Demystifying Palestine’s overlooked Bedouins

The Naqab Bedouin and Colonialism: New Perspectives edited by Mansour Nasasra, Sophie Richter-Devroe, Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder and Richard Radcliffe (Routledge)

In discussions of Palestine, the history, situation and oppressions of the Bedouins of the Naqab desert — the south of present-day Israel — are often sidelined. Aside from recent campaigns around the Israeli government’s plans to forcibly relocate thousands of Bedouins, and the repeated demolitions of the village of al-Araqib, and the occasional mention of women’s craft cooperatives such as Laqiya, many interested in Palestine would be forgiven for knowing little of them.

This edited volume comprehensively addresses this problem. It gives a broad, reasonably approachable — but also detailed — account of the 20th-century history, political situation and social, economic and cultural dynamics of the Naqab Bedouins. It does so in a way which critiques the power relations inherent in much earlier scholarship and incorporates Bedouin voices both as authors and as interviewees.

Unusually for edited volumes, there is also a clear and coherent progression through its subject. The introduction is an excellent (and rare) example of genuinely engaged academic writing, fully aware of the political and ethical implications of itself and its discipline.

In a reasonably readable fashion, it tackles the way in which many academics working on (rather than with) the Naqab Bedouins have been associated with the British Mandate or Israeli state — often acting as “expert witnesses” in court to contradict Bedouins’ claims to their land.

The introduction also emphasizes an important strand throughout the collection: while the situation of the Naqab Bedouins is specific in some ways, they are fundamentally part of the Palestinian Arab people, and the oppression, racism, displacement and theft they have suffered from the State of Israel is just one thing they have in common with other Palestinians.

“Passive, backward denizens”

Other themes found throughout the book are a focus on Bedouin agency — the ability of the people of the Naqab to make their own decisions, voice their own experiences and frame their own resistance to occupation.

This is an important contrast to many older portrayals of and assumptions about the Bedouins, who tend to be orientalized and are seen as passive, backward denizens of the “exotic East.”

Another major strand is the importance of indigenous studies in how scholars (and sometimes lawmakers) see Bedouin lives. While emphasizing the Bedouins’ long presence on their land, however, ideas about indigeneity are also critiqued where they spill over into portrayals of the Bedouins as a primitive, unchanging, tribal “other.”

Following this overview, the book starts with a series of historical and geographical chapters. In these are an overview of the ways in which states since the Ottoman period have tried to control and settle the Bedouins. Mansour Nasasra, Yuval Karplus and Avinoam Meir’s accounts are precise and detailed; Ilan Pappe whips through his topic of the complexities of Israeli visions of the Bedouin — racism versus romanticisation — with characteristic verve.

This section chronicles the extent to which Bedouin communities have challenged dominant powers — even if under the radar. Karplus and Meir discuss how people have developed their own spatial dynamics in forcibly settled villages, refusing to act in the ways that Israeli “urban planners” foresaw.

Ensuing chapters catalogue the ways Bedouin communities have preserved their culture and identity and resisted British and Israeli state power.

Interviews with generations who remember the Bedouins’ forced displacement during the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland nearly 70 years ago, form the basis of one of these chapters. In it, Safa Aburabia emphasizes the importance of storytelling and elders’ memories in asserting Bedouin ownership of the land, as well as maintaining their communities’ emotional ties and ensuring that younger generations know their stories.

Nasasra’s second contribution to the collection continues this theme, stressing that oral history and knowledge are vital to land rights claims, and that the need to record the memories of older generations is pressing in the extreme.


Nasasra also details the various means Bedouins undertook towards nonviolent and cultural resistance throughout the 1950s and ’60s. These include filing legal claims, promoting their judicial status as internally displaced persons and operating across the borders that Israel was trying to impose on them — marrying across these new lines, smuggling goods or offering refuge to those crossing back and forth.

As Nasasra points out, Bedouin women also developed their own specific ways of resisting, including silence, obstruction and deliberate misdirection in the face of Israeli military control.

This sets the scene for Elisabeth Marteu’s chapter on Bedouin women and their relations with nongovernmental and development organizations. While she acknowledges that some women’s groups have found these structures useful, Marteu also echoes familiar critiques of aid in the West Bank, in the impacts of donor priorities and cultural assumptions about Muslim women and Western progressiveness.

Ahmad Amara’s section on Bedouin engagement with the Israeli legal system, especially in pursuing land rights claims, expresses similar tensions. Such claims are seen as potentially both politicizing and depoliticizing of the people involved in them, and of the cause itself — reducing the issues to an individual land claim rather than confronting the overall oppressive system.

Many of these themes coalesce in Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder’s closing chapter. Both highly personal and politically challenging, Abu-Rabia-Queder discusses the complexities of her position as a Bedouin woman and as a scholar of and activist for her own people.

The issues expressed may find echoes in the experiences of many Palestinians who have returned from the diaspora to the West Bank as activists. They should also provide food for thought for Westerners in their engagement with Palestinians, with questions about authenticity, voice and identity.

Overall, this excellent and innovative collection could be recommended not just for academics but for more general audiences interested in the history and status of the Naqab Bedouins. The prohibitive price tag will likely prevent that for anyone without access to a university library, so it is to be hoped that at the very least, the publisher will bring out a paperback edition of this valuable book.

Sarah Irving is contributing arts editor to The Electronic Intifada and author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone.




Dear Madam/Sir,

I recently co-edited a book entitled "The Politics and Power of Tourism in Palestine". To be published in January 2016. The voices is mainly are Palestinians living under occupation, ranging from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I am a Palestinian scholar living in the Netherlands, and it would be good to give a short summary of this timley book in the Electronic Intifada. One of the chapters is looking at the Palestinian Initiative on Academic and Cultural Boycotting of Israeli Institutions.