Magazine

Negotiating the Negev

This study of the state's attitude toward Beduin land claim falls short

negotiating the negev 521
Photo by: Reuters
In 2000 Ariel Sharon wrote an article in the magazine Karka, decrying the fate of the Negev. “About 900,000 dunams [90,000 hectares] of government land are not in our hands, but in the hands of the Beduin population… the Beduin are grabbing new territory. They are gnawing away at the country’s land reserves.”

At the same time the Beduin and their advocates see themselves as victims. As Ahmad Amara and Zinaida Miller explain in an article, “the process of Judaization and concomitant [Beduin] dispossession has been ongoing since the inception of the state.”

These two perceptions – that the Beduin are taking over the Negev and that they have been dispossessed from the Negev – frame the background for a potentially seminal study from Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program, Indigenous (In)Justice.

The book seeks to set out, in the words of editor Oren Yiftachel, an academic at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, to show the “Beduin’s existence as a colonized indigenous people residing within a settler state.” The project began at Harvard University, where editor Ahmad Amara was a global advocacy fellow in the Human Rights program.

Accordingly “the students did a great deal of work in this regard, including undertaking voluminous amounts of research.” Two students became co-authors of chapters.

The book’s introduction provides a traditional examination of issues facing the Beduin community in the Negev.

Ismael Abu-Saad and Ahmad Amara assert that “since both the British and Israelis developed a strong legalistic culture in Palestine, the law is an essential prism for understanding the Beduin question.”

The authors claim that the Beduin are “part of the broader indigenous Arab people of Palestine.” In their view the Beduin suffered at the hands of the British, Ottomans and to a much greater extent, the Israelis, as an indigenous people, similar to “experiences of indigenous peoples from Australia, Canada and the United States.” They write that the Israelis sought to “transform” the Beduin from “land-based pastoralists into urbanized wage-laborers.”

Moshe Dayan noted in 1963 that “86 percent of the Israeli population are not farmers; let the Beduin be like them.” In this narrative the Beduin are eternal victims.

The authors assert the Beduin have resided in the Negev since the fifth century and “largely controlled the Naqab region during the Ottoman centuries,” but they claim their rights were ignored.

“Over 2 million dunams of the 12.6m.

dunams of land used by the Beduin were cultivated primarily in the north and northwestern areas of the Naqab. Today the Beduins of the region struggle to retain possession of – much less cultivate – 386,000 dunams of land.”

Some Beduin left the Negev as a result of Israel’s War of Independence, but those who remained were placed under military rule. In the 1970s and 1980s seven Beduin towns were built by Israel and most of the Negev Beduin moved to them. They are home to 150,000 Beduin today.

However, 84,000 Beduin live in “unrecognized” villages in the Negev.

Because the Beduin have one of the highest birthrates in the world, more than seven children per woman, the population living in these villages grows rapidly. According to the chapter by Abu-Saad and Cosette Craemer, they “typically live in tents or makeshift wooden or metal shacks. These villages do not appear on official Israeli maps and lack official road signs... they are denied services.”

The majority of the studies in the book all repeat the same narrative and mostly cover the same ground. They note that the Ottoman Land Code of 1858 allowed for Beduin to register in their name unowned rural land that they cultivated. In 1921 the British put an end to this right, and most Beduin did not register their land at that time.

The result is that the Beduin today claim around 991,000 dunams of state land in the Negev and yet they have lost every case because they cannot prove ownership since they neglected to register it with the Ottomans or British. Most of the authors repeat the argument that Noa Kram makes: “Beduin constitute approximately 25% of the Naqab population; their land claims constitute about 5.4% of the Naqab area.”

This implies that they suffer because the percentage of land that they own doesn’t equal their percentage in the population. Kram doesn’t bother to mention that although Jews constitute 75% of the population of the Negev, individual Jews only own around 1% of it. The state owns the vast majority of the desert, which it either leases through the Israel Lands Authority or uses for military bases and national parks.

Despite the assertion of “voluminous” amounts of research, this edited volume’s eight chapters do not reveal new primary research material. In fact most of the researchers cite the same half-dozen scholars time and again.

None of the studies appears to be based on extensive interviews with Beduin, or include very many archival sources from either the Ottoman, British or Israeli periods.

One study, comparing Israel’s Beduin to the Aboriginals in Australia, fails because it asserts that Israel is a common- law country with a colonial history similar to Australia’s, which has little basis in historical fact. Another study asserts that Israel’s failure to segregate Beduin girls from boys in school “discriminates against Beduin girls by effectively depriving them of their rights to education.”

The logic is that in order to educate Beduin women, the education system must replicate the discriminatory policies that Beduin men have toward women, which in itself is a form of discrimination against Beduin girls.

The obvious intention of each study is to present a one-sided view in which Israel, the “colonial settler state” suppresses the “indigenous Palestinian Beduin of the Naqab.” The suppression exists because Israel does not grant them extensive land holdings that would make them the largest per capita land owners in the country, effectively 10 dunams per person.

A book that included suggestions for how to solve the Beduin land claims, either drawing on experience in Arab countries that also have a British and Ottoman legacy, and chapters based on primary sources from the Ottoman period, would be a major contribution to examining the Negev and its future.

With a plan approved by the previous cabinet to deal with the Beduin issue, such a book would prove useful. Unfortunately this book falls far short.


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