Get the Facts: A Distorted Report Provides Backing to the Government’s Denial of Bedouin Rights
A map of current Bedouin communities, shown on top of a map of British tents. Courtesy of Professor Yiftachel.
The government’s plan to remove 35 Bedouin villages (the Prawer Plan) has recently gained backing from extreme right-wing organizations such as Regavim and the report that they published. These organizations serve the government’s expulsion program in the public arena – they express a more extreme position than the government, thus making the government’s position seem reasonable, moderate and balanced. This essentially serves as a branding trick – if even the right is attacking the government, the plan must be all right.
The government and the extreme right share the same basic principles regarding non-recognition of Bedouin rights; what differs is their willingness to “compromise” about what they both consider the justification of their position.
Factual analysis of the Regavim movement’s distorted report:
The report published by Regavim serves as a kind of justification for the government’s expulsion program and was submitted to ministers and members of Knesset during the discussions on the law in the Knesset. The report’s claims are manipulative and distorted, and yet are nevertheless likely to convince those who are unaware of the details. So here we will try to make sense of it, in brief:
1. Are the Bedouin taking over the Negev? First of all, there is an attempt to frighten the public. Both the government and the extreme right are painting the picture that the Bedouin are “taking over the Negev,” – taking over land that is not theirs. They even argue with the fact that the Bedouin claim a total of 5.4% of the Negev.
The government and Regavim claim that the figure of 5.4% is irrelevant because a significant portion of the Negev is not designated for residential living. But even Regavim’s data indicates that the Bedouin are not taking over the Negev: The Bedouin make up 30% of the population of the Negev and claim just 21% of the Negev area designated as residential – less than their percentage of the population. And this is relating to an agriculture-based population, which is supposed to require more land. In the Jewish population, farmers are a tiny percentage (side note: some of the nature reserves and forests were declared or planted not for practical reasons, but rather to block lands from Bedouin use and if past experience is any indication, the areas may be opened up to Jewish construction in the future).
It is important to point out the percentage that the Bedouin are claiming because it is so much less than what the average Israeli thinks. The government and its supporters on the far right know that the Israeli public will think it fair to allow the Bedouin to live on their ancestral lands when it understands how modest their claims are (according to the survey). The government and its supporters also talk as if Bedouin ownership is contingent upon the percentage that they are claiming, rather than a history backed up by documents and a large quantity of evidence, as well as aerial photographs.
2. Are the Bedouin not Negev residents?
Supporters of the expulsion plan also want to erase facts and historical evidence in order to question the Bedouin’s connection to their land. They claim, incredibly, that there has never been a permanent Bedouin presence in the Negev, even though many Zionist leaders describe the Bedouin as permanent settlers of the Negev. Long before the State of Israel was established, Zalman David Levontin, Menachem Sheinkin, and many others described the Bedouin as those in control of the Negev in actuality, and as cultivating their land as permanent residents [see the many evidence and references in sections 2, 4, and 6 here]. In addition, the Ottoman and British regimes recognized their ownership of the land.
3. Are they failing in court?
Regavim is supporting the government, with the claim that the Bedouin have failed to prove their ownership in court. They forgot to point out that the legal system from the outset does not recognize the traditional Bedouin ownership system. Prior to the establishment of the state, the Zionist institutions recognized this ownership system and even purchased land from the Bedouin based on this system. The Ottoman and British similarly recognized the Bedouin ownership system. The truth is that many Zionist documents from the British mandate period demonstrate recognition of Bedouin land ownership [for evidence from official sources, click here].
When the state was established, suddenly Bedouin property rights were denied and unrecognized. When this is the court’s legal perspective, of course the Bedouin are destined to fail, with the exception of the few who registered their lands with the Ottoman regime, whose authority most of the Bedouin did not recognize. Actually, the Bedouin today claim much less land than the amount that the Zionist organization Israel Land Development Company (ILDC – then the Palestine Land Development Company), found to be under Bedouin ownership in 1920.
4. Are they taking up a lot of space?
Regavim goes on to manipulatively compare the area of Be’er Sheva to that of the Bedouin villages and highlights the “discrimination” in favor of the Bedouin. It is of course completely absurd to compare an urban community to a primarily rural one.
At Rabbis for Human Rights, we conducted a fair comparison between agricultural sectors, based on official statistics. To our surprise, we found:
Jewish agricultural sector: The Bnei Shimon Regional Council, which includes a number of kibbutzim and moshavim in the Negev, extends over an area of some 440,000 dunams with a population of 7,100 residents. Population density per dunam: 0.016.
Bedouin agricultural sector: The unrecognized villages sit on 350,000 dunams and together with pastureland, the Bedouin are claiming some 640,000 dunams, which is in dispute. Approximately 65,000 Bedouin live on this land (according to the lowest estimate).
Population density per dunam today: 0.185, with the aspiration toward recognition for more land such that they would reach a density of 0.101 – meaning that even if all of their claims are recognized, the Bedouin will still live in 6.3 times higher density than the Jewish rural population. Unreasonable claims, indeed!
