By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Every once in a while I get asked by someone about Bedouin land rights in Israel or the West Bank. Usually it relates to one of two symbolic cases, that of Susya in the southern West Bank or Al-Arabik and Umm al-Hiran in the Negev. Sometimes the query comes from someone who read something I wrote or is interested in the issue and I have been suggested to them as an expert. Invariably the discussion boils down to their preconceived notions on the subject and their perception of what they think my views are. So if these people are on the Zionist right, they tend to think I’ve “proved” that Bedouin do not have long existing rights to land. If they are on the left they want to challenge me with some information or narrative that appeals to them.
My work on the bedouin began with an article on ‘Empire, state and the bedouin,’ comparing the treatment of nomads under the various regimes in the Middle East since the 1850s. I also wrote on the Ottoman and British policies on the bedouin of the Negev, and on the British attempts to create an accurate census in the Negev. Most of the research was carried out with Prof. Ruth Kark and often with Havatzelet Yahel.
But I’ve stopped writing about and researching the Bedouin issue.
The breaking point came at two different academic conferences in 2010-2014. At a conference at the Technion there was a panel discussion about Bedouin rights in Israel, particularly on whether or not they are “indigenous” to the land. Along with several colleagues I was supposed to present that argument that they are not indigenous, that the narrative of indigeneity is a recent phenomenon that seeks to join their struggle to that of First Peoples, Aboriginals and Native Americans in New World countries. As usual I presented the view that the “indigenous” discussion is primarily akin to an imagined community, where people invent a national identity. I asked the audience why the Bedouin are indigenous only to the Negev but not indigenous to the Sinai, how is it possible that the same tribe living on two sides of the border is only indigenous to one modern nation state. The nation state is modern construct, but the Bedouin predate it, so logically if they are indigenous they are indigenous to the region, not only to Israel.
Opposed to this argument is a narrative developed primarily by Jewish academic-activists who have made part of a career developing theories in support of the Bedouin. These men, and they are almost all Jewish Israeli men, ostensibly want to help the Bedouin. They often talk about Israel as an ethnocratic, settler colonial state. In the “settler colonial” model the Bedouin are a tool against that state. Most of these Israeli academics who claim to support the Bedouin come from the very heart of Israeli society, the same society that marginalizes the Bedouin. They sometimes come from the kibbutzim that acquired large tracts of land from abandoned Arab villages after 1948. In a sense their opposition to settler-colonialism is merely a way to atone for the abuses of the past. As Amira Hass said in a speech in Australia, “I speak to you as one settler to another.”
At the Technion conference there didn’t seem to be any Bedouin present on the panel and if they were in the audience I don’t recall them saying anything. Instead it was left to Jewish academics to debate what was best for them and what was their real history. It struck me as a bit ridiculous, as ridiculous as having a Bedouin-only panel debate the real history of the Scottish people and whether Scots are indigenous to Scotland. But many discussions are like this when it comes to bedouin, it involves outside “experts” and very rarely involves the people themselves. Outsiders assign themselves expertise and the right to determine for others what is “best” for them.
At a conference at Ben-Gurion University I was invited to give a similar paper as the one presented at the Technion. It became very clear from the start that the audience of fellow scholars was deeply hostile to the approach that I had been asked to present. A discussant claimed that the research I had carried out with colleagues was not academic and had no point. Then one of the academics said that I was a “collaborator.” Then he muttered that I was a “fascist”. Instead of defending me the hosts of the conference gave a stamp of approval to the accusation through their silence (eventually I received a sort-of apology).
That was an turning point for me. The unexpected vitriol that the Bedouin issue caused among academics and the way it had become personal was unexpected. I was interested in researching maps and rural development in British Mandate and Ottoman era Palestine. The Bedouin of the Negev were part of the rural development of the land. The 70-90,000 who lived in the Negev in 1945 were an important part of southern Palestine and had been for hundreds, if not thousands of years, in one form or another. There was much to research about where they lived and the British and Ottoman policy relating to them, especially when it came to the economy and settlement patterns of the Negev.
