Settling the Bedouin Question

Israel is finally listening to the Bedouins' grievances in hopes of convincing them to settle down.

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

Two Israeli Arab women work in small-scale agriculture. They both rely on help from the Koret Israel Economic Development Fund, a philanthropic non-profit that uses microcredit to promote economic independence among women in the Negev Desert.

One woman received a loan of NIS 1,000 and bought a cow. The other received a loan of NIS 4,000 and bought ten sheep.

The owner of the cow milks it once a day and pours the unpasteurized milk into empty 1.5-liter Coca-Cola bottles, which she sells to her neighbors for six shekels each. She has recently been forced to milk the cow less frequently, because it gave birth. Still, the birth of the calf is good news. Within a year, she will be able to sell it and use the proceeds to help pay back the loan she took out to buy the cow. The owner of the sheep is hoping for similar luck, since some of the sheep are pregnant.

The women are both members of the Nasara family. They are married to the same man and together have 15 children. Their husband "works at the unemployment office,” they say, meaning he's unemployed and survives on National Insurance Institute benefits. The cow and 10 sheep are the family’s only source of income.

I met the two women during a tour organized by KIEDF a year ago. They live in a tin-roofed house in a remote part of the Negev, without access to electricity, running water, roads or public transportation. They live in poverty similar to sub-Saharan Africans, even though they live just 30 minutes from Be’er Sheva and 15 minutes from Arad by car.

In fact, many Bedouin people’s standard of living is comparable to that of people in world’s poorest countries. They are the poorest population group in the Israel by several orders of magnitude – making Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews look well off.

Standing their ground

Some 200,000 Bedouin live in the Negev, and nearly half of them live below the poverty line.

Most Bedouin children only attend school up to the eighth grade, with just 28 percent earning a high-school education. Only 30 percent of Bedouin are officially employed, while another 19 percent are estimated to work off the books.

Thirty-five percent of Bedouin men are married to more than one wife, although Israeli law prohibits polygamy.

The average Bedouin family has 5.4 family members and Bedouin have the highest population growth rate in Israel, at 4.4 percent per year. According to figures provided by the non-profit Adalah-the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Bedouin babies account for about 50 percent of the births at Be'er Sheva's Soroka Hospital.

In contrast, only three percent of students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva are Bedouin. Incidentally, two-thirds of these Bedouin university students are able to attend school because of scholarships provided by a Jewish philanthropist who supports Bedouin education.

Bedouin make up 30 percent of the Negev’s population. Just over half of them – 120,000 – live in eight government-recognized communities. The other 70,000 to 80,000 live in the Bedouin diaspora, meaning communities not recognized by the government. For some of them, like the Nasara family, the term “unrecognized community” is almost a compliment.

Since the 1970s, the State of Israel has been in active conflict with its Bedouin citizens. The Bedouin, who see themselves as nomads and the original inhabitants of the desert, live more or less where they see fit. The government, though, wants to place them in organized communities, which it says it the only way it can provide them with public services like education and healthcare.

The Bedouin have another explanation. They suspect the government views them through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a hostile population that is trying to control the Negev.

Whatever the government’s motives, it has refused to recognize unofficial Bedouin communities and denied them public services, like water, electricity, healthcare and education. After decades of this policy, Bedouins have established 35 unrecognized communities with 58,000 illegally constructed buildings and atrocious living conditions. 4,000 illegal structures are added every year. The Nasara family is just one of the many families living in these communities.

In recent years, the government has come to recognize that that the status quo cannot continue and has begun operating mobile clinics and setting up schools in the unrecognized communities. Court rulings have forced it to connect the communities to the national water system or at least to bring clean water to within a kilometer of them. At the same time, the state has begun discussions with the Bedouin about acknowledging some of their land claims in the Negev in the hopes of reaching a historic compromise.

Locating a nomadic people

In 2008, the government formed the Goldberg Committee, led by former High Court judge Eliezer Goldberg, to organize Bedouin settlement in the Negev. Based on the committee's report, which marked the State of Israel’s first attempt to formally hear Bedouin grievances, the government drafted a legal memorandum on organizing Bedouin settlement.

The memorandum is based on the recommendations of the Goldberg Report’s implementation body, the Pawner Committee. It states that the Bedouin will receive some 130,000 dunams (32,124 acres) of land in the Negev. The Bedouin initially filed claims for 640,000 dunams (158,147 acres) of land, 380,000 dunams (93,900 acres) of which the state found to have some merit. The Bedouin will also receive some 20,000 dunams (4,942 acres) of land in exchange for the land they have built housing on and be allowed to buy some 100,000 dunams (24,711 acres) of land at subsidized prices.

At this point, the Bedouin's land claims aren't officially recognized. As part of the government’s proposal, Israel will invest nearly NIS 2.5 billion over five years to develop new Bedouin communities. A special staff headed by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Doron Almog has been set-up in the Prime Minister's Office to implement the plan.

