The Many Myths of Bedouin Land Claims in the Negev

‘Why has the Israeli government punished the law-abiding Jewish residents of the Negev, cramming them into tenements in Beersheba and not permitting them the same access and rights to the Negev that the Bedouin have received?’

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In early September, the Israeli cabinet approved a major new plan it believes will finally deal with the ongoing issue of the Negev’s unrecognized Bedouin villages. According to reports, the plan involves moving around 30,000 Bedouin to existing large recognized villages. Its approval is supposed to solve almost 60 years of dithering and non-intervention by the government in a growing problem that involves lawlessness and the conquest of state lands by a minority community.

Though it has enjoyed unusually widespread support, the government’s plan is predicated on a huge amount of misinformation about what exactly has taken place in the Negev.

First the facts. There were only around 19,000 Bedouin in the Negev in 1949 after the creation of the state of Israel. They were entirely nomadic or semi-nomadic at the time, and were encouraged to settle to (and in other cases moved to) an area northwest of the town of Beersheba.

The Israeli government assumed responsibility for the huge swath of desert that is the Negev, building new Jewish towns and smaller communities. Most of the towns, such as Beersheba, were considered “development towns” and large numbers of new Jewish immigrants, mostly from Arab countries, were housed in concentrated tenement housing.

While nothing was done by the government relating to the Bedouin, committees in 1952 and 1966 both examined the notion that the Bedouin might have some land claims in the Negev due to their prior use of the land, despite the fact that none of it was registered in their names. In the 1970s and 1980s, as the Bedouin population burgeoned with one of the highest birth rates in the world (doubling every 15 years or less), the government built seven planned towns for the Negev Bedouin, where most of them agreed to live. However, a small minority of the Bedouin began constructing illegally built “unrecognized” villages throughout the entire northern Negev. By 2011 there were more than 45 of these unrecognized villages with about 75,000 inhabitants, while around 90,000 Bedouin live in the existing recognized towns.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding in Israel and abroad about what an “unrecognized village” is. In general, it is not a centralized village at all, but hundreds of acres of tin shacks, shoddily constructed houses, interspersed with some nice villas and numerous water canisters, trucks, pens for animals and other structures. The villages blend into one another, and most have no paved roads, little electricity except that supplied by generators or illegally stolen from nearby power lines. Water is taken from water trucks or illegally stolen (usually from other Bedouin communities). There are few or no schools, few or no medical clinics and the population, especially the women, is almost entirely illiterate. Many work in a shadow economy, and are thus considered “unemployed” by government statistics.

There is a persistent myth that Bedouin land claims are small. The Jerusalem Post wrote in September that the Bedouin make up about 30 percent of the Negev’s population, yet in demanding 600,000 dunams (60,000 hectares)—in addition to about 200,000 dunams already recognized by Israel back in 2003—they would receive a total of 5 percent of the Negev’s land.

This is statistically true, but misleading. The Bedouin do in fact claim about 800,000 dunams, a small percentage of the overall 12 million dunams of the Negev Desert. However, their land claims lie in the northern Negev, the most productive part of the area agriculturally speaking.  Furthermore, one must consider that the Jewish presence in the Negev in fact covers a smaller portion of the Negev than this entire land claim; the entire Jewish population of Beersheba, 190,000 people, lives on only 117,000 dunams.

The Bedouin base their land claims on two notions. They claim long occupancy of the land. The International Middle East Media Center, for instance, notes that, “The majority of the villages existed at the time of the creation of Israel in 1948 and some were established in the early 1960’s when Israel evacuated Bedouins from northern Negev to the south of Beersheba.” In fact, according to a study I carried out with Professor Ruth Kark of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, there were no Bedouin villages in the Negev prior to 1948.

British aerial surveys of the Negev found thousands of tents of nomadic Bedouin, but few dwellings. Most of the unrecognized villages were constructed recently on state land. Second, the Bedouin claim they are an indigenous people, like native-Americans and that this grants them communal rights over ancestral lands.

James Anaya, a UN Special Rapporteur, argued in a recently released document that the Bedouin people “share in the characteristics of indigenous peoples worldwide, including a connection to lands and the maintenance of cultural traditions that are distinct from those of majority populations.”

However, if the Bedouin are“indigenous” to the Negev, why are they not considered indigenous anywhere else in the Arab world, where they also live? Why are their land claims individual rather than communal? The government, by not immediately evacuating people who squat on state land, has in effect given away that land by default.

Now, Israel seeks to legalize that process through a mass compromise. But two questions remain. When the latest government plan is finished, what will happen when another 40,000 Bedouin illegally move onto another 800,000 dunams? Will their squatting receive post-facto approval again, encouraging the process?

Furthermore, why has the Israeli government punished the law-abiding Jewish residents of the Negev, cramming them into tenements in Beersheba and not permitting them the same access and rights to the Negev that the Bedouin have received?

If Israel wants to give away even half the land claims, it is only logical that it should match that by opening up an additional 400,000 dunams to private Jewish farmers, of which there exist many, who would like to have their own piece of the Negev.

Seth J. Frantzman (pictured above, click to download) is a writer, journalist and scholar residing in Jerusalem.

Posted on September 5, 2011 and filed under Israel.