Frustrated with my own ignorance on the matter, I did some deep digging to formulate a credible answer to the question: “What about the Bedouins?” Here is what I have learned:
Israeli land laws are modeled on the Ottoman and British land laws that governed ownership of land in the Negev before Israel became a sovereign state.
Neither the Ottoman Empire nor the British Mandate recognized the ownership of nomadic Bedouins over land in the Negev. That is, Bedouins never held legal title to that land.
Indeed, until the 20th century, the Bedouins of the Negev wandered between Saudi Arabia, the Sinai and the south of Palestine, grazing their flocks as they moved. There were no permanent Bedouin towns, and competing tribes fought over control of the territories in which they grazed.
After 1948, Israel adopted the legal position held by the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate: Virtually all of the Negev was public land that belonged to the state. Bedouin claims of ownership of specific land are not based on claims of legal title, but rather, on their own tradition of occupying that land and the length of time they have done so.
Recognizing the Bedouins’ cultural attachment to the land, in 1976 the Israeli government decided to honor Bedouins’ documented claims of ownership of discrete parcels of land to the extent of financial and land compensation in exchange for withdrawal of the claim.
That explains one variant of land litigation between the Bedouin and the government. The other, more problematic type of litigation concerns cases where Bedouins build illegal dwellings and commercial facilities on land that is either public or belongs to others, and that indisputably the Bedouin have not occupied historically.
The buildings are illegal because they cannot get the proper permits for construction, as the Bedouin lack ownership or tenancy rights on the land, and functionally the buildings do not meet code provisions and are often dangerously constructed.
Legally, these should be easy cases, but the political temperature has risen so high that the equities are often distorted. And the problem grows more acute as the Bedouin population continues to multiply from a few thousand Bedouin in 1948 to almost 200,000 Bedouin today within Israel’s borders.
The irony is that the government has bestowed unprecedented largesse on the Bedouin. The government, at public expense, has built numerous planned, urban communities for the Bedouin population on tens of thousands of dunams of land, constructing homes that are to code and providing municipal utilities and services, including schools and medical facilities that are not generally available or accessible in the illegal squatter clusters built by the Bedouin in violation of the law.
The Jewish National Fund, for its part, has helped train Bedouins in sustainable desert farming; has invested $7 million for environmental cleanup in Bedouin communities; and has helped lead efforts to improve the infrastructure in Bedouin towns. These efforts include building a medical center in the Bedouin town of Abu Basma, tackling issues of water supply and treatment in Bedouin communities, and building parks and recreational areas for the Bedouin. In the Bedouin village of Segev Shalom, JNF has also funded a central park with an amphitheater around the community’s town hall.
At JNF’s Project Wadi Attir, the primary objective is to preserve and nurture traditional Bedouin agricultural know-how. The backbone of the model community project comprises three areas: sheep and goat herding, growing medicinal plants and raising indigenous vegetables based on seeds from the area. All the agriculture in the project will be organic and the project also includes a Visitor, Training and Educational Center, which will double as an eco-tourism destination.
Another distinguishing benefit the project will offer is the potential shift for greater independence for Bedouin women.
Most Bedouin women in the Negev are still bound by conservative societal traditions, often not allowed to leave the boundaries of the clan or tribe unaccompanied by a male relative. Given the lack of work opportunities within the village, they often remain unemployed. Some 70 percent of Bedouin women over age 40 are illiterate, and thousands of girls are forced to end their education upon completion of elementary school.
One of the chief aims of this remarkable project is to create job opportunities for Bedouin women and ensure their integration into the work force.
Regrettably, these good works often get short shrift in the popular press that favors sensationalism. The truth, however, is that the Bedouin, an impoverished, mostly illiterate and until recently largely nomadic population, have, in the main, been fairly treated by Israeli law and society since the founding of the state. Israel deserves greater credit for that.
The writer, a North Bethesda resident, is vice president, Israel Action at Jewish National Fund, and a partner in the law firm of Rifkin, Weiner, Livingston, Levitan & Silver in Bethesda.