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Talking Policy: Ahmad Amara on the Bedouin in Israel

The Bedouin have historically been described as nomadic communities that were tangled up in the establishment of new borders in the Middle East in the 20th century. But this characterization itself has colonial roots, and is the start of systematic disenfranchisement of Bedouin communities in desert regions in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and the Levant, particularly in the Negev region of Israel. World Policy Journal spoke with Ahmad Amara, a Palestinian human rights lawyer in Israel, who recently co-authored the book Emptied Lands: A Legal Geography of Bedouin Rights in the Negev with Alexandre Kedar and Oren Yiftachel on the history of Bedouin in Negev from a legal perspective.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What is the historical and current status of Bedouin rights in the Negev, and why was it important for you write this book?

AHMAD AMARA: The Bedouin are citizens of Israel and part of the Palestinian minority. The name “Bedouin” began to be used in colonial contexts by the British, but the Ottomans and the people themselves would use the name “Arabs” to distinguish from urban or settled communities. There’s a misconception that they are nomads, but since the mid to late 19th century, the Bedouin have been pastoralists. They mainly subsist from integrated economies of pastoralism and cultivation, in addition to trade, labor, etc. Zionist and colonial discourse refers to the Palestinians as minorities, and typically identifies the Bedouin as a distinctive group.

Until 1948, there were about 100,000 Bedouin living in the Be’er Sheva subdistrict, established by the British. After 1948, only 13,000 remained within the borders of the newly created state of Israel. The rest were expelled, or fled during the 1948 war. There was a debate among Israelis about what to do with them. The sheikhs, the leaders of the local Bedouin communities, stated that they were willing to stay in the state of Israel if they were able preserve their lands and live freely—and [Israel’s first prime minister David] Ben Gurion approved of this. The state considered three options regarding the Bedouin: to expel all 13,000 of them, to concentrate them in a few main towns, or to transfer them to central Israel to serve as a labor force. What ended up happening was a combination of the three. Displacements continued until 1959––a decade after the end of hostilities and the establishment of Israel. Some Bedouin continued to be expelled even after this. Some of the families who remained in what is today called the Western Negev, the area between the Gaza Strip and Be’er Sheva, were moved to another region, which became known as the Siege, a closed zone that was demarcated by the military. All the Bedouin ended up living in the Siege area, which constitutes about 8 percent of the Negev. I’ll note that the name itself––”Negev”––is a biblical Zionist name, not one used by the local communities, the Palestinians, or the Ottomans.

Later came the idea to concentrate the Bedouin within three townships: Tel al-Seba’a in 1968-1969, Rahad in In the early 70s, and then Saifeh. It was a forced urbanization project; central authorities were looking to have Palestinians occupy much less land, and they thought it would be easy to move the Bedouin, who they saw as a nomadic, vulnerable community. Some of the Bedouin did indeed move to the townships, and some were forced to move there, but the population grew quickly. By the late 90s, there were seven townships, where half of the Bedouin lived, while the other half refused to move and continued to live in their original villages. These are considered “unrecognized,” which means illegal. They don’t have a legal zoning status and thus are subject to demolition by the authorities and lack any infrastructure and social and educational services. Still, the residents refuse to move to the townships, which are the poorest towns and settlements in all of Israel, according to official sources.

Since the 1950s, the Bedouin had been asking to officially register their lands, and in the 1970s the state finally called on them to file claims. The Bedouin filed 3,220 land claims to territories that they had cultivated, lived on, or were displaced from in the 50s. In total they claimed about 1.5 million dunams (375,000 acres). But instead of denying or approving the claims according to the law, the state appointed a committee, called the Albeck Committee, which claimed the Bedouin have no legal rights because the land was considered “dead land” (muwat), or unproductive land, according to Ottoman law. This would make it state land. Thus, Bedouin were considered trespassers on state land—the land they had been using for 150 years or more. The committee agreed to compensate them, but used a formula that granted approximately 10 percent of the original claim, on the condition that the claimant would leave their land and move to the towns. From that time to 2004, the Bedouin sold only 18 percent of their original claims under these terms.

Many Bedouin stayed and refused to settle their land claims. Until early 2004, the state didn’t work seriously to solve the land claims, and then realized that by not solving the land right question, the question of unrecognized villages would remain unsettled as well. People refused to leave their villages because they wanted to claim their lands. And some lands claimed by Bedouin fell within the new townships—other families left them open because they knew the lands belonged to someone else even though they were confiscated by the state. This situation continued until early 2000s when the state acknowledged that there were 45 unrecognized villages with 120,000 Bedouin residents. Ten more townships were later recognized, and the legalization process is still underway.

