June 26, 2018
Hello World, We Exist
Every time I arrive to Palestine, I think to myself “It’s nice to be in a place where they can pronounce my name.” You see, my parents were Palestinian refugees who were born in Palestine and ended up immigrating to Canada when I was 3 years old. I remember my very first day of school in London, Ontario, when the principal announced my name in front of everyone during the morning announcement. He said “Boys and girls, let’s welcome… Kh-Khaleeeeed Al Zimbabway?”
Yeah, it’s always great when they end your name with a question mark. Oh, I’ve been called Khalil, Kaylid? and… “Kalib?” – which just happens be the Arabic insult meaning dog. The only way I could get people to stop was to stand up and say “my name is pronounced KHA-LED – with no question mark at the end.
And if you’re still having trouble… it rhymes with “Salad”. It also rhymes with ‘Valid’ – as in ‘hello, I exist!’”
But hey, I’m Palestinian, and for over half a century Palestinians have been trying to say “Hello World, we exist”. And like most Palestinians, my family’s path forever changed in 1948 when the state of Israel was established and Palestine was de-established.
My father recalls the trauma quite vividly. Terrorized by the violence that was used to form Israel, his family fled their home town of Salama, where they owned 200 dunums (50 acres) of fertile land dotted with beautiful orange groves, and they sought temporary refuge in Gaza. A few years later, the new State of Israel invaded Gaza.
My father was a young boy when the soldiers came to his neighborhood and rounded up all the men and teenage boys into a local school. He was at home with my grandmother when the soldiers suddenly entered. One soldier raised his gun as the others ransacked the house, clearly in search of something.
After what felt like hours of searching, they found nothing… until the suspicious commander asked my grandmother to stand up off the sofa as he began to search under the cushion. His eyes widened when he found a large folded paper. As he read its contents, he turned to face my grandmother, stood tall and gave her a military salute. He found what he was looking for: the title deed to the 200 hundred dunums (50 acres) of my grandmother’s land.
You Know What Really Sucks with Israel’s Occupation of Palestine?
Like many Palestinians of my generation, I grew up on stories of tragic dispossession. Unfortunately, the tale of Palestinian tragedy continues. Today, Palestinians live in open-air prisons controlled by the Israeli government, while their unelected leaders fight for control of the prison yard. The people of Gaza live on the constant verge of catastrophe, while the West Bank is propped by unsustainable donor aid. On top of all this, the Palestinian people continue to witness the confiscation of their shrinking native land.
It’s hard not to feel helpless in the face of such overwhelming forces. But in times of collective helplessness, it is the actions of individuals that matter.
At least that’s what I believed when I arrived in Palestine roughly 10 years ago for the first time as an adult. I realized this would be an interesting journey when I handed my passport to an Israeli immigration official at the Tel Aviv Airport. He took a hard look at my name and said… “Kkkhhhaled?” “Not bad!” I replied, until he said “Khhhaled Al… Wasabi?” Seriously Wasabi?
“No, man,” I replied. “My family is not named after the Japanese sushi condiment. It’s Sabawi. And it’s Palestinian. Get it right.” And… then I was interrogated for 8 hours.
Whatever your views are about Israel and Palestine, I think we can universally agree that experiencing the high of someone almost pronouncing your name followed by the low of an 8-hour Israeli interrogation, really sucks. You know what else really sucks with Israel’s occupation of Palestine? Settlements.
Both the entire international community and I agree on that.
In fact, article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions clearly states: The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. Yet to this day, settlements have swallowed 10% of the West Bank – over 125,000 acres – that were taken from Palestinians.
When my father and I looked into how this came about, we discovered a way that could actually help Palestinians protect their land.
70% of Land in The West Bank Remains Unregistered and is Without Title Deed
You see, between 1948 and 1967, the militias that formed Israel exploited the chaos of that period to steal land from Palestinians. Today, Israel is accepted by the international community and it has a relatively functional, albeit discriminatory, judiciary, so stealing title deeds from citizens simply doesn’t fly. This is why, shortly after occupying the West Bank in 1967, Israel surveyed the entire West Bank in order to identify the location of unregistered Palestinian lands. Why? So they could take advantage of an old Ottoman law which holds that if your land is unregistered and not in active use, the state can seize your land and declare it as “state land”. In spite of the fact that most Palestinian land is actively used for farming, Israel invokes this Ottoman law as a pretense to confiscate Palestinian land for settlement expansion.
We were shocked to discover that until today roughly 70% of land in the West Bank remains unregistered and is without title deed. It turns out the reason why is quite simple. During the Ottoman Empire, Palestinians didn’t register their lands because they couldn’t afford to pay taxes.
