The Making of History / Who Owns
this Country?

A fascinating historical debate is taking place in the Be’er Sheva District Court.

A fascinating historical debate is taking place in the Be’er Sheva District Court. Judge Sarah Dovrat has to decide between conflicting opinions she received from two professors, Ruth Kark of Hebrew University and Oren Yiftachel of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The immediate question under consideration is fairly limited: A Bedouin citizen named Nuri el-Okbi is demanding 820 dunams of land in the northern Negev, which he claims his family held for generations until the state stole it in 1951. The judge’s willingness to peruse quotations from ancient travel books, yellowing maps and other historical documents bring up a fundamental question: Who does this country belong to?

Nuri el-Okbi
Limor Edrey

Okbi was about 9 years old when his family was forced to leave its home for Lod, where he eventually opened an auto repair shop. For years now, he has been leading a public campaign for Bedouin rights. In response to his claims, lawyers for the state rummaged through archives and found that in February 1921, the British Mandate government issued the Dead ‏(Mewat‏) Lands Ordinance, which granted the Bedouin a two-month extension to register any lands to which they laid claim. Almost none did so, and the deadline passed. Therefore, they do not own these lands, the state argues.

Kark, an expert on geographic history, has published dozens of books and articles on the history of Jewish settlement in Israel, and has also studied the history of the Bedouin. Her work is anchored in the Zionist narrative, which contends among other things that a people without a land returned to a land without a people. In the opinion she wrote for Jeries Rawashdeh, deputy state prosecutor for the southern district, Kark maintained there had been no permanent settlements in the northern Negev, and that there was no evidence that any lands in the area were owned by anyone.

The Bedouin did not make a living from land cultivation, but rather from raising camels, sheep and goats, which necessitates seasonal migration. The first permanent settlement in the area was Be’er Sheva, in 1900, she wrote.

Okbi’s lawyer, Michael Sfard, gave the court a 1921 document from Britain’s National Archives. The document is a summary of a meeting between the secretary of state for the colonies and the Bedouin leaders in the Be’er Sheva area. The secretary, Winston Churchill, was staying in Jerusalem at the time; the meeting was held in Armon Hanatziv, the headquarters of the British high commissioner, and a statement was issued afterward: The Bedouin representatives “conveyed to him an expression of loyalty to his Majesty’s government,” and the secretary of state for the colonies “reaffirmed the assurances that the special rights of the Bedouins of Beersheba will not be interfered with.”

The document was brought from London by Yiftachel, a geographer and historian. His work is anchored in the post-Zionist narrative. In the wake of the meeting with Churchill, Yiftachel claims, the Bedouin in the district were granted an exemption from the duty to register their land, and received permission to set up a tribal court for addressing land matters.

According to Sfard, the Ottoman authorities bought the land on which Be’er Sheva was built from the Bedouin, and the Jewish National Fund also bought land from them during the British Mandate era. Hence the Bedouin’s ownership of the lands was acknowledged.

The dispute between Yiftachel and Kark has taken on a rather personal tone. She frequently relies on travelers who visited the Holy Land in the 19th century, while he calls this dubious sourcing. He demands consideration be given to the “native” Bedouin tradition; she retorts that the Bedouin should not be considered “natives.” This raises the question of what a native is and who a Bedouin is, and where his loyalty lies: with his tribe or his place of abode. Kark calls Yiftachel’s opinion political, and he counters: “I could argue that Prof. Kark’s support for the expropriation of Bedouin rights to the lands of their forefathers is very political.”

They are not arguing over Okbi’s plot of land; they are arguing over the justness of Zionism.

The man who taught me to read history

Michael Confino was an internationally renowned expert on Russian history, an Israel Prize laureate and a wonderful teacher who exuded charm and inspiration. I remember a seminar he gave at Hebrew University on a topic that I had trouble finding interesting: “Russia’s expansion in Asia in the 19th century.” But the main thing Confino taught us has helped me to this day: How to read a historical document.

Confino handed out copies of a letter that a Russian minister whose name meant nothing to us had written to some Russian bureaucrat, also an unknown. First you check the date, Confino explained. You need to know which calendar the writer used and how the date is formatted: The Russians use a different calendar, and the Americans write the month before the day, while Israelis put the day before the month, for instance. What do we know about the period when the document was written, where was it composed, why there of all places, and who is writing to whom? Sometimes the writer or the recipient is identified only by surname; you must confirm their first names, identify their roles. Note, Confino said, this is Peter Petrovich, who was in charge of the surveying department, not his brother who was the ambassador to London, but the fact that his brother was an ambassador also says something about our Peter.

Confino unearthed and published numerous documents that were previously unknown. Alongside his work at Tel Aviv University, where he began working in 1970, he also taught at Harvard and a number of other international universities. He died about a month ago, at age 84.