A unique and distinct civil status.


That the Negev Bedouin do not stand on solid ground is reflected not only in the fact that the state is constantly trying to take their lands from them, but also in the fact that it does not treat them as ordinary Israeli citizens.

There are at least three areas in which the Bedouin are treated differently from Israel's other citizens: firstly, the relations between each of them and the state apparatus are not based on a direct link, as it is with other citizens. Instead, the relationship is mediated through special institutions that the state has set up specifically for this purpose and for this purpose alone. Secondly, unlike Israel's other citizens, for most of the years since 1948, the Bedouin have not enjoyed independent local government institutions, and to this day around one half of them still do not have such institutions. Thirdly, they have not possessed--and to this day some of them do not possess--such basic fights as the fight to vote and to run for local office, or the fight to register a precise address in their identity documents. Each of these three points will be discussed separately below.

Unique mechanisms of control

From the state's point of view, "dealing with the Bedouin" is a unique undertaking-one that differs from dealing with the rest of Israel's citizens, and it is handled by special bodies that operate independently of and to a large extent in isolation from the other government bodies. From the Bedouin point of view, the Israeli State is an amorphous and remote body which has nothing to do with them: "the authorities" are not the government, the Knesset, or the district offices of the various government ministries, but those bodies that have been set up by the state in order to deal with them and with them alone.

This situation is reminiscent of the relations that existed in colonial times between imperial states and their colonies, with a special commissioner or a special government ministry being appointed to deal with the latter. It is also reminiscent of the situation of Native Americans, responsibility for whom lies, to this day, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs--a branch of the US Department of the Interior, which manages the reservations where Native Americans have been relocated, and whose responsibilities also include the development of forestlands, leasing assets on these lands, directing agricultural programs, protecting water rights, developing infrastructure, and providing educational services (http://www.doi.gov/bureau-indian-affairs). As will be shown below, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has a counterpart in Israel--the Bedouin Advancement Authority, or in short, "the Bedouin Authority," which operates under the aegis of the Israel Land Administration.

The military government

For nearly twenty years, from 1949 to 1966, all Palestinians who in 1948 had become Israeli citizens were subject to the control of the military government. This also included the Negev Bedouin. Throughout all these years, the Bedouin, who were confined to the Siyag area, were almost entirely dependent on the goodwill of the military government (Porat, 2000: 421).

The military government's pivotal position is reflected in various areas. At first, up to 1953, the IDF was the official body that carried out the most fateful steps in the history of the Negev Bedouin: it was the IDF that was responsible for pushing most of the Bedouin who had lived in the Negev up to 1948 over the border, and subsequently it was the IDF that relocated those who had remained within Israel to the Siyag area.

Post-1953 and up to the 1956 Suez War, the IDF remained the most important statal representative in the Negev. First of all, the Israeli government was interested in consolidating its hold over the Negev, given the fact that the Great Powers, together with the Arab states, did not actually recognize Israel's rule over the Negev. As we have seen, this situation only changed in the wake of the 1956 war. Secondly, during this period, the Negev experienced constant tension, mainly on its border with Egypt. In this connection, the IDF was interested in restricting the mobility of the Negev Bedouin, including their freedom to cross the borders, given the fact that a small proportion of the Bedouin, mainly those living in the Nitzana area, were viewed as aiding the Egyptian army (Porat, 2000: 435). For their part, the Bedouin lived in constant fear that Israel would not allow them to remain in the Negev area and that the IDF would expel them across the border, to Jordan or Egypt (Porat, 2000: 433).

