The opening session of the annual workshop of the Department of Middle Eastern
Studies at Ben-Gurion University taking place this week focused on the complex
issue of the law and politics of land rights and property among the Beduin in
The theme of the session fitted well with the overall topic of
the conference, looking at socio-legal aspects of the transition from tradition
to modernity within the Middle East. Nothing is as complex in the transition
from traditional to modern patterns of behavior as is the issue of land
ownership, not least because of the contested nature of land between the state
(in this case Israel) and indigenous population groups (in this case the Beduin
of the Negev region).
The lecturers at the opening session were as much
part of the political confrontation as they were part of the academic debate
concerning land rights. They had been involved in the recent High Court cases
concerning the right of the state to forcefully move some of the Beduin out of
the unrecognized villages, arguing that the land in question belonged to the
state and not to the indigenous population who are, in the eyes of the state, no
more than illegal squatters.
The state argues that this land does not
have a long history of residence or cultivation, and that the rapid expansion of
Beduin villages has been a recent phenomenon, by which the Beduin have squatted
on land previously uninhabited. For the Beduin, the argument is that these areas
have long belonged to the local tribes and that the deed of possession has
mostly been passed on through oral histories, given the fact that no formal
legal title deeds were ever drawn up in these regions.
The High Court in
its ruling two months ago decided in favor of the state, arguing that the Beduin
did not have any legal rights to the land in question, and that the state had
the right to evacuate the illegal settlements and use the land for whatever
purposes the planning authorities deemed necessary. For many, this was seen as
being just one more political decision in a long series of rulings in similar
cases, where the Beduin have failed to win their cases against the
Both the academic debate and the court cases have turned into a
battle of the geographers, with many professional geographers using their
expertise to present their knowledge of land ownership and property rights, past
and present, before the government commissions.
Historical documents and
narratives, oral histories, land registration deeds (to the extent that any
exist), air photos and old maps have all become part of the documentary
Of particular note has been the confrontation between two of
the country’s most senior geographers, Professor Ruth Kark of the Hebrew
University and Professor Oren Yiftachel from Ben-Gurion University, the former a
historical geographer, appearing on behalf of the state, the latter a political
geographer and also the chairperson of the B’tzelem human rights organization,
appearing on behalf of the Beduin appellants.
The Beduin population has
grown rapidly during the past three decades. Following the peace agreement
between Israel and Egypt, the Beduin were moved away from the area close to the
Israel-Egypt boundary and concentrated within a region, known as the Sayagh, to
the immediate north and east of Beersheba, stretching to Arad and Dimona in the
east and to the West Bank and Rahat in the north.
The state constructed
seven official Beduin townships, the largest of which, Rahat, has acquired full
The state has always argued, somewhat paternalistically,
that the process of sedentarization has been a spontaneous one as younger
generations opt to exchange traditional patterns of behavior for the attractions
and “bright lights” of modernity. For their part, the Beduin argue that the
movement from the temporary encampments into the seven townships has been forced
upon them for political reasons, resulting in their dispossession from lands
which, they claim, have always belonged to them.
The most recent
committee to examine this highly sensitive issue was the Prawer Committee,
established in 2009. On September 11, 2011, the government of Israel approved
the committee’s recommendations, including the formal recognition of additional
townships, enabling them to remain in situ, to receive government services and
have municipal status as part of the Abu Basma Regional Council for Beduin
But the committee also recommended the evacuation of
approximately 40,000 residents of the region who did not live in the specified
communities. Only some of the 40,000 would be eligible to receive compensation,
in cases where they could prove some form of ownership – which for the majority
of them is almost impossible given the historical nature of land rights and land
The reactions to these recommendations were political and to be
expected. Many Israelis on the right view the Prawer recommendations as too
generous and argue that all of the communities should be forcefully evacuated.
For their part, the Beduin community, none of whom were formally represented at
any of the commission’s hearings, along with the Israeli left and the human
rights groups, argue that this is no more than a continuation of a forced policy
of sedentarization, through which an indigenous community is being forced off
their ancestral tribal lands.
The Beduin concept of land ownership and
property rights is different to that of a centrally organized state and its
rigid system of planning controls and regulations.
As states have
conflicted with indigenous populations elsewhere in the world, whether it be the
Aborigines of Australia, the Maori of New Zealand, the Indians in North America,
the tribal populations of Africa and the desert nomadic tribes throughout the
Middle East, the contested arguments of spontaneous sedentarization versus
forced settlement have become a constant theme of the interplay between
tradition and modernity.
The state has always come out on top, if only
because of the force it has used in cases where agreement could not be achieved
and where indigenous populations tried to hang on to their ancestral
This took place in a different world, an era of prehuman
rights, pre-media coverage, when European colonialism could just about get away
with anything in the name of opening up a new world and “civilizing” the
The conflict over land ownership and property
rights in the Negev has intensified in recent years, as the Beduin population
has undergone rapid growth, and as the Israeli government seeks land for the
transfer of army bases and personnel from the center of the country to this
Whereas in the past it was relatively easy for the state to
forcefully make its case, this has changed as the younger generation of Beduin
citizens have become educated and more empowered. For any neutral observer, the
court decisions seem to be highly political, with the Beduin losing almost every
case. The situation does not bode well for the future of the region for those of
us living in the Negev, or for the country as a whole.
The writer is dean
of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The
views expressed are his alone.