Like the Kibbutzim, Bedouin in Israel’s North Seek to Preserve Their Way of Life

Villagers also want to decide who gets to live among them so they can maintain their tribal laws and rustic lifestyle – 'we don’t want crime families to come here,' as one activist puts it

The Bedouin village of Halawed near Haifa, June 27, 2018.
Rami Shllush

From the open area where goats run around between the haystacks, next to the youth center in the middle of the northern Bedouin village of Khawaled, the barns of Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan are visible on the horizon, on the other side of Route 70.

Both communities are in the Zevulun region, but the kibbutz, because of its definition as a cooperative, has certain rights. For instance, it’s not obligated to accept anyone who wants to live there.

The Bedouin village, in contrast, has no rights that would help it preserve its character. In fact, a recent auction of lots in Khawaled was open to anyone, so the place might soon have residents who aren’t locals and aren’t even Bedouin.

This has led 13 local villages to launch a battle to define their communities in a way that lets them maintain their lifestyle.

Some 20 recognized Bedouin villages are scattered around the north, but only seven are defined as local councils, enabling them to achieve that self-determination. Representatives of the 13 villages that belong to a regional council therefore wrote the prime minister this week to urge that the Bedouin’s unique way of life be taken into account.

“Having originally been a tribal society of shepherds, we roamed through the Galilee for 100 years and dealt with the Ottoman and British governments,” they wrote. “Later, the vast majority of us developed close ties with the [Jewish] settlement pioneers who came to the region back then, and we spontaneously began to settle down, placing ourselves near Jewish communities, usually kibbutzim.”

As the village leaders put it, the fact that most of their villages have been recognized as permanent townships and the community’s high rate of enlistment in the Israeli army are signs of their success – albeit partial – in integrating into the state and Israeli society,

Nevertheless, they said, “even today, in the state’s 70th year, a significant portion of our villages are still dealing with basic problems that require immediate attention: defining their status, the land marketing policy, master plans and infrastructure plