New 1920 document sheds light on Bedouin land claims

The new treasure map to Bedouin landholdings

Seth J. Frantzman

Originally published in Mida in English and Hebrew

In the fall of 2013 the organization Rabbis for Human Rights was boasting that it had found new evidence about Bedouin land rights in the Negev.  On November 24th they published their report “primary Zionist document reveals Bedouin ownership.”  They were so sure of themselves they even posted the actual report from 1920 online.  Pro-Bedouin researchers, Ahmed Amara, Oren Yiftachel and Sandy Kedar then published an oped in Haaretz, mentioning this document and claiming that the Negev “never belonged to the state” and “Bedouin claims stand on firm historical and legal problems.”  Unfortunately the newly revealed document doesn’t show this; and the new claims have little to know foundation in history.

Let’s take a tour through the new claims.  Luckily for all concerned, the reader can go check the documents themselves.  IN fact, this open-source presentation of material and evidence for all to see is for the best.  Scholars and organization like RHR have for years hidden behind claims of having “specialized knowledge” of these issues and framing them with fancy terms about “justice” and “settler-colonialism.”  But the emperor has not clothes; the documents prove the diametric opposite of what the Bedouin-lovers claim they show.


The 1920 PLDC document


RHR claims that a document created in 1920 by the Palestine Land Development Company, an organization founded in 1908 to purchase land for Jewish settlement and agriculture in Ottoman Palestine, proves there were “2.6 million dunams under Bedouin ownership.”  They argues that the “results of the survey are clear-large tracts of the Negev are settled, cultivated and under Bedouin ownership.”

The actual document is not as “meticulous” and clear as the authors pretend.  It has no clear publication date, or explanation of the author’s expertise.  Its pages are not in order and it appears part of it is missing.  Inexplicably some part is in Hebrew and others in English.   What it does reveal is a very interesting survey of the Bedouin tribes and clans of the Negev.  Each tribe is noted along with several facts about it, such as “cultivated area”, “water supply”, “ownership”, “relations with the government.”  In this sense it is a very interesting survey, comprehensive in the sense that the authors detail the cultivation of each sub-tribe.  It is assumed the document was prepared to give potential Jewish land purchasers a gazetteer of the Negev, which at the time consisted only of Bedouin tribes and the lone town and administrative center of Beersheba.

RHR claims that the report reveals that the “Azazma tribe owns 770,000 dunams of land.”  In fact the report says “the tribe of Azazmeh does not own any official papers confirming that the area belongs to them” and the author notes “nearly the whole area on their borders has no legal owner.”  The author claims that “they only possess Khoudjadj for a small part of the area.”  The report is clear: This tribe has no legal right to land and it has not registered claims to it with the Turkish authorities.  The report notes that “only a very small part of the area is cultivated.”  The author calls them the “lest civilized tribe in southern Palestine” and says they lead a “life of nomads”, so that they move as far as the Jezreel valley (“Esdraelon plain”).  They are “warlike.”

Detail from 1920 document reveals Azazmeh history

Detail from 1920 document reveals Azazmeh history

What is fascinating with the report about the Azazmeh, as with the other tribes in the survey, is that the author notes that “the Effendis possess only very few lands among the Azazmeh.  The Effendis named hereunder succeeded during the Turkish regime to own large areas in this section.”  The report notes that a Christian from Jerusalem named Tufik Batatah “owns a large area” of land among the Azazmeh.  This is the information RHR, or its academic friends like Yiftachel, doesn’t reveal to us in discussion of this document.  Because the real story of the 1920 PLDC document is that it reveals the Bedouin owned nothing and had rights to no land under the Turkish regime; but it does reveal that wealthy Arab effendis, urban elites, had legally acquired land where the Bedouin were living.  These effendis registered their land with government authorities and actually owned it.

RHR claims that “the Jabarat tribe own 66,000 dunams” according to the document.  The survey notes that this tribe “lives in mud houses.”  The page and date-section relating to ownership for the tribe is missing, but the document does show that five effendis from Hebron, Jaffa and Gaza owned land in the area that Jabarat were.

RHR claims that the document shows the Tayaha owning “1,120,000 dunams.”  The document does appear to say that “the marked area is owned by the great tribe of Tayaha (numbering 8,000 souls).”  The author relates the history of the tribe, claiming that it once “ruled southern Palestine for several centuries…and the Fellaheen [Arab peasants in villages] of the south paid taxes” to the tribe.  The author even claims that “Gaza belonged to the Tayaha.”  And then he writes something interesting, “the greatest part of their area they conquered by the sword in the course of some centuries.”  They dispossessed the Jabarat, and the author notes that the sub-tribes have fought battles with the Arab villages in the south Hebron area, such as Dahariyeh.  But then we come to important information about “ownership”, the survey notes “the Tayaha have no Government documents showing this area belongs to them.  The only document they do possess is Khidjeh.”  The survey explains that “khidjeh” is a type of document “signed by the old sheikhs neighbor tribes and passes in inheritance from father to son.”

The Khidjeh document

The Khidjeh document

A Palestinian Fellah or "peasant", 1890 (Library of Congress)

A Palestinian Fellah or “peasant”, 1890 (Library of Congress)

This tells us everything we need to know.  The Tayaha don’t actually own any land.  They occupy land and we know that due to their former power as warlords, they were able to push other Arabs and tribes off land “with the sword.”   For instance the author relates that at Tel Arad, the tribe tried to push the villagers of Yatta off land there that they cultivated.  The outlandish claim that they “own Gaza” shows the weakness in the RHR position. If we accept that the word “possess” or “own” means actual ownership, then the theory would be that Gaza should be “returned” to the Bedouin.  But no one is returning Gaza.  Because, the actual legal right to land is not defined by murdering people “with the sword” to acquire it.  The Ottomans had a clear land code since the 1850s, and they had a land office in Gaza and Beersheba since 1900.  The real owners registered their land, they didn’t bring the sword.


