As Israel’s war on Gaza nears the end of a second month, Rehab Eldalil worries about reports of Israeli efforts to push back the 2.3 million residents of the besieged Gaza Strip to the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula – the home of his ancestors.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi publicly stated that Egypt would not allow the displacement of Palestinians because it would mean “the end of the Palestinian cause” and pose a potential threat to Egyptian national security. But media reports have suggested that Israel could offer to repay part of Egypt’s huge public debt in exchange for allowing the forced movement of people from Gaza to Sinai.
Eldalil, an Egyptian photographer and storyteller of Bedouin origin, worries that this kind of narrative “takes away the right of Palestinians to stay on their land, while arguing that Sinai is an empty desert to which Palestinians can go “.
This is not the case, and has not been the case for centuries.
The 61,000 km² (23,500 sq mi) triangle of land that connects Africa and Asia is a popular tourist destination, an important religious and historical site, and an important economic center for Egypt. It is home to several oil and natural gas fields, as well as the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, which generates up to $9 billion a year.
The peninsula, the northern two-thirds of which is occupied by the Sinai Desert and the mountainous south home to St. Catherine, Egypt’s highest peak, has also long been home to a myriad of Bedouin tribes, who have lived according to their traditions for centuries. centuries, some eventually settling in cities. .
These communities have often been neglected by authorities and have been collateral damage in national or regional geopolitical conflicts. Today, the war against Gaza is causing fear among the Bedouins.
The first natives of Sinai
Before colonial powers drew borders to create the countries of today’s region, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant and North Africa were connected by trade routes that provided the region with a common language. The vectors of this phenomenon were the Arab Bedouin tribes.
Finally, Eldalil said, “These communities…they stopped being nomadic, they settled as the first natives of this desert over 1,000 years ago,” which she heard from the elders of her tribe, the Jabaliya (mountain people).
“At first, they divided the peninsula into seven large tribes,” she explains, which now number 33, according to experts.
Eldalil, who has several visual projects on Bedouin identity and heritage, says the legacy of these original tribes is still alive.
“Embroidery is a huge tradition that the community still practices, as is traditional Bedouin poetry, where they tell their stories,” she says.
And there is Bedouin law. “If there was a problem…they would arrange a meeting between the feuding families and resolve the problem in a more civilized manner than you would see in many progressive countries,” she says.
“They have their own set of unspoken rules and laws, which over time has created many problems between them and the government, as happens with any other indigenous community in the world,” adds Eldalil.
Their deep connection to the land added to tensions with authorities, she said. “They are capable of walking for days and weeks in the desert, they know every inch of sand and every corner of the mountain. They know their land so well that it becomes intimidating and it becomes necessary to control them.
Researcher Hilary Gilbert says Bedouins have an “environmental identity,” based on her decades of research into Bedouin life.
“They see themselves as an integral part of the natural world and therefore see themselves as its guardians,” added the anthropology and development researcher from the University of Nottingham.
Many of these “custodians of the natural world” refused to leave their lands when Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula in 1967, an occupation that lasted 15 years, leading to widespread suspicion of them from many. Egyptians living outside Sinai, Gilbert said. “A popular belief was that the Bedouins collaborated with the Israelis, a deep-rooted prejudice against them based on the fact that they are different, uneducated and untrustworthy,” she added.
“When Israel left and the Egyptians took over the government, they adopted a kind of policy of benevolent neglect towards the Bedouins. »
For years, Bedouins have struggled to access their rights as citizens. National identity cards and papers were almost impossible to obtain, schools, hospitals and public services were scarce, and entry into the army was prohibited.
When Sinai was “discovered” in the late 1980s as a region that could make Egypt a source of tourism revenue, the Bedouins living there did not benefit – in fact, they found themselves displaced. and disadvantaged, according to Eldalil.
During the Arab Spring of 2011, the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza became a route for armed fighters and the transit of weapons, subjecting Sinai Bedouins to increased state surveillance. Egyptian. Around the same time, the rise of armed groups like ISIL (ISIS)-affiliated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis deepened the Egyptian government’s security concerns in the Sinai.
When current President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi took power in 2013, he launched a campaign against armed groups in the Sinai. This included the creation of a 79 km (49 mile) buffer zone in North Sinai, along the border with the Gaza Strip, in 2014.
To do this, its forces demolished more than 3,255 residential, commercial and administrative buildings between 2013 and 2015, and forcibly evicted thousands of people, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
“My father’s house became a kind of desert,” says Eldalil, whose father lived in North Sinai. “All the houses next to him have been deserted because of the anti-terrorism campaign. »
Those who were forced to leave by the army scattered across several Egyptian cities, including al-Arish, Ismailia and Sharqiya, west of the Suez Canal. They were promised that their deportation would be brief, until “the elimination of terrorism”, local sources told Al Jazeera.
However, these communities are still displaced, even though the Egyptian government has changed its approach towards the Bedouins since 2018 by allying with different tribes to collaborate on intelligence and security in the Sinai.
In August, some of these Bedouins staged a 48-hour sit-in in the southern area of Sheikh Zuweid, demanding the right to return to their land. Following authorities’ promises that returns would begin on October 20, the sit-in was disbanded.
With security concerns growing around the Rafah crossing since hostilities in Gaza began on October 7, local Egyptian authorities appear to have had a change of heart.
“The time has come and it was not the time to return,” a member of these Bedouin communities told Al Jazeera.
“In October, dozens of people from the Sawarka and Rumailat tribes gathered again (…) but members of the armed forces dispersed the gathering and arrested a number of young people.
Some organizations that work with refugees have also started welcoming Bedouins, in cities like Cairo and Alexandria.
“Protect their land”
“The government could easily cooperate with communities, better understand the land, the landscape and how to manage it,” explains Eldalil. “After all, protecting their lands is one of the greatest sources of pride for indigenous peoples. »
It is a feeling shared by Palestinians already living in Sinai.
Mohammed* is one of thousands of Palestinians born and raised in Sinai after the mass expulsion of Palestinians during the creation of Israel in 1948, or the Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe.
“Palestinians in North Sinai make up more than a third of the population, and although some of us still cannot obtain Egyptian citizenship due to strict laws, we are treated like Egyptians,” says Mohammed. “We and the Bedouins are the same people, have the same blood. »
Sinai Bedouins, he said, helped Palestinians stranded in the desert when the current war began, and have volunteered to rescue injured Palestinians coming from Gaza since the Rafah crossing partially opened in early November.
Today, as fears grow that a forced exodus of Gaza’s population to Sinai could, in turn, displace local communities, Eldalil hopes the government will continue to nurture relations between Cairo and the Bedouins of the Sinai.
“There are indeed people who live in Sinai: the Bedouin communities,” she said, “who also have the right to stay on their land, just like the Palestinians.”
*Name changed at the request of the person to protect their identity.