Explosion in Sinai
Would a Bedouin State Emerge in the Desert?
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In the last year, this pipeline was attacked twelve times and experienced several cuts. The recurrence of the event at the amazing average rate of once a month is not surprising. Due to the peace agreement with Israel, the Egyptian army cannot enter the area and the police are in charge of security. However, following Mubarak’s fall in February 2011, police presence thinned out across Egypt. This abandonment of the Sinai Peninsula by the Egyptians combines with two other facts into a perfect formula for the creation of the recent violence. First, the Bedouins living in the area resent their being marginalized within Egypt. Second, the gas is supplied to Israel at a large discount in a twenty-year long contract signed by Mubarak’s government, while the gas price to Jordan was doubled last October. Unsurprisingly, the international border between Egypt and Israel has little meaning in this quiet and slow insurrection.
Masters of the Desert
Derived from an Arabic word for semi-arid desert, “Bedouin” is a term designating members of a large number of Arab tribes. Egypt features a 400,000 Bedouin population, mainly in the Sinai Peninsula; while Israel has 200,000 Bedouin citizens living in the Negev Desert and a smaller number in the Galilee (see Jewish Terror Hits Tuba). In Sinai they kept mainly loyal to their traditional ways. In Israel, the situation was different.
Over 60% of Israel is within the Negev Desert, which was crossed by the historical Silk Road. Wandering Bedouins inhabited the area for thousands of years; their ancestors were traders along the romantic Silk Road. Since the mid 19th century there has been a slow process of settling down among them. In the 1950s, the Israeli army began limiting the Bedouins freedom, attempting to concentrate them in certain areas. Since the 1970s, the Israeli Administration began creating Bedouin towns, Rahat being the largest one. Nowadays there are roughly fifty Bedouin settlements in the Negev with a total of some two hundred thousand inhabitants, roughly half of them in recognized towns and villages, and the others in unrecognized ones.
The difference between these two categories is vast. Recognized towns and villages get infrastructure and services from the state, while unrecognized settlements get nothing. In exchange for recognition, the Israeli Administration often asks for relocation and for proper verification of ownership. Now, Israel’s law system is incomplete. Where laws do not exist, Israeli courts often refer to British Mandate and Ottoman Empire laws. In this case, Israel decided to work according to the Ottoman Empire law here, demanding from the Bedouins Ottoman “Kushan” ownership papers. Not one Bedouin has such documents. The result is violent frictions each time the Israeli Administration attempts to regularize the situation of a given tribe. This is to the extent that a “Bedouin Intifada” is not a new concept.
Yet, the situation of the Bedouins in Israel is complex. They are citizens, and as such they may volunteer for service in the IDF (though most Jewish citizens are forced to enroll. In The Cross of Bethlehem I explain this in further detail). Many Bedouins volunteer for the IDF, but then—unlike the Druze—they are kept mainly within one unit. The unit is called the Desert Rangers Battalion (“Gdud Siur Midbari” in Hebrew) which is part of the Givati Infantry Brigade. Often called the “Minorities Unit,” it includes also Circassian and even a few Palestinian soldiers. All of them must volunteer to the IDF. These soldiers serve mainly as trackers and pathfinders, and often are attached ad hoc to other military units. The point is that they are heavily monitored and kept away from strategic units and issues. They are not trusted. Their skills serve them also outside the army, where they are known for being able to cross the well-defended, fenced border between Israel and Egypt at will.
Would a Bedouin State Emerge in the Desert?
One year ago, the question “Could a Bedouin State Emerge in the Desert?” would have been ridiculous. The thought that Israel and Egypt would renounce territories for the sake of such a state is unthinkable, especially since Israel and Mubarak’s Egypt were very close allies. Things have changed significantly since then. Egyptian authorities are busy with problems at the heart of their overpopulated country and can spare few forces for the desert at the fringes of their territory. Then, the alliance between Israel and Egypt is deteriorating rapidly, to the extent that a popular Egyptian referendum on the peace agreement with Israel is a real possibility in the near future. Within Israel the situation has changed little. Sporadic eruptions of violence and talks about a Bedouin Intifada make headlines from time to time, but there is little chance this would materialize into something substantial. Would we see a Bedouin Intifada? The Hebrew media hysteria on the issue is comical. It looks like a coordinated campaign by the State of Israel to discredit Bedouins. First, they live within the Green Line. That means the IDF cannot enter Bedouin villages in the case of an uprising. Moreover, the Israeli Police would think twice—even thrice—before entering a Bedouin settlement. The Bedouins are better armed than the police, and they know well how to use their weapons; the police would almost certainly be massacred. Second, since they serve in the IDF—many of them in lifelong careers—their income depends on the IDF. Thus, the Bedouins will not rise up, but they may decide it was an error to collaborate with the Zionist entity.
An international event may prove significant for the Bedouins and speed up their decision. A few days ago (in Israel Bluffs Iran) I commented on the latest developments of the war of words between Iran and Israel. There are signs that such a conflict could materialize. Under certain circumstances, the Israeli Administration may be wiped out, even if only a fraction of the 200,000 missiles aimed at Israel reach their target.
When that day comes, Bedouins may use their skills as pathfinders and trackers, and their control of the routes connecting the Negev Desert and the Sinai Peninsula, to cross-over and create a new Bedouin State with their brothers on the Egyptian side. There would be nobody capable of stopping the event. A well-known Bedouin saying is “I against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” It reflects very well their hierarchy of loyalties. If the opportunity would arise, there is little doubt it would be seized. A flying camel passing through illusions of modern power; an ancient Silk Road reasserting its birth rights.
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