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Historical Background on Bedouin in the Negev

from T'ruah       Formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America          February 2013

The formerly nomadic and semi-nomadic Arab Bedouin tribes from Israel’s Negev region and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula traditionally engaged in herding, agriculture and moving goods and people across the desert. By the 20th century, most Bedouin settled in permanent areas, established their own system of land ownership, and continued to engage in agriculture and animal husbandry.

Dr. Thabet Abu-Ras, a lecturer at the Department of Geography and Environmental Development at Ben-Gurion University and a Bedouin rights advocate, described the historical roots to Bedouin land disputes in the Negev as follows:

Most of the land in the Naqab [Negev] was held by Bedouins who had inherited it, with no written record of any sort.

In 1858, the Turks enacted a law requiring that the names of landowners be officially recorded as a means of regulating land-related matters in the Ottoman Empire. There were five categories of land in the Ottoman Empire: Mulk (land under private ownership), Miri (state-owned land that could be cultivated for a one-time fee), Mauqufa (land in a religious trust or Islamic endowment), Metruka (uncultivated land), and Mawat (wasteland unsuitable for cultivation). Most of the land in the Naqab was categorized as Mawat. The Bedouin of the Naqab were opposed to the creation of a written record of their land holdings, since doing so would make them subjects of foreign rule. As such, they would be required to pay taxes and serve in the Ottoman army.

In 1921, the British Mandate government issued an order calling for residents of the Naqab to register their land. The Bedouin, who were given a two-month extension, did not do so, and their land remained unregistered. According to the Land Ordinance (Mawat) of 1921, a Bedouin who cultivated revitalized and improved Mawat land was given a certificate of ownership for that land, which was then re-categorized as Miri. The courts of the new State of Israel, a country born 27 years later, ruled that any Bedouin who passed up the opportunity to registerMawat land in his name in 1921 and did not receive a certificate of ownership was no longer eligible to do so (Ben-David, 1996).1

During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the vast majority of Bedouin living in the Negev fled or were expelled to areas in present-day Gaza Strip, Egypt, and Jordan, and only about 11,000 of approximately 65,000 people remained. After the war, Israel did not recognize the Bedouin traditional system of communal and individual land ownership. The new government used martial law to force the remaining Negev Bedouin to live within an arid area known as the Siyag (Hebrew for the “Enclosure”) between Beer Sheva, Arad, Dimona, and Yeruham and confiscated most Bedouin land outside of this area as state land. Rifts grew between the Bedouin population that held land in the Siyag area from before the war and the now landless internally displaced population. Martial law remained in effect until 1966.

According to the Israeli government:

With the establishment of the state in 1948, the Bedouins were under severe limitations of movement and their living grounds were reduced, causing several tribes to leave to the Galilee and other regions. In 1951, as military rule was applied to Israeli Arabs, the Negev Bedouins were forced to move to an area between Dimona, Arad and Beer Sheva. They lived in groups of tents, shacks and stone houses. The military rule was applied to them through their Sheikhs. Legislation of the Land Purchasing Law in 1953, which determined that any land not found in its owners' right in April 1952 will be made public, caused the Bedouins to lose all rights on their lands outside their living area. At this time, the government began in development of lands proclaimed by the Bedouins for purposes of establishing Jewish settlements, nature reserves, military camps and military firing zones.2

The 1965 Planning and Building Law3 created a hierarchy of planning bodies responsible for creating master plans at the national, district, and local levels. The master plans that arose out of this law during the latter half of the 1960s failed to acknowledge the existence of Bedouin residential areas in the Siyag. These villages thus disappeared from official maps. All land within the Siyag became zoned exclusively for industrial, military, or Jewish agricultural purposes. Without master plans for Bedouin villages, every existing and future Bedouin structures became “illegal” within the region where the government had confined them.4  

Beginning in the late 1960s, Israeli policy focused on further condensing the Bedouin population into seven urban townships created by the government.  In order to move to the townships, Bedouin landholders had to give up all claims to their land. Those who remain in the unrecognized villages have been unable to get building permits. As a result, all new constructions or renovations are under threat of demolition and residents who build face the possibility of hefty government-imposed fines.

