Palestine / Israel: Who has the Right to Land?

Nikita Bernstein
3 min readMay 22, 2021

We all see that argument online where someone gives a quick history lesson to buttress their argument:

“[Palestinians / Jews] were there first! They have a right to that land!”

Interesting concept — a pillar for both sides. Who has this right to own land? What is this “right” they speak of?

Ownership of land makes little sense. How do you acquire land? You purchase it. How did that ownership acquire land? Did someone take ownership by laying claim at some point? That seems like a dubious concept. Just ask Native Americans.

Land ownership is a social contract. Nobody has a “right” to any land by some law of nature. Animals mark their territory and fight with those who do not respect these markings. Rather spray urine everywhere, humans devised a set of rules to help negotiate the different interests in society and, in particular “land ownership” is an important philosophical construct to help us navigate disagreements.

The original land ownership constructs supported hierarchical tribal structures (hardly “fair” for a king to own land and wage conquests). We have evolved as a species to become more decentralized with high value placed on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” While explicit in the Declaration of Independence, certainly this has become a universal concept: we place high value on individual civilians.

Moreover, our average value system has evolved in such a way that the concepts of “ownership” is strongly attached to individual accomplishments. So much so, that transfer of ownership that is “undeserved” is seen as unfair. If we consider Buffet, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Gates — while people have a variety of positions as to whether they should be rich, few who would argue that the children should necessarily be the beneficiaries of their immense wealth. In fact, the rich themselves would likely agree with this, which is why they took the The Giving Pledge.

And so, getting back to the Middle East — who has the “right” to that land? Nobody. Who “owned” that land back in the day, who is settled where — all that is not relevant in today’s society. The real question is: who has a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? And the answer is simple: civilians. Regardless of whether they are Palestinian or Israeli, civilian health, happiness, prosperity should be the top priority.

If one assumes civilian population as a priority, the next natural question to ask is: what is best for Palestinian Civilians? Is it “freedom fighting”? Is it securing a vast network of tunnels and acquisition of military equipment to attack Israel? That seems like a strange line of reasoning.

And this is where things get really thorny and most people engage in back-seat driving that does a tremendous amount of damage.

You can’t expect a young radicalized member of Hamas to suddenly become enlightened. They are committed to a cause and are fighting a war they firmly believe to be righteous.

You also can’t expect Palestinian civilians to suddenly become enlightened and aware, while living in traumatic circumstances and been personally affected. Especially given that Hamas has a history of violently suppressing dissent.

You can’t expect Israel to not defend its civilian population.

So who are the voices that should be solving this problem? Civilians who are EXTERNAL to the conflict and have the luxury to be in a safe environment where they can think, consider, analyze, seek to understand — despite having the opportunity to think independently do not do so. Instead, people allow themselves into emotional righteous fervor cultivated by a toxic mix of mob mentality, a deep sense of righteousness, and sometimes even outright propaganda.

The problem is the people who advocate blindly for one side or another. The best of intentions end up either propping up a fanatical regime bent on destruction of Israel or military action that results in civilian death without consideration for a lasting solution. The larger powers that are actually accountable for civilian suffering (Where did Hamas get its missiles? Why is the international community allowing Hamas to use Gaza as their home base? Why is money going towards building tunnels instead of education? etc.).

The end result is a blind popular resistance to supporting and creating a safe environment for both Palestinian and Israeli civilians.

That is where we should all pause and consider: if land ownership is a human construct, what would truly be best for civilians?