Bedouin Myth #1 – Indigenous?


Regavim (The National Land Protection Trust) is an independent professional research institute & policy planning think tank, incorporated as a private non-profit company in Israel. The mission of the institute is to ensure responsible, legal & accountable use of Israel’s national lands and the return of the rule of law to all.

Around twenty-five years ago, a global discussion began surrounding the term “indigenous peoples” as it relates to ethnic minorities around the world.  International law however began to address the issue of indigenous peoples as far back as the 17th century, and by and large the matter was left to the discretion of the particular state. With the passing of the years, the law began to recognize an independent status of indigenous ethnic groups (such as the Indians and the Aborigines) in a way that was bound together with previous legal agreements regarding preservation of culture, holy sites, and more.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) associated with the United Nations tried to advance two international treaties pertinent to the rights of populations that define themselves as indigenous populations, yet were unsuccessful in formulating a statement due to each country’s differing views on sovereignty and indigenous populations.

In the past few years, key figures in the Bedouin sector in Israel began to apply this term to themselves as characteristic of their independent status, together with a demand for recognition of their historic ownership of lands across the Negev.

Despite the lack of an international agreement as to the definition of “indigenous”, the general recognition of indigenous peoples tends to use various parameters, focusing on the following:

  • Original Inhabitants – the indigenous peoples are descendents of the first peoples to inhabit a particular territory.
  • Extended Period of Time – the indigenous peoples live in a territory “from time immemorial” over a period of thousands of years.
  • Pre-Colonial Sovereignty – the indigenous groups had territorial sovereignty before the arrival of a developed nation that took possession of the region.
  • Group Connection to the Land – they have a spiritual connection to the land on which they live.
  • External Validation – other external groups affirm that these people are in fact indigenous.

Professor Ruth Kark of the Geography Department of the Hebrew University, considered an expert on conceptions of land ownership in traditional and pre-modern cultures, in an article that appeared in the “Middle East Quarterly,”[1] enumerated the generally accepted parameters of the term “indigenous,” and explains why the Bedouins cannot be included in this category. Here is the synopsis of her conclusions.

  • Indigenous Peoples – Many groups preceded the Bedouins in Palestine in general and in the Negev in particular, including Jewish inhabitants who maintained an uninterrupted presence in the land since the days of the Bible. Therefore the Bedouins cannot claim that they were the original inhabitants of the land.
  • The Dimension of Time – the variable called, “from time immemorial” requires a long-standing presence on the territory. The Bedouin tribes currently living in the Negev have been there for around two hundred years.[2] As such, they cannot claim that their presence predates the arrival of a foreign power, such as the Ottoman Empire, which preceded the current Bedouins tribes present by hundreds of years. In opposition to this, the Jewish presence in Palestine completely fulfills the requirements of “time immemorial.”
  • Sovereignty – in the case of the Bedouins of the Negev, they never had sovereignty over the region. When they arrived, the Negev was already under Ottoman control, followed by British and Israeli control.
  • A Unique Spiritual Connection to the Territory – nomadic life precludes any specific fixed connection to the land.  There is no long-standing proof in the Bedouin tradition establishing a spiritual connection between them and the Negev, a logical situation owing to their relatively brief presence there and to their nomadic lifestyle. Indeed they claim the Arabian Peninsula to be their historic homeland. Today, the Bedouins are not claiming collective rights to the land, but are rather demanding fulfillment of the rights of individuals to sell the lands and transfer them to a third party. Such private demands are contrary to the spiritual dimension, and point to the fact that the main aspiration of the Bedouins is financial gain with no collective character that would be relevant to their campaign to be recognized as indigenous.
  • The Group Defines Itself, and is Regarded by Others, as Indigenous Inhabitants of the Territory – The claim of the Bedouins as indigenous is quite recent, and was first mentioned only a number of years ago.[3] Previous studies did not find that the Bedouins regarded themselves in this way, and no researchers made the claim that they were indigenous. The fact that no other tribe in the Middle East ever made the claim of being indigenous raises questions as to the motives and authenticity of such a claim. Since the Bedouins of the Negev in a number of cases are a part of the same tribe that dwells in neighboring countries, it is thus illogical to say that only the Bedouins who live on the Israeli side of the border are considered indigenous.

Conclusion: The narrative according to the Bedouin claim that they are “indigenous” does not fulfill the world’s accepted criteria for being considered indigenous. Such claims were first made only some ten years ago.

[1] Are the Negev Bedouin an Indigenous People? Fabricating Palestinian History. Havazelet Yahel,  Dr. Seth Fratzman & Prof. Ruth Kark. Middle East Quarterly. Summer 2012, pp. 3-14

[2] Ottoman tax records from the years 1596-97 specify the names of forty three Bedouin tribes in what was to become the Palestinian Mandate, including three in the Negev, yet the names of the tribes living today in the Negev do not appear in this list.

[3] The first articles to relate to this claim appeared about ten years ago in the platforms of organizations identified with the radical left in Israel such as “Adalah,” “the Negev Co-existence Forum,” and the “Human Rights Watch.”

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