5. Such a small minority is claiming all the land?
Both the state and Regavim argue that it is a small minority of the Bedouin who are claiming all of this land, based on the suggestion that very few Bedouin registered as claimants. First of all, the Bedouin extended family structure is such that often the land is registered under one person’s name from one or two generations previous, but is used by many people and a number of nuclear families (sometimes 100 people or more are behind the claim). In addition, from this description, you might think that the purpose of the Prawer Plan is the just distribution of land within the Bedouin sector, rather than taking land from the Bedouin for the benefit of Jewish building. Only one simple question need be asked: How can the expulsion of the Bedouin community from most of its land help the Bedouin who are not land owners? Even they are saying in the clearest language, “under no circumstances.”
6. Discrimination in the Bedouin’s favor?
Both the government and Regavim note discrimination in favor of the Bedouin. The government claims that it is acting out of generosity by giving the Bedouin land that they do not deserve by law and because it is finally investing in infrastructure and services (which Jewish citizens take for granted).
Entirely disregarding all practical concerns, Regavim focuses on examining the government’s support of the local authorities’ budget compared to Jewish authorities and development towns. Not only does this have no connection to the land in question, but this is major misdirection: when dozens of villages do not receive water, electricity, sewerage, or telephone service for decades, talking about increased government support of recognized towns and villages who carry the burden of services to an unrecognized population is shameful. Moreover, the Bedouin villages are much poorer than the development towns, whose situation is also miserable, so naturally they require more government support. Low municipal property tax collection is indeed a problem, connected – among other things – to the fact that there is no feeling of mutual responsibility between the state and the residents. When you do not receive proper services, your motivation to pay taxes is low – this is a known phenomenon.
7. Historical villages did not exist in 1945?
Regavim presents aerial photographs from 1945 in which, supposedly, historical Bedouin villages are not present. What they do not mention is that in the past, the Bedouin used to build mud huts or live in tents whose color was similar to the color of the land and blend in, and that the old aerial photographs are at a low resolution and in black and white. There is an official British map of Bedouin tents at permanent Bedouin points of settlement and there it is evident that the villages indeed existed even then [there is also a map which compares the British map of the tents to a map of the communities today and the correspondence is clear].
The official British map, with a focus on the Siyag region:
They also forgot to point out that the Bedouin communities sometimes moved between different points in the same area under their ownership [according to seasonal agricultural needs] and therefore the precise location of the village often moved out of the narrow frame presented by Regavim.
Even in Regavim’s aerial photographs, in some cases it is possible to see cultivated lands, something which according to Ottoman law – which is valid until today – can grant possession to those cultivating the land (“Miri Lands”), such that there is a basis for the Bedouin land ownership claims to the place. In fact, one of the villages which they claim was presented as a “historical village” and did not exist before 1945, is not in fact a historical village and no one claimed that it was – Umm al-Hiran is a result of the forced transfer of Bedouin after the establishment of the state, and that is the organizations’ claims about it.
And with regards to Al-Araqeeb, the government is claiming that evidence of the residents’ ownership is irrelevant because their lands were expropriated in 1953, while Regavim claims that the village did not exist until the 1980s. This is a village in which people voted for the first Knesset, with the village as their official residence – this denial is similarly puzzling. The claim that the cemetery, which is based on stone monuments the color of the land, and that tents and huts which were also the color of the land, would be seen in old aerial photographs is simply ridiculous [and incidentally, the circle that Regavim marked on the aerial photographs from various periods moves each time in relation to the course of the stream]. In addition, there are historical photographs of the cemetery from 1946.
8. Are the Bedouin spread out over many residential clusters in an impractical manner?
Like the government that it serves, Regavim describes the wide distribution of Bedouin residential clusters as an intolerable situation as a continuation of their effort to frighten the public. First of all, this supposedly wide distribution is within the 5.4% of the Negev which is Bedouin land. Second, this is a result of years of neglect and state refusal to plan. The Bedouin community also understands that when there is good, fair and well-organized planning, it will also obligate them. When Regavim attempts to argue with the fact that there was never an opportunity to build in a legal manner, it notes the ability to receive a plot in a town. Regavim ignores the fact that it is not reasonable to expect the Bedouin to give up on the majority of their agricultural lands and move to the towns with no source of agricultural livelihood. Just like we would not agree to a plan to move us from where we live and change our way of life. Today, as well as in the Prawer-Begin Plan, the Bedouin have no ability to plan and build legally in their villages.
However, the purpose of the Prawer Plan is not to concentrate construction while recognizing in principle Bedouin ownership of land and villages, but rather the erasure of sometimes-entire villages and unrecognition of Bedouin ownership.
In conclusion, both the state and the far right begin with instilling fear, and then move on to denial of historical facts. They argue between themselves only about whether the Prawer-Begin Plan is an unjustifiable concession to the Bedouin or a charitable grant of what the Bedouin do not deserve by right.
In the comparison of the tent map made by the British Mandate to the map of Bedouin communities today, see the strong correspondence [each pink triangle is a tent in the British Mandate period, and the red marks are villages today]:
Map of existing communities, placed over the British tent map: