Forgotten Israelis

If most of the half million Israeli Arabs are forgotten Israelis, the 40,000 Bedouins who live in the Negev are the forgotten of the forgotten. To a certain extent this is their own doing, for they have always considered themselves a people apart. Called Bedouin only by outsiders (from badiya, the Arabic word for desert), they call themselves el-Arab—the Arabs—and consider themselves the elite of the Arab peoples, the ones who spread the word of Mohammed throughout the Middle East. Traditionally, they have looked down on other Arabs just as other Arabs look down on them. Thus they have never considered themselves Palestinians—the Palestinians were in any case from the mountain country to the north of the desert—and they have taken no part in the rising enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause among other Israeli Arabs. On the contrary, they were considered for a long time the most loyal part of Israel’s Arab population. Hundreds of Bedouin men still serve as scouts and trackers in the Israel Defense Forces.

But one major problem has plagued relations between successive Israeli governments and the Bedouins since the inception of the Jewish state in 1948: land ownership in the Negev. The nineteen Bedouin tribes now living in this desert claim over a fifth of it as their tribal lands, while the government claims that it is all state land, and that the Bedouins have no legal right to it. The Bedouins have no papers to prove their claims; oral law and the tenancy of centuries were sufficient proof as far as they were concerned. In a modern state that requires documentary evidence, this leaves them in a very weak legal position. As the adviser on Arab affairs to several former Labor governments, Shmuel Toledano, put it (after he was no longer in office): “The law is on the side of the government, and justice on the side of the Bedouin.”

Many of those involved with the Negev land dispute see it as part of the conflict between nomads and settled people throughout the world. The Plains Indians in the United States and the aborigines of Australia, for example, lacking power in a society whose rules they were slow to grasp, never had a chance to hold on to their lands. In the Middle East, the rise of new nationalisms and regimes took its toll of Bedouin culture, and in most Arab countries the Bedouins have been deprived of both land and the freedom to move on it. Saudi Arabia and Syria nationalized Bedouin range lands in the early Fifties. Jordan introduced a law severely limiting the range possibilities of the black goat—the main herd animal of many Mideast Bedouins—by allowing only female goats to graze. The new Arab regimes were deeply distrustful of the Bedouins and of their fierce independence of what was to them outside authority. Struggling to enforce this authority in a notoriously unstable region, these regimes were unhindered by democratic processes and curbed the Bedouin threat without hesitation.

In Israel,…

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