But to be called a “fascist” for suggesting that the “indigenous” definition may not fit the Negev Bedouin perfectly, or that if it is a definition applied to them it should also be applied throughout the region, was not something I expected. What bothered me particularly was the way my views were being shoehorned into a wider political struggle between the Bedouin and the state of Israel over land rights. My views were presented as part of the one dimensional narrative of the state and its supporters who see the Bedouin primarily as an “other”, as unwanted squatters. But that was never my view. Nor is it the policy I would craft for the state in its dispute. My actual view is much closer to the actual Bedouin claims, but it is also not close to the view of the activists and intellectuals. If bedouin want to define themselves as indigenous, that is their right, but do those who suggest an Australian or US model for “helping” them truly have in mind a goal that helps anyone?
So I stopped writing about the Bedouin.
Instead I spent five years teaching at Al-Quds University in the West Bank. But I kept up with the Bedouin issue as a writer for The Jerusalem Post. In 2015 and 2016 I covered the struggle in Susya (Sussiya) between several hundred people and the Israeli administration that sought to remove them. I also spent two days walking with Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, in a march to highlight the bedouin issue in the Negev. During the long walk I met many young dedicated activists. What I didn’t see were the Israeli Jewish academic activists. It seemed that when there wasn’t any funding involved or anything for them to get out of it, they didn’t want to put in the leg work to actually be with the people. They wanted the glory, but not the hardship. When the march got to the President’s residence, then suddenly there was one of the well known Jewish academics who suddenly got his photo taken alongside the people who had walked for three days.
That was when I realized how much of a charade support for the Bedouin is. It is about posing, posing for photos, posing as a “human rights activist,” posting as being righteous. But when it comes to facing the reality of life that bedouin face, allowing them to attend your posh schools, live in your neighborhood or succeed equally to you in academic life, then there is little interest in them. In short, no one supports the bedouin. The state and the right wing see them as squatters, deserving of almost no land rights, even as their population increases. There were only 14,000 Bedouin in the 1950s in the Negev, and there are 200,000 or more today. Yet the state’s response in terms of housing and planning has always been behind the curve. Only in the 1970s and 1980s were communities built and land allocated for them. Since then an absolute disaster of lack of planning rights has been denied them in a Negev that the government sees as being almost entirely state land. State land of course is provided to many new Jewish communities, segregated and exclusivist kibbutzim, moshavim and towns. And Bedouin informal or “unrecognized” villages grow everyday. But who is on their side? The activists who get invited to speak abroad or write papers about them? Are they on their side? What is their plan?
Permanent Subordinate: The plan to turn Bedouin into Native-Americans
During the time I was active in the bedouin land claims issue, an Australian professor showed up in Israel to champion their cause. Professor John Sheehan, an “Australian authority on native title compensation,” spoke at conferences and wrote about how the Bedouin in Israel were similar to the Aboriginal people in Australia and Israel should provide them the same rights. One article noted: “The Israeli government says the Bedouin do not qualify as indigenous people, and it’s just enforcing laws it inherited from the British and the Ottomans. But Israeli geographer Professor Oren Yiftachel who, media reported, learned about the Aboriginal land rights struggle when he lived in Perth, accuses the government of declaring “terra nullius in reverse.”
Some Pro-Bedouin activists support the Australianization of Israel’s policy, while others see Native-Americans or Canada’s First People’s as a model. But what has Australia accomplished when it comes to the native people of that continent? It has provided them land rights to their land. But the treatment of Aboriginal people at the hands of Australia continues to be a “collective shame,” according to authors down under. Suicide rates among Aboriginal people are at “record levels,” according to new reports. There is a crises in care and families are forcibly removed by the government. Aboriginal people suffer nutritional inequality compared to others. The rate of incarceration for Aboriginals has risen from 14% of the prison population to 27%.
So the concept that was embraced by many Israelis working “on behalf” of the Bedouin is to turn them into Australian Aboriginals. That means high suicide rates, imprisoning them, keeping them in the most abject poverty, removing people from their families and, all in all, doing irreparable harm to them as a people. That is the process of turning them into a permanently subordinate group, poor and marginal.
Now why would people who ostensibly want to help this minority want to turn them into a permanently suburdinate class? Because then it allows activists on their behalf from the privileged majority to continue to live off the bedouin as a cause. It allows for the creation of hundreds of Israeli-run NGOs to “study” them, and “recommend” things for them. It allows for an endless cycle of “saving” them. And all that means big money for elites, for people from kibbutzim and from wealthy suburbs of Beersheba, the same suburbs that won’t let bedouin attend their schools. The concept is to make the bedouin as poor as possible and deny them any agency that would allow them equality and success.
