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The Jahalin Bedouin: A Question of Justice

text by Lynda Brayer
photographs by George Martin


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For several millennia, Bedouin tribes have lived in the Arabian deserts, moving seasonally with their herds of camels, cattle, sheep and goats between Hejaz to the south, Alexandria to the west and Damascus to the north. In the 19th century, the Jahalin tribe gradually settled in the Naqab (now the Negev), a region of Palestine, and claimed the desert as their home. In 1858, the Ottoman Turks, who had occupied Palestine since the 16th century, introduced a land registration law for the collection of taxes. The region’s Bedouin, as with most landowners in Palestine, minimized the extent of their landholdings to ease the tax burden; a ploy they would later regret.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, and the British and French creation of nominal nation states in the Middle East, forced the Bedouin to submit to new laws where their traditional lands lay. During the British mandate over Palestine (1922-48), the Naqab’s Jahalin and other Bedouin, who numbered approximately 85,000 persons, turned to farming. Wheat, oats, olives and oranges were cultivated and sold in the markets of Beersheba, together with the traditional sheep and goats. Although their way of life changed, the Jahalin nevertheless maintained the patriarchal order of their society.

The Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 devastated the Naqab’s Bedouin. With the creation of the state of Israel in May 1948 (and the subsequent Israeli rout of the Palestinian and Arab coalition forces) the majority of the Bedouin fled to neighboring Arab nations – except for the Jahalin, who had no intention of leaving.

As hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the large Jewish diaspora arrived, Israel’s government rushed to build settlements and towns. To make room for the creation of the town of Arad, the Jahalin were pushed into the Jordanian controlled West Bank. They crossed the southern border and migrated northward, settling near Jerusalem on land owned by the villagers of Abu Dis and Azzariya.

The decade-long peace enjoyed by the Jahalin ended in 1967 when the Israelis crushed the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria and occupied the West Bank, as well as the Gaza Strip, the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights. Through-out the 1970s, portions of land on which the Jahalin tended their sheep and goats were appropriated by the Israeli authorities for military zones and nature preserves.

Eventually, in 1981, the land the Jahalin occupied was seized from its legal owners in Abu Dis and Azzariya and confirmed as state or government land for the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. This settlement – really a satellite city of Jerusalem, housing more than 29,000 Jewish settlers – is the largest in the West Bank and plans are presently underway to double its size.

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Tags: Palestine Israel Jews Occupation Bedouin