Israel has long subjected Palestine, its topography and indigenous population, to an institutionalized policy of disappearance. This deliberate erosion and erasure of both people and place has seldom been more evident than among Bedouin communities from the Negev Desert, in the southern part of what is now Israel.
In the early years of the Israeli state, from the late 1940s through the early 1950s, Negev Bedouins, whose ancestral roots in the land extend back centuries, were displaced by the Israeli state in the tens of thousands. The history of this violence — which continues to this day — has been documented in The Conflict Shoreline: Colonization as Climate Change in the Negev Desert by Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect, author, and director of the European Research Council’s Forensic Architecture, with stunning images from American photographer and MacArthur Fellow, Fazal Sheikh.
Recently published by Steidl and Cabinet Books, The Conflict Shoreline is an extended written and photographic essay. Zeroing in on the experience of the al-Uqbi tribe, the book serves as Exhibit A in the case against Israel’s actions toward the Bedouin communities living in the Negev. It presents an airtight argument against a settler-colonial state that has denied Palestinians any right to their own land. It also highlights the crystal clear connection between climate change and colonialism. Weizman argues that the Zionist dream of “making the desert bloom” is an explicitly articulated policy of destruction, both of inhabitants and environment, and describes this colonialist destruction as a form of man-made climate change. Sheikh’s accompanying photographs attest to the stark reality of this theory, revealing the land as scarred and shredded, razed and ruined.
The Historical Displacement of the Bedouins
“The area to which Bedouins were displaced, 1,000 square kilometers in size,” writes Weizman, “was known as the Siyaj, Arabic for ‘enclosure’ or ‘fence.’ Until 1966, it was placed under military regime” — as was the rest of the Palestinian population in Israel at the time — “and functioned, according to political scientist Neve Gordon, like a Native American reservation of the nineteenth century.”
The story of Bedouin displacement is one of never-ending violence and resistance. In one of the earliest events depicted in the book, shortly after Israel’s creation in the late 1940s, “the Israeli military governor ordered the al-‘Uqbi tribe to evacuate their land for six months for a military training exercise, promising that they would be able to return.” When tribal patriarch, Sheikh Suleiman Muhammad al-Uqbi, sought permission from the nascent government to return to his land, he was refused. So “he took his family back without permission, but was swiftly evicted, and was later relieved of his duties as a tribal sheikh, by then a state position.”
Time and again, al-‘Uqbi tribes members have returned to their ancestral lands only to be kicked out by their Israeli overlords. For nearly a decade, their village, Arakib, has been a flashpoint for the Bedouin struggle, subject to the same cycle of demolition and rebuilding that many other Bedouin villages have faced. To date, Arakib has been deliberately destroyed and resolutely rebuilt over seventy times. In the early 2000s, Israeli authorities began using crop dusters to spray “toxic herbicides on the small sustenance fields of illegalized Bedouin settlements,” a policy vigorously defended by then-Minister for National Infrastructure, Avigdor Lieberman.
As a result of Israeli attempts to erase its existence, Arakib has become “a landlocked ‘island’ surrounded by Jewish agricultural settlements, JNF [Jewish National Fund] forests, a highway, a railway, and a major waste facility,” writes Weizman. Indeed, the JNF has been a key agent in Israel’s efforts against the Bedouin, and has “overseen the planting of three separately named savanna forests” on the land “in and around” the repeatedly demolished and rebuilt village of Arakib. One of these forests, named Ambassador Forest, involved “diplomats from 49 countries planting trees on behalf of their countries.”
The Conflict Shoreline presents Israeli colonization as part of a larger trend of European imperialism. The book discusses, for example, how in Libya, Italy built “a string of agrarian settlements” and “forests were planted to stabilize the Saharan sand dunes.” As the book reveals:
Almost half the Cyrenaican Bedouin population was displaced into concentration camps deeper in the desert. When they rebelled, starting in 1930, the Italians unleashed overwhelming force and undertook massacres with mustard gas. In late 1932, while the ‘pacification wars’ were drawing to a close, an enthusiastic American journalist reported from Libya under the headline of ‘Will the Libyan Desert Bloom Again?’
As noted in the American journalist’s dispatch, “The far-seeing eyes of Mussolini looked way beyond the wastelands that had been abandoned for more than a thousand years by all but fighting Arabs.” Likewise, Israel viewed the Negev as terra nullius, a land without a people, that could only be developed and cultivated by white Europeans, albeit Jewish ones.
The Conflict Shoreline is about conquest and battle lines, both physical and invisible. Though it focuses on the uphill fight Negev Bedouins face in trying to secure their property rights, its scope is much broader.
The ‘shoreline,’ referenced in the title, is defined by Weizman as extending from the far-western reaches of Africa, along the length of the Sahara, eastward “over the great Arabian desert,” toward the frontier of Pakistan, and reaching all the way to the Gobi desert in China. It is this theoretical demarcation that forms a boundary along which colonization has historically occurred, and according to which it continues in Palestine: “War and insurgency have occurred across the entire African continent all along the northern and southern threshold of the Sahara desert,” Weizman observes.