During this period, the position of the military government in all matters relating to the Bedouin inhabitants was so strong that it acted as the government's sole representative for every single matter and issue arising. Despite the fact that its official powers were, of course, restricted to security matters, while other areas of life should have been handled by the various government ministries, in practice the Negev's military governor and the military government division of the Defense Ministry came to represent the entire Israeli government (Marx, 1974: 34; Porat, 2000:431). For example, the military governor's representatives sat on the committees that approved Bedouin applications to lease land for cultivation--an activity for which the Ministry of Agriculture is responsible (Porat, 2000: 451). Furthermore, for years, the military authorities acted out of a sense that they could revoke the decisions of their civilian colleagues (Marx, 1974: 38). It should be noted that the military government's position was more crucial to the Negev Bedouin than to the Arabs in the northern parts of the country, either because the latter were more educated and more familiar with political procedures, or because it was easier for them to bring political pressure to bear and make use of the courts (Marx, 1974: 39).

For his part, the military governor did not have direct contact with individual Bedouin citizens, except through the mediation of the sheikhs (Porat, 2000:431). (5)

After the Suez War, when the question of the Negev Bedouins' citizenship was no longer on the agenda, it was the IDF, as we have seen above, which devised the first proposal to set up recognized localities for the Bedouin (Porat, 2000: 454). The army also acted as the lead body when it came to settling the Bedouin in permanent centers and tackling the question of the status of Negev land (Porat, 2000: 474).

The military government's unique status began to weaken in the 1960s, and it was eventually abolished in 1966. However, its abolition did not augur an end to treating the Negev Bedouin as an issue with security implications. Hence, for example, at a government meeting that took place more than a decade after the military government was abolished, in 1978, it was decided "to require the chairman of the ministerial committee relating to the status of the Negev Bedouin to present the ministerial committee for defense matters with the committee's opinion concerning the concentrations of Bedouin villages in the Beersheba area and their implications" (Cabinet Resolution No. 223 [Bed/l] of December 10, 1978; see also Resolution No. 337 [Bed/2] of January 14, 1979). And closer to the present day, in 1999, the ministerial committee on matters relating to Israel's Arab citizens decided "to ask the committee secretary to apply to the Southern Command commander with a request that he stop dealing with civil matters relating to the Bedouin in the Negev" (Cabinet Resolution No. 384 [Arab/2] of September 30, 1999).

Special government committees

Once the military government was abolished, government responsibility for the Bedouin shifted from the Defense Ministry to the civilian ministries. In 1965, just before the abolition of the military government, the government set up the "Supreme Bedouin Committee," whose task was to resettle the Bedouin in localities to be set up by the government in the Siyag area. The committee was headed by the Arab affairs adviser in the Prime Minister's Office, and its members included the military governor of the Negev, an ILA representative, and representatives from the defense, agriculture, labor and interior ministries. The committee first decided on the establishment of three townships: Tel Sheva, Rahat and Kuseife. In 1973 it decided on the establishment of four more townships: Hora, Laqye, Segev Shalom, and Beit-Pelet (on the seven townships constructed for the Bedouin, see below; in the end, Beit-Pelet was never built).

"The Supreme Bedouin Committee" was responsible for a wide range of subjects normally dealt with by the various civilian ministries: apart from planning and building townships, the committee was responsible, either directly or through subcommittees set up by it, for maintaining ties with the Bedouin population in order to encourage their sedentarization in permanent localities, for setting up water associations to deal with the provision of water to Bedouin localities, and for solving problems between tribes and between clans (State Comptroller, 1982:171).

"The Supreme Bedouin Committee" ceased functioning in 1979, as it failed to operate properly even before that date (State Comptroller, 1982: 171). It was soon replaced by a new ministerial committee, "The Ministerial Committee for Coordinating Policy and Activities in the Bedouin Sector." Then, in 1980, following the peace treaty with Egypt, the Knesset enacted The Peace Law, which was intended to make way for the expropriation of some 65,000 dunams at Tel Malhata for the construction of the Nevatim air force base. Based on the new law, the government decided to set up a ministerial committee to coordinate policy and activities in the Bedouin sector. The finance minister was appointed its chairman, and its members comprised the ministers of defense, agriculture, justice, and the interior.

Like "The Supreme Bedouin Committee" which preceded it, the new ministerial committee also...

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