Who’s Really Taking Over the Negev? (Haaretz)

Haaretz isn’t taking over the Negev. This piece that I co-wrote with Yariv Mohar was published in Haaretz. :)

A few days ago, the Israeli government approved an outline for arranging the settlement of the Bedouin, formulated by Minister Benny Begin after a hearing he held. On the surface, it appears there is a gap between Begin’s positive, principled statements in favor of the Bedouin’s rights and his recommendations, which could yet oust many Bedouin from the places they are living.

The government’s approach could be called the “generosity of lords.” Instead of recognizing the Bedouin villages based on the principles of fairness and equality, it expresses willingness to give the “irrational Bedouin” something they seemingly do not deserve, a gesture of goodwill.

Ignored in the background is the fact that the Bedouin have already relinquished most of their lands and are demanding only a tiny area. They definitely do not deserve to be accused of “taking control of the Negev.”

The myth of the takeover of the Negev Desert is being spread by an orchestrated campaign of supposed facts and biased research suggesting that the Bedouin are invaders – nomads who not very long ago came from Saudi Arabia or the Sinai Peninsula and are not native inhabitants of the Negev. The people behind this myth claim they are speaking in the name of Zionism and against its opponents. On this basis, it is easy to understand how the government’s new proposal could be seen as generous, rather than insulting.

But to see how ungrateful and ungracious Israel’s attitude toward the Bedouin is today, you need only peruse the writing of Zalman David Levontin, a Zionist activist and leader from the beginning of the First Aliyah, or Jewish immigration to Palestine around the turn of the 19th century. In his book “To the Land of Our Fathers,” Levontin writes about the encounters between the first Zionist immigrants and the Negev Bedouin. It turns out that even before Theodor Herzl wrote “The Jewish State,” the Bedouin had invited the Zionist immigrants to settle alongside them. Today, though, the descendants of these Jews are brazenly calling the Bedouin “invaders,” and doing so in the name of Zionism.

Levontine’s writing focuses on the year 1882. The Bedouin are depicted as natives of the land. From his descriptions, it is clear they are permanent residents or semi-nomads, certainly not people without any connection to the place who have come from Saudi Arabia just to benefit from the fruits of Zionism.

Levontin was not biased in favor of the Bedouin. He critically describes their aggressive attitude toward immigrants in other places in the country. But of the Negev Bedouin he writes that relations between them and the Jews are good and that they invite the Jews to settle near them and buy lands from them cheaply.

In “To the Land of Our Fathers,” Levontin also writes about a Zionist delegation looking for suitable lands on which to establish a “moshava,” or “farming community,” to be called Rishon Lezion and about how the Negev Bedouin helped with the search. The delegation reported that it had formed a positive impression of the Bedouin and recommended the Negev as the most suitable place for Jewish settlement in the land of Israel – in neighborly proximity to the Bedouin and not in their stead or at the expense of their rights.

The members of the delegation also reported that the Bedouin owned available lands that they were prepared to sell at a low price. It is quite clear that the reference is to extensive tracts, since this delegation was looking for a solution to the settlement of very large numbers of Jews. Mass settlement of this sort did not ultimately prove possible, but many of the lands of Kibbutz Lahav, for example, were purchased from the Al-Turi family from Al-Araqib, a purchase that proves recognition of their ownership.

So where, then, are the invaders? And where is the gratitude towards the people who helped the first pioneers?

And an issue that is more a matter of principle: Who in fact can be considered to be “Taking control” of the Negev? The Bedouin, who the people of the First Aliyah met for the first time when they came from Eastern Europe to their new land, or the Bedouin, who are today claiming ownership of just 5 percent of the lands of the Negev, even though they constitute more than 30 percent of its population? If we look at history, could it perhaps be the Jews who are “taking over”?

For the sake of dispelling any doubt, let it be said that we are not thinking in those terms and we do not believe that history must be a major factor in justifying or negating collective or civil rights. Citizenship and living in a place are sufficiently worthy basises for rights and an egalitarian allotment of lands.

But the government ministers, organizations and citizens using history to undermine the collective right of the Bedouin, and doing so in the name of Zionism, should at least take the trouble to familiarize themselves with the writings of the earliest Zionists. In ignoring history, they are acting disgracefully not only toward the Bedouin but also towards the people in whose name they are speaking.

The writers are activists in the organization Rabbis for Human Rights, a member of the Recognition Forum.