In protests, the Naqab affirms its Palestinian national identity

Dalia Hatuqa

Jewish Currents  /  February 16, 2022

In the Naqab region of southern Israel, as in East Jerusalem, the struggle over land is at the heart of the Palestinian question.

Some of the Israeli forces that came to the Bedouin village of Sa’awa on January 13th were on horseback, others in military jeeps. Several bulldozers roared behind them. The troops were armed and dressed in riot gear, ready to take on the Palestinian Bedouin demonstrators who had gathered at the entrance to the village—which sits to the east of Be’er Al-Sabe’ (Beersheba) in the Naqab (Negev) region of southern Israel—to protest the latest attempt to take over their land.

In December, the Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael in Hebrew), a quasi-governmental agency that reports to the Israel Land Authority (ILA), began tilling land in the area around Sa’awa as part of a forestation project, uprooting olive trees and wheat crops belonging to Palestinian Bedouins in the process. In response, in January, Palestinians gathered for four days in a row near Sa’awa to protest the destruction of their livelihoods and the seizure of their property. On January 13th, dust and tear gas filled the air as Israeli forces closed in on thousands of protesters, and police fired stun grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets. Though the demonstrators had received the necessary permits from Israeli police, security forces grabbed men, women, and children, handcuffing some and pushing others violently to the ground. Most of the protesters were young—more than 50% of the Naqab’s Palestinian Bedouin population of 280,000 is under 18.

Huda Abu Obaid, a community organizer and advocacy coordinator at the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality who took part in the protests, described how an initial wave of fear quickly dissipated as more members of the community joined the group in the street. When police began attacking protesters, “the people retreated for a moment,” she said. “And then they started to say to themselves, ‘What are we doing? We need to go back.’ And they did.” In the wake of the attack, at least 12 injured protesters went to the hospital, according to Sami Abou Shehadeh, a member of Israel’s Knesset for the Joint List, a political alliance of majority-Arab parties, and a leader of the secular Arab nationalist Balad/Tajamu party. Neither the security forces nor political leaders “were asked any questions about shooting at demonstrators,” Abou Shehadeh said. “Nobody was held responsible for this violent assault.” An estimated 150 protesters, almost half of them minors, have been detained since January by authorities, leading to demonstrations for their release in front of the courthouse in Be’er Al-Sabe’.

The scene for the recent protests was set in 2020, when the ILA, a state agency that manages most of the land in Israel, announced plans to plant non-indigenous trees across some 40,000 dunams (15 square miles) of the Naqab. The authority stated that the purpose of the project was “to conserve open spaces and nature from illegal control”—a tacit reference to the fact that, by planting the trees, the Israeli government would displace the unrecognized villages of Palestinian Bedouins, whom the state describes as “trespassers” and “squatters.” For decades, Israeli authorities have denied the claims of Palestinian Bedouin citizens of Israel to ownership of land in the Naqab, often citing lack of documentation; many of these claims date back before the Nakba of 1948, when an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were left stateless and dispossessed of their homes. In 2020, Palestinian Bedouins organized protests against the ILA’s plans, accusing the agency of forcibly displacing them and illegally seizing their land. Israeli officials claimed that the land designated for planting belonged to the state.

The Naqab has long been marginalized from the Palestinian national political movement, due to its geographical remoteness as well as Israeli “divide and conquer” policies that have left Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and inside the Green Line disconnected from one another. While the Bedouin have historically been persecuted by the state, some have also looked to Israel for employment and to increase their standard of living. The Israeli army even has Bedouin units, usually deployed on the border with Gaza, which are renowned for their tracking skills. This initiative—which follows other efforts to incorporate non-Jewish Arabic-speaking minorities into the military, including the Druze and Circassians and, most recently, Palestinian Christians with Israeli citizenship—has helped create a rift between Bedouins and other Palestinians.

But since the uprisings of May 2021, when Palestinians demonstrated en masse both across the Occupied Palestinian Territories and within the Green Line, the Naqab’s Palestinian population has increasingly become part of the wider Palestinian mobilization, with Bedouin communities participating in protests against the displacement of families in Sheikh Jarrah. That shift has been “a surprise for the Israeli political establishment, because they thought they had disconnected the Naqab from its Palestinian national identity,” said Riya Al-Sanah, a researcher and activist from the village of Lakiya in the Naqab. But whether in the Naqab or in occupied East Jerusalem, where Palestinians turned out to protest the eviction of the Salhiyeh family from their home in Sheikh Jarrah just a week before marchers were assaulted in Sa’awa, the struggle over land is at the heart of the Palestinian question. “What’s happening in Sa’awa is not just relevant to the people of Sa’awa,” Al-Sanah said. “The story of the Naqab is the story of Palestine as a whole.”

The Naqab region makes up about half of the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Historically, the northern area has been put to agrarian use. Green pastures provided Palestinian Bedouins with ample space to herd cattle, and to grow wheat and barley, which they once exported to the British Empire. In the 1940s, roughly 110,000 Palestinian Bedouins lived and farmed in the region.

In 1948, nearly 90% of them were forcibly moved to Jordan and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Only about 11,000 were allowed to remain under Israeli military rule in a 386 square-mile area around Be’er Al-Sabe’ in the northeastern Naqab, known in Hebrew as the Sayag, which loosely translates to fence. Their confinement to the Sayag came with restrictions on their movement, making their traditional seasonal migration with their herds impossible. Meanwhile, almost all the land outside the Sayag area was designated as “state land,” reserved for the exclusive use of Jewish Israeli citizens. In the mid-1960s, when Israel lifted the martial law under which Palestinian citizens had lived since 1949, the state continued its policy of confining Palestinian Bedouins to a limited space in the Naqab. This was accomplished by founding seven townships, built specifically for the Bedouin population but designed without consulting with the Bedouin leadership. Like their confinement to the Sayag, the limitation of Bedouin communities to the townships disrupted their traditional social structures and their seasonal, nomadic agricultural practices.