Successful, wealthy bedouin, are a threat to the activist power-structure that pairs a few people with white privilege to help the “indigenous people.” Indigenous empowerment would take jobs from the “savior” group. After all, if 25% of the academics at Ben-Gurion University were bedouin, a lot of non-bedouin people would be out of work. In general the plan in most western countries for dealing with minority or marginalized populations is not to empower them, but to keep them as poor as possible, dependent on those in the elite class who then profit of their poverty. Anyone who suggests turning the bedouin in the Negev into the Native-Americans of the US or Aboriginals of Australia as a model, is only modeling on failure in which minorities were transformed into the lowest economic strata. There is a different model for bedouin empowerment to be found in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States, where formerly nomadic people became wealthy and independent. That is a model no one in Israel wants to discuss, because it would erode the powers that enjoy being above the bedouin and keeping them subordinate.
Bedouin land rights, why is it based on historic “evidence” of land use?
When we read about a dispute regarding bedouin land claims there are always two narratives. The supporters of the bedouin will claim that the people lived on the land “before the state” and have been tilling the soil for decades, perhaps hundreds of years. In the West Bank articles invariably have sentences like this. “Attorney Tadmor Etzion, a senior prosecutor, will ask the court to dismiss the petition of the residents of Duquiqa, which she defined as ‘a collection of illegal construction.’ Her primary arguments are that the residents have not proved their land rights; that in an aerial photograph from 1967 there are no structures seen at the site.” In the Negev, supporting articles by groups like Adalah note, “Today, 70,000 Arab Bedouin citizens live in 35 villages that, which either predate the establishment of the State in 1948, or were created by Israeli military order in the early 1950s.”
Notice how the 1948 of 1967 pedigree is always disputed. But why are these dates magic dates for proving rights to land. Old documents, travelers accounts, maps, aerial photos and sources are always disputed to prove or disprove land claims. One article notes, ” In 1920, the PLDC of the Zionist Federation recorded 2.6 million dunam of land in the Negev as owned by the Bedouin. Today, the Bedouin are claiming a mere 650,000 dunams. These documents are available for all to see. We cannot say that the Bedouin did not own their lands.”
Why do Bedouin have to prove that they lived in a village in 1948 in order to live in one today? Why do they have to prove land use or that there were structures and not tents at a site? Consider the dispute at Susya in the West Bank. The bedouin are asked to prove they lived in caves in a nearby archaeological site. But a Jewish community established in 1983 doesn’t have to prove it lived in caves. In the Negev, why does al-Arakib have to prove it existed before 1948, but Meitar which established in 1984 is perfectly legal?
There is no reason people should have to prove in a court that they have lived somewhere for 100 years in order to live there today. The state of Israel has provided millions of dunams for Jewish settlement in the Negev, it could just as well provide the same amount for Bedouin. Meitar, which has 7,000 residents has 16,000 dunams. One could forsee a situation in which most of the Bedouin land claims to some 800,000 dunams were given to the bedouin. One could foresee Israel selling off state land in a kind of Homestead Act in the Negev. But that’s not what the Israeli state or its courts want.
The narrative that most bedouin villages in the Negev today live on pre-1948 settlements has no basis in history. There were 1,600 houses in the Negev and 9,000 tents according to a British survey in 1945 of the Negev. But 85% of the bedouin of the Negev fled or were expelled during the 1948 war. Logically that would mean that most of the land they lived on, most of which they did not register with the British authorities, did not paid taxes on or have deeds to, was left without people. Those with pre-1948 rights to the land live in Gaza today, more than they live in the Negev. Since the 1950s bedouin in the Negev have moved, or been forcibly moved by the state of Israel, onto some of the land abandoned by bedouin in 1948. They are often not the same families or even same tribes, even in cases where they are the same family the family has grown from a few people before 1948 to hundreds or thousands today. The myth that those thousands of descendants all live on “grandpa’s land” is illogical. Obviously 1,000 people would live on more land than 100 people.
