Before You Expel the Bedouin...

Despite the government’s approval of the Prawer proposals, the Bedouin will not relinquish their claim to their historical land.

The Prawer Committee recommendations approved by the Israeli cabinet last week call for the “relocation” of some 30,000 Naqab ‏(Negev‏) Bedouin from their lands. This would be just the latest expulsion of Negev Bedouin − a practice that began in 1948, when more than two-thirds of the 90,000 Bedouin living in the Be’er Sheva district became refugees. Some 11,000 of those who remained under Israeli rule found themselves expelled from the western Negev to an enclosed zone northeast of Be’er Sheva, thus becoming “internally displaced” citizens.

Since 2007, first the Goldberg Commission, and now the Prawer Committee, have been charged with resolving the ongoing land-ownership dispute between the Bedouin and the state. The Bedouin claim 600,000 dunams as part of their historical lands, whereas the Goldberg Commission proposed registering one-third of that in their name. Finally, the committee headed by Ehud Prawer, former head of the policy planning department in the Prime Minister’s Office, suggested that the Bedouin be given only 27 percent of the lands they say have been theirs since Ottoman times. Implementing the Prawer recommendations means that the majority of those who currently populate the unrecognized Bedouin villages would be forcefully moved to existing townships.

In making such a fateful recommendation, the Prawer panel failed to consider the historical recognition of Bedouin land ownership. If it had done its homework, the committee would have discovered that officials of both the British Mandatory government and the State of Israel gave such recognition in the past. That’s what I found in my research in both British and Israeli archives and in personal interviews.

In an interview I conducted with him in 2008, for example, Lord Oxford − assistant commissioner of the Be’er Sheva District under the Mandatory government in 1943-45 − explained that British authorities recognized Bedouin land ownership even without any formal registration procedure: “We did not oppose Bedouin land ownership, nor did we force them to register it,” he said. “They were happy with the way they recognized their land, so we thought we would not impose on them something they did not like and would resist.”

The testimony of Lord Oxford, who died this past January, contradicts clearly the Israeli narrative that the Bedouin have not owned the lands they inhabited for generations. British documents also show that they paid taxes on their lands. In a report from January 1940, for example, Malcolm MacDonald, then the secretary of state for the colonies, approved recognition of the “tithes” paid by Be’er Sheva District Bedouin as signifying ownership.
Ottoman documents, dating back as early as 1907 and found in British archives, give evidence of tax payments being made in June of that year too.

Recognition that the Bedouin had a legal claim to their lands continued after 1948, under Israeli rule. In 1952, for example, Michael Hanegbi, the military governor of the Negev, in a now-declassified letter to both the Defense Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, wrote that, “During 1950/1951, a total amount of 19,000 Israeli Lira were collected from the Bedouin as land tax by the Negev military governor with the help of Bedouin. Bedouin paid four grush for each dunam to be recognized.” If Hanegbi went to the trouble of asking the Bedouin to pay land taxes, it is clear that he recognized their ownership − something that Prawer and Goldberg seem not to have taken into account.

Accordingly, in the 1950s, almost all the Bedouin who remained in Israel paid land taxes to the state. They were collected by the military governor and Bedouin sheikhs. It is also important to note that the tax paid to both the British and Israeli authorities applied also to the currently disputed land.

Similar testimony can be found in the state archives from Yosef Weitz, who headed the Jewish National Fund’s forestry division and later helped to found the Israel Lands Administration. In 1952, he was appointed to head a government committee entrusted with investigating Bedouin land claims, and he and his colleagues came up with some interesting solutions. Their report noted that even though some of the 11,000 Bedouin who remained under Israel control after 1948 had been evicted from their historical land and then concentrated in a closed zone − this did not negate their ownership of that land. The report stressed that the Bedouin regarded all the land they cultivated as being owned by them, and it did not challenge that approach.

The Weitz committee proposed that it would nonetheless be possible to “avoid recognizing Bedouin rights on their land even if they prove that they have cultivated it for a long and extended time.” One recommendation was to hold off on “the opening of a registration office in Be’er Sheva,” so as to prevent any Bedouin from attempting to formalize their title.

Members of the panel also called on the government to speed up passage of a land purchase law, “in order to facilitate the process of transferring the land which in the past was cultivated by Bedouin to Israel development authorities.” In the same vein, they declared that the Bedouin “should be compensated if they can prove land ownership.”

From this we learn that the committee accepted the fact that the Bedouin had populated the Negev before the founding of the state, recognized land cultivation as constituting evidence of ownership, and recommended compensation to Bedouin whose land was to be expropriated.

Instead of uprooting 30,000 citizens of the state, the Prawer and the Goldberg committees would have done well to first consult both previous Israeli and British records on the subject of Bedouin land claims. If they had done that, as well as listened carefully to the Bedouin themselves, it’s unlikely they would have made the recommendations they did.

Despite the government’s approval of the Prawer proposals, the Bedouin will not relinquish their claim to their historical land. They will continue to raise the banner of recognition until justice is done.

Dr. Mansour Nsasra teaches Middle East politics and international relations at the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom.