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."
Thousands of Bedouin men, women and children and their supporters protested the government plan in Be'er Sheva two weeks ago on October 6; the Guardian reported that the demonstration drew 8,000 people. "That's the largest demonstration that the Bedouin have ever gotten together," says Clinton. "This has served to unite Bedouin in a way that nothing else has ever been able to."
Despite its size and significance, the demonstration seemed to have eluded the notice of most of the Israeli media, where it was scarcely reported on.
"These people had land claims. They were based on unwritten law. Our legal system depends on written evidence of such things, deeds, contracts. They didn't have it, and we also wanted to make sure that we controlled as much of the Negev as possible, because it's half the size of the country. So there was a natural conflict," says Bailey.
"But they don't want the whole Negev, they want certain parts of it. And there were ways of dealing with it respectfully and fairly," he says.
Israel Prize-winning sociologist and anthropologist Emanuel Marx, a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University who has written books about Bedouin culture and economy, agrees with Bailey that the Prawer Plan is fundamentally unfair.
"The Bedouin have been claiming ownership of the land for several generations, and the government has been doing everything to take away their land," he says.
One strong argument in favor of Bedouin land claims, despite the lack of written evidence for it, says Marx, is that there are records of Bedouin payment of land taxes to the government of mandatory Palestine, pointing out that "you don't pay taxes on land you don't own."
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