At the same time, the state began to counter Bedouin’s land claims. Not a single land claims case has been won by a Bedouin since 1948. The court simply says it is following the precedent set by the Albeck Committee in the 70s and the Be’er Sheva court and Supreme Court in the 1980s—the doctrine of dead land.

The Ottoman law continued to apply in Palestine even after the end of Ottoman rule. When the British came, they maintained whatever was enforced of the law until it was amended or replaced or cancelled. Throughout the 30 years of the British mandate, they enforced existing law until it was cancelled, amended, or replaced, so in many cases the basis of Ottoman law continues to be in place. The same happened when Israel was established in 1948. Whatever law applied or was enforced in the land previously would continue, unless it was changed, cancelled, or amended. So we ended up in a situation where, if you claimed rights under Ottoman law, you couldn’t do it through Israeli courts: Despite cultivating these lands and paying taxes for many years, people don’t hold official certificates of registration for the land. They do hold other documents––local ones, sometimes official ones, such as tax payments. But Israel declared their land to be muwat land according to Ottoman law, which specifies ways to measure land that lies far from an inhabited area.

The same Ottoman law that explains the logic of the muwat land, though, says that anyone who “revives” this land can claim title to it, for free. (The Ottomans wanted to increase tax revenues from these titles.) Yet Israel does not consider a Bedouin village to be a legitimate base to measure distance from, to determine what is muwat land and what is not. Additionally, they say that such a village or a town must have existed in 1858, the date of the Ottoman law code. Legally speaking, this is total nonsense. Israel is now also saying that the Bedouin’s last chance to register their lands was in 1921, the year the British amended the article in the Ottoman code about reviving land. The British said that in order to “revive” land, you need a permit from the government, and that whoever is claiming rights to such lands should register within two months (it didn’t say what happens if someone didn’t register within two months). In the book we disagree with this interpretation—today we are in completely different legal realm. We should not talking about muwat land as a legal category, but about categories such as the mirri, another Ottoman law that says that if you cultivate land for 10 years, you gain title to it. This was in effect in the Ottoman and the British eras.  

We found out that people continued registering lands in the late 1920s, long after the two-month registration deadline, and the British still processed them. Many Jews and Zionist agencies, including the Jewish National Fund, continued to buy lands from the Bedouin until the 40s. Many of the lands were not registered officially; others were registered the same day they were purchased.

in the 1970s, compensation was offered in different ways, as the Bedouin kept on refusing Albeck’s offer. The state maintains the same compensation offers today. These comprised 10 or 20 percent of the claims in the 70s, when there were 35,000 Bedouin—there are 240,000 today.

The book deconstructs the Dead Negev doctrine and traces the Bedouin’s relationship to land since the 1850s. At that time, the Bedouin were basically semi-settled or settled. They had pastoralism but also had defined land rights and systems. They mortgaged lands, registered lands, and sold and bought lands. They had strong trade relationships with Gazans and Jews and traders from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Be’er Sheva subdistrict, which is today the Negev, and Gaza provided 70 percent of Palestine’s barley at the end of the 19th century. Tens of thousands of tons were exported to Europe from Gaza’s port until World War I. According to Ottoman, British, and Zionist estimates, between 2 and 3.5 million dunams (49,0000 to 86,000 acres) were cultivated by the Bedouin.

In the book, we also discuss the framework of settler colonialism and indigenous communities. This is problematic when it comes to legal terms, because international law is very much politicized. For indigenous communities, it grants rights but it doesn’t grant autonomy or a state; it takes the state as a given framework. Evidence from the Ottoman and Israeli archives shows discussions of how difficult it would be to recognize Bedouin land rights, at least the lands that are being cultivated. This is in the context of Palestine; under the law, Israel gained control of 95 percent of the land, the vast majority of which was to serve the Jewish community. But they were not coming to empty land; there was an existing culture, existing community, existing space, existing landscape, architecture, and environment––all Arab Palestinian––that they had to replace and change. You have to destroy the existing one and replace it. But in places where it cannot be destroyed, you manipulate and reshape a narrative and change the names to show a Jewish Zionist history.

WPJ: These laws that were manipulated were not just in the Negev, but also transferred to the whole of what was historical Palestine and is now the state of Israel?

