They are referred to as invisible citizens. There are no real roads leading to their villages that cannot be found on any Israeli map and they do not receive the services that Israeli citizens like them are entitled to.
The story of the Bedouin who inhabit the Naqab, or Negev Desert, is largely unknown to the wider public in a region that is overshadowed by a severe conflict. Their struggle seems to be covered by the sand of the desert. Luckily I had the chance to meet with them: with the once who exist in the so-called recognised villages and with the ones who do not exist in the unrecognised villages. A village such as Twail Abu Jarwal, which has been destroyed 20 times in the past 2 years and whose inhabitants are loosing the morale to fight for their land. Few remain and now break down their tents every morning to build them again in the night so that they do not find their homes demolished again after a long day’s work.
Out of Fear of Home Demolitions the tent is put down during the day and put up again in the evening to live and sleep in.
Since the 5th century A.C. Bedouins have inhabited the Naqab Desert, an area which currently constitutes southern Israel. Traditionally, their community is organized along tribal lines, meaning that the primary allegiance of a Bedouin lies with the tribe he or she belongs to based on kinship affiliation. Within the tribe there is a universal recognition of the leadership of the Sheikh and his family. His leadership included responsibility for defence, collective pasture rights and community migrations. The different tribes liased within a system of local balances of power and since the 1890 tribal war their tribal land boundaries have been fixed. In a sense the Bedouins have thus been sedentarized since 1890.
To sustain their livelihoods Bedouins used to live a semi-nomadic lifestyle by herding livestock and combining this with some agricultural activity. Skills were passed on from one generation to another by observation and participation into day-to-day life.
All has changed in the lives of the Bedouin since the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. At this time, the vast majority of the 100.000 Bedouins inhabiting the Naqab desert fled or were expelled by the Israeli authorities. Leading to a situation wherein only 11.000 remained, while the rest became dispersed refugees across the Gaza Strip, the Westbank, Egypt and Jordan. Like all Arabs the Bedouins were placed under military administration. The government decided to move them of their lands and into the north-eastern Sayig region, where they were not allowed to leave their designated sections of this Restricted Area. This nearly put an end to their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle as the Bedouin lost the freedom to move. They were only allowed to travel to and from the Jewish sector if they managed to obtain a work permit, which any hardly did.
A huge blow to the Bedouin population was the 1950 acceptance of the Absentees Property Law. This law enabled the government to register and own the lands of Palestinian Arabs who fled or were expelled during the war. This included the lands that Bedouins were forced to leave behind when they were moved to the Sayig region of the Naqab. The additional 1953 Land Acquisition Law legitimised the confiscations. The Bedouins took their land claims of 990.000 dunams to court as early as 1950. The main problem for the Bedouins is that even though they have lived on the land for thousands of years and have intertribal land allocations there is no written record of land ownership.
History concerning written records goes as far back as the Ottomon Empire which applied five land categories. Most of the Naqab or Negev was categorised as mawat land. In other words wasteland, found unsuitable for cultivation. The Bedouins refused a written record of their land holdings as this would subject them to foreign rule. Under the British Mandate, the Bedouins refused again. Besides the fact that the land was already distributed along intertribal agreements fear of taxation and problems of accessibility kept them from registering (Swirski, 2006, 3). In the 1921 Land Ordinance, Bedouins received certificates of ownership for mawat land that had been cultivated and revitalized by them. When the State of Israel came into being it decided that any Bedouin who had not registered his/her land or did not have a certificate of ownership lost his claim to the land. The Bedouin land ownership rights are fully denied by the Israeli government.
In 1966 the Military Administration was lifted and after the 1967 war a new period commenced. At the end of the 60s and early 70s the Israeli government decided to resettle the entire Naqab Bedouin population into seven urban towns: Rahat, Keseifa, Segev Shalom, Aro’er, Lakiya, Tel Sheva and Hura. The official reason given for the plan held that they intended to ‘modernize’ the Bedouins and that these urban settlements enabled the government to provide services to the Bedouins more efficiently. The land that the Bedouins would leave behind in the relocation was already earmarked as state-owned land and Bedouins who moved had to accept that they would loose their claim to the land left behind. The relocation and sedentarization of an already largely sedentarized community ‘happened’ to coincide with other state objectives: the Zionist aim of making the desolate desert bloom. The desert was seen as desolate despite their ancient Bedouin inhabitants as the Israeli State termed them as rootless and landless people.
In 1975 the question of land ownership is still pending and the Albeck Commission recommended to deal with the issue along three principles. First, non-recognition of Bedouin ownership rights. Second, offer the Bedouin compensation for the claimed lands as a token of good will f not by any legal obligation. Third, compensation will only be granted if the Bedouin relinquishes his/her right to the land and moves to one of the urban government towns. The Bedouins refused to take the offer to give up the claims to their lands. Counter-proposals and new proposals have all been refused. In 1984 the High Court ruled that the Naqab lands belonged to the State and so far every case before trial has been lost by the Bedouin. The result was a strange form of a stalemate wherein the Bedouin were prohibited from cultivating and building on the lands and the state was prohibited from using the lands without compensating the Bedouin (Swirski, 2006, 4-5).
Currently the Israeli government has estimated that there are about 170.000 Bedouins, constituting 25-27% of the region’s population. This number will substantially increase over the years as their growth rate is amongst the highest of the world. Of these 170.000 about 60% live in the recognised villages. The promises of services that would be provided have remained unfulfilled. The towns were built without involving the community or taking the Bedouin lifestyle into account, they lack proper infrastructure, sanitation, internal and external transportation, health care, education and employment possibilities. Even though the government claims that it can only provide public services to those living in permanent housing in the recognised villages these still have the lowest socio-economic provisions of Israel. Compared to neighbouring Jewish localities, the Bedouins in the government towns receive lower water allotments and have a smaller area of jurisdiction. This severely diminishes development possibilities.
In the unrecognised villages the present state of affairs is even worse. Over 76.000 Bedouins who are living on their ancient lands in more than 45 unrecognised villages are seen as illegal squatters and often referred to as ‘invisible citizens’. They are denied services, paved roads, public transportation, sewage, often even water resources, electricity and the permission to built any sort of housing. They also lack a local government and the right to vote and be elected to local office. Anything that is built is thus illegal and can, and often will, be demolished by the especially established Green Patrol (established by Sharon as an environmental paramilitary unit). The government is obliged by law to provide education to all children, but refuses to built anything but temporary schools in the vicinity of the unrecognised villages. Few have sanitary provisions or electricity and there is a lack of teachers, classroom- and office-space, leading to extreme overcrowding. Education and health care are both in dire straits. And Health Care is a huge topic in the Negev since the Bedouin share the Siyag with Ramat Hovav, Israel’s largest chemical processing plant; Dimona, Israel’s nuclear reactor, 22 agro- and petrochemical factories and two open sewage streams. This constant exposure to toxicity and radiation has led to a significantly higher risk of cancer to residents of the entire area, but there are only 7 clinics to care for the needs of the inhabitants of the unrecognised villages.
The government is unwilling to address these problems as it wants the Bedouin to move to the recognised villages. Unfortunately, the situation is not much better there.
Posted By Rianne Van Doeveren
Posted Aug 22nd, 2008