Israel and its Bedouins

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

While there is still debate in the courtrooms and in the chambers of power over the possible judicial fate of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish State may soon be involved in a new thorny controversy; that of the "Bedouins of the Negev".

Israel has always had a very special relationship with "its Bedouins", which dates back to the very foundation of the state. Already during the migrations of the Zionist pioneers, between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the tribal chiefs of the desert areas of the Negev, but also in the Judean desert and in the hills of Samaria and Galilee, had opportunistically tightened relationships of cooperation with the first Jewish settlers. This may seem paradoxical in the eyes of an informed evil but, historically speaking, even though they are also part of the Arab ethno-cultural universe, the "Bedouins" have always had an autonomous and distinct identity with respect to the "Fellahin", settled peasants inhabitants of the villages and towns of the Levant territory, which constituted the amalgam from which the "Palestinian" identity was born.

When, between the 1948 and the 1949, Israel became involved in the "First Israeli Arab War" also called the "War of Independence" some Negev tribes quickly accepted Israeli sovereignty, also sending their men to fight alongside theHaganah, the Jewish militia, while others remained "trapped between the two fires" and were expelled from Israeli territory along with most of the "Fellahin" becoming part of what is now known as the "Palestinian Diaspora" (it is estimated that around 110.000 Bedouins stationed in the Negev desert at the beginning of hostilities, only 11.000 remained at the end of the war!).

The remaining Bedouins of the Negev have generally maintained cordial and cooperative relations with the Jewish State, seeing their status as citizens recognized immediately. A large number of them (it is estimated the 5% -10% of combatable males) is recruited every year in the Israeli armed forces as volunteers, merging into the so-called "exploration and reconnaissance units" that in the Israeli armed forces enjoy a status elitist.

Unfortunately, not all that glitters is gold. Decades of substantial political disinterest and lack of investment have delivered a reality today in which the Bedouin sector of Israel represents the poorest part of the country (even compared to the standards of the rest of the Israeli Arabs) also characterized by abnormal crime rates. The lack of schooling and a still underdeveloped female status meant that the number of Bedouins passed from 11.000 in the 1949 to 210.000 today, so much so that the central state's bogeyman of a "loss of control" of the Negev was agitated.

This "demographic bomb" would then be exacerbated by the never-ending conflict for possession of land. The Bedouins in fact consider around 600 km2 of the central part of the Negev territory as their property while the authorities vigorously contest this claim based on the strategic importance that the whole desert has for the State of Israel.

In this context, the so-called "Prawer Plan" should be inserted, which provides for the expulsion of about 36.000 Bedouins (but the detractors even speak of 70.000) residing in about 35 villages called "abusive" and their relocation to other areas of the Jewish state, some of which are located even in the central part of the country, in order to remove the Bedouins from their ancestral lands and favor their transition towards a socio-economic model more in line with the modern dictates of the Israeli society and economy. For the supporters of this plan, this initiative goes in the right direction of the "re-appropriation of state lands that have been illegally occupied", while for the detractors, it is the "worst Palestinian expropriation of Palestinian land from the 1949".

Meanwhile, the social problems of the Bedouins persist and the resentment increases, year after year.

Photo: IDF