Our ‘Aha’ Moment and How My Father and I Took Matters into Our Own Hands
Right now, the only registered lands with title deeds exist in the main Palestinian cities, and due to their limited supply, their price has skyrocketed. In Ramallah, for example, a dunum of land – equivalent to 1,000 square meters or a quarter acre – sells for almost a million US dollars. Even on the edge of Ramallah, a dunum sells for a quarter of a million dollars. Lands with title deeds have become unaffordable.
On discovering this, my father and I took matters into our own hands. We thought, if Israel relied on local laws to confiscate unregistered Palestinian lands, why couldn’t we use local laws to register and therefore protect Palestinian lands?
What does the Palestinian Authority Do All Day?
When we asked about the land registration process, to no one’s surprise, not one single person in the Palestinian Authority knew the full process of registering land. But, to be fair, that’s only because they’re very busy.
So, I hired a team of lawyers and engineers and we created a flow chart that maps out the Ottoman registration process, which now falls under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Lands Authority. To print this puzzle of a process, you need 6 pieces of paper.
In an attempt to reduce this shockingly bureaucratic process, I visited a Palestinian Authority Minister to show him our flow chart. He looked at it for a grand total of 2 seconds before he took a looong drag on his cigarette and blessed me by blowing smoke right on my face… He then said “What on earth brought you to this place?”. “Good effing question” I replied, in my head of course because I was actually choking.
The First Ever Surveyed Master Plan in The History of This Ancient Palestinian Land
So, we mapped out the process and now it was time to start it. This is where things get complicated, because the first step is to purchase unregistered land that’s available for sale. But, how do you buy land that has no title deed, no proof of borders, and barely any paper work? You don’t – you run as fast as you can.
But if you’re kinda crazy like us, you search for the land’s actual owners. We quickly discovered that most unregistered land in Palestine has been inherited over generations. And to make things more challenging, we Palestinians tend to have babies like…. rabbits.
So, one piece of land today might be owned by, say… 50 cousins. Like most Palestinian families, there’s never any drama between them and they’re usually spread all over the globe in countries like Chile, Jordan and, as Palestinian villagers say “Huh, Ameircha ya zalama”!
Navigating A Never-Ending Bureaucracy
Once we’ve managed to get approval from all the owners to purchase the unregistered land, we then have to mark its official borders …for the very first time. Because if you ask the owner “where are the borders of your land?” he’ll respond “from this olive tree to that olive tree to…. see that donkey over there?” This means we have to walk every corner of the land with a land surveyor, a GPS machine, the Head of the Village Council, and every, single, neighbor. They all sign on the borders and we then create the first ever surveyed master plan in the history of this ancient land.
And… That’s just the beginning. Next, we have to navigate that web of bureaucracy which takes roughly two to three years. And then there’s the process of dividing up the land into parcels. And finally, the process of getting new infrastructure approved. In all, we have to get approval from a total of 9 different Palestinian Authority ministries and committees.
We’re just grateful we don’t have get approval from the Palestinian Ministry of… Falafel.
In 2011 TABO Was Born, A Project That Creates Title Deeds and Protects Palestinian Land
Finally, after years of hard work, and after going through this mind-bending process I joined my father, who 60 years ago witnessed the dispossession of his mother’s land, and in June 2011 we proudly launched “TABO”, Arabic for title-deed, a project dedicated to creating title deeds and protecting Palestinian land.
For the first time, a dunum of residential land with a paved road, electricity, and a title deed became available to the public at an affordable price.
And we’re proud to say that we did this without any donor aid, unlike other major real-estate projects in the West Bank.
To create TABO we required significant amounts of capital, which my father single-handedly raised from Palestinian and Arab investors and through an IPO on the Palestinian securities exchange. In case you’re wondering, yes, Palestinians don’t have a state, but they have a securities exchange and not one, but two governments.
The capital we raised was required to legally purchase land and make sure every inheritor received their share. The capital also allowed us to take on the risk of acquiring unregistered land and navigating the uncharted waters of the title deed registration process. And we couldn’t have done it without our awesome team of local Palestinians from Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
As a result of all this, for the first time, Palestinians were able to buy land in Palestine with monthly payments as low as $500 with ZERO interest, and they were able to use their land right away. We took care of all the paperwork and delivered title deeds in each new landowner’s name no matter where in the world they lived. We created an online platform and mobile app that gave Palestinians from all over the world the ability to choose their plot with the click of a button and virtually witness the breathtaking beauty of the rolling hills of the West Bank.
Building Homes and Local Palestinian Communities with Zero Profit Margin
Through TABO, Palestinians in the Diaspora, some of whom Israel doesn’t allow to enter Palestine, finally had access to affordable land in their ancestral homeland.