According to the Israeli government:

Nowadays the state is restricting Negev Bedouins to settle within the city of Rahat and 6 other towns. Thousands of Bedouins, who do not own land, moved to these places of residence with the encouragement of the state. The remaining Bedouin population of the Negev lives in dozens of unrecognized settlements, bearing no municipal status and facing demolishing orders. These facts create great tension between the Bedouin populations and state authorities.5

In a government report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Israel spun the same historical developments and present day realities fairly differently:

In spite of the establishment of a number of permanent towns for the Bedouins, about 63,000 Bedouins (35%) still choose to live in illegal clusters of buildings throughout the Negev, ignoring the planning procedure of the planning authorities in Israel. This illegal building is carried out without any preparation of plans as required by the Planning and Building Law, 5725-1965, and with no pre-approval by the planning authorities. In addition, it causes many difficulties in terms of providing services to the residents of these illegal villages.6 

Dr. Thabet Abu-Ras presented the impact of the Israeli government’s spin doctoring:

The fact that the government of Israel never recognized the rights of the Bedouin to their land makes the Bedouin criminals or lawbreakers in the eyes of the Jewish population. Lacking clear legal evidence in the form of land registry records, the Israeli courts adopted popular opinion by perceiving the Bedouin as a wanderer, with no land and no roots.7

Dr. Ismael Abu Saad, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Development at Ben Gurion University and a Bedouin rights advocate added:

The government authorities claim the Bedouin do not own the land. But what can you do when, historically, the Bedouin never registered their land with the government land administration? Can this deny them ownership? The whole question of ownership of the land is seen by the Bedouin as a kind of paradox. “How is it possible,” ask the Bedouin, “that in the 1920s and 1930s, the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency purchased land in the Naqab [Negev] from its Bedouin owners, and today they’re suddenly not the owners? What has changed?”... The Naqab is expansive enough to accommodate all the needs – present and future – of the Israeli population. But there is also enough room to answer the needs of the Bedouin population. The correct solution must be mutually agreeable.8

After marshal law ended in 1966 both the Israeli government and Bedouin stepped up their legal claims of ownership of vast areas of the Negev and tried to register land. In 1975, the state followed policy recommendations of Plia Albeck, then head of the Civil Affairs Department of the State Attorney's Office. While reaffirming the government position that all Negev land belonged to the state, she recommended that the state freeze all legal claims and counter-claims to land in the Negev in order to reach a compromise with the Bedouin and offer some compensation for humanitarian reasons. Bedouin and government representative failed to reach mutually agreeable comprehensive terms, thus leaving many land claims and counter-claims unresolved for years.9

Abu-Ras, Thabet. "Land Disputes in Israel: The Case of the Bedouin of the Naqab." Adalah's Newsletter 24 (Apr. 2006): n. pag. Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Apr. 2006. Web.

"Bedouins in the State of Israel." The Knesset of the State of Israel, 2010. Web.

"Planning and Building Law." The Israel Law Resource Center, Feb. 2007. Web.

Off the Map: Land and Housing Rights Violations in Israel's Unrecognized Bedouin Villages. Rep. Human Rights Watch, Mar. 2008. Web.

"Bedouins in the State of Israel." The Knesset of the State of Israel, 2010. Web.

Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Third Periodic Reports Submitted by States Parties under Articles 16 and 17 of the Covenant. Rep. The United Nations Economic and Social Council, July 2010. Web.

Abu-Ras, Thabet. "Land Disputes in Israel: The Case of the Bedouin of the Naqab." Adalah's Newsletter 24 (Apr. 2006): n. pag. Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Apr. 2006. Web.

Abu-Ras, Thabet. "Land Disputes in Israel: The Case of the Bedouin of the Naqab." Adalah's Newsletter 24 (Apr. 2006): n. pag. Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Apr. 2006. Web.

Abu-Ras, Thabet. "Land Disputes in Israel: The Case of the Bedouin of the Naqab." Adalah's Newsletter 24 (Apr. 2006): n. pag. Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Apr. 2006. Web.