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'Truth commission' uncovers the history of Bedouin dispossession

An informal ‘Public Truth Commission’ set out to find exactly what happened to the Negev Bedouin between 1948 and 1960. While Bedouin witnesses told stories of massacres, rape and expulsions, former Israeli soldiers said they were just following orders. 

By Tom Pessah

Negev Bedouin speak during Zochrot's Public Truth Commission, Be'er Sheva, December 10, 2014. (photo: Ahmad al-Bazz)

Negev Bedouin speak during Zochrot’s Public Truth Commission, Be’er Sheva, December 10, 2014. (photo: Ahmad al-Bazz)

I identify as straight, so I cannot claim to know how it feels to be in the closet. But I do have friends who identify as LGBTQ, and they have taught me a little about what it is like: to constantly evade the subject is exhausting. If you demand that people hide such central parts of their identities, you’ll never have close relationships with them. Likewise many people I know see themselves as “pro-peace” or “pro-Palestine,” but expect Palestinians to remain “in the closet” about their history, particularly that of 1948.

Zochrot, an Israeli NGO, is experimenting with ways to bring awareness about the Palestinian Nakba to the Jewish Israeli public. After two years of preparations, they convened an informal Public Truth Commission at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba last week, in order to examine the displacement of Palestinians in the Negev/Naqab by Israeli forces that took place from 1948 to 1960. Why until 1960? Most people are actually unaware of the fact the majority of local Bedouin tribes were driven off their lands into either Sinai, the West Bank, or an isolated reservation east of Beersheba (the “Sayag”) in the 1950s – long after the war ended.

But how can “nomads” be driven off “their lands?” Most people also do not know about the Bedouins’ semi-nomadic form of settlement, which included tilling plots of land in particular areas associated with each tribe. The Ottomans had noticed this practice in the 16th century, but Israeli state representatives have continued to deny this in court in order to justify the present-day eviction of entire communities.

The first to share details of these events were several Bedouin witnesses. Still residing within Israel, they recounted how the army had ordered them to leave their lands, promising that the move would only be temporary. Another witness spoke of an unknown massacre in al-Araqeeb, where 14 men were executed in 1948. The village, which existed long before the state, has been demolished over 70 times by the state in recent years, only to be rebuilt each time by residents.

The motives for these actions were already apparent in a 1951 memo by Michael Hanegbi, the first military governor of Beersheba (after the city was placed under military rule). According to Hanegbi, the Bedouin should be expelled for two reasons: they occupy a strategic area that could be invaded by the Egyptian army in a future war, and their land is “extremely fertile.” One of the testifiers dropped out of school after he and his family were expelled. He never made it past third grade.

Sheikh Sayah A-Turi holds up an eviction notice in his village of Al-Arakib. (photo: Michal Rotem)

Sheikh Sayah A-Turi holds up an eviction notice in his village of Al-Arakib. (photo: Michal Rotem)

Several Israeli Jews were also invited to give their testimonies before the commission. Most of them served as soldiers in the Israeli army at the time, and preferred to speak in terms of military confrontation, in line with the dominant Israeli narrative. They emphasized struggles over transportation and the supply of water to local Jewish settlements during war itself, saying that they had acted as soldiers and only drove out those who truly deserved it.

After being questioned by commission members, however, more details emerged, including stories of rape, indiscriminate bombardment, shooting at schools and widespread looting. Unlike other truth commissions, this one had no legal authority, and thus could offer no incentives for witnesses to provide a full account of what actually transpired. The Israeli accounts remained fragmented, with firsthand testimonies often mixed with impersonal political statements.

The last two speakers were experts: Dr. Safa Abu-Rabia, a Bedouin anthropologist, spoke candidly of her experiences in Israeli academia (“You should thank us – without us you’d still be shepherds,” she was once told), and shared the results of her research on how the Bedouin remember their dispossession. She described how members of the community walked barefoot on their land on their last night there, how they take their grandchildren on trips to teach them about their real, historic home and about the unique way that women pass on stories to younger generations.

