Zionism and the Bedouin’s ethnic cleansing

A review of The History and Politics of the Bedouin (Routledge, London, 2018) Seraj Assi

In January of this year, the JNF resumed their afforestation projects, working in the Naqab around several Bedouin villages, “unrecognised” by the Israeli state and, hence, deprived of all infrastructure and services. 

The current ethnic cleansing (2023) faced by Bedouin communities in the Naqab (Negev) in which the JNF UK, as well as its Israeli parent body the JNF-KKL, are major actors has brought only modest international attention to a historically marginalised and widely ignored section of the Palestinian people.  Assi’s 2018 study provides some background to how the British and the Zionists sought to dominate and, in the process, to differentiate the Bedouin from the other sections of the population over which they ruled.  As Assi concedes, his focus is on the politics of the rulers rather than of the Bedouin: “a grand tale woven of master narratives and founding fathers, an empire-wide discourse in which the Bedouin voice is only vaguely heard”.  As a consequence, the story of how the Bedouin have resisted the colonisers is absent.  Nevertheless, Assi provides important insights into the Zionist colonial mindset.  

In 1961, Ben-Gurion, one of the founding figures of the Israeli state and its first prime minister, wrote the following in “Call for Desert Communities and Science”: “The small State of Israel cannot long tolerate within its bounds a desert which takes up half its territory. If the State does not put an end to the desert, the desert is liable to put an end to the State.”

Ben Gurion retired to a kibbutz in the Naqab to inspire further Zionist settlement there and the Israeli political elite has continued to devise grand schemes to transform the Naqab

into a high-tech Silicon Valley-type development area that would form its future industrial-military complex.  Although little progress has been made in terms of developing the technical infrastructure and the 2013 Prawer-Begin Bill to forcibly remove 35 unrecognised Bedouin villages, evicting thereby up to 70,000 Arab citizens of Israel, was dropped in the face of protests, the efforts to ethnically cleanse the Bedouin continue.

Assi shows that much of current Zionist planning to dispose of the Bedouin builds on racist notions that can be traced to British colonial officials and the early Zionist settlers. They ascribed to the Bedouin a lack of attachment to the land and a primitiveness that placed them on the outside of history, in a kind of eternal backwardness. Assi defines this ideological construction as “nomadism”. Before the Zionist movement’s ideology crystallised into the classic settler colonial mould, there were some Zionists who, out of biblically-informed nostalgia, were fascinated with and sought to mimic the Bedouin.   

In contrast, British officials tended to see the Bedouin as a “martial race,” which, as elsewhere in the Empire, deemed them to be suitable for recruitment as foot soldiers in the imperial army. John Glubb, the officer who headed the Arab League, nominally for King Abdullah of Transjordan but in substance in the interests of the British state, is cited by Assi as lauding the Bedouin as “excellent military material [who] have not as yet been infected by the European virus of nationalism”. However, some British officials favoured prioritising the economic development of the Naqab and, by contrast, they considered the Bedouin to be an obstacle to modernity who should make way for Jewish settlers.   

The Labour Zionist leadership in Palestine that, by the early 1930s, came to lead the Jewish settler community (the Yishuv), had much the same view. It promoted ownership rights to the land by racializing Jews as the modernisers and nation builders in contrast to the Bedouin who were of “pure Arab blood” from Arabia who, having invaded Palestine, laid waste to its agriculture: “a race of foreign conquerors responsible for destroying the fertile granary of Roman Palestine’.”

Labour Zionists found other grounds for delegitimizing the Palestinian peasantry’s claim to Palestine.  The fellahin, they argued, descended from the ancient Hebrews but had become of mixed race, generally Levantine, a process which Zionist leaders rejected for Jews out of the fear that it would represent a degeneration, a corruption of their European culture. It is one of the many internal contradictions of Zionism, that it simultaneously lays claim to Palestine on the grounds of both Jewish indigeneity and as a means of importing a superior European culture, in much the same way as colonisers did in Africa and the Americas.  The Zionists’ identification of the Bedouin with nomadism and with a foreign invasion of Palestine was meant to portray them as the very antithesis of the Jewish settlers – pioneering  people who would be cultivating the land and nation building.  

In 1937, Ben-Gurion wrote to his son: “If not allotted to the Jewish state, the Negev will remain barren … the Arabs have neither the competence nor the need to develop it or make it prosper.” The ethnic cleansing of the Bedouin that followed in the Nakba led their population to fall from 53,000 to 12,500, though it’s a reflection of their resistance and resourcefulness that it now stands at around 240,000.  The Zionist remedy for the backwardness they attributed to the Bedouin was not to try to integrate them into some form of economic development or to force them into settled agriculture, as some British colonial officials had contemplated, but to remove them altogether.

In recent times, Israel’s land grab under the masquerade of the Jewish National Fund’s various environmental projects or on the pretext of security needs, has accelerated the destruction of Bedouin villages – bulldozing the village of Al Araqib, on 7th June 2022, for the 204th time since 2000 and the eighth time that year – in order to force their inhabitants into urban slums.   It is precisely the Bedouins’ attachment to their land, a quality Zionists have persistently claimed they lack, that makes them into a target for Israel’s ruthless ethnic cleansing.  The defiance of the Bedouin villages in the face of Israeli efforts to erase them refutes the notion that their inhabitants are inherently nomadic.  In reality, Bedouin are persecuted not for defying the modern world but for defying Israeli colonisation.

In January 2022, when KKL-JNF efforts at afforestation focused on the Bedouin lands near the village of Sa’wa, Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Rights in Israel, reported that the JNF-KKL plantings sparked widespread protests, to which the Israeli police responded by “using rubber bullets, rubber-coated steel bullets and drones that dropped tear gas grenades” and that they had “subjected protestors to mass arrest and detention”.  The afforestation that was relaunched this year (2023) is also certain to meet Bedouin resistance and will doubtless be met again by brutal Israeli military repression, which no amount of greenwashing can separate from acts of colonial conquest. The current chair of the Israeli section of JNF-KKL, is cited by Adalah as declaring: “holding onto and protecting the land along with settlements and planting trees were the core values of JNF-KKL, from the early days of the Zionist movement, and we are proud to be leading these fields today as well”.

As Assi concludes: “A fundamental feature of settler colonialism, in its Zionist and Israeli version, lies in its ethnic character. Thus, land settlement and the ownership of property are not just economic spheres but contested spaces to be conquered, nationalised and Judaized”.