The historical test of “can we find tents in this photo and cultivation” doesn’t tell us who cultivated the land or who lived on it. In Israeli courts when the two sides argue over cultivation or tents it is a largely meaningless discussion because a photo or map cannot tell you who lived at a particular place, only that people lived there. Similarly, the reality of the documents produced in 1920 or other times is that they don’t show Bedouin ownership, they do show that Palestinian Arabs from places such as Gaza, Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron owned land in the Negev. These were wealthy land investors who acquired land in the Negev, sometimes during the period of Ottoman rule. If there are pre-1948 rights to the land it might be rights for the Husseini family, or the descendants of “Tufik Batatah”, who the 1920 report claimed “owns a large area” among the tribal area of Azazmeh.
When the anti-Bedouin, state-supporting voices claim that bedouin must prove ownership going back to 1948 or 1920 or before in order to have a claim to the land it seems to imply that anyone who can show such ownership would have rights to land in Israel. So what about the 400 Palestinian Arab villages from before 1948 that ended up inside Israel and the 700,000 refugees who came from them? Bedouin may find it difficult to prove rights to and when a map shows only tents, but there are huge Arab villages that existed in 1948 and no one disputes their existence and they appear on aerial photos. So when the right wing voices say “show us a house,” well what about those houses? Will the residents of Lifta near Jerusalem be coming back based on the argument that maps clearly show their houses? Their is no disputing their rights. So when the pro-state view says that bedouin must prove long tenure, why doesn’t the same view apply to Arabs who lived in Beersheba before 1948? Can they return to their houses? No.
This is the obvious fallacy in this 1948 logic. If you predicate everything on going back to 1948 it opens a whole series of questions. Palestinian Arabs would logically have rights to return to all their lands and villages. All the effendis who did own land in the Negev would have rights to it, even if the bedouin don’t. And what about Jewish Israelis, why don’t they have to prove rights to pre-1948 communities to receive land in the Negev? Many communities and neighborhoods are being constructed in places like Beersheba, but there is no solution for Bedouin citizens? The kibbutzim with their tens of thousands of dunams were built on top of areas where bedouin lived, why do they get rights to the land, but not others? Ismail Abu-Saad correctly asked this question in the 2012 book Indigenous Injustice. “Both aims could have been achieved by planning small agricultural villages or cooperatives with a land base (such as the Jewish moshavim and kibbutzim) for the Bedouins.” But you’ll notice in the same book that the Jewish pro-bedouin voices do not advocate kibbutzim for the bedouin. Because the elite voices who pretend to support the bedouin only support them being subordinate. No kibbutzim for them. Kibbutzim are for ‘us’. Land rights are “rights” to be discussed, like Native-American reservations, not actual land development and ownership, the way formerly nomadic people in Saudi Arabia or Jordan have built communities and towns. Because that would mean empowerment and “pro-bedouin” community doesn’t want empowerment. Bedouin want empowerment, but those intellectuals and elites who claim to support them know that the day bedouin are empowered and equal is the day the pro-bedouin lobby can no longer make profit off bedouin. Israeli kibbutzim that pretend to be “left” and “liberal” practice 100% segregation and ethnic-apartheid, openly being only for Jewish residents. Bedouin cannot move to Israeli Jewish communities in Negev, nor can they build their own acceptance-committee style kibbutzim. Yet some of those who pretend to work on behalf of the bedouin are from kibbutzim and ethnocratic communities with segregated education. How can one support bedouin rights, while actively excluding them?
The real rights of bedouin today don’t relate to 1948. The 14,000 bedouin who became 200,000 or 250,000 don’t have historical rights to 800,000 dunams based on 100 years of tenure and settlement. They have rights based on recent tenure, and those rights should exist. How does the state benefit by denying almost 100,000 people a regulated system of housing and land. Everyday those bedouin increase and build more homes. The Israeli state “solution” is to declare each house “illegal” but then provide no other solution. Very few homes are actually demolished. So de facto the bedouin have rights, in the sense that they possess the land. Israel’s land authorities are probably the worst in the western world at defending the state’s rights to the land it claims. Can anyone imagine if 10% of the residents of Arizona or Scotland lived “informally” in “unrecognized” villages? Can anyone imagine millions of acres of small illegal farmsteads in the US? No, of course not. But Israel’s government keeps plowing ahead, believing this non-solution is a solution.