Professor Oren Yiftachel, an Israeli geographer, presented the many testimonies he and his colleagues have uncovered regarding the connection Bedouin have to particular plots of land, from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Yiftachel optimistically believes that these documents will one day lead Israeli courts to challenge the state’s ongoing denial of Bedouin land deeds. In Australia, aborigine activists achieved a similar breakthrough in 1992, overturning centuries of discriminatory legal doctrine.

So why “turn back the clock?” Why “get stuck in the past” when we can agree about the future? Why not talk about the “common humanity that unites us” rather than openly discuss what makes us uncomfortable? Until people familiarize themselves with the details of the Nakba and stop expecting Palestinians to stay silent about their ongoing dispossession, there can be no close relationships, no common struggle and no co-resistance.

Tom Pessah is an Israeli sociologist and activist, currently residing in Tel Aviv.

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    1. Pedro X

      Dror Yemini on the Bedouin

      “The debate over the proper procedure of the settlement of the Bedouins is an important debate. Some say that the Bedouins are nomads, that their entire claim to land ownership is fictitious, while others claim that the state should recognized their claims of ownership even if these are not consistent with recognized registration methods, from the Ottoman period, then the British, and now, of course, the Israeli.

      For years the Israeli authorities have been struggling with this issue. On the one hand, the ownership claims have been rejected outright in legal proceedings. In some of the claims, the assertions of “ownership for hundreds of years” were exposed as fraudulent. Aerial photographs from the last century proved that “a settlement that had existed for centuries” had not even existed for a few decades.

      Despite the legal determinations, the state decided on a generous arrangement. Every Bedouin family is entitled to a plot of land in one of the Bedouin towns built in the region where they live, and there are plans for the construction of many more towns. These arrangements attempt to approximate the Bedouin tradition and heritage as much as possible.

      For this reason a plot of land in a Bedouin town is nearly one dunam (1/4 acre), which is much larger than the plots in other towns. On the other hand, this is an arrangement that is in line with accepted practices in modern countries, in which land ownership requires registration, and in which human habitations require infrastructure, running water, connection to the electricity grid and paved roads.

      This is no simple matter. There is a clash between a nomadic tradition and a modern country. Israel is not the only country that, over the course of its establishment, has had to contend with the claims of population groups with different lifestyles. Australia had issues with its aborigines, in the U.S. it was the Native Americans, in Scandinavian countries it is still the Samis who complain about historical and current deprivation, and many other countries have gypsies.


      Let’s take, for example, the repetitive chorus of the past few weeks, which sounds like this: “The Bedouin community of Umm al-Hiran is slated to be turned into Hiran, a community for Jews only, via the disinheriting and transfer of the Bedouins, in accordance with the racist policy of the State of Israel.” This is also a summary of the claims in a series of articles in Haaretz.

      After setting sail on the sea of lies, it’s worth returning to the solid ground of facts. First, the Bedouin members of the Al-Qian tribe, who are the focus of the current fuss, were transferred to the Yatir region of the Negev decades ago, of their own volition and at their request, due to a dispute with another tribe.

      Second, when Hiran was being planned, a little over a decade ago, there were only a few Bedouins there, if any. The move to Umm al-Hiran occurred mainly in the wake of the plans for the new town. Aerial photographs prove this.

      Third, only a small part of the master plan for Hiran is on the land occupied by the new squatters.

      Fourth, adjacent to the Al-Qian compound, the state built Hura, a proper Bedouin village, with paved roads, electricity and water infrastructure and more.

      Fifth, every family in the tribe is entitled to receive nearly a dunam of land. Even a bachelor over 24 is entitled to a plot of land, in preparation for future generations.

      Sixth, in addition to the free land, with free infrastructure development, each family also receives monetary compensation for the previous, illegally built house where it lived.

      Seventh, and here we’re in for a surprise, most of the tribe – 3,000 of the 4,000 members – actually felt this was a fair arrangement, and they indeed moved to Hura.

      Eighth, Hiran is not designated only for religious Jews, and also not only for Jews. Any Bedouin who wishes to buy land there is invited to do so and is entitled to do so. Of course, that would cost money. In Meitar, for example, Bedouins from the surrounding area decided to buy plots of land. No one stopped them.