AA: Yes. Israel confiscated all the lands belonging to the Palestinians and the refugees, all according to the law. The Land Acquisition Law of 1953 says that any land, if deemed by the state to be necessary for Jewish settlement or for security, can be claimed by the Minister of Finance. So they don’t simply come and destroy a village; they go to the court, issue demolition orders, and then come to destroy it. This bureaucracy and court system is driven by Zionist ideology; it is not critical or impartial. Dispossession thus happens according to the law, and if it doesn’t, you simply change the law. For example, recently in the West Bank a settlement was to be built on what appeared to be on privately held, registered land, so the state simply made a law allowing it to take private land. The law is political. It’s all part of the system—the parliament can enact the laws they want and the judicial system collaborates. It might make some critical decisions here and there on political and civil rights, but none of these decisions have a large impact.

The book also covers zoning and planning, which is being used by Israel to restrict any expansion of Palestinian infrastructure. Through zoning and planning, you can legalize or outlaw structures and spaces, and you can make particular geography illegal. But we also show that it is possible today to recognize and give legal status to most of the unrecognized villages—there is a solution with zoning and planning.

WPJ: What can you tell us about your experience as a lawyer with property and land laws in Israel?

AA: I worked on a demolitions case in a neighborhood where the houses had originally belonged to Palestinians, but were confiscated by the state and then rented out and leased to other Palestinians. By the time we got to work on the case, the state had already demolished three houses in the neighborhood. The neighborhood had both Palestinians and Jewish families––the Jewish residents all lived in state housing, and they were offered to either renovate the houses or move out and receive compensation. The Palestinians, meanwhile, were not offered compensation to move out. The Palestinians had larger families, and they built additional rooms, or a new balcony, and the state deemed they violated the contract by expanding, making the entire structure illegal, and thus subject to demolition or eviction. We demanded that the state either pay these families to leave or let them stay—the same options they offered the Jews. With the support of politicians, we saved some of the houses, and people ended up paying a lot of money to legalize their houses.

In the Negev, my co-authors and I were involved in another case. We submitted expert opinion explaining the whole narrative regarding Bedouin land: the cultivation law, the tax payments, the purchases. But the court simply dismissed it in the end, and said that the land belonged to the state because it was muwat land.

WPJ: What would potential reforms of land and property laws look like?

AA: The state sometimes says that it’s confiscating land for military purposes, but then doesn’t use it for military purposes. So people ask for their land back, pointing out that the land that was taken for a military base is now being given to other families. The state replied by making a new law that says, if land was confiscated 25 years ago, whatever the reasoning, it’s gone. Then, there was a court order banning racial discrimination against families that want to live in Jerusalem. But now, a local committee conducts interviews and checks whether an applicant is “socially suitable” to live in the settlement. So, they can say, “I’m sorry Ahmad, you don’t socially fit within this new town. It’s not because you’re a Palestinian or a Muslim.” Sometimes land is confiscated for public purposes, which could mean anything––paving a new road, building a new Jewish settlement, or preventing further expansion of Palestinian towns.

To reform this system, “public purposes” should be defined clearly in the law, people whose land was taken should be repatriated with their land, and land redistribution should take place with an aim to enusre historical justice. Jewish-only institutions such as the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund, which influence Israel’s land policies and have charters that say they only serve Jews, should not have any official state status.

A good model is post-apartheid South Africa, which had a redistribution system with land courts and land commissions. In this case, such a system should go back to 1917 or 1948, when dispossessions began. In the Negev now, all people are asking for is around 2 percent of the region, even though the Bedouin are 30 percent of its population. What’s needed is a formal citizenry framework, and a plan not only to cancel all discriminatory laws, institutions and frameworks, but also to go back and redistribute lands.

WPJ: Is there political will to reform these laws? Who is currently pushing for change, and what are they asking for?

AA: There’s no political will. Israel is just moving more to the right, and new laws allow the  confiscation of private property in the West Bank. Not that they haven’t been doing it before, but now they are sanctioned to confiscate even formally registered lands. It’s the Zionist colonialist project becoming more vicious, now that it has the political power, the financial power, the legal force, and the political base to advance unchecked. Before, land could only be acquired by purchase—but now they get it for free.

WPJ: What about the Palestinian legislators in the Knesset?

AA: They don’t have any political power and are a real minority. They are always outside the government coalition, so they have no executive powers. They do have legal powers, but this is not enough. It’s like slavery in the U.S.; abolishing slavery was not enough. You accumulated 200 years of privileges for some and oppression for the other, and then at one point say, “Let’s all start as equals now.” So we need to get back at the heart of the problem, There needs to be historical justice, not just a new beginning that fails to address all the previous injustices.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

[Interview conducted by Sussan García]

[Photo courtesy of Ahmad Amara]

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