The Unseen: Bedouin in Israel

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current profiles, Profiles

Emma Nyhan is in the final stages of her PhD in the Department of Law. Originally from Ireland, she spent some time working in civil society in Israel and Europe before beginning her PhD at the European University Institute in 2012. Her doctoral topic examines how the concept and category of ‘indigenous peoples’ in international law becomes active and effective in domestic settings.

Emma Nyhan

Emma Nyhan, Researcher in Law

Emma Nyhan is an unconventional legal scholar in many ways. Although her research comes under the banner of international law, Nyhan’s socio-legal agenda, which even wanders into legal anthropology, differs from the norm. ‘Within the law department, my project is quite unique,’ Nyhan told EUI Times. ‘The problem with international human rights is that we know it is active but we don’t know if it is effective,’ she explained. ‘I don’t limit my research to court decisions or UN documents, but try to get as close as possible to where law is at work. I am trying to see where internationally-created rights are, and where they are not,’ she said. ‘But I also want to highlight the things people don’t see.’

In Israel, international observers rarely see the Bedouin. There are 1.8 million Arabs within the state of Israel – approximately 20% of the country’s total population. Of these 1.8 million people, some 200 000 are Bedouin. They have a different culture, but a shared history with the rest of the Arab minority in Israel. ‘Do they want to stay on the land? Yes. Do they want trouble with the state of Israel? No,’ Nyhan emphasised. ‘They are often treated as outliers even within their own minority,’ she said.

After living and working in Haifa for three years, Nyhan noticed that the Bedouin inside the state of Israel were identified at UN and local levels as ‘indigenous,’ but the state itself granted them the status of a ‘minority.’ Since the international definition could have a real legal effect on the lives of the Bedouin community, Nyhan objected that this distinction continued unchallenged. ‘Why do we use minority rights for the big group, and indigenous peoples’ rights for the small group?’ she wondered.

In Israel, the question of indigeneity is an immensely sensitive issue. ‘Indigenous rights are a very volatile set of rights,’ Nyhan explained. ‘For example, under the criteria set down in international law, if you are indigenous, it usually means that invasion or colonialism has taken place. So if the Bedouin are indigenous, then who is the invader or colonialist?’ The answer to this empirical question is debatable and largely depends on your view of 1948,  which some call a war of independence and others call a catastrophe.

Yet part of the reason for Nyhan’s own ‘outsider’ status, the reason Nyhan sees herself ‘falling through the cracks’ of both academic disciplines and the NGO world, is that she chooses not to make a normative judgement about whether the ‘indigenous’ status and rights should be applied to the Bedouin. Yet although NGOs and the UN use the term, ‘it seems to be quite a foreign word,’ for the group itself, said Nyhan. ‘They do say things such as ‘I have an attachment to the land’, one of the criteria for the indigenous identification, but the majority do not know the word exists,’ she said.

By getting to know the Bedouin, Nyhan is ‘trying to add their voice’ to the legal and academic conversations which define their status and rights in international law. ‘When people look at Israel and Palestine they tend to see the big conflict,’ she explained. ‘My thesis will tell a different side to a story that is only ever seen as conflict, in black and white, with us or against us,’ she said. ‘I really am trying not to be political, but just to put these polarised positions in perspective, and shine the light elsewhere.’

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