Constantly pushed out of farmlands, concentrated in circumscribed areas, and forced to sell their produce through exploitative monopolies – this is how the Military Government did the state’s bidding in the dispossession and suppression of Bedouin communities the Negev in southern Israel. In a letter to the Minister of Agriculture, the head of the al-Hozayel tribe details an ordeal of exploitation, culminating with Israeli combine harvesters confiscating grain from an area spanning 4,000 dunams. The confiscated crops made their way in the hands of none other than the military governor himself.
Before the 1948 War, about 70,000 Bedouins lived in the Judean and Negev Deserts. When the war ended in 1949, between 12,000 and 13,000 remained in what became the State of Israel. State policy in the country’s south aimed to remove Bedouins from the lands they used and confine them to a designated area named the Sayag, or Siyaj (“fence” in Arabic) – stretched between Dimona, Arad, Yeruham, and Beersheba. The Military Government acted on behalf of the state in dealings with the Bedouin communities; it executed policy and played a key role in the dispossession and removal of Bedouin residents from parts of the Negev slated for development (i.e. for Jewish citizens). A variety of methods were used in pursuit of the state policy from imposing severe travel restrictions, to encouraging tribes to migrate out of the country, and even initiating deportation operations.
Another facet of the landgrab and dispossession took the shape of the establishment of Jewish-owned companies that were given a monopoly over the sale and distribution of agricultural goods produced by Palestinian and Bedouin citizens. Bedouin farmers were forced to work with these companies in order to sell their produce, as most of them were prohibited from traveling outside of the closed areas where they lived. Military Government personnel held key positions in these companies, often blurring the line between their business activities and their official work in the Military Government. One of the key figures in the monopolies operating in the Negev area was Michael Hanegbi, who in the early 1950s also served as the area’s Military Governor.
Within this context, Sheikh Saqer Salameh al-Hozayel wrote the letter posted here to the Minister of Agriculture Kadish Luz in May 1956. Sheikh al-Hozayel describes, step by step, how the crop was confiscated from the land of his tribe in Wadi Fukhari in the northern Negev desert. He lists the roles played by various government agencies in the incident and notes the involvement of one of the agricultural distribution monopolies. “Believe me, Honorable Minister, when members of the tribe saw the combine harvesters take to their fields and reap the fruits of their labor, they all cried and pulled out their hair in anguish,” al-Hozayel wrote.
Another noteworthy aspect of the Bedouin’s exploitation is mentioned in the letter’s closing paragraphs – subleasing. After being dispossessed of their lands, many Bedouin seeking to make a living were forced to lease land from Jews, who had easier access to state-owned land. The payment was a third or more of the harvested crops. “They are permitted to engage in abhorrent exploitation of people who are hungry for land, while only my people and I are prohibited from enjoying the fruits of our labor,” Sheikh al-Hozayel protested in his letter.