Now, we’re often asked if Palestinians without a local ID can buy land in Palestine. Yes, they can, and according to Palestinian law, they have to go through a Buyer’s Permit Application process– essentially a background check – which requires thorough vetting and approval by various Palestinian Authority institutions. We respect this process and think it’s very important, because we don’t want our land falling into the wrong hands.
So, check this: what used to be a bare hill in the West Bank, unregistered and vulnerable to confiscation, has now been turned into hundreds of parcels of land with individual title deeds owned by Palestinians. And to further solidify this new reality, we build homes for our Palestinians landowners with zero profit margin. Our aim is to build local communities on local land before foreign settlements can emerge on them.
A Feeling of Betrayal and Helplessness When My Father Was Illegally Detained
As TABO was taking off, my father and I were repeatedly interviewed in various news outlets and asked about our assessment of the situation in Palestine. As independent voices, we felt obliged to constructively criticize the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, and their Two State Illusion because it is detached from the difficult reality on the ground. For our outspokenness, however, we paid a price that I never imagined.
For criticizing their leadership, individuals within the Palestinian Authority abused their power and illegally suspended all of TABO’s title deed transactions. Think about this for a moment. To punish us for using our freedom of expression, powerful individuals within the Palestinian Authority went out of their way to suspend the registration of Palestinian land, thereby preventing the protection of Palestinian land from Israeli settlement expansion. When my father, who was 70 years old at the time and is one of the most prominent and respected businessmen in Palestine, called for Mahmoud Abbas’ resignation, he was illegally detained. I’ll never forget the feeling of betrayal and helplessness. To be clear, I’m not generalizing that everyone in the Palestinian Authority is bad or corrupt, but some powerful individuals are.
We Sued the Palestinian Authority in the High Court of Justice…and Won!
So what did we do? Well, after my father’s family was stripped of their land in 1948, my father was left helpless, poor and without a passport, yet he was determined to survive and provide for his family. He worked tirelessly to educate himself, obtaining a bachelor’s degree, a masters, and a PhD in risk management. He immigrated to Canada so his children could live a better life. He returned to Palestine and established the largest insurance company in the West Bank and Gaza. My father chose the path of education, of hard work, of ethical resilience. He chose the pen over the sword. He chose the harder path.
In the face of corruption and cronyism, we again decided to take the harder path and we sued the Palestinian Authority in the High Court of Justice. We waited years, until finally, in a landmark case, the Court ruled that the actions of the individuals in the Palestinian Authority constituted an abuse of power and were rendered illegal.
TABO Has Become the Most Popular Real-Estate Project in Palestine
We refused to capitulate. On the contrary, TABO went on to register and protect over 1 million square meters of Palestinian land, pave 8 thousand meters of roads and, more importantly, TABO allowed 400 families to own almost 600 parcels of land. TABO continues to grow and expand and has become the most popular real-estate project in Palestine.
Referring to TABO, Reuters said “Palestinians can make a political statement and a financial return by buying a piece of the West Bank.” NPR, the national radio station in the US, said we were “clearing the tangled path for ownership.” And Forbes, well they put this goofy guy on their cover….
Putting Native Lands into Native hands, One Dunum At A Time – Without Any Donor Aid
In spite of the challenges we faced in Palestine, we took matters into our hands to solve a problem that seemed insurmountable. We didn’t look to the international community and plead for donor aid. We used local private capital which has aligned interests with the success of its local economy, and created a sustainable way to tackle an economic, social, and political problem.
TABO is a for-profit project. This was intended from the beginning, because we believe in Palestinian self-reliance, and while Palestine is one of the most donor-dependent societies in the world, TABO is an example of an independent for-profit social enterprise that protects local land and employs hundreds of local people. When TABO profits, we purchase and register more lands and continue the much-needed service that puts native lands into native hands – one dunum at a time – without a drop of donor aid. This is the essence of sustainable economic development. This is social entrepreneurship.
This may not be a solution to the crisis in Gaza. Nor does it put an end to settlement expansion. It surely doesn’t end Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. But it does protect native Palestinian land. It does something within the impossible constraints we live under, and surely that is better than nothing.
Palestinians Will Never Give Up
What gives me hope today is when I think of my father’s story. As a child he witnessed how cruel the world can be, but then he dedicated his life working in the service of his family and his community.
In witnessing TABO’s example, my hope is that the Palestinian leadership will learn that when we take our fate in our own hands and we work together, there is nothing we can’t achieve. I also hope that the world learns that Palestinians, like my father, will never give up. They’re taking the harder path and at the end of the road they will surely win back their unalienable human rights.
If nothing else comes from this, at the very least, I hope someone out there will know how to pronounce my name.