      In the background a campaign has being going on for a long time, crafted by Haaretz. There have been a lot of baseless claims, but I will make do with just two that were published this week. Oudeh Basharat claimed that Israel was robbing the Bedouins of land in Umm al-Hiran, and immediately called this apartheid. One day later, Prof. Eyal Gross claimed that Bedouins were being evicted from their homes in order to build a Jewish town. When a lie is repeated a thousand times, it becomes fact.

      The words transfer and apartheid appeared in the campaign, in order to finger the culprit. This, of course, is the Zionist enterprise. This is what it did in 1948. This is what it is doing in the territories. This is what it is doing to the Bedouins. This is how incitement is created. This is how demonization is done. Haaretz readers have no inkling that Bedouin began to live in Umm al-Hiran only after the initiative to establish Hiran. Is it unreasonable to demand that a law professor know the facts before writing a report?

      A fair arrangement for the Bedouins is no simple matter. One thing certain is that the path the state has chosen is not expulsion, disinheriting or transfer, but rather a generous offer that has cost and will cost the state hundreds of millions of shekels, and provides the Bedouins with tremendous benefits. This is discriminating against the Jews and affirmative action favoring the Bedouins. No Jew is entitled to receive free land in a Bedouin community, nor to buy land that is offered to Bedouins at reduced prices, when that possibility exists. A Bedouin, on the other hand, can choose between a Bedouin community and a Jewish community. If he wants to live in Hura, there is land with infrastructure waiting for him, at no charge. If he wants to live in Hiran, he may do so, under the same conditions as a Jew, Armenian or Buddhist.

      When “rights groups” and Haaretz automatically side with the Bedouins who oppose the arrangement, rather than with those who support it, the arrangement is doomed to failure. Just like the “forces of progress” in the world, who fan the flames of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign and the fantasy of the Arab Right of Return. This is no way to reach an arrangement, and only bolsters the objectors. This perpetuates the suffering and the conflict and the bloodshed. What the “progressives” are doing for the Palestinians, the “rights activists” are now doing for the Bedouins.

      Truth be told, it is doubtful if there is a population anywhere in the world with similar characteristics, native or nomadic, that has been awarded such a generous settlement. But the propaganda film has managed to reverse this picture, such that matters must be returned to the proper perspective. It’s not that Jews are doing to the Bedouins what anti-Semites did to the Jews. Just the opposite. It is the “rights groups” and Rabbis for Human Rights, and it’s Haaretz that are continuing the old, despised tradition of libels. In the past it was against the Jews. Now it’s against the State of Israel.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        Ben Dror-Yemeni? Nu, bamet. Hoo achi tambal she’yeesh bin kol ha’medoraim veh yesh tacharot dey kashah beh eyton-oot ha’yisraelit

        Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      All the anti-semites out there are having a field day, saying that Israel has a special history unlike the history of other countries and that Jews are unlike all other human beings, but I would like to counter this extremist Jew-hatred: the history of Israel looks pretty similar to U.S. history or Dutch history or Chinese history or French history, and Jews are just as capable of anything that any other human beings are capable of.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        Bruce is there nothing distinctive about Israel?
        How many other states claim their legitimacy on religious texts written centuries ago?
        How many other states claim the right to colonise territory on the basis that somewhat similar people lived in those lands centuries ago?
        How many Jewish states are there, and how many states offer free entry to co-religionists from other lands?
        How many states have signed the Convention against torture yet continue to use the practice with the explicit approval of their supreme court?
        How many states owe their existence to the UN and foreign imperial powers who promised to facilitate the creation of the state?
        How many states have refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treat? (Yes there are some, but are you in good company)?
        How many states in the twenty first century are still engaged in colonial enterprises?
        How many states while promising to abide by the principles of the UN, have ignored so many UN resolutions?
        How many states are able to spy so effectively on the USA and to steal its technological secrets?
        How many other states have such strong links with foreign sympathisers who orchestrate American policy?
        How many other states have promised a constitution and then failed to deliver?
        How many other states have attacked an American naval vessel and got away with it?
        How many other states attack their neighbours with such ferocity and such frequency?
        How many states have conquered territory and occupied it for almost 50 years whilst resisting demands for peace?
        And so one could go on and on, and your response would be that no other state faces such existential dangers as Israel. In other words Israel is not a normal state.