So how are colonialism and climate change connected? “Colonial projects from North America through Africa, the Middle East, India, and Australia sought to re-engineer the climate,” Weizman reminds us. “Native people, who were seen as part of the natural environment, were displaced along with the climate or killed.” With indigenous populations seen by imperial and colonial societies as obstacles to overcome, inherent parts of the frontier to be cleared away and controlled, the link between destroying the local community and eviscerating the land is clear.
Weizman argues that the battle between colonialism and the environment cuts through Israel, from Gaza to Hebron in the West Bank, and into Syria, where it passes through “Daraa, where, in 2011, farmers’ protests, borne out of an extended cycle of droughts, marked the beginning of the Syrian civil war.” He traces the path of the shoreline from the battlefields of Syria into northern Iraq, and then on to the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where in “another astounding coincidence,” drone strikes have targeted “South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza, and Libya,” all abutting the conflict shoreline.
Weizman does not argue for some sort of environmental determinism, however. As he argues, following “this line on its journey east and west is not to claim that conflicts along it have been directly determined by climatic factors, but rather to point to an ongoing historical process by which political developments have violently interacted with changing climatic conditions.”
The Orientalist Roots of Israeli Policies Toward the Bedouin
While the research is deep and the text cumbersome at times, Weizman’s overall argument rests on solid ground, namely, that orientalism, wearing a scientific mask, is responsible for the Bedouin’s fate. To this very day, Israeli court decisions against Bedouin land rights explicitly rely on testimony from nineteenth-century English traveler and orientalist, Edward Palmer, who, according to Weizman, “was possessed by a genocidal hatred of the Bedouins” and “proposed all sorts of ways to destroy them by unleashing regional wars or starving them out of existence so that ‘this terrible scourge might be removed.’”
In 1974, for example, the Israeli High Court ruled in Salim Al-Hawashleh vs. State of Israel that a Bedouin tribe claiming ownership over land “they had settled for centuries” had no property rights, since, as Judge Avraham Halima declared:
The condition of the Negev in 1870 was researched by the scholar Palmer who traveled in that area and closely studied the Negev. He found wilderness, ancient ruins and nomad Bedouins, who did not particularly cultivate the land, did not plow the land and did not engage in agriculture at all. […] This, in conjunction with [his] observation regarding the nomadic characteristics of the Bedouin tribes, and the fact that the region is usually dry and without rain most days of the year.
Palmer’s observations, which were included in a book titled The Desert of the Exodus, was written during a drought in the region. “Checking historical archives,” Weizman writes, “one can see that in 1869 and 1870, the years in which Palmer traveled through the Negev, there was a tenfold increase in grain price, an indication of failed crops, and the export of grain throughout Palestine and Syria was prohibited, another indication of shortage.” The Israeli courts have, however, very conveniently, taken this temporary condition as “a permanent fact.”
Sheikh’s original photos, in addition to many century-old archival prints, tell a different tale. The older images date back to the end of the First World War, when Bavarian pilots began capturing the Negev during aerial reconnaissance and sent back to Munich “2,872 glass plates of aerial photographs of Palestine.” Using these photos, Weizman took “a close look at the highest possible magnification of these photographs” and found that they depicted “what are very likely traces of Bedouin life: some structures and ruins, possible signs of cultivation and livestock pens.”
Shlomo Ben Yosef, an aerial photography analyst who commanded a unit in the Israeli military that interpreted aerial reconnaissance, has also reported that in 1945, three years before the establishment of the state, the Uqbi land was “almost entirely cultivated” and “criss-crossed with an extensive network of routes connecting small settlement points.”
To Israel, however, none of these facts matter. For the colonial-settler state, Bedouins have no history and no culture; like the desert sand itself, they are part of the waxing and waning desert boundary — ideally to be disappeared, or, more practically, confined, as Weizman puts it, to “a zone of expropriation” where they are “put completely at the mercy of the state and tolerated only as a matter of charity.”
Making the Desert Bloom
The Conflict Shoreline, which is only ninety-six pages long, should be read not only by observers of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but by environmentalists as well. Although Weizman’s prose, while articulate and compelling, at times treads the uneasy line between accessible analysis and hyper-academic writing, Sheikh’s more than 100 sepia-toned photographs keep readers engaged with the sometimes dense text.
As Weizman and Sheikh’s book demonstrates, state violence against the Bedouins is part of a larger story, one about “making the desert bloom” and, in the process, negating the rights of indigenous people — a story that should be familiar to all settler-colonial societies, including the United States. In many cases, this destruction is preceded and justified by a manipulation of narrative and distorted perceptions that become assumed reality.
Without a change in this status quo, the Negev Bedouins will continue to be pushed further and further off the edge of an ever-expanding conflict shoreline, the land eroded and transformed, its people left treading for survival, its history washed away forever.