The response is that bedouin have no rights to many places, they are “squatters” and “nomads.” But they are not nomads and calling them “squatters” doesn’t change the facts on the ground. Israel doesn’t bother to learn from its neighbors and their policies regarding similar bedouin populations. Why is it the bedouin in Jordan or Saudi or Iraq or other countries built homes and somehow acquired tenure, but in Israel they cannot and a situation of poverty and mass inability to regulate land has been created? And this is called a “success” from the Israeli point of view, because the state keeps winning court. But every “victory” in court is a false sense of victory, that makes the state think it’s policies are successful and proper. It would be better for the courts to rule the state is in the wrong, and that adverse possession and squatters rights apply to 800,000 dunams, forcing the state to create a real solution. Instead the state pats itself on the back. Pro-Bedouin activists write more academic papers about “ethnocracy” and the bedouin continue to live a marginal life.
Not only do the bedouin live a marginal life, but there is evidence that some bedouin actually move to the unrecognized villages because the quality is life is better than in the “recognized” towns that are cramped and impoverished. A Human Rights Watch report in 2008 called ‘Off the map’ noted in a footnote that people were moving from the recognized towns to unrecognized villages due to quality of life needs. Life in an unrecognized village is often more “free” than in a town, less regulations, more of a libertarian free market, and more conducive to some of the cultural norms of the people. When Israelis show bedouin large highrise apartments and say “this is how you should live” because high population density should require ubranization, it’s logical that most people would prefer a small farm with a generator.
Misleading stories and endless struggle that benefits the rich
For years bedouin have been encouraged to pursue an avenue of struggle that has gained them nothing from the state. The academic activists who have made careers supporting the bedouin have accomplished nothing for the bedouin, but they have accomplished a lot for themselves. Speaking tours abroad, numerous publications, editorships of journals, and of course the prestige and self-congratulatory adulation of being seen as “helping” minorities.
Check out the department of geography at Ben-Gurion university where some academics supposedly support bedouin. How many bedouin or Arab minorities are on the faculty? Few, if any, as far as I can tell. Let’s look at the faculty of law at Haifa University. There are two Palestinian Arabs out of thirty-six faculty. That’s about 7%. It’s better than 0%. Does it seem strange that the same academics in Israel who claim to support bedouin do such a dismal job of allowing bedouin, or other Arab citizens, into their ethnocratic faculty? Look at other lists of faculty from other faculties and you will find almost no members of the Arab minority. So when the pro-bedouin academics talk about ethnocracy, there is a very real ethnocracy that they seek to maintain. Bedouin deserve land rights, but they also deserve an equal education, they deserve a right to move where they want including into communities like Omer and Meitar. They deserve the right to go to the same schools as Jewish Israelis and to receive that same level of education in their communities. But those who work on their “behalf” don’t want an empowered, educated, bedouin minority. When activists say “Bedouin land claims amount to less than 5% of the area of the Negev. While the Bedouin community asserts claims to less than 5% of the land of the Negev, they make up about 25% of the population of the region,” the correct addition to this should be that Bedouin are 25% of the Negev, why are they often 0% of the faculty? Why are they almost 0% of the doctors? And close to 0% of the lawyers?
When all the elite educated positions in the Negev are reserved for non-bedouin, it means others profit off the bedouin being second class, permanently subordinate citizens. Only when bedouin are represented throughout the professions will the land rights issue also be resolved, without outsiders always “working on their behalf.” The track record of these outsiders shows how they never achieve anything for the bedouin, except the enrichment of themselves.
A realistic plan for the Negev bedouin
There is a workable plan to provide equality for the bedouin and settle the land claims.
1. The land claims to 800,000 dunams should be settled in the bedouin favor. Give them the land.
2. A system of land tenure similar to the 1968 Public Land Distribution Ordinance in Saudi Arabia or the Homestead Act in the US should be enacted to provide access to land and title in an efficient manner that prioritizes land development and economic development. It should be open to all, including bedouin and Jews.
3. After recognizing the existing 50 unrecognized villages and land on which the 100,000 bedouin live “illegally”, the state should then begin rigid enforcement of the law and not allow another 50 unrecognized villages to be built on new claims to state land.
