I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers—Bedouin Proverb
Seldom things are what they look in Holy Land; even rarer are cases when their names are accurate. Bahad 1 (Instruction Base 1) is the IDF officers’ school. Located in the Negev Desert, near the rim of the Ramon Crater, it provides unforgettable sights and experiences. Ramon Crater? The place is named “crater” and convincingly looks as one. It is one of three formations called “crater” in the Negev Desert.
Yet, it is not a crater, but the result of an excavation made by flash floods. In the rare occasions when the stream carries water, the beast violently inundates the area taking away more than its share of sediments.
Road #40 is one of the main routes in the country, connecting the central plains with the Arava Desert in the south. In an odd show of flexibility, the road descends into the crater. An eternal pilgrim reaching the area will see almost unobstructed views of the wonder, though from time to time, groups of tents block the views. “Bedouin pilgrims are passing by,” the eternal pilgrim thinks. Yet, he is wrong again. The crater is not a crater, and the Bedouins are not passing by, this is their ancestral home.
In 2013, Land Day was characterized by Bedouin protests in the Negev. Despite their significant timing, the events were not exclusively related to the commemoration of the 1976 protests which mark the starting point of organized Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and abuse. In recent years, Bedouins are becoming increasingly active in their protests due to what Israel defines as plans to regularize land ownership in the Negev Desert. A Bedouin Intifada was announced in 2010, but it didn’t materialize.
Unlike with Palestinian towns, Israeli police is careful not to enter Bedouin settlements, and this kept the conflict relatively calm. Simply, Bedouins are better armed than them. Moreover, the situation of the Bedouins in Israel is complex. They are citizens, and they may volunteer for service in the IDF, mainly in the Desert Rangers Battalion (“Gdud Siur Midbari” in Hebrew); thus they are exposed to less state-violence that Palestinian citizens. Yet, in recent months Israel and Egypt attacked an insurrection in Sinai, showing the Bedouins in the Negev what may happen to them. After Netanyahu announced early elections, his government became what is known in Israel as a “transition government.”
Traditionally, these use their limited lifespan to “steal laws,” to legislate problematic laws that regular governments cannot get them approved by the Knesset. On January 28, after the elections but before the new government was sworn, the Begin Commission report was approved. Bedouins wouldn’t accept land-theft by the State of Israel.
Three Commissions, One War
Derived from an Arabic word for semi-arid desert, “Bedouin” is a term designating members of a large number of Arab tribes. Egypt features a 400,000 Bedouin population, mainly in the Sinai Peninsula; while Israel has 200,000 Bedouin citizens living in the Negev Desert and a smaller number in the Galilee. In Sinai, most of them are loyal to their traditional ways. In Israel, the situation was different. Over 60% of Israel is within the Negev Desert, which was crossed by the historical Silk Road. Wandering Bedouins inhabited the area for thousands of years; their ancestors were traders along this romantic road.
Since the mid 19th century there has been a slow process of settling down among them. In the 1950s, the Israeli army began limiting the Bedouins freedom, attempting to concentrate them in certain areas. Since the 1970s, the Israeli Administration began creating Bedouin towns, Rahat being the largest one. Nowadays there are roughly fifty Bedouin settlements in the Negev with a total of some two hundred thousand inhabitants, roughly half of them in recognized towns and villages, and the remnant in unrecognized ones.
The difference between these two categories is vast. Recognized towns and villages get infrastructure and services from the state while unrecognized settlements get nothing. In exchange for recognition, the Israeli Administration often asks for relocation and for proper verification of ownership. Now, Israel’s law system is incomplete. Where laws do not exist, Israeli courts often refer to British Mandate and Ottoman Empire laws. In this case, Israel decided to work according to the Ottoman Empire law here, demanding from the Bedouins Ottoman “Kushan” ownership papers. Not one Bedouin has such documents. The result is violent frictions each time the Israeli Administration attempts to regularize the situation of a given tribe.
In a move that most Israelis have learned to fear, the Israeli Administration decided in 2007 to put an end to the land problem it claimed that exists in the Negev. When administrators interfere, the result is state-violence. The Goldberg Commission, chaired by retired Justice Eliezer Goldberg recommended that unrecognized villages east of Route 40 should be recognized on condition that they do not interfere with Israel’s development plans in the area. Structures in approved villages would be legalized and a committee would be set up to settle Bedouin land claims.
This scandalous offer was rejected by the Bedouins. Hence, the Prawer Commission was set up to analyze the implementation of the Goldberg Commission recommendations. Ehud Prawer is a civil servant close to Benjamin Netanyahu, he headed the IDF Education Corps and directed an exclusive school in Rehavia, Jerusalem, next to Netanyahu’s Palace. Among other atrocities, his report claimed that 30,000 Bedouins should be evacuated from their homes and relocated in government designed and constructed towns. This would have been a new variation on the topic of concentration camps.
The subsequent Bedouin protests led to this report being shelved. A third committee was created. This one was headed by Benjamin Begin, the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
In the last elections, he was relegated to an irrelevant place in the Likud list of candidates; he knew his political career was over. This combination of a transition government with a Knesset Member about to move into the Desert of Political Oblivion was good for Netanyahu. The Begin Committee issued the third report just after the elections, when everybody was busy trying to guess how Netanyahu’s new government would look.
The United Arab List–Ta’al, which has 4 members in the new Knesset, reacted sharply: “The plan is unacceptable and we will fight it in any possible way.” The first visible step was the violent protests in the Negev on March 30, the Land Day. A well-known Bedouin adage says: “I against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” It reflects well their hierarchy of loyalties. If the opportunity would arise, there is little doubt it would be seized and a Bedouin republic may be created in parts of the Negev and Sinai deserts. A flying camel effortlessly passing through the illusions of modern power; an ancient Silk Road reasserting its birth rights.