While imposing new townships on the Bedouins, Israel attempted to write existing villages—some of which predated the 1948 war—off the map. With the introduction of the 1965 Planning and Construction Law, Israel designated most of the Sayag area as “agricultural land,” banning residential construction and retrospectively labeling existing Bedouin villages “illegal.” To this day, the state also leverages the law against Palestinian Bedouins by refusing to recognize their traditional land ownership mechanisms, which historically did not rely on physical deeds. This puts Bedouin complainants at a distinct disadvantage when they seek to challenge their forced displacement—or affirm the legal legitimacy of their existing villages. Almost 100,000 Palestinians with Israeli citizenship live in nearly 45 villages in the Naqab, 35 of which are unrecognized.

By withholding legal status, Israeli authorities leave the villages without services such as power, water, sewage, roads, and schools. The designation of the villages as unrecognized also places them in danger of being destroyed. “The Bedouin villagers have been placed in an impossible situation,” said Rawia Aburabia, assistant professor of law at the Sapir Academic College School of Law in the Naqab. “They cannot legally obtain any building permits, and the homes in which they were born and raised are considered illegal by the state. These homes are perpetually under the threat of demolition.” Between 2013 and 2019, Israeli forces demolished more than 10,000 Bedouin homes in the Naqab.

As it has worked to push Palestinian Bedouins onto as little land as possible, Israel has established new rural Jewish settlements in the Naqab as part of a decades-long plan to Judaize the region. According to Human Rights Watch, the Israeli government, which has created a ministry focused on the development of the region, has treated investment in the area as a top priority for much of the past two decades. In 2004, for example, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government unveiled a plan, estimated to cost 16.8 billion shekels ($5 billion), that aimed to “increase the number of residents in the Negev to 1.5 million by 2010.” Today, more than 100 Jewish settlements exist in the area around Be’er Al-Sabe’, with an average population of only 300 residents each. “They are using the discourse of development to lure Jews to the area and spread them on very large pieces of land,” Abou Shehadeh said. In addition, settlers have built dozens of isolated farms in the area; though these are often constructed without permits, the government has at times recognized their status retroactively, including them in regional planning. Today, although Arab Bedouins make up a third of the Naqab’s population, they occupy only 3% of the region’s land.

KKL-JNF, an organization whose stated purpose is to develop land solely for Jewish use, has played a key role in efforts to displace Palestinians in the Naqab. While 93% of all territory in Israel is so-called state land, 13% of that land belongs to KKL-JNF. The organization uses forestation projects to push out Bedouin families, lay claim to disputed land, and cover over the remains of villages from which Palestinians fled or were expelled in 1948, erasing signs that they were ever there. “The JNF portrays itself as a green organization, planting trees for the benefit of the environment,” Al-Sanah said. “But it has to be understood in a colonial context: planting trees to erase the memory and historic presence of Palestinian communities, as a way of controlling and taking hold over land. It’s planting trees while uprooting people.”

To many Palestinians, the Judaization of the Naqab—like the encroachment of Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem—is an explicit continuation of Israel’s promise “to make the desert bloom,” a founding myth of Israel’s political ideology. This well-worn Zionist axiom, intended to frame Jewish settlers as pioneers in a largely barren land, has been repeatedly disproven by the work of Palestinian scholars such as Walid and Rashid Khalidi, who have painstakingly documented the vibrant social and economic fabric that predated the European Jewish settlment enterprise. But the ongoing settlement of the Naqab continues to build on this ideological foundation, as well as on the policies put into place in the earliest years of Israel’s existence. “The idea that the Bedouin should be concentrated in as small an area as possible within [the Sayag] remains at the heart of government policy to this day,” Aburabia said. These policies are what Palestinians refer to when they lament the Nakba’s ongoing nature—its continuation through the work of both governmental agencies and quasi-governmental institutions like the JNF.

Following the January protests in the Naqab, four Knesset members from Ra’am, an Islamist party that is part of the fragile governing coalition headed by right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, threatened to abstain from voting with the government until the forestation project was stopped. The party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, warned, “Trees are not more important than human beings.”

Palestinians from the Naqab make up the electoral base of Ra’am, the first Arab party not to sit in the Knesset’s opposition. Only Bennett’s alliance with Abbas allows the coalition to maintain a one-seat majority in parliament. Still, it remains unclear whether Abbas and his party—which has taken pains to distance itself from the larger Palestinian political struggle—will exercise the political power that they seized by joining the governing coalition on behalf of communities like the Palestinian Bedouins of the Naqab. Since January, the forestation project has been suspended pending negotiations between Bedouin representatives and the government’s welfare minister, Meir Cohen of the centrist Yesh Atid party.

In the meantime, Abou Shehadeh warns that the efforts to displace Palestinian Bedouins will continue. “The attack on our brothers in the Naqab has become much stronger,” he said, because “we don’t have more land in areas of the Galilee or the ‘Triangle’ or in the mixed cities. The only area that still has some land left is the Naqab.”

Dalia Hatuqa is a journalist who specializes in Palestinian and Israeli affairs.