        This hostility to a state is for many based entirely on principles of human rights and respect for the principles of international law, and has absolutely nothing to do with hatred of Jews, since many of the strongest critics are Jews.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Joel

      In Bedouin culture, the ruling lords are nomadic, while their caste bound ‘serfs’ tilled the land.

      So whose land is it? The absentee lords, or the serf-tenant cultivators?

      I’m dying for 972 Mag to answer.

      Reply to Comment
    4. MIkesailor

      Bruce: The differemce is the Israelis continue to deny their ethnic cleansing and expect the reat of the world to acknowledge that Jewish etnic cleansing is “acceptable” in the Twenty-First Century. Never mind that Israel signed on to the Geneva Conventions and supposedly the world has turned away from what was considered “normal” colonisation after WWII. Israel violates the provisions of Geneva at every turn, and then deny their actions. Most of the rest of the world was willing to overlook Jewish criminality after WWII; after receiveing their daily diet of “Holocaust “guilt,many non-Jews ;earned that telling the truth about Jewish criminality got non-Jews the immediate appellation of “antisemite’. But the wolrld is now getting past that, and the empperor has no clothes. The Isralis not only stole the land from the Bedouin but also beat them, raped the women (presumably although I would never put anything past an Israeli Jew) and also “relieved” them of their possessions. One of the more interesting things about this article is how the Jewish witnesses don’t deny thewir actions, although reluctant to admit them. Instead they rely on the well-known saw:”..I was only following orders…”. Does any Jew see the irony in this excuse? It is the same excuse used by members of the Nazi Party or the SS when confronted by their murders and criminal behavior. The mask is off. Even the Zionist leadership is acknowledging that not only have they killed innocents but they are proud of it (Don’t believe it? Look up Feiglin or Bennet; then look Up Begin, Sharon, Shamir or the statements advocating terrorism by Ben Gurion. Terrorists all). The Israeli governbnment has always been run by unabashed war criminals. And those who support the government and the “Zionist ” dream of an UberJuden ahould be called for what they are: irredeemable racist fascists.

      Reply to Comment
      • Joel


        What country are you from, Mike?
        *they never answer*

        What idyllic land did you hail from, where the rule of law is sacrosanct?

        BTW. The Ottomans warred with the Negev Bedouin in order to suppress Bedouin thievery and pillage.

        The British Mandatory tried to force the nomads to settle, but it was left to the Zionists in 1949 to finally put an end to African slavery among the Bedouin tribes.

        BTW, who did the Bedouin tribes get their land? Not through violence I hope.

        Clean hands Mike.
        You have to show mama you have clean hands before eating supper.

        Reply to Comment
    5. bar

      When I got to this part, ” and preferred to speak in terms of military confrontation, in line with the dominant Israeli narrative” I stopped reading this article seriously.

      It’s not a narrative. There aren’t two narratives. There are facts and there is history. There was a war. It was a war of survival. It was a war of survival against Arabs. Like any war there was a need for strategic moves.

      It is absolutely incredible to watch the extreme left create a serious fissure between Israel, Israelis and Bedouin Israelis. You people are not just idiots, you are the primary reason that peace has become virtually impossible and that Israeli Arabs, despite significant advances (certainly relative to any Arab country in the region)are now pursuing a politics of victimization and opposition to their state.


      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        Perhaps Bar you should study history as an academic discipline before you pontificate like this. There is not a single historical theme that does not have multiple facets – diverse narratives, diverse forms of analysis, diverse perspectives. This is nowhere more true than with respect to Israel where the story can be told from a religious perspective (or rather several), from a secular perspective, or rather several (e.g. revisionist Zionist, classical Zionist, post-Zionist, neo-liberal, pro-Palestinian etc etc). Put two Israelis in a room and you will get three opinions – put two historians (even two Israeli historians) in a lecture hall and you will get three different versions of the historical narrative. Benny Morris has consistently argued that the War of Independence was not a war of survival, but a war of conquest accompanied by atrocities and massacres, but he has also argued that the war did not go far enough and should have conquered all of Palestine, and that the massacres were relatively minor matters.

