by Rhodri C. Williams
There has been a bit more in the press recently about the Israeli plan to forcibly remove the Bedouin population in the Negev desert and parts of the West Bank to planned ‘new towns’. I initially picked up this story when it was reported in the Guardian and have now seen it in the BBC as well. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Bedouins were given a sympathetic hearing in last week’s Economist. All three articles note the centrality of land issues to the Bedouin’s situation, but the Economist picks up on both the potential for regional mobilization and the fact that the Bedouin have already begun making political claims based on the explicit assertion that they are an indigenous people:
In neighbouring countries, the Bedouin are also on the move. In Jordan, where they once were top dogs, they have staged protests against a monied, urbanised Palestinian elite. In Egyptian Sinai they have risen up against the remnants of the ousted Hosni Mubarak’s security regime.
Might a pan-Bedouin identity yet arise, linking the Bedouin under Israeli rule with the million or so scattered across the region? Many of Sinai’s angry Bedouin carry Israeli mobile telephones, renewing contact across borders after decades of separation. The lucrative tunnels linking Gaza to Sinai are reviving commercial ties. A high birth-rate adds confidence in numbers. A newly educated elite is fashioning a political identity. “We’re all victims of the same policy to dispossess us,” says Muhammad Korshan, a West Bank Bedou activist.
This year he went to New York to ask the UN’s Forum on Indigenous Peoples to recognise the Bedouin as an ethnic-minority people with rights to tribal lands. They have a long way to go. Unlike Berbers and Kurds, they have no flags or leaders. But a belated bid for recognition has begun.
The comments page for the Economist article gives a sense of how heated the issue has become locally, with a number of commentators waxing elaborately defensive on Israel’s good intentions. I commented as well, noting that the Economist itself seems to have an evolving editorial view of the issue of group rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region (though I apparently came in too late for anyone to notice):
Its encouraging to see the Economist taking this issue up. These types of questions are likely to become more and more relevant as events in the Middle East shake up the received political wisdom there. However, it would be helpful for the Economist to sort out its editorial line on self-determination somewhat. It is apparently okay for the Palestinians, but as recently as last May, the magazine took a hard line against broaching any other group rights issues for fear of watering down the individual civil and political rights vindicated by the Arab Spring.
While meaningful civil and political equality may be sufficient to protect some minority groups in the Middle East, it now seems increasingly clear that others – such as the Bedouin and the Tuareg – may feel that the current disposition of states and borders does not give them their collective political due.
As a matter of prudence, it would be advisable in such cases to consider any measures that could be taken now in order to ameliorate tensions that could lead to secessionist conflict later. Recognizing customary rights of ownership, use and even pastoral access to traditional lands is often a good start. Allowing a degree of political autonomy is also a proven, if context-sensitive method. The ‘dirty tent’ school of forced civilization has, on the other hand, fared less well (if colonial history is anything to go by).
Meanwhile, in the broader region, its a bit hard to gauge how alarmed one should be about the threat of an Israeli preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities but the commentariat seems wildly divided. For a very hawkish view, see Foreign Affairs, and for more cautious approaches, here are OpenDemocracy and the Economist.