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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Demonizing Israel through the Bedouin of the Negev

Ha'aretz last month wrote:
Researchers who have spent much of the past several decades studying and documenting the Bedouin Arabs of Israel's Negev Desert claim that a government plan to relocate tens of thousands of Bedouin would be a gross injustice.

Ethnographer Clinton Bailey, who has authored volumes about Bedouin poetry, proverbs and legal traditions, says he is pessimistic about the Prawer Plan, which would effectively extinguish the Bedouin's land claims without adequate compensation.

The Prawer plan, which the government approved on September 11 and is supposed to take effect in three weeks' time, would appropriate land where between 20,000 and 30,000 Bedouin are living in villages that are not recognized by the state and which do not receive government services, such as electric power and other utilities.

Some of those Bedouin will be compensated for their losses, receiving either a cash payout or deed to another piece of real estate elsewhere in the country. But not all of the Bedouin who have land claims are able to produce documentation that meets the requirements laid out in the Prawer plan.

"They're giving the Bedouin much too little, much less than they deserve," says Bailey, who has reported on Bedouin life since the late 1960s. "It doesn't really relate to all the Bedouin population, whereas it should, in terms of reparations for land that's been taken, in land or in money."

Bailey also says that the wording of the government plan is as insulting as its terms. "The language of it is too sharp, as if they're doing the Bedouin a big favor, which the Bedouin will never take," Bailey says. "Generally speaking, most Bedouin are opposed to it."
This is a pretty typical article from the media on this topic which downplays Israel's legal rights and romanticizes the Bedouin as majestic creatures of the desert fighting for their way of life.

The facts are a bit different.

A legal scholar on a mailing list I receive describes it this way (referring to a similar article from a couple of months ago, and I'm putting together portions from several posts):
Like most articles about the phenomenon, this one misleads the reader into thinking that the problem is that Israel is refusing to grant zoning rights and recognition of existing municipalities, and that it is denying Bedouin property rights, when the real problem is that the Bedouin are illegally squatting on state land and stealing water and electricity as well as the land itself. A group of land squatters on state land are land thieves even if they prefer to call themselves an "unrecognized village." The land thieves don't have "traditional property rights" just because they have what the writer considers a quaint lifestyle. Observing that the Bedouins are living on stolen land does not constitute evidence that Israelis are racist.

The state is attempting to resolve the problem of rampant land theft not by enforcing the law but by granting Bedouin free land rights in new and existing villages in exchange for their yielding possession of the land they stole. The Bedouin land claims are from recent unlawful possession of state land, and have no basis in Israeli law, and would not be recognized in Mandatory or Ottoman law either, but the state is nevertheless offering generous compensation for surrendering the claims. And the Bedouin have consistently rejected the deal; they are not interested in any bargain that involves their yielding possession of the stolen land.

The Bedouin do not have land claims that are recognized by law now. The claims are without basis in Israeli law (as they would be under Mandatory and Ottoman law). They have land claims that are recognized by NGO’s because they are asserted against the state of Israel. Fear of adverse publicity has meant that Israel has very rarely undertaken enforcement measures, even after winning judgments in court.

The same situation will prevail after the land giveaways. That, in fact, is what happened after Israel created Rahat, and gave away the land there. Israel has created villages for Bedouin, and given away land to Bedouin in those villages “in exchange” for land claims elsewhere. This has not prevented the tribes who now own land in the villages from also continuing to claim land elsewhere. As long as there are government officials willing to cave in and grant land in exchange for new made-up land claims, there will be Bedouin ready and willing to make up new land claims.

In the 1950’s they didn't have any legal property claims either. The Ottomans introduced land registries. The Bedouins of the Negev decided that the price of legal property rights was taxes and that was too high a price to pay. Their choice. But you can’t now turn around and say that they have inherited legal property rights that were already voluntarily relinquished decades before there was a state of Israel. And, incidentally, most of the Bedouin claims today are “inherited” from persons that were not in Israel in the 1950’s.

Bedouin get the same welfare services as everyone else, and they exploit them to the fullest. What Bedouin don’t get is state subsidies of municipal services to fictitious municipalities on stolen land. Jews don’t either. The state of Israel doesn’t collect garbage in Jewish municipalities either. I would be delighted if the Bedouin would compare their situation to Jews and demand equal treatment. They would receive far less generous treatment from the state. It is crazy to have villages created on stolen state land. It would be yet more crazy for the state to pay the thieves to build schools, water and electricity infrastructure and garbage collection systems.

There is a very good and largely sympathetic article in Jewish Ideas Daily today, by Diana Muir Appelbaum, that shows an analogy between the Bedouin of the Negev with the Irish Travelers (Gypsies) of the UK:

The chronically tense relations between the Israeli government and Bedouins in the Negev—where unrecognized villages are built, razed, and built again—are certain to grow even more tense with the Israeli Cabinet's recent approval of a plan that will recognize about half these villages but demolish the other half, sending their 30,000 residents to existing Bedouin towns.

But if the Bedouins were to vanish, magically replaced in the Negev by the Irish Travelers (Gypsies) who were recently evicted from their unauthorized settlement at Dale Farm in the United Kingdom, Israeli authorities could be forgiven for failing to see any material difference.

In the 1980's, the Council of Basildon let a few Travelers pitch caravans at nearby Dale Farm when they were not on the road; but the Council denied permission for further settlement in what is part of England's "Green Belt." Last month, after years of lawsuits, the Council got permission to clear 86 families from Dale Farm—and did so, not without raucous protests, unfavorable media attention, and a mediation offer from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Like Bedouin culture, traditional Traveler culture is itinerant. Both groups regard their way of life as superior to that of farmers and town dwellers. Both hold honor dear and define honor in strikingly similar ways: A husband protects and provides for his women. A wife obeys her husband and does not work outside the home. Girls regularly drop out long before the legal school-leaving age and are often married by sixteen. A man gains status by fathering many children, especially sons, and engaging in traditional occupations like animal breeding. Factory and service jobs are scorned.

Job prospects in the animal-breeding business aren't what they used to be, but modernity has otherwise been surprisingly generous to Travelers and Bedouin. In both the United Kingdom and Israel, government welfare benefits, including monthly payments to parents for every child, provide significant income support. New opportunities, some in what may euphemistically be called the non-regular economy, have also contributed to unprecedented prosperity. And modern medicine means that 10 or 12 children in a family can grow to healthy adulthood. In sum, Travelers and Bedouin have unprecedented resources with which to achieve the large family ideal. In fact, these circumstances have helped make polygamy far more widespread among the Bedouin than it was in Ottoman times, when few men could afford a second wife.

Modern society does not, however, approve of living in caravans or tents pitched wherever the family chooses. In Britain, as in Israel, the government wants traditionally itinerant people to keep their children in school, take jobs in the regular economy, and move into housing that is built to code. For their part, the Travelers, like the Bedouin, prefer to live in rural settings where they can park caravans or pitch tents beside homes that they build themselves and keep livestock near the house. Not only at Dale Farm but across England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, Travelers find that the number of places where itinerants can lawfully camp in this manner is dwindling; and when they form settlements without a permit, the authorities enforce the law.

...These controversies are, in essence, struggles over identity. Such struggles between modern societies and itinerant groups are as inevitable as they are painful and universal.
Read the whole article.

The upshot is that the romanticizing of the Bedouin, as is often the case, has nothing to do with their legal rights and everything to do with using them as yet more ammunition against Israel.