Kill me a mosquito and I will build a state: political economy and the socio-technicalities of Jewish colonization in Palestine, 1922–1940


Scholars see Israel as a settler state, comparable with North American, South African and Oceanian cases. But how was Jewish settlement-colonization in pre-Israel Palestine even possible? In the North American, Oceanian and South African cases, European settlers did not encounter diseases like malaria that scholars argue impede settlement. Palestine, however, had high malaria morbidity rates. The disease incapacitated and killed settlers and was one of the most serious threats to Jewish settlement and political economic development. I argue that the exigencies caused by malaria are exactly what fostered Jewish settlement-colonization in Palestine because they prompted the formation of socio-technical arrangements in order to combat the disease. These arrangements included, among other things, people, organizations, scientific knowledge, procedures and larvicides as well as considering the agency of mosquitos and other elements in the environment in disrupting settlement. These arrangements were marshalled by medical-national and political institutions that developed to combat malaria. Only then were Jewish settlers able to effectively colonize Palestine, make their colonies economically viable and make Palestine habitable for future Jewish immigrants. I demonstrate this argument by drawing on archival and library materials that describe the work of an important Zionist Malaria Research Unit (MRU) as well as malaria control efforts in Hefer Valley in the 1930s–1940s, after the unit’s disbandment. Then, I discuss the theoretical implications of this paper to settler-colonial and state-building literatures that, for the most part, neglected the socio-technical nature of state-building and settlement.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Non-human agency is not equated with human agency. Mosquitos and non-humans in general do not have human intentions or motives. But they do bite, reproduce and fly, or have properties and characteristics that can have significant political implications (McNeil 2010; Latour 2005).

  2. 2.

    Scott’s (1998) study also has similarities with these works.

  3. 3.

    Local fighting, Bedouin raids and taxation also helped cause this divide (Morris 2001; Shapira 2012; Stein 1984).

  4. 4.

    Report of Dr. Israel Kligler for the Year Ending August 31st, 1923, p. 5. JDC, Folder 282.

  5. 5.

    Shafir notes that in some cases Arab workers moved to the vicinities of Jewish colonies as a response to increasing demand for labor (Shafir 1996: 53). This only further solidifies the argument that Arab labor force might have come from the hills.

  6. 6.

    Shafir (1996: 38; 65; 170; 249 e.n. 83, e.n. 95) briefly refers to malaria but it is not a factor in his analysis.

  7. 7.

    “Department of Health Palestine, Malaria Research Unit, Annual Report 1925,” p. 13–14. JDC, folder 284.

  8. 8.

    The Minutes of the Zionist General Council, 1919–1929, Vol. 1: February 1919–January 2020, p. 132. Yehoshua Freundlich and Gedalia Yogev (eds.) 1975.

  9. 9.

    For convenience, I will refer to MRU personnel as malarioloigsts throughout most of the article.

  10. 10.

    “Report on sanitation in Palestine prepared by Dr. Israel Kligler, Rockefeller Institute, New York, 1918.” CZA/J15/7212, p. 48. Hereafter, Report on Sanitation. Emphasis added.

  11. 11.

    E.g. International Health Board, Fifth Annual Report, January 1st, 1918 – December 31st, 1918.

  12. 12.

    Hadassah Medical Organization, Third Report. CZA/SOK/91527; International Health Board, 2nd-5th annual reports, 1915–1918.

  13. 13.

    The Rockefeller Foundation, A Digital History., 12.5.2019.

  14. 14.

    E.g. BF to Heiser, December 19th, 1921; Ferrell to Flexner, February 17th, 1921; BF to Rose, December 5th, 1921; BF to Mack, October 11th, 1921; JDC archives, folder 292.

  15. 15.

    “Officially communicated,” undated, CZA/J113/555; The Rockefeller Foundation, International Health Board, Ninth Annual Report, January 1st 1922-December 31st 1922, p. 6. Italics added. The British found in the Zionist project an opportunity to develop the country with less expenses. The MRU was no different (Sufian 2007).

  16. 16.

    The Rockefeller Foundation, Annual Report, 1924; Report of Dr. Israel Kligler and Medical Research Unit for the Year Ending August 31st, 1923, p. 53; Malaria Research Unit, Annual Report, 1924, p. 41. JDC archives, folders 282 and 283, respectively.

  17. 17.

    Department of Health Palestine, Malaria Research Unit, Annual Report 1925. JDC archives, folder 284; MRU annual report 1925; MRU annual report 1923, p. 36; MRU annual reports 1925, 1924 and 1923, p. 11. This was a sizable portion of Palestine’s Jewry. A British census estimated some 84,000 Jews lived in Palestine at the end of 1922 and some 8000 Jews immigrated to the country in 1923 (Morris 2001: 107).

  18. 18.

    MRU annual report 1925; Report of Dr. Israel Kligler, p. 18–19.

  19. 19.

    Report of Dr. Israel Kligler, p. 53. This does not mean Arabs derived significant collective benefits from Jewish antimalaria work.

  20. 20.

    MRU annual report 1924; Statistics and surveys also helped control Palestine through knowledge and depicted the country as being rationally transformed (Sufian 2007). They helped the unit confirm the “impression” that malaria was the most common disease in the country (Kligler et al. 1924: 280).

  21. 21.

    MRU annual report 1924, p.2.

  22. 22.

    Report of Dr. Israel Kligler, p. 17.

  23. 23.

    For examples see Report of Dr. Israel Kligler p. 17, 47–48; MRU annual report 1923, p. 10 and other MRU reports. I am grateful to Mallory Fallin for suggesting this term.

  24. 24.

    MRU annual reports 1924 and 1925.

  25. 25.

    MRU annual report, 1924.

  26. 26.

    MRU annual report, 1924.

  27. 27.

    Department of Health, Malaria Research Unit, Haifa, Annual Report 1926, p. 31. JDC archives, folder 285.

  28. 28.

    MRU annual report 1923, p. 27–28.

  29. 29.

    MRU annual report 1926. See explanation of fall epidemic in Hertzliya p. 5–6. Department of Health, Malaria Research Unit, Annual Report for the year 1927, p. 12–13, 39. JDC folder 285; MRU annual report 1925 p. 39; MRU annual report 1927, p. 12–13, 39.

  30. 30.

    “Report of Dr. Israel Kligler and Medical Research Unit for the Year Ending August 31st, 1923,” p. 44–45. JDC Archives, New York Office, 1921–1932, Folder 282.

  31. 31.

    “Antimalaria and Drainage Work by Jewish Bodies,” p. 22. JDC Archives, folder 291. This was the case also for works done by other agencies like the Jewish National Fund.

  32. 32.

    MRU annual report 1926, p. 1.

  33. 33.

    MRU annual report 1923, p. 18; MRU annual report 1924, p. 16; MRU annual report 1925 p. 13–14.

  34. 34.

    Department of Health, Annual Report for the Year 1928, p. 28–31. JDC, folder 290. Department of Health, Annual Report for the Year 1929,” p. 33. JDC, folder 290.

  35. 35.

    Kligler to Heron, 1.31.1927. JDC, Folder 280.

  36. 36.

    Kligler to Flexner, 4.3.1928. JDC archives, folder 280.

  37. 37.

    “Hozer (latoshavim be’Emek Hefer),” 6.24.1934. Hefer Valley Archive (HVA). Such committees formed in other places too. They represented settlers to the British government and Jewish political institutions. They handled issues like security, drainage and land registration.

  38. 38.

    CZA/KKL5/8620, 1.6.1936.

  39. 39.

    CZA/ KKL5/8620, 12.21.1936.

  40. 40.

    “Hozer (latoshavim be’Emek Hefer)” HVA 6.24.1934. The Committee called the tenants Bedouins though their origin is unclear (Adler 1986).

  41. 41.

    E.g. CZA/ KKL5/8620, 6.1936; CZA/ KKL5/8621/2.1937–8.1937; CZA/KKL5/10316, 12.1938–8.1938.

  42. 42.

    Rina Idan, no date. “Toldot Hamo’atza Haezorit Emek Hefer.”, retrieved on February 14th, 2020. Hereafter, Idan, Toldot.

  43. 43.

    HVA, document’s catalog number: 004382–0011-2.

  44. 44.

    CZA/ KKL5/8620, 10.14.1936; quoted in: Idan, Toldot, 8.

  45. 45.

    CZA/KKL5/8620, 1.27.1937; 4.14.1936.

  46. 46.

    CZA/KKL5/8620, 1.12.1936; 4.29.1936 to Kfar Vitkin, Ma’abarot etc.; 4.29.1936 to Yachin etc.; 7.26.1936.

  47. 47.

    CZA/KKL5/10316, 4.26.1939; CZA/KKL5/8620, 9.21.1936.

  48. 48.

    Senior medical officer, Haifa District to Director medical services, 9.5.1936, ISA/M/5128/12.

  49. 49.

    Director medical services to S.M.O Haifa, 5.9.1936, ISA/M/5128/12.

  50. 50.

    CZA/KKL5/8620, 6.1936; committee to district officer, 8.2.1936. HVA 004380–0017.

  51. 51.

    Israel Yollos, undated, “an overview of malaria situation in Hefer Valley”, CZA/ KKL5/10316; no author, undated document, “malaria morbidity from 1932 until 1938, included”, CZA/KKL5/10316.

  52. 52.

    Arditi on behalf of Kibbutz Ma’abarot to Kupat Holim, 8.1.1938. CZA/J1/1726.

  53. 53.

    Kligler makes this argument in his book about Bedouins that dwell next to swamps (Kligler 1930: 130).

  54. 54.

    Idan, Toldot.

  55. 55.

    Yollos, undated, “an overview of malaria situation in Hefer Valley;” no author, undated, “malaria morbidity from 1932 until 1938, included”, CZA/KKL5/10316.

  56. 56.

    Idan, History.

  57. 57.

    Idan, History.

  58. 58.

    Committee to H. M. Foot, assistant commissioner for the northern district, 8.9.1937, With reference to the establishment of a local council in Emek Hepher, p. 6; committee to assistant district commissioner, 4.3.1938, The Emek Hefer Local Council. CZA/S25/5883. Italics added.

  59. 59.

    Idan, History.

  60. 60.

    Local Councils Ordinance of 1939. LVA, IV-219B-316.

  61. 61.

    Committee of Emek Hepher settlements to H. M. Foot, assistant commissioner, northern district, With reference to the establishment of a local council in Emek Hepher, 9.8.1937, LVA/IV-219B-316, p. 6–7.

  62. 62.

    Meeting with Mr. Foot, Assistant District Commissioner, Ma’abarot, 9.17.1937. LVA/IV-219B-316.

  63. 63.

    Idan, History. First Emek Hefer Local Council Budget, The Palestine Post, 7.5.1940. CZA/S90/2113/17.

  64. 64.

    Council chairman to telephones inspector, 5.27.1940, HVA 004440–0280.

  65. 65.

    Council to JNF main office 1.28.1941. HVA, 001252.


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I wish to thank Jim Mahoney and the attendees of Northwestern’s Comparative Historical Social Science Workshop for their comments on this paper. A special thank you is due to Chas Camic for all his help and support. I also wish to thank the reviewers and editors of this journal for incredibly helpful comments and suggestions. All errors are, of course, mine.

This article includes an examination of malaria control in Hefer Valley/Wadi Hawarit during the 1930s and 1940s. It is dedicated to all those who shared the valley and lived in it during those tumultuous times. One of the people who arrived at the valley at the end of the 1930s is my grandmother. Our casual conversations about life in the valley and the comparison of some of her stories with the data helped me formulate some of the theory in this paper.


Part of the data for this paper was collected with research grants from Buffett Institute for Global Affairs and the Dispute Resolution Research Center at Northwestern University.

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Tubi, O. Kill me a mosquito and I will build a state: political economy and the socio-technicalities of Jewish colonization in Palestine, 1922–1940. Theor Soc 50, 97–124 (2021).

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  • State
  • Socio-technicalities
  • Settlement
  • Israel/Palestine
  • Malaria