The depiction of Bedouins as 'nomads' - a myth

Report by Adam Keller on the session of the governmental Goldberg Commission, May 15 in Be'er Sheva re the situation of Bedouins - with testimonies by Nuri al-Okbi, Ibrahim al-Amur, Amos Gvirtz and Ya'akov Manor

"The Bedouin population is being shamefully discriminated and brutally persecuted in its own home, on its land in the Negev" charged Nuri Al-Okbi, head of the Bedouin Rights Association, when testifying before the commission headed by former judge Eliezer Goldberg, which is supposed to present to the government recommendations for its policy towards the Negev Bedouin population. Al-Okbi told the commission that among the beduins there is an intensive debate whether or not to appear before the commission, due to a strong feeling of distrust towards the government and its institutions, involved for many years in the discrimination and dispossession of the beduins.

He recounted in detail the history of his own tribe, the Al-Okbis, who in 1948 got from the newly-arisen State of Israel to respect their lands and customs - a promise rudely broken in 1951 when the tribespeople were expelled with great violence from their lands at the al-Arakib area northeast of Beer Sheba and were never allowed back.

Al-Okbi presented to the commission members documents showing that previous to the creation of the state, the Zionist movement recognized the beduins' ownership of their land and conducted deals with them - but after 1948, the land was registered as owned by the government or by the Jewish National Fund, and its Bedouin inhabitants expelled.

"The depiction of Bedouins as 'nomads' is a myth - we had and have lands, each tribe and each family. We have not and will not give them up". Al-Okbi noted that in the late 1990s the possibility arose of creating for his tribe a village on their historical lands at al-Arakib. "The tribespeople were happy and enthusiastic at this possibility. They are scattered at the Sayag (reservation) area in the eastern Negev to which we were deported; at Beer Sheba, Lod and Kalansawa - and everywhere we feel as refugees who had been expelled from their homes.

However, in the end Housing Minister Effi Eitam used the land to create a Jewish-only community named 'Giv’ot Bar' and we were left out. I have erected a tent near the ruins of my father's home, where I had lived in the first nine years of my life and where I intend to stay despite the continued harassment of the police. I do not regard the 'Giv’ot Bar' people as my enemies – there is place enough in Al-Arakib for them as well as for the al-Okbi Tribe. We are willing to be their neighbours, or even to create a joint community with them, if they want to” concluded al-Okbi.

Following him there testified before the commission Yaakov Manor and Amos Gvirtz, representing the Recognition Forum - a coalition of peace and human rights organizations involved in the struggle of the Bedouin population in the Negev. Amos Gvirtz told the commission members that while previous rulers of the Negev, before the creation of Israel, had respected the Bedouin traditions and way of life, it was exactly the state of Israel which severely violated their rights. "If I come to your home to demolish it, or I come to steal your land, or I try to cut you off from water and electricity, the police would arrive and stop me from doing such things. But when it comes to the destruction of Bedouin homes and the theft of their land, it is the police itself which is the perpetrator" said Gvirtz, who called upon the commission members to act as an alternative police to defend the Bedouin population from harassment by the police and other government agencies.

Yaakov Manor told the commission members that the experiment of uprooting Bedouins from their land and concentrating them in townships devoid of sources of livelihood has completely failed in all aspects - social, economic and political. Nevertheless, the government seeks to replicate it and concentrate another 80,000 beduins into additional townships of the same kind. In the 1950s the government expelled beduins from most parts of the Negev and concentrated them at the area called "The Sayag" (reservation) in the eastern Negev. Now there is an intention to complete the job, to expel them from there, too, and to destroy villages which the state itself created for people who were uprooted from their original land.

On the basis of the long-standing familiarity of the Recognition Forum activists with the population and its problems, Yaakov Manor called upon the commission members to recommend to the government the recognition of the "Unrecognized" Bedouin villages and provide them with the infrastructure provided to any community in the country. Moreover, the demolition of homes in these villages should be immediately and completely stopped, pending presentation of the commission's final conclusions. The Bedouins being spread over areas of the Negev should be no barrier to their being recognized, just as the state is not opposed to Jews being spread over these same areas. On the contrary, where Jews are concerned the government is actively encouraging the creation of small communities in far-off areas, and even that of "Single Family Farms" , which are immediately upon creation connected to all infrastructure and get generous government funds.

Ibrahim al-Amor, inhabitant of Kseifeh Township, who is one of the Bedouins removed from their land following the peace with Egypt and the establishment of an Israeli Air Force base in the Negev to replace the one evacuated in the Sinai, said that Kseifeh and the other Bedouin townships created by the government constitute a negative example. It would be an understatement to say that conditions in such townships do not encourage more Bedouins to move there. He noted that Kseifeh is greatly discriminated in the allocation of budgets and resources, compared with the Jewish communities in its neighbourhood, and remains far behind in the level of municipal services and infrastructure.

He also noted that the government is allocating land in the Bedouin townships without any regard for the ownership claims over the same land lodged by the other Bedouin inhabitants who had held these lands for decades. "I have bought for my son a plot of land in Kseifeh already in 1994, but up to present he had not been able to actually build a house on it . As far as the government is concerned, this is a piece of government land which the government may dispose of at its discretion, but the landowners are far from reconciled to the fact that it was taken away from them and that somebody else would live on it The people who live in the Unrecognized Villages have the problem of government representatives constantly arriving to destroy their homes – but at least they need not worry about the situation of living on land which belongs to other Bedouins, in constant conflict with the landowners ”.