4. The state should admit it’s long term failure to police its own lands and its long term failure to provide equal and adequate services to the bedouin. It should provide equal funding for education in all communities of the Negev, which means among the poor Jewish communities in places such as Dimona, and in bedouin communities, so as to stop the perpetuation of white privilege in places such as Omer and Meitar.
5. Bedouin should be permitted to attend school where they want if the schools are located near their place of residence, including in wealthy Jewish communities.
6. Racist and segregated acceptance committees should be abolished, so that people in the Negev can live where they want.
7. Unused dunams that were allocated to communities in the Negev, such as kibbutzim, should be removed and provided to whoever wants to settle them.
8. Affirmative action should be enforced at universities, especially at BGU, where bedouin and Jewish students from minority communities (Ethiopians, Mizrahim), should receive priority and faculties that do not have at least 10% minority students should be abolished. Faculties who do not have 10% minorities on staff in 10 years should be discontinued until they meet the minimum basic standard of having diversity.
9. Professions such as law and medicine should be ordered to integrate and empower minorities, with similar to year, 10%, targets that if not met will result in discipline.
10. Policing alongside investment in community relations should be extended to identified bedouin communities where crime has become a problem. There have been many cases where police did not respond to crime in bedouin areas, pretending that those areas are outside their jurisdiction.
11. New bedouin communities should be planned and built without waiting for new unrecognized communities to appear. The state should flood the land with housing and plots, not only for bedouin but open to all investors, to develop the Negev in an equitable manner, instead of abandoning whole communities.
12. Instead of house demolitions, the state should create an effective taxation authority, registering land and improving the land and services, paving roads, providing names for roads, providing postal delivery, water and electricity, all the things that normal states do for their citizens.
13. Newly created unauthorized construction should be demolished quickly, without waiting decades for houses to be built and then destroying family property.
Why a plan like this will never happen
The voices on behalf of the bedouin have rarely proposed plans that would actually work. They often want an Australian model which is a model of poverty and disempowerment. The voices against the bedouin see them as deserving of nothing; those voices have ruled Israel for its history and have led to the current situation. Various “plans” such as the Prawer or Goldberg decisions, have come and gone over the years. State authorities prefer “managing the conflict” to settling it through bold strokes. Many bedouin distrust the state to provide any solutions and actively choose to live in informal communities because they believe they are entitled to the land and that developing it will eventually result in their gaining full control over it.
So long s the debate about bedouin rights is dominated by two groups, one of which thinks bedouin should have no rights and another which believes bedouin should have only subordinate second-class rights, the bedouin rights issue in Israel can never be fully addressed. A third side must be added to the debate which demands equality, empowerment, investment, land rights based not on 1948 tenure but on modern rights to land currently used, with the aim for a long term solution that provides access to land ownership. In order to get to the point bedouin themselves should realize they have been misled and lied to by those “helping” them, and that becoming the Australian-Aboriginals of Israel is not something anyone should want. As a burgeoning, growing community, being marginalized second-class citizens is not a goal. Unfortunately it has been the way in which many relate to them.
At the very least outsiders interested in the bedouin issue should stop taking the agendas at face value. When an Israeli activist from a Jewish community tells you he “supports the bedouin,” ask that Israeli if a bedouin can move to his community and attend his school. When he replies, “no, of course not, we have an acceptance committee, our schools are for our kind only, but we support social justice,” don’t allow that Israeli to pass himself off as supporting human rights, when in fact he supports separation and segregation and is a remnant of a racist paternalistic elite. At the very least only support bedouin voices, don’t allow outsiders to tell you “what the bedouin really think and want” and outsiders to tell you “the real history of the bedouin.”
There is evidence that some Israelis of bedouin background have broken through into academic and legal circles. This is certainly the case with Sarab, Safa and Rawia Abu-Rabia, three women’s voices who are adding greatly to the discussion. That is a positive development. But it is too few people, what is needed is a huge number of voices entering the mainstream from the community, moving into academia and the professions. That way the panel discussions about “bedouin history” at conferences will not be all Jewish men discussing what is “best” for bedouin, but rather Palestinian bedouin discussing their own identity and history.