the non-European world.