The Palestinian Bedouins
By Arturo Avendaño
During an interview in a goat-hair tent some ten years ago, Sheikh Mohammed Iskheiman Hassan Ka’abneh Milihat Abu Iskheiman, of the Ka’abneh tribe, started to explain the meaning of being Bedouin. The interview was part of a research project initiated by the Italian NGO, C.I.S.P. At that time, a close relationship was formed between C.I.S.P and Sheikh Abu Iskheiman and, after his death, the relationship has continued with the Bedouin communities of the West Bank.
The Bedouins, with their specific values, codes of behaviour, and livelihood, are a Palestinian community of tribes that have a common history, culture, ancestral bloodline, and lifestyle that link the various tribes together. The tribes, which include the Jahaleen, Ka’abneh, Rashaydeh, Ramadeen, ‘Azazme, Sawarka, Arenat, Ejbarat, Hanajra, and Amareen, share a nomadic past that has been highlighted by Western travellers’ tales of camel breeding and romantic desert images. Bedouins have become famous for their extraordinary survival skills in an extremely hostile environment.
Bedouin families are usually large, with an average of six to ten children. Families where the father has two or three wives could include as many as 25 children. Marriage is usually an event that involves the network of families that compose a clan. According to tradition, it is preferable for a Bedouin to select a wife from within the family, the clan, or the tribe. Marriages are arranged through consultations and agreements among parents, uncles, and cousins. Although marriages with non-Bedouins sometimes take place, the vast majority of Bedouins strictly adhere to tradition.
Bedouins who live today in the West Bank have their roots in the Naqab (Negev) desert, which they were forced to leave in 1948, being victims of the violence. This significant event in essence ruptured their Bedouin lifestyle and severely restricted their former freedom of mobility to search for pastures and water for their herds of sheep and goats. As a consequence, these Bedouin communities began to lose not only their livelihood but their cultural identity as well. They had to confront the brutal reality that they had become refugees. The 1967 Israeli occupation displaced them again, and they were forced to settle in the rural areas around Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho, and the Jordan Valley.
As they tried to adapt to this abrupt change, many features of the Bedouin lifestyle underwent a radical transformation. For example, the goat-hair tent has become a dwelling consisting of poor metal shelters that are constructed using old water containers. Overcrowded camps have become the norm, where people and animals share a very limited space that has no running water, sewage system, or electricity.
Bedouin shepherds have become semi-urban impoverished inhabitants who are forced to have a sedentary lifestyle. Their knowledge and ancient expertise as animal breeders are utterly useless within a modern urban habitat. The Bedouins have become a minority group who are disdained by some members of society.
What has happened to Bedouins today? In order to find out, we will begin with the area around Jerusalem. The Israeli settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim was built on an area formerly inhabited by the Jahaleen tribe. The Jahaleen were evicted by the Israeli Civil Administration, supported by police and army forces.
The Jahaleen mukhtars, who are responsible for hundreds of Jahaleen families who want to continue to earn their living from breeding animals and selling dairy products to Palestinian families, live in ‘Ezariyeh and Wadi Abu Hindi. The mukhtars, Mohammad Eid Awwad Salamat Jahaleen el Hersh, “Abu Khaled,” Hammad Mukbel Al Basis, “Abu Daoud,” and Mohammad Hammad Sara’ia Jahaleen Hamadeen, “Abu Yusef,” lament the fact that the Separation Wall has suffocated their communities and prevented them from finding grazing areas for their animals. As a consequence, they must rely on barley and fodder, which not only complicates the task of raising animals but also makes it very expensive. This reality has a devastating effect on the basic income of all Bedouin tribes. Most of them are now faced with a debilitating debt cycle because of the need to purchase animal fodder.
The great majority of Bedouins have been evicted from their camps by the Israeli Civil Administration; frequently the metal shelters are destroyed by heavy machines under the protection of the Israeli police and army forces.
A tragic reminder of these demolitions is the reconstruction of a destroyed Bedouin primary school at Wadi Abu Hindi. The original school was demolished, and the mukhtar, Abu Yousef, mobilized a group of people to rebuild the school using zinc sheets and wood. The school, which currently has eight teachers from the Palestinian Ministry of Education, is an important initiative of Abu Yousef. On the other hand, Abu Khaled’s goal is to provide higher education for the youth under his responsibility, without forfeiting their identity as Bedouins.
The Ka’abneh and Rashaydeh tribes live in the rural areas of Jericho and the Jordan Valley. In the camp of Suleyman Salameh Zayed Rashaydeh, “Abu Feisal,” in Dyouk, the heat inside the metal shelters is unbearable. The animals also look tired and crowded in the scarce shared shade. There are few Bedouins in the camp, since during the summer they move to the rural areas of Taybeh. Families move on tractors and trucks, whereas animals move through the desert in short displacements that last one or two days.
The mukhtar, Abu Salameh, moved from Al Mu’arrajat to an area in Taybeh. According to an agreement with the land owner, who is a fellah from Taybeh, Abu Salameh’s animals can eat the grass after the harvesting, and his community can put up some of the few remaining traditional goat-hair tents. The tents are installed relatively distant from each other in order to keep the privacy between families, unlike the overcrowded shelters in the camps of ‘Ezarieyeh.
In front of the Bedouin tents, one can see the Israeli settlement of Rimonim as well as cultivated areas, from which Bedouins’ animals are prevented from grazing. Pasturing in the rural areas of Jericho and the Jordan Valley is forbidden for Bedouins, and there have been several cases of Bedouin deaths or injuries due to the explosion of abandoned mines.
The Bedouin tribes of Ramadeen, Amreen, Azazme, Ka’abneh, and Hanajrah are located in Hebron; and the Rashaydeh, Azazme, Ka’abneh, and ‘Amreen tribes are found in Bethlehem. In these southern areas, Bedouins are represented by mukhtars as well as village councils. These Bedouin communities are more settled, although the majority of them gain their livelihood from animal-breeding, which requires adequate supplies of water and fodder.
Bedouins have thousands of years of experience in raising sheep and goats in the desert - an environment that is productively used by the Bedouins as they arrange their lives according to the seasons and the availability of pastures and water. Their seasonal displacements should be protected by laws, as they represent a way of life and work.
The problems of Bedouin Palestinians have been highlighted by Mukhtar Khamees Salem Hanajra, of Beni Naim, during international conferences of indigenous people. He noted especially the increasing vulnerability of Bedouins as a minority group and the risk of disappearance of Bedouin livelihood.
The Bedouin lifestyle, albeit different from the majority of Palestinians, should be protected as an ancient cultural identity, and their diversity should be considered a valuable contribution to the entire society.
International organizations can offer support to the Bedouin community through organizing campaigns for the implementation of international laws for the protection of minorities and indigenous populations.
Arturo Avendaño is an expert in international cooperation and works with CISP on Bedouin issues and health projects.
Article photos by Arturo Avendaño