The Forgotten Plight of the Negev Bedouin

Image by Teodor Kuduschiev.

Something strange happened last October in the embattled holy lands that very few western observers managed to pick out of the bones from the various massacres. 17 Gentiles were among the victims slaughtered by Hamas on the 7th and just five days later, a village of 187 was erased from the map in the West Bank in a violent pogrom led by heavily armed illegal Jewish settlers. This may all just sound like another tragic week in the history of the Levant until you realize that all 204 of these sorry souls were Bedouin Arabs, a small marginalized tribal population that has somehow found itself at the withering mercy of both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some of the first victims of the Al-Aqsa Flood were Israeli citizens of Bedouin decent, and they included a five-year-old boy killed by a stray rocket, a fifty-year-old man shot dead while attempting to rescue injured ravers at the Nova Music Festival, and a 25-year-old construction worker and father of two gunned down defending a Jewish family near the Sderot police station. Another six Bedouins were among the hostages and only two have been returned. Nevertheless, none of these harrowing facts have stopped the Zionist mobs of the West Bank from targeting Bedouin villages like that of Wadi al-Siq as part of their supposed revenge for the events of October 7th.

That tiny collection of tin shacks clinging to the rugged mountainside east of Ramallah was surrounded by masked settlers and uniformed IDF reservists armed to the teeth with assault rifles and carved from the earth like a cancer from the face of God. Those men opened fire upon unarmed crowds, invaded homes and tied up and assaulted women and children in front of their husbands and fathers at gunpoint. Farmlands were torched, tractors and livestock were stolen, and the battered citizens of Wadi al-Siq were told that every last one of them would be annihilated if they ever returned.

This is a sad but common chapter in the long plight of the Negev Bedouins, a semi-nomadic indigenous Arab population spread across the shifting borders of the Holy Land who have long suffered the brunt of the violence that goes into drawing those lines. The Bedouins are an ancient people who trace their lineage back to the times of Muhammed and even earlier. Arab for “desert dweller,” there are roughly 4 million Bedouins spread across communities throughout the Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq, and many Arabs still revere them as ideal representatives of their culture do to their rich, poetic oral traditions and their rugged code of honor, but few people have seen their entire way of life obliterated by colonialism the way the Bedouins of the Negev Desert have.

During the Nakba of 1948, 85% of the Negev Bedouins were forcefully expelled from their ancestral lands. About 40,000 ended up in the West Bank but most remained internally displaced within Israel’s ever-expanding borders. Today, 200,000 Bedouins barely eke out a meager existence in a desolate region of the Israeli occupied Negev known as the Siyag. Just over half live in 7 government-built Bedouin-only townships where they have been subjected to multi-generational genocidal campaigns of “forced urbanization” and fallen prey to the despairs of crime, poverty, and addiction that comes with such “progress.”

The remaining 90,000 live in 46 villages, 35 of them are totally unrecognized by the Israeli government. Here the Bedouins have found themselves at the mercy of the all the very worst trappings of the state. Their movement is heavily policed by arbitrary checkpoints and mandatory IDs. Restrictive zoning and planning regimes have cut them off from basic recourses like water and electricity and barred them from building any infrastructure more substantial than trailers and tents. And they have faced an endless roulette of displacement with entire villages demolished overnight, paved over, and replaced by tony Jewish suburbs.

Sadly, those Bedouins who managed to flee to the West Bank haven’t fared any better. They remain virtually unrecognized by the Palestinian Authority who hung them out to dry in the 1993 Oslo Accords when the region that most of the tribes occupy, known as Area C, was essentially handed over to be governed by the Israeli Military. Even before October 7th, this isolated population had been the victims of constant pogroms at the hands of fascist Jewish settlers who have wantonly pillaged their lands while the IDF watches, and the PLO washes their hands. 25 Palestinian Bedouin villages have been violently razed in the last few years alone, displacing 1,517 people and counting.

So, what the hell did these impoverished sheepherders ever do to earn so much disdain and cruelty from nearly every side of the Israeli-Palestinian clusterfuck? In the simplest of terms, they are anarchists. For centuries the Bedouins have struggled to maintain a way of life that predates the European concepts of Westphalia and Balfour, and they continue to stubbornly practice their stateless existence in a land thatched by arbitrary boundaries and manufactured hierarchies. In both Israel and Palestine, the Bedouins govern themselves under an ancient code of unwritten laws passed down orally and overseen by tribal courts and clan councils. They subsist largely on kinship networks that essentially act as Islamic mutual aid societies providing community support wherever it is needed.

Much of these traditions have been badly eroded along with virtually everything else that the Negev Bedouins hold dear by generations of expulsion and displacement which has divided tribes and isolated clans from their elders, but the Bedouins still choose overwhelmingly to rely on their own indigenous tribal justice systems rather than the racist Israeli police state or the Palestinian Authority’s corrupt Sharia courts and this is what makes these penniless peasants a threat to all of these institutions. The Bedouins don’t fucking need them, and they can still remember a time when the rest of the Middle East didn’t need them either.

I strongly believe that the most important fact that most westerners and even many Middle Easterners fail to recognize about the ongoing conquest of the Middle East is that the state itself is a tool of colonialism that is totally alien to those lands. Before the British marched into Jerusalem with their mandates and borders, the Levant was a poorly governed and largely peacefully lawless Ottoman backwoods with a diverse population of Arabs, Jews, Christians, Druze and Mandeans that coexisted harmoniously within their own diverse tribal frameworks. No single set maintained a monopoly on the use of force.

This confounded the British invaders who failed repeatedly to convince any of these populations to divide themselves up into separate and far more easily subjugated ethno-states. The Crown was ultimately forced to import this brand of racism from back home in the form of fascist European Zionists. You see, the Arabs of the Levant weren’t just wiped out because they were brown, like the European Jews in Nazi Germany, they were wiped out because they initially refused to be governed. Sadly, many of the victims of the Nakba have embraced statehood for the same reasons that so many victims of the Holocaust did. Their collective memories of a life before states have been wiped out by the devastating trauma of genocidal colonialism.

But the Bedouins still remember. Their history, much like that of many indigenous stateless peoples, remains oral and thus unmolested by academic revision. These were the first Muslims, the ones who originally conceived of that religion as an alternative to traditional empires. In fact, Islam’s first sect was a tribe of Bedouin nomads known as the Khawarij, who vehemently opposed the centralization of power even within Islam as an impediment to tribal diversity and liberty, and these remain the only values that can save the Middle East and the rest of us, diversity and liberty.

The Bedouins still remember. Maybe it’s time the rest of us did too.

Nicky Reid is an agoraphobic anarcho-genderqueer gonzo blogger from Central Pennsylvania and assistant editor for Attack the System. You can find her online at Exile in Happy Valley.