The Bedouin and the Land: Leeor Kaufman’s “Destiny Hills”

Haim Watzman

Leeor Kaufman’s Destiny Hills, screened at the Jerusalem film festival this week, documents the struggle of Mohammad of the al-Talalqa Bedouin tribe of the Negev to assert his right to live on his tribe’s ancestral land.

In cinematic terms the film is impressively accomplished, and Mohammad, his wife, his four sons, and the rest of their family are so winning, pleasant, and determined that I walked out of the film wishing they were my neighbors. The family, which lives in poverty, endures the repeated destruction by Israeli authorities of the jerry-built shacks and cinder-block structures they erect and re-erect on the Destiny (Goral) Hills, land that once belonged to the tribe and which they still claim. They resist the government’s policy of resettling the Negev towns and claim that the state has not lived up to agreements it signed years ago with the tribe’s leaders.

While Kaufman’s film portrays life rather than makes political statements, I’m sure that most viewers’ immediate reaction is to sympathize with the Bedouin and their wish to maintain (a modern version of) their traditional lifestyle on the lands their forefathers roamed. I’m not expert in the details of their dispute with the government or the terms under which their land was, with the consent of their leaders, taken from them. But as a minority population with little representation facing a strong state, it’s not surprising that they’ve gotten a raw deal.

But remember that this is an anti-settlement blog. That is, I don’t believe that history and attachment to the land are sufficient reasons to waive the law and permit people to set up house wherever they wish. They are important, but they need to be balanced against other values—for example, our need to preserve green, uninhabited spaces in our ever more densely populated country, and the need to provide social services like health, education, and welfare, in effective and efficient ways.

Once scene in the film shows us the town where the government wants Mohammad and his family to live. The houses are shacks and the spaces between them ugly and dreary. According to Mohammad, the social services that the government has promised to supply are of low quality. So he has little incentive to settle there and every reason to seek to augment his meager construction worker’s salary (he commutes to distant Tel Aviv) with some subsistence farming and sheepherding.

But, in the end, the best interests of all Israel’s citizens, Jews and Arabs, is to prevent wildcat, sparse settlement. I oppose the establishment of new Jewish settlements in the Lachish salient, which threatens to destroy central Israel’s last extensive rural region. By the same token, I want to see the Negev kept safe from wildcat and, unplanned settlement, whether by Jews or by Bedouin. That doesn’t mean that the area must be uninhabited—just that settlement needs to be planned carefully and kept at levels consistent with preserving the landscape and environment.

If you get a chance to see Destiny Hills, by all means do so. Mohammad al-Talalqa and his family deserve our admiration and respect. Whether they should or should not be allowed to live on the Goral Hills is another matter. We need to respect their traditions and their ties to the land, and we need to respect the land itself.

9 thoughts on “The Bedouin and the Land: Leeor Kaufman’s “Destiny Hills””

  1. At last I disagree with you Haim! The political reality of this case is internal feuding between this small tribe and the larger ‘super tribe’, which led to the Abu Tuil tribe leaving Lakiya and re-settling in the Goral Hills. Would you not agree that instead of herding groups of people together, whether they Bedouin in Lakia or Rahat, Tel Sheva or any other ‘official’ community, or Jews in the exclusive gated community outside B’sheva, or any of the other smaller communities dotted around the desert, there has to be parity shown by the State. So the State can give pockets of land to communities – like the new religious ‘green’ kibbutz to be built soon, or to isolated farmers, vineyard owners and agriculturalists along the wine road….but not to Bedouin with ancient land claims?

    Lets go down together for a day and talk to bedouins and others involved in this……


  2. James —
    You are right that the state must show parity, and you know a lot more about the specifics of the case. I’m not arguing that the state has treated the Bedouin fairly–it hasn’t. My point is that ancestral claims to land do not in and of themselves override the law or the state’s right and responsibility to determine that other interests–environmental, political, or otherwise–may override such claims. After all, that’s exactly the claim we make in arguing against the right of Jews to settle in the West Bank.

  3. And don’t “ancestral claims to land” serve as the very basis for a Jewish state in the eastern Mediterranean?

  4. The treatment of the native peoples of the US comes to mind but the indians had no concept of land as parcels of ownership . Such a concept to them was as foreign as ownership of the sky. Drawing metes and bounds for nomad peoples must flex unless the goal is to wipe them out When. I saw the Bedouins out in the Negiv, herding camels , I thought ,maybe this will be my last view of them before I come back . That would be a tragedy. The land isn’t too appealing for casinos either.

  5. I hope that the irony (and chutzpah) of an American immigrant to a settler state lecturing a Bedouin tribe on “wildcat, unplanned settlement” isn’t lost on you.

    And that you’d have the chutzpah to equate it with Israeli settlement in the West Bank blows my mind. Actually, if there’s a parallel in the two cases, it’s the Jewish state appropriating land from indigenous non-Jews.

  6. In the face of the waste disposal practices at Ramat Hovav, or open sewage lines from Jewish settlements running through Bedouin villages, the environmental argument against “wildcat” settlement rings a little hollow, to say the least.
    Weighing ancestral claims against other public interests is in principle a valid exercise – but remember that the Bedouin’s claims come from living there continuously for centuries, while the claims of Jewish immigrants to a piece of the West Bank – or ultimately the Negev – are entirely mythical.
    If the issues of public interest you cite had played any role in gov’t policy, I’m sure they could have been worked out in cooperation with the Bedouin long ago. Instead the record so far is rather one of cultural annihilation. The social problems created by herding native Americans into reservations and forcing the white man’s settled lifestyle onto them are all-too well known, and are repeating themselves in the official Bedouin reservations. Either the gov’t is unwilling to learn from precedent or this is intentional, part of the policy.
    You can contrast that yourself with the treatment of WB settlements, even the rogue outposts. That’s not merely a lack of parity, it rather fits nicely into the Us vs. Them mindset that has ruled Israel’s politics from day one.

    Recommended reading: Ron Kelley’s 1998 article, Israel’s Bedouin: The End of Poetry.

  7. you’re right that there should be consistency in approaching claims about “ancestral ties to land,” especially in taking them into consideration in law-making.

    i wonder if you’ve seen the film “lemon tree” and what you think about it. i think some similar circumstances to those which you described in “destiny hills” arise.

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