Op-Ed: 6 Part Series: The Truth About the Negev Bedouin, Pt. I
The land issues relating to the Bedouin citizens have been simmering on the national agenda for decades. The situation has now reached the boiling point, and requires our immediate understanding and attention, and the correct course of action by the State of Israel.
To strengthen the Bedouin case, organizations claiming to represent them have made a number of false and misleading statements that have been presented as facts to the general population. Many of these claims have been stated repeatedly and with authority, completely distorting the truth in the eyes of the public.
This document clearly and irrefutably dismisses and disproves many of these myths, using indisputable facts on the ground such as aerial photography, maps and documents.
Any solution should clearly take into account the undeniable facts on the ground. We are convinced that this document will clear the air and provide a more informed and educated discussion on the way forward for the Negev.
Myth 1: Are the Bedouin “Indigenous”?
Around twenty-five years ago, a global discussion began surrounding the term “indigenous peoples” as it relates to ethnic minorities throughout the world.
International law, however, began to address the issue of indigenous peoples as far back as the 17th century, and by and large the matter was left to the discretion of the individual states. With the passing of the years, the law began to recognize the independent status of indigenous ethnic groups (such as the Indians and the Aborigines) in a way that was bound together with previous legal agreements regarding preservation of culture, holy sites, and other factors.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) associated with the United Nations tried to advance two international treaties concerning the rights of populations that define themselves as indigenous, yet were unsuccessful in formulating a statement, due to the differing views of each country on sovereignty and indigenous populations.
In the past few years, key figures in the Bedouin sector in Israel began to apply this term to themselves as defining their independent status, together with a demand for recognition of their historic ownership of lands across the Negev.
Despite the lack of an international agreement as to the definition of “indigenous”, the general recognition of indigenous peoples uses several parameters, focusing on the following:
- Original Inhabitants – Indigenous peoples are descendants of the first peoples to inhabit a particular territory.
- Extended Period of Time – Indigenous peoples have lived in a territory “from time immemorial”, over a period of thousands of years.
- Pre-Colonial Sovereignty – Indigenous peoples had territorial sovereignty before the arrival of a developed nation that took possession of the region.
- Group Connection to the Land – Indigenous peoples have a spiritual connection to the land on which they live.
- External Validation – Indigenous peoples are recognized by other external groups which affirm that they are in fact indigenous.
Professor Ruth Kark of the Geography Department of the Hebrew University, considered an expert on issues of land ownership in traditional and pre-modern cultures, in an article that appeared in the “Middle East Quarterly,” enumerates the generally accepted parameters of the term “indigenous,” and explains why the Bedouin cannot be included in this category. Here is the synopsis of her conclusions:
Original Peoples – Many groups preceded the Bedouin in Palestine in general and in the Negev in particular, including Jewish inhabitants who maintained an uninterrupted presence in the land since the days of the Bible. Therefore, the Bedouin cannot claim that they were the original inhabitants of the land.
The Dimension of Time – The variable called, “from time immemorial” requires a long-standing presence on the territory. The Bedouin tribes currently living in the Negev have been there for about two hundred years . As such, they cannot claim that their presence predates the arrival of a foreign power, such as the Ottoman Empire, which preceded the current Bedouin tribes present in the Negev by hundreds of years.
Sovereignty –The Bedouin of the Negev never had sovereignty over the region. When they arrived, the Negev was already under Ottoman control, followed by British and then Israeli control.
A Unique Spiritual Connection to the Territory – Nomadic life precludes any specific fixed connection to the land. There is no long-standing proof in Bedouin tradition establishing a spiritual connection between them and the Negev, a logical result of their relatively brief presence there and to their nomadic lifestyle. Indeed they claim the Arabian Peninsula to be their historic homeland.
Today, the Bedouin are not claiming collective rights to the land, but are rather demanding fulfillment of private land ownership claims of individual families, giving them the possibility of selling the lands and transferring them to a third party. Such individual demands are contrary to the spiritual dimension, and point to the fact that the main aspiration of the Bedouin is financial gain, with no collective character that would support their campaign to be recognized as indigenous.
The Group Defines itself, and is regarded by others, as indigenous inhabitants of the Territory – The claim of the Bedouin as indigenous is quite recent, and was first mentioned only a small number of years ago . Previous studies did not find that the Bedouin regarded themselves as indigenous and no researchers made the claim as such. Although the UN Committee on Indigenous People did bestow indigenous status on the Bedouin of the Negev, the fact that no other Bedouin tribe in the Middle East ever made a claim of being indigenous raises questions as to the motives and authenticity of such a claim.
The fact that the Bedouin of the Negev, in many cases, are part of the same tribe that dwells in neighboring countries, also makes it illogical to say that only the Bedouin who live on the Israeli side of the border should considered indigenous.
The narrative according to the Bedouin claim that they are “indigenous” does not fulfill the world’s accepted criteria for being considered indigenous.
1. “Are the Negev Bedouin an Indigenous People? Fabricating Palestinian History”. Havazelet Yahel, Dr. Seth Frantzman & Prof. Ruth Kark. Middle East Quarterly. Summer 2012, pp. 3-14
2. Ottoman tax records from the years 1596-97 specify the names of forty three Bedouin tribes in what was to become the Palestinian Mandate, including three in the Negev, yet the names of the tribes living today in the Negev do not appear in this list.
3. The first articles to relate to this claim appeared about ten years ago in the platforms of organizations identified with the radical left in Israel such as “Adalah,” “the Negev Co-existence Forum,” and “Human Rights Watch.