Testimony from Zionist Leaders on the Bedouin Presence in the Negev
[Information courtesy of Prof. Oren Yiftachel, Dr. Sandy Kedar and Dr. Ahmad Amara, based on primary sources.]
Documents and diaries of Zionist leaders and institutions show that long before the establishment of the State of Israel:
1. The Negev was settled
2. The Bedouin were friendly to the Zionist immigrants
3. The Bedouin owned a great amount of land
4. The Zionists recognized the traditional Bedouin system of ownership
5. The Bedouin cultivated large tracts of land – this confers possession of the land under Ottoman law, which is still valid today.
Testimony as follows:
Zalman David Levontin, end of the 19th Century, from “To the Land of Our Fathers”:
Notes the amicable disposition of the Bedouin towards the Zionist delegation, and their willingness to sell them land at a low price, so that they would settle near the Bedouin. The delegation recommended that most of the Jewish settlement be undertaken in the Negev, due to the great amount of land that the Bedouin were willing to sell.
How do we reward the Bedouin today?
Zalman David Levontin, 1936:
“And we walked on the way from Gaza some four-five hours through and around Bedouin fields and dwellings, and we arrived at Nahal Gerar before daybreak…and on both sides of the stream were rows and rows of tents of Bedouin shepherds. There are no trees there and the entire clearing is planted with wheat and barley.” (Levontin, 37: 1936).
“On Saturday evening as it became dark we left the place where we had camped and we traveled north-east towards Be’er Sheva…here and there were Arab dwellings, which are a kind of mixture of houses, huts and tents… a wide road good for travel by wagon between fields of grain, planted with barley, wheat and corn brought us to the hill of the city of Be’er Sheva… in the evening the district clerk invited us to a feast… we discussed the development of the city… the surrounding land is fertile. Fields of grain are abundant…”
Yosef Weitz, Zionist leader, among the directors of the Jewish National Fund and later director of the Israel Lands Administration, 25.11.1948, From – “My Diary and Letters to the Children” published in 1965, Affirming the validity of the traditional Bedouin ownership system:
“During the Turkish era there was no registration of lands in the Negev. The possession of land was dependent on tradition recorded in notebooks, notebooks which were kept by the Sheikhs and Mukhtars. All legal action [regarding] land was recorded in the notebooks and the Bedouin related to the action with honor and trust.”
The Palestine Land Development Company, 1920, 2.6 million dunams under Bedouin possession
The Palestine Land Development Company organized the first comprehensive Zionist survey of lands in the Negev, which was published in 1920 [and is located today in the Zionist Archives, open to public perusal]. The survey is signed by Dr. Yaakov Tahon, who was the director of the company and before that was director of the Palestinian office of the World Zionist Organization and a member of its executive. In this important survey, the Company’s researchers reviewed the condition of the tribes, the agricultural cultivation and the land ownership. And the results of the survey are clear – large parts of areas of the Negev are settled, cultivated, and under Bedouin ownership. The report notes that in the areas surrounding Be’er Sheva there are 2,660,000 dunams of land under Bedouin ownership, according to the traditional Bedouin land ownership system, and that some 35 percent of the land is cultivated.
The researcher Eliahu Epstein (Elath), 1939:
Notes that in the northern Negev, between 2.1 and 3.5 million dunams of land are farmed with grain in a “primitive” (as he put it) manner. (Eliahu Epstein, Bedouin of the Negev, 71 Palset. Explor. Q.  70,59). Land that is cultivated for 10 years is, according to Ottoman law – still valid today – under the ownership of the cultivator. Today, the Bedouin claim only 650,000 dunams.
Jews purchasing land from Bedouin on the basis of recognizing their traditional system of ownership:
The first Jewish land purchase in 1913 of the land of Kibbutz Ruhama from the Atawna tribe, was approved and registered by the Ottomans post factum.