        There are things generally called facts, but two different historians can draw entirely different inferences from them.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bar

          Please spare me the bullshit. I read history that comes from Arab and anti-Israeli scholars. Everything I wrote is accurate.

          And my point about the division the extreme left is bringing about stands. Shameful and disgusting behavior.

          Reply to Comment
        • Brian

          “It’s not a narrative. There aren’t two narratives. There are facts and there is history…everything I wrote is accurate.”

          Bar exposes herself as an uneducated simpleton or a person pretending to be an uneducated simpleton. Neither possibility–and there are no others–is attractive.

          Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            Ah yes, I’m a simpleton or pretending to be one.

            Let me know when you are able to refute the simple and entirely accurate remarks I wrote.

            Reply to Comment
        • andrew r

          Benny Morris has consistently argued that the War of Independence was not a war of survival, but a war of conquest accompanied by atrocities and massacres

          Morris definitely believes the ’48 war was for the survival of the Yishuv. However, he also concedes the armed Zionist groups committed atrocities.

          “But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands. (…) That is correct. Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history. (…) When you take into account that there was a bloody civil war here and that we lost an entire 1 percent of the population, you find that we behaved very well.”


          Reply to Comment
      • andrew r

        It was a war of survival. It was a war of survival against Arabs.

        There wouldn’t have been a Yishuv in ’48 to threaten if the early Zionist groups that began settling Palestine weren’t so clever about circumventing their handicap of not having an armed force. If Herzl had a regular army in 1897, he would have done the exact same thing Ben-Gurion did 50 years later. These were wannabe European colonialists and they should be held accountable for conspiring to alter the demography of Palestine through any means at their disposal.

        Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        bar – if you believe “There aren’t two narratives. There are facts and there is history” then you are a simpleton. Benny Morris could write, (with his political hat on), as quoted below, that Israeli actions were justified, but wearing his mortarboard and paying due attention to the archives he also wrote: “Israelis like to believe, and tell the world, that they were running an ‘enlightened’ or ‘benign’ occupation, qualitatively different from other military occupations the world has seen. The truth was radically different. Like all occupations, Israel’s was founded on brute force, repression and fear, collaboration and treachery, beatings and torture chambers, and daily intimidation, humiliation and manipulation.” He also wrote “Above all, let me reiterate, the refugee problem was caused by attacks by Jewish forces on Arab villages and towns and by the inhabitants’ fear of such attacks, compounded by expulsions, atrocities and rumours of atrocities – and by the crucial Israeli cabinet decision in June 1948 to bar a refugee return”. Try reading some history – it might give you a better understanding and knowledge of the world.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Joel

      Truth Commission fails to record legacy of pre-State Bedouin hatred of Jews.

      “Haj Amin, have no fear. We shall spill our blood for you! This land is ours, and the Jews are our dogs.”

      @page 284.


      Reply to Comment
      • phil


        “according to one participant”.. unnamed in the book, fantastic example of cherry picking a quote..

        How about the next page of the book.. where the brits told the bedouin to get guns to defend themselves from the jewish militias?

        Or the start of the same chapter, when in 1902 a tribal leader approached a jewish public figure offering an alliance of several clans to oust the turks..

        Did you even read the book?

        Reply to Comment
        • GilGamesh

          Most the the charges in the article above are also made by unnamed participants.

          Reply to Comment
    7. “So why “turn back the clock?” Why “get stuck in the past” when we can agree about the future? Why not talk about the “common humanity that unites us” rather than openly discuss what makes us uncomfortable? Until people familiarize themselves with the details of the Nakba and stop expecting Palestinians to stay silent about their ongoing dispossession, there can be no close relationships, no common struggle and no co-resistance.”

      This was a good article.

      Reply to Comment
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