The State and Bedouin lands.


The state's view is that the Bedouin have no land whatsoever. Ever since 1948, the State has asserted that the Negev lands--both those on which the Bedouin lived up to 1948 and those to which they were relocated after 1948--are state lands, and that the Bedouin have no rights of ownership or title to them. Moreover, since 1948 the state has sought to implement its formal ownership, by pushing the Bedouin off their lands and transferring them to the confines of a small number of government-created townships. The objective of the exercise was to make Bedouin lands available to Jewish projects--settlements, military bases, factories, and so on.

In adopting this position, the state bases its actions on legal precedents from the Ottoman and British Mandatory periods. In 1858, the Ottoman authorities issued a lands ordinance designed to regulate the issue of land ownership in the Empire. Inter alia, the ordinance related to uncultivated lands, classified as "dead" lands (mawat in Arabic). Mawat land was defined as land located 1.5 miles away from the closest place of residence. Apparently, the ordinance was intended to prevent individuals from taking control of state land, but at the same time it was also designed to expand the amount of cultivated land, through the development of private farming (Granovsky, 1949: 88; Owen, 1993:118). Since the ordinance purported to encourage the "revival" of "dead" lands through cultivation, it proclaimed that anyone cultivating them could register them in his name (although ultimate ownership of this land remained in the hands of the state: Granovsky, 1949: 88).

When the lands ordinance was promulgated, there was not a single permanent settlement in the entire Negev; the city of Beersheba, the first permanent locality, was not founded until 1900. This meant that the lands ordinance made all of the Negev lands into mawat land--and hence state land (Supreme Court, Civil Appeal 218/74; see also Falah, 1989: 78). The Ottoman authorities expected all of the Empire's subjects who used mawat lands--including the Negev Bedouin--to make the effort to present themselves at government offices in order to register the land in their names and receive title deeds. However, having their own ownership arrangements, the Bedouin failed to comply with the authorities' edicts. As for the Ottomans themselves, they did not demonstrate much interest in the Negev's destiny, and even when they did, the focus of their interest was neither Bedouin land nor developing the area, but what the British were up to in the Suez Canal area in neighboring Egypt. Given this situation, the Bedouin were able to continue running their lives on the basis of their traditional land arrangements.

After World War I, the British Mandate government, which had taken over from the defeated Ottomans, was similarly interested in regulating the land issue, and in 1921 it promulgated its own lands ordinance, based on the Ottoman lands ordinance. The British government proclaimed a two-month period during which residents holding and cultivating mawat land were asked to register it in their names; those who failed to do so would lose their ownership rights to the land. Most of the Bedouin in the Negev failed to respond to this call, whether because of problems of access, or because of their traditionally suspicious attitude to any form of government, or out of fear of taxation or conscription. On the other hand, the Bedouin still had no real reason to worry because the British promised that there would be no infringement of the rights of those holding land in accordance with traditional Arab law (Yiftachel, 2000: 9). Moreover, like the Ottomans before them, the British did not evince any great interest in the economic development of the Negev (Ben-David, 1996: 40; Biger, 1986: 55-57). In addition, although the British initiated a campaign for registering and regulating real estate in Palestine, this was undertaken from north to south, and when the British left Palestine in 1948, they had still not managed to reach the Negev (Yiftachel, 2003: 32).

The establishment of the State of Israel changed this picture. Unlike previous rulers, who had made practically no effort whatsoever to visit the Negev and failed to find much practical value in its lands, the State of Israel viewed the Negev as valuable property, first and foremost for the purpose of settling some of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who began to flood into the new country after 1948, but also as a convenient area for establishing military bases, as a reservoir of natural resources, and as a corridor to the southern port city of Eilat. The Ottoman lands ordinance now served the new state, enabling it to assume control over Bedouin lands. On the basis of that ordinance, and on the basis of the fact that the Bedouin had not troubled to register their lands, neither following promulgation of the 1858 Ottoman ordinance nor in the wake of the 1921 British ordinance, the State of Israel declared that the Bedouin lands (with the exception of the few tracts whose owners did manage to prove ownership) belonged to the state, and that the Bedouin had no other rights to it other than "usufruct" (Meir, 199: 18; Ben-David, 1995: 66-67). Over the years, the state's position received legal endorsement, including that of Israel's Supreme Court.

The State's position has not changed since 1948. (3) The two primary means used to confiscate those lands remain the same: firstly, concentrating the Bedouin in government-planned settlements, and secondly, evicting the Bedouin from their lands, in return for compensation. A brief review follows of each of the two means; they are, of course, two sides of the same coin, but we have separated them in order to facilitate presentation.

Concentrating the Bedouin in townships

After the stabilization of the Negev's international status in the wake of the 1956 war, and also following stabilization of the Bedouin population in the Negev, with the 1948 refugees remaining outside Israel's borders and those who remained being relocated to the Siyag area, the Israeli government began discussing a variety of possibilities for dealing with the situation and status of these Israelis.

The discussions speeded up at the end of Israel's first decade. This occurred after a number or arid years in which the government had to pay compensation to the Bedouin for damage caused by drought. By 1963 this figure totaled four million Israeli pounds (Bauml, 2002: 309).

All of the proposals considered shared a common denominator--reducing to a minimum the area on which Bedouin would be settled in the Siyag region. Opinions differed as to how to do this. One school of thought argued that the Bedouin should be transferred yet again, this time to the center of the country, thereby enabling the entire Siyag area to revert to the state. This type of thinking was led by Moshe Dayan, Southern Area commander and later Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the 1956 war, who, upon leaving the IDF, was appointed Minister of Agriculture. Dayan suggested settling the Bedouin in mixed Jewish-Arab localities in Israel's center, like Jaffa and Ramie, where they would become urban laborers. The second school of thought maintained that the Bedouin should be concentrated within the Siyag area, in two or three large townships. The head of this school was Yigal Alon, commander of the forces that conquered the Negev in 1948, who served as Minister of Labor in the early 1960s (Bauml, 2002:310-315).

One of the first documents about concentrating the Bedouin was written in the IDF's Operations Branch, by a settlement and territorial defense officer on the General Staff. The document, which to a large extent reflected Yigal Alon's views, called for the Bedouin to be settled in the Siyag area (Porat, 2000: 454). It also spelled out the purpose to be served by the plan: to secure land suitable for settling Jews and setting up IDF bases. It identified another purpose as well: to remove the Bedouin from key Negev routes (Porat, 2000: 454). The document called for the Siyag area to be developed and an irrigation network installed to allow for the intensive cultivation of agricultural crops, in order to concentrate the Bedouin in the heart of the area, thereby freeing up other parts of the region for Jewish settlements (Porat, 2000: 459).

In contrast, Moshe Dayan devised a plan based on housing some 10,000 Bedouin in the mixed towns of Jaffa, Ramie and Lod, as well as in Beersheba, in return for their relinquishing their lands in the Negev (Porat, 2000: 466). The then prime minister, Ben-Gurion, supported this idea, particularly during a period when the Negev was plagued by incidents involving armed groups--incidents in which Bedouin (particularly those living in the Nitzana area) apparently took part (Porat, 2000:...

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