One could argue that if the conflict with the Palestinians was miraculously solved, the next conflict simmering under the surface would be the fate of the Bedouin in the Negev.For decades, NGOs have educated the world with a shocking narrative of an indigenous population under threat of extinction.We are told that the Beduin citizens of Israel live in a mere 45 historical villages and are forced to build illegally because their communities are not recognized by the state. That they can’t provide for their families because the government doesn’t allocate adequate funding to their communities. Above all else, apparently all they are asking for is five percent of the Negev.
These would all be fair and logical arguments, if any of them were based on fact or an iota of truth. In reality these are six major myths or mantras that have been repeated so many times that even members of the government of Israel have blindly adopted them as truth.
The first of these myths is the issue of indigenous status. Internationally accepted guidelines on indigenous status rely on the following five determinants being met:
1. Original inhabitants.
2. Extended period of time.
3. Pre-colonial sovereignty.
4. Group connection to the land.
5. External validation.
The Bedouin that currently reside in the Negev are not the original inhabitants of the area. Even if a very limited amount of these nomadic tribes were in the area two or even three hundred years ago, this is not considered an “extended period of time” warranting the title “indigenous”; this does not place them in the area before the first colonialist invasion by marauding Arabs from Arabia in the 8th century CE or the beginning of the long period of Ottoman domination that started in the 1500s.
Nomadic life also precludes any specific fixed connection to the land. There is no long-standing proof in Bedouin tradition establishing a spiritual connection between them and the Negev specifically, a logical result of their relatively brief presence there and to their nomadic lifestyle.
Although the UN Committee on Indigenous People did bestow indigenous status on the Bedouin of the Negev, the fact that no other Bedouin tribe in the Middle East has ever made the claim of being indigenous raises questions as to the motives and authenticity of such a claim and raises the obvious questions of the committee’s objectivity.
Major myth number two is the Bedouin claim of “historical villages,” which can be easily refuted with historical aerial photographs.
Tens of aerial photographs of these so-called historical villages have been examined and made publicly available, that show that these villages did not exist prior to 1945.
No one is denying that there were nomadic tribes living in the Negev earlier than the 1940s. However, due to the nature of these tribes, no permanent residences were established.
Myth six relates to the seemingly modest statement that the Bedouin are claiming less than 5% of the Negev. First off, the fact that only 80% of the Negev is inhabitable means that figure is actually 23% of available land in the area. Among all the sectors of Israeli society, there is no sector so small that makes a claim of private ownership over an area so large, despite the fact that from a legal perspective, it has been proven time and time again that their claims are without basis.
By bringing these myths to light and exposing them for what they are, our hope is that this will clear the air and return the discourse to one that will allow for a more informed and educated discussion on the way forward for the Negev.
Ari Briggs works for Regavim, research-backed legal advocacy organization focused on land ownership issues. Regavim’s mission is to ensure the responsible, legal and environmentally friendly use of Israel’s national lands and the return of the rule of law to all areas and aspects of the land and its preservation.