Are Bedouin Palestinians?

The Arab (or should we say Palestinian) members of the Knesset are busy trying to extend Palestinian hegemony over any citizen of Israel whose native language is Arabic. The Negev Bedouin are now in line.

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By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on July 1, 2013.)

Are Bedouin Palestinians? This question came to mind as we saw the Arab Knesset members’ appearance in the Knesset debate on the Prawer bill – the law for the regulation of Bedouin settlement in the Negev. They shouted and screamed, and at the conclusion of their oration each one of them demonstratively tore up a copy of the bill which they had brought to the podium. They had decided to take a page from the book of the late Chaim Herzog, who, after completing his speech in the UN General Assembly on the “Zionist is Racism” resolution, tore a copy of the resolution to bits. It was obvious that these Israeli Arab Knesset members, who consider themselves to be Palestinians, have decided to adopt the Negev Bedouin into the Palestinian fold.

The millions of Bedouin living throughout the Middle East are obviously not Palestinians. Not the Bedouin in Saudi Arabia, and not the Bedouin in the Sinai. And the Bedouin in Jordan – Jordanians? The first loyalty of Bedouin is believed to be to their tribe. That is also the case of the Bedouin living in the Negev. But for the past years they have been subjected to a campaign by the Islamic League from the north, which is trying to convince the Bedouin to turn to Islam, to be hostile to the State of Israel, and to consider themselves to be Palestinians, or at the very least, Palestinian Bedouin. This serves an obvious political purpose: to spread the “Palestinian” umbrella over all Arabic-speaking citizens of the State of Israel.

This might be considered part of the Palestinian nation-building project which began with the formation of the PLO in 1964. A project that has had astounding success these past 49 years. Until then, the Arabic-speaking residents of the area mandated by the League of Nations for the establishment of a Jewish National Home were generally referred to simply as Arabs; the partition proposals for the area, whether by the British Peel Commission in 1937 or the UN General Assembly in 1947, called for the partition of the area into “Jewish and Arab States”; and the political leadership of the Arabs in mandated Palestine, headed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, called itself the “Arab Higher Committee.” Now, they are referred to by one and all as Palestinians. And if the PLO had been successful in taking over Jordan in “Black September” of 1970, they no doubt would have changed the name of that country to Palestine.

While the nation-states in the Middle East established after the first World War – Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – are breaking to pieces before our eyes, and with them the “nations” that were “created” there, the Palestinian nation-building project proceeds apace, encouraged by the UN, the United States and Israel. No matter that there are at present two separate Palestinian political entities – in Ramallah and Gaza – and possibly a third one in Jordan standing by, portending a possible breakup in years to come. The Arab (or should we say Palestinian) members of the Knesset are busy trying to extend Palestinian hegemony over any citizen of Israel whose native language is Arabic. The Negev Bedouin are now in line.

Successive Israeli governments have simply neglected the plight of the Negev Bedouin, and into the vacuum has stepped the Islamic League, and now the Arab Knesset members. The Prawer bill is the first attempt by an Israeli government to establish a coherent policy that would benefit the Negev Bedouin and the State of Israel. It has arrived very late in the game. It is not the answer to all of the problems the Bedouin face in integrating into a modern, high-tech society, but it may be a beginning. No wonder that the Arab Knesset members are fighting it tooth and nail.

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