Evoking the politics of the subaltern, “The Naqab Bedouins: a century of politics and resistance” (Columbia University Press, 2017) seeks to address previous gaps in the available literature regarding the Bedouin role in their struggle for land and as an integral part of Palestinian resistance. There is a seemingly contradictory recognition which the author, Mansour Nasasra, makes early in the introduction, that Bedouin survival under colonial state policies resulted in a situation where the people both “failed and succeeded in manipulating attempts to subjugate and control their indigenous life.”
This premise is prevalent throughout the book, which discusses four main stages of Bedouin resistance: the Bedouin communities in Southern Palestine from 1900 – 1917; the Bedouin and British colonial rule; the ramifications of the 1948 Nakba and its aftermath; and the struggle for recognition after the Oslo Accords.
Nasasra shows how settler states will always be in conflict with the indigenous inhabitants due to their ancestral claims which “challenge their legitimacy to impose their own will on the rest.” The imposed violence upon the indigenous people by the settler state took the form of internal colonialism through “sedentarisation projects” which restricted freedom of movement and allowed Israel to exploit the land by claiming the absence of cultivation. Despite Israeli attempts to dissociate the Bedouin from the larger Palestinian struggle, the author shows how Bedouin resistance is integral to the wider framework. Resisting colonisation with intent on an individual and collective level is proof of awareness and also fits into the narrative of nationalist awakening. The Bedouin struggle, Nasasra argues, is political. Contrary to mainstream perception, “the Bedouin are not passive; they produce different kinds of activism in order to survive.”
The book shows how early tactics against Ottoman oppression and British Mandate rule provide the foundations for the enduring struggle against Zionist settler-colonialism. During the Ottoman period, the Bedouin exploited the government’s weaknesses to consolidate economic gains in trade. British governance allowed the Bedouin’s indigenous lifestyle yet expressed colonial views about possible subjugation of the tribes. Land ownership under the British, while allowed, was experiencing the initial repercussions of Jewish immigration, prompting the Bedouin to ask the British to end migration and set up “a legislative council in which Bedouins should be proportionately represented.” Other resistance tactics included sending delegations to Jerusalem to speak about Bedouin land ownership, a move which holds much in common with Palestinian assertions regarding territory and methods of non-violent resistance.
Central to both the protection of their territory and to Palestinian anti-colonial resistance is the Bedouins’ refusal to cooperate with Britain’s Peel Commission in 1936, as well as their participation in the revolts from 1936 to 1939. Opposition to the 1947 UN Partition Plan was another aim shared with the indigenous Palestinians. Nasasra also utilises the Bedouin rights to land to expose the Zionist myth, upon which the colonial project was based, of Palestine being a barren land. He quotes a British diplomat who wrote that the propaganda about the empty land — in this case the Naqab Desert — is “altogether false and misleading as regards its availability.”
Like other Palestinians, the Bedouin were also subjected to ethnic cleansing and forced displacement during the 1948 Nakba; those who stayed behind were then subjected to military rule. Fragmentation of Bedouin tribes was another repercussion of the colonial project; the tribal structure was destroyed due to displacement as well as Bedouin tactics of joining with other remaining tribes to avoid being evicted from their land. Surveillance – a favoured tactic of Israeli military rule – was applied to the Bedouin through Israel’s choice of sheikhs from the Bedouin community, based upon their previous record of cooperation with the previous authorities. However, the chosen leaders also employed tactics of non-cooperation in order to assist the Bedouin struggle for land reclamation.
Nasasra shows how Israel was partial to implementing delays in order to stall Bedouin claims and, as a result, attempted to divert attention away from the link between the land and the colonised population, in order to retain the value of territory for the colonisers. Movement across territory, therefore, became a form of Bedouin resistance against colonisation, despite recurring arrests. In addition, the Bedouin also hosted the displaced returnees. After 1956, as settler expansion increased, they also employed other non-violent tactics, such as “visiting their land and informing the Israelis who were occupying it that the land actually belonged to the Bedouin.”
The premise with which Nasasra introduces his subject is evident throughout the book. Bedouin resistance has accounted for several failed ventures of the Israeli colonial enterprise to eliminate the indigenous people with the intent of having no claims to the land. On the other hand, Israeli state violence also contributed to the fragmentation which affects the Bedouin today and which is forcing displacement tactics through several means, including the disruption of basic services, demolitions and the refusal to recognise Bedouin villages.
This form of coercion echoes the words of Moshe Dayan quoted in this book: “We should transform the Bedouin into urban proletariat… Without coercion, but with governmental direction, this phenomenon of the Bedouin will disappear.”
Nasasra’s choice of quote reflects the Israeli violence practiced against the entire Palestinian population. Indeed, in the introduction, the author asserts: “The position taken in this book is that all the Palestinians, including the Bedouin, should be considered as indigenous to the land.” The response to Israel’s violent coercion against the indigenous population is a unifying factor and one which should serve as a catalyst for not separating the Bedouin struggle for land from that of the Palestinian national struggle. Like the rest of the Palestinians, the Bedouin have resisted displacement, relocation and demolitions, and sought to resolve these violations through various channels, including diplomacy and recourse to international law to resist the Prawer Plan, as the author shows.
Likewise, there are assertions that “the Bedouin would not relinquish their land ownership claims as long as they were alive.” This quote from a petition letter to Israel in 1965 challenges the urbanisation plans to resettle the Bedouins, making it easier for the colonial state in matters of expansion and surveillance of the population.
The tenacity towards land ownership was strengthened by the Bedouin from 1965 onwards, when structures demolished by Israel would be rebuilt as a form of resistance and historical memory. “Bedouin adopted return to their land as a historical reimagining of their past,” writes the author. “They strengthened their land claims by using memory to tell the authorities that they would never forget their land.”
This book is an important read on several levels. It imparts a detailed historical account of a subject which, even in international law, is still subject to ambiguities due to a lack of consensus on the definition of indigenous. Departing from the concept of ambiguity, it is also possible to read this treatise as an ongoing situation in which colonisation has manipulated land rights without formidable opposition from the international community due to the prevalence of the state as the norm.
Of greater relevance to the Palestinian struggle is Nasasra’s meticulous approach to the subject of Bedouin and Palestinian resistance against colonial expansion juxtaposed against Israel’s contempt for international law. As the author concludes, “marginalising international law and the norms of the indigenous and native peoples’ rights will only escalate the struggle between the state and its local unrecognised citizens.”