The government intends to invest another NIS 7 billion in transferring Negev lands to the Bedouin and building their new communities. All told, the government is looking at an investment of nearly NIS 9.5 billion over five years.

In return for all this, the government is requesting that the Bedouin abandon all other land claims and agree to vacate large portions of their unrecognized communities in the Negev. How many of the communities will need to be vacated under the deal is still unknown. The government has hinted that altogether 30,000 Bedouin will be relocated from their homes under the plan and in return will receive new homes in newly built, recognized communities. It is clear that the Bedouin resettlement plan would be the largest forced relocation in Israeli history. For comparison, Israel's 2005 disengagement from Gaza led to the removal of 8,000 settlers from their homes.

But the Bedouin are very suspicious of government proposals, and the plan to move them to recognized communities doesn't entice them. Today, there are eight government-recognized Bedouin communities and another nine have been in the process of receiving recognition for the past decade. Yet 70,000 Bedouin still prefer to live in the desert without running water and electricity.

One explanation for the Bedouin’s reticence is that while the recognized communities may have running water and electricity, they don’t have much more. All recognized Bedouin communities are ranked at the lowest level of the Central Bureau of Statistics 10-level socioeconomic ranking of Israeli communities. Most of them suffer from a prevailing sense of poverty, crime and severe neglect.

Another explanation is that all the recognized communities are urban, and many members of many of the Bedouin tribes, aren’t ready to give up their traditional nomadic lifestyles. One of the most serious claims of Adalah and The Association for Civil Rights in Israel against the State is that while Israeli Jews can choose to live in a kibbutz, an agricultural cooperative, a village or a city, the Bedouin are only presented with option of living in an urban community in Israel's geographic periphery.

A third explanation for the plan's lack of appeal is the serious conflicts that exist within Bedouin society. The rifts between different Bedouin tribes are so deep that even today a Bedouin from one tribe will not live on the land of or marry a member of another tribe. Since many of the urban Bedouin communities recognized by the government are spread out on land claimed by several different tribes, it won't be possible to convince Bedouin to reside in these communities until the tribes relinquish their claims to the land they sit on. Social rifts between clans within tribes further complicate the picture. It appears that large, urban communities that push Bedouin into tight quarters simply don’t accommodate Bedouin social structures.

Hearing them out, fencing them in

The government's stubborn insistence on gathering the Bedouin together only stokes suspicions. In every direction, the Bedouin see small Jewish communities that enjoy excellent public services. Particularly conspicuous are individual, Jewish-owned farms that are commonly believed to have been established by government to impede Bedouin settlement. All these farms were immediately connected to the national water and electricity grids, but the government claims it can’t connect the unrecognized Bedouin communities to the grid because they are too small and spread out.

It doesn’t help that the government is preparing to build ten new Israeli communities on a strip of territory between Arad and the Meitar Regional Council – even in the face of opposition by Negev majors who would prefer to see more investment in their own municipalities. The uneconomic decision by the state seems to stem from the desire to "settle the Negev," or in other words, to fence in the Bedouin.

The state claims that the small Jewish settlements that exist in the Negev are the result of an old policy, and that they are populated by middle class residents who can afford to maintain their infrastructure. This explanation does not, of course, account for its plans for the ten new communities.

"What vision is there behind building dozens of Bedouin communities in the Negev that will be too small to provide services to their residents?" asks Ehud Prawer, the prime minister's director of planning. "Instead of the recognition of Bedouin communities in the Negev providing the infrastructure for the Negev's growth, it will lay the groundwork for its collapse." Prawer continues, "It's possible continue to argue back and forth about equality, but the eventual solution needs to be one that enables growth among the Bedouin population. We want to ensure the provision of welfare, health and educational services. All these services – as the area of service becomes more far-flung – become less efficient."

Bedouin suspicion, though, has forced the state to take action. In the past year, cabinet minister Benny Begin was responsible for listening to Bedouin complaints regarding the Prawer Committee proposal and the depressing state of their communities. Begin says that he held dozens of meetings during which he listened to approximately 600 Bedouin representatives. Additionally, 12 government teams arranged hundreds of meetings to clarify the details of the Prawer Plan and gather suggestions from Bedouin. The process, which is intended to lead to a legislative proposal, is on hold due to the upcoming elections.

Begin emphasizes the listening aspect of the process and promises that the state's intentions towards the Bedouin this time around are genuine. In other words, Israel really wants to settle – once and for all – the land disputes with the Bedouin and at the same time to pour resources into developing Bedouin communities. But Bedouin suspicions, on one hand, and right wing hostility toward a Bedouin “takeover” of the Negev, leave little room for goodwill.

The Bedouin are easily the poorest community in Israel.Credit: Limor Edri

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