Sedentary Processes` Revival in the Northern Negev-Israel, 1882-1917: From Wilderness to Oasis

Sedentary Processes` Revival in the Northern Negev-Israel, 1882-1917: From Wilderness to Oasis

Dan Gazit

 According to all the definitions, the Israelite northern Negev is a desert. Surviving in the desert perforce its habitants to crose teritories constantly, tracing for grazing-grounds and patches of land which suitable for seasonal agriculture. Can we identify a situation in which those nomads were settling down in well-planned villages along a short span of time of one or two decades? Who planned this sedentarian revolution and why? How it was implemented in the area and what were the social and economic changes that this population was going through during that process?

    Checking up the lower Besor basin and its neighbouring plateau, we recognize  at the treshold of the twentieth century –  after about three hundreds years of total emptiness of permanent settlements in the region – those following phenomena:

A. According to an oral tradition, the first Ottoman army-post in the northern Negev had been erected at the year 1894. It was Qal`at Fteis, a distinguished-built crusador-like fort with a well down wadi Imleih near-by. Another undated army-post , Qasr Rashid Bek, was built eleven kilometers to the south, guarding wadi Bir-as-Saba`. Apparently, those activities implemented by Sultan Abdulhemit`s general policy to strengthen the empire`s eastern borders; anyhow, the openning of Suez Canal (1869) gave a special strategic importance to the neighbouring Northern Negev.

B. Between the years 1878 and 1914, a system of ten planned villages was gradually developed, beginning from the northern bank of wadi esh-Shari`a southwards to the latitude of Han-Yunis. All those villages used building-materials and water-systems of ancient ruins, and were designed according to four main clasical masterplans: The Linear pattern (Strassendorf), the Cross-Street pattern, the Hippodamian plan and the Grid pattern. By the way, those four patterns are exactly the plans which were in use in the Jewish Moshavot at the same period –possibly both as an inspiration of the Templers` settlements. In one of those villages was built an exceptional mosque, almost identical to the fortress of Qala`t Fteis. The Ottoman autorities encouraged an emigration of farmers (Fellahin) from Ghaza and Han-Yunis vicinities – most of them were Egyptians in origin – eastwards to the tribes` teritories. So, passing less than a generation, we can identify an interesting mixed population of Fellahin assimilated by Bedouin, both from diferent sources, alltogather population of some fourty thousand.

C. The survey discovered twenty eight holy places spread all over the area. Those holy places are dated to the late Ottoman period, only one of them was in existence before the year 1868. Most of the holy places are Maqams like tombs of Sheikhs, Wallys and Hajjs; there are also holy trees, mainly tamarisks and acacias. Since then, some holy places has lost their patron`s names and traditions, but well-planned identical buildings on some of the tombs are indicating an organized governmental operation.

D. One main dirt-road between Bir-as-Saba` and Ghaza was fitted for waggons` transportation and later, during the first world war, to light trucks. Another road, between two villages at wadi esh-Shari`a area, had been repaired approximatly at this period.

E. At the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, as a result of Ottoman authority`s activity to fix interboundries in the tribal teritories, new efforts had begun to advance lands-registry, and new borders has been declared also between the districts. The Ottoman army put an end to the battles among the tribes and gave a personal security to the Bedouin in exchange for termination of their wandering.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, agrarian reform was laid down and the status of many parcels of land had been changed from Miri to Makhlul.  Most of the fertile fields were tilled and the global market has begun to influence the local agricultural system; for instance, an increase of growing barley for the Europian beer industry and other crops for export: Sumsum (sesam), tobacco, castor-oil plants and coloquintida (Handal).

As a result of all those changes, new relationships had developed between the northern Negev`s inhabitants and the Ottoman authorities in issues like economy, taxes and implementation of laws over background of traditions inside a new-born ethnicity.Taking into account the strategical considerations of the empire, on that background the condition were ready for establishing a new administrative center. The act of building Bir-as-Saba` was actually the peak of a process that had begun about two decades ago, and had been completed in the year 1908, when U`ga-Hafir was declared as a sub-district center.

G. During the years 1912 – 1917, the years of the first warld war, including the two years of strategical preparations before it and the last year in which the area was in fact a battlefield – a cardinal changes had accured all over the region – phisical, economical and social. Beside the forced-labour, the Ottomans had employed masses of villagers as wageworkers, a first time in their life; a new military railway crossed the northern Negev; huge storing centers, army camps and fortifications sprang up among the villages; fords on wadies had been paved. This jumping level became a suitable starting position for the new next era of the British mandate.

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