The politics of land ownership in the Negev

The conflict over land ownership and property rights in the Negev has intensified in recent years, as the Beduin population has undergone rapid growth.

A Beduin man rides a horse in al-Arakib 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
A Beduin man rides a horse in al-Arakib 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
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 Israel.
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 state.
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 evidence.
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 city status.
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 settlements.
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 claims.
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 territories.
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 indigenous populations.
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 region.
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.