Bedouin agreements and claims based on mafia concepts


The fact that the Tayaha has agreements with other tribes is typical of cultures, like the mafia, that seek to undermine the state.  Thus Billy the Kid in the American Lincoln County War, had various agreements with other gang members, or the American mafia used to divide up cities into areas of control; but that doesn’t make these agreements and documents legal and it doesn’t mean in 2014 that governments should acquiesce to accept such informal agreements among warlords.  The Tayaha were a powerful tribe, and they didn’t register their land in their period because they thought the Turkish government and the British mandate was weak.  The tribe was very mobile; the authors note that “at the time of the harvest a great part of the tribe advances north and reaches sometimes the Esdraelon [Jezreel] valley.”  If the tribe moved over such a huge amount of land, perhaps the real area that it had “land claims” to stretch up to Nazareth; but these claims are based on no legal rights.

Billy the Kid in a land war in Lincoln County

Billy the Kid in a land war in Lincoln County

The real rights, ironically, to the areas in the Negev where the Tayaha were, belonged to the effendis in 1920.  The authors note “throughout the area of the tribe the Effendis of  Gaza, Beersheba and Hebron own large estates. The most fertile land fell into the hands of the effendis.”  Far from the RHR claim that the tribe was cultivating large amounts of land and this gives hem some hereditary rights, the reality is that the real cultivation was undertaken by wealthy Arabs from the cities.  The survey lists forty effendis who were the real cultivators and apparently, legal owners of this land.


Effendi land ownership in Negev

Effendi land ownership in Negev

The last tribe mentioned in the document is the Tarabin, which the RHR claims “own 778,750 dunams.”  The actual document notes that the “beat of the Tarabin tribe extends on an area of…796,250 dunams.” The authors note that the tribe’s origins are in Egypt, it actually migrated to Palestine around 1799.  They call it a “sedentary and civilized tribe.”  However “they have no kushans (government documents showing that the area belongs to them), but they have Khoudjadj.”  We’ve seen this before with all the tribes; they have no legal ownership of the land.   According to the author this tribe ranges as far as the Dead Sea in the spring and summer.   And in the fall it says they even moved into the villages of Fellaheen to work with them.  Once again we see here aspects of nomadism, and just because these tribal members camped by the Dead Sea or worked with Arabs in the Hebron hills, doesn’t give them “rights” to these lands.

In discussing effendi ownership of land among the Tarabin the document tells us something interesting.  It says “the effendis acquired large areas of land from the Bedouins. Not always they paid for it…some of the effendis succeeded to obtain ownership papers but the majority possess only a note, the so called ‘warakat Baranieyeh’, this document does not state the boundaries of their estate and is not official.”

Detail from the note

Detail from the document

What we see here is a shadow or “black” land market, where illegal transactions take place outside of the government view.   The author notes that the Bedouin “intend to submit claims to their lands” to the Turkish government.  RHR doesn’t want to see this nuance; namely that the Bedouin and others knowingly traded illegally in land and that whatever “claims” they had, they didn’t bother to submit them.  They preferred to see where the political wind was blowing.  Unfortunately for them, it didn’t blow in their direction; instead of re-establishing a warlord kingdom in the Negev, the Negev became part of a legalistic modern state.  Their years of “life by the sword” and moving up to the Jezreel valley in the fall to relax would soon end.

The use of documents like this by researchers such as Yiftachel, Kedar and Amara show how their argument is undermined by them and how they cherry-pick the pieces they like to back up their view.  The researchers in Haaretz claimed “many of the Bedouin claims stand on firm historical and legal grounds. There is abundant evidence attesting to the recognition of Bedouin land ownership during the Ottoman and British eras.”  The actual evidence is that they did not register their land, except in rare circumstances.  In many cases the evidence increasingly reveals that the legal rights to land where the Bedouin were, actually belonged to effendis and outsiders who did much of the most intensive farming.  Far from there being evidence of recognition of Bedouin “traditional” law, in fact researchers at Bir Zeit university have shown that the Ottomans never officially recognized these “khoudjadj.”  Instead they tolerated the illegal shadow economy of the Bedouin, the way modern states sometimes cannot crack down on black markets in goods.  But just because a state cannot prevent illegal land transactions, does not mean the state gives them recognition.  Some people paid the Bedouin for land the Bedouin didn’t own; the way a shopkeeper might pay the mafia for “protection.”  But just because the shopkeeper pays “protection”, doesn’t mean those who receive it have “rights” and “claims” to the land.  It just means the government was incapable of instituting strong procedures and security.  This was the case with the effendis who would bribe Bedouin not to attack their farms, and the Fellaheen who paid “taxes”, illegally levied, to the tribes, not to harass them.  When the government grew stronger, the Fellaheen rose in resistance to the Bedouin and this shadow economy was broken down; by the time of the British mandate it was washed away in favor of real laws and authority.

The Bedouin today claim lands they never owned, based only on long-time presence on those lands.  Whether the government should give them some land based on adverse possession, squatters rights or eminent domain, that is up to the government.  The Bedouin have certainly been in the Negev, in different, tribal forms, for centuries.  But the claims made by their supports that documents show “ownership” are often based on a misreading of the documents or selective use of them; as we have seen here.

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