Monday, October 3, 2011

The Negev Bedouin

Originally posted by Oh My Gaza at

The Negev Bedouin are among the Palestinian Arabs who remained in Israel after 1948 and are today a minority group of Israeli citizens. They have inhabited the Negev desert since the 5th century C.E.

Prior to the 1948, estimates of the Bedouin Arab population in the Negev, which was organized into 95 tribes, ranged from 65,000 to 90,000 (Marx, 1967, 1990; Falah, 1989b; Maddrell, 1990; Yiftachel, 2002). Traditionally, they were semi-nomadic herders of sheep, goats and camels. They engaged in nonintensive, seasonal agriculture and cultivated over 2 million dunums of land, primarily in the northern Negev (Falah, 1989a, 1989b; Marx, 1990; Yiftachel, 2002). They also controllrd the trade routs through the southern Negev Desert to Egypt and Jordan. During the course and aftermath of the 1948 war, the vast majority of the Negev Bedouin fled or were expelled. By 1952, only about 11,000 remained in the Negev (Falah, 1989b; Marx, 1967, 1990; Masalha, 1997), from among whom only 19 tribes received official recognition from the Israeli government (Falah, 1989b).

Twelve of the 19 tribes were removed from their lands, and the whole population was confined to a specially-designated Restricted Area (seig) in the northeastern Negev, representing only 10% of the territory they controlled before 1948 (Falah, 1989b; Lustick, 1980; Marx, 1967). The Restricted Area, to the northeast and east of Beer Sheva, was known for its low agricultural fertility. In response to this forced removal, primarily from the northwestern Negev where the best agricultural land was located, one Bedouin sheikh stated:
...the land expropriation and the forced expulsions without compensation or the right to return...brought the Bedouin to a situation which [was] difficult both psychologically and materially, and to a lack of security unlike anything they had previously known. (Lustick, 1980, p. 13)

The Negev Bedouin were placed under a military administration until 1966, as were all other Palestinian Arabs in Israel, which meant that they could not return to and cultivate their lands, they were isolated from the Arab population in other parts of Israel, and they needed special permits to leave their designated sections of the Restricted Area to look for jobs, education, markets, etc. (Marx, 1967). The restrictions imposed by the Israeli government represented a form of forced sedentarization, which virtually ended their semi-nomadic way of life; while, at the same time, hampered their (already limited) ability to compete in the Beer-Sheva labor market (Falah, 1989b; Yiftachel, 2002).

During the tenure of the Military Administration, the authorities took great care to prevent the migration of the Bedouin out of the Restricted Area. Bedouin men who were given permits to work in the Jewish sector were not allowed to bring their families with them, thus ensuring their return to the Restricted Area. Even within the Restricted Area, a Bedouin of one tribe could not visit the area of another tribe without the permission of the Military Governor (Marx, 1967). At the same time, there was a rapid influx of new Jewish immigrants to the Negev, and development for the Jewish population. Beer-Sheva became an important regional urban center, and the Bedouin lands reclassified as state lands by the government were allocated to some 50 new Jewish settlements, primarily small 'development towns,' and collective (moshavim) and cooperative (kibbutzim) agricultural villages (Yiftachel, 2002).

The Restricted Area's infertile lands, shrinking grazing and agricultural space, and urban proximity dramatically transformed the lifestyle of the Negev Bedouin Arabs. From controllers of the desert region, they became fringe dwellers of a growing, modernizing Beer-Sheva region (Abu-Saad, 2000; Yiftachel, 2002).

The Military Administration over Palestinian Arabs in Israel was lifted in 1966, and the Negev Bedouin were then brought into greater contact with Israeli society. Since they had lost their lands and traditional livelihood, the vast majority of the Bedouin became dependent on working in the Jewish sector, primarily as unskilled laborers (Abu-Saad, 2000).

Prior to 1948, most Bedouin land was held in the traditional land ownership system of oral contracts. The land laws of earlier ruling powers (Ottomans, British) did not impact the traditional forms of Bedouin Arab land possession and ownership, which was usually clearly demarcated, whether verbally or through documents signed by neighboring tribes and communities (Yiftachel, 2002). As Shamir (1996) stated:
Several accounts indicate the complexity of the relationship between the Bedouin and the Negev's land. Historically, Bedouins had their own legal mechanisms for deciding land ownership disputes and for acquiring, leasing, selling, inheriting, and marking a given area's boundaries. The single most important point in all these accounts is the strong role that land ownership plays in constructing meaning and power in the lives of the Bedouins. The land is said to contain the personality of its owner and as such cannot be taken away even with changed circumstances or long periods of absence. Further, ownership of land is a primary mechanism of stratification and distinction, relegating Bedouins without land to an inferior position in their society. (p. 234)

In the traditional Negev Bedouin economy, land was as essential to basic survival as it was to the accumulation of wealth, by providing the capacity to maintain and increase herds. Under Israeli control, however, over 95% of all lands held by Negev Bedouin Arabs prior to 1948 were declared by the government as state property (Abu-Saad, 2000; Falah, 1989b; Lustick, 1980; Yiftachel, 2002). In other areas, like the Galilee and the Triangle, Israel recognized private Arab land ownership, based on British documentation; though even in these regions the state expropriated 60% private Arab lands (Falah, 1989b; Yiftachel, 2002).

In the Negev, Israel recognized virtually no Arab land rights, both because most Bedouin did not have the written land ownership documentation being required by the Israeli legal system (Shamir, 1996; Yiftachel, 2002), and because in most popular and academic Israeli accounts of the Negev desert, it is conceived of as an empty space in which the Bedouin are only rootless nomads. Shamir (1996) explains that, as such:
…accounts of the relationship between Bedouins and land are almost entirely absent from Zionism's "official story." A host of historians, geographers, reporters, engineers, policymakers, and educators emphasize the rootless character of Bedouin life and describe the Bedouin as lacking the fundamental and constructive bond with the soil that marks the transition of humans in nature to humans in society (hence, for example, the distinction between "planned" and "spontaneous" settlements). One aspect of this official story emphasizes the emptiness of the Negev, while another aspect discovers the Bedouin nomads as part of nature. Both aspects ultimately converge into a single trajectory: an empty space that awaits Jewish liberation, and a nomadic culture that awaits civilization. (p. 235).

The Negev Bedouin have not accepted this legal situation. Those who became Israeli citizens have since submitted some 3,200 legal claims to their expropriated lands, based on traditional Ottoman or British records which attested to their past holdings. To date, however, not even one claimant has been awarded full ownership rights. The Israeli legal system refused to award ownership without documented proof of individual title (Shamir, 1996). On the other hand, the state recognized partial holding rights for the Bedouin-Arabs, either in accordance with land arrangements practiced before 1948, or according to regulations agreed upon by the state and the traditional Palestinian Arab elites after the transfer to the Restricted Area (Babai, 1997; Shamir, 1996). However, these rights remained vague, thus depriving the Negev Bedouin of basic development and planning capabilities (Yiftachel, 2002).

Five decades later the tension involving Bedouin-Arab land ownership is still a central issue in the Beer-Sheva region. Ninety five percent of Palestinian Arab claims to land have not been settled, covering approximately 800,000 dunams (Mena Committee, 1997). Half of these lands are in areas settled by Jews. The compromises reached so far between Negev Palestinian Arabs and state amount only to 30,000 dunams. This low figure reflects the slow pace of the Israeli legal system, but also the on-going Bedouin resistance to state policies, which have attempted to link the settlement of land disputes with forced relocation into seven planned towns within the Restricted Area (Yiftachel, 2002).

By Ismael Abu-Saad

~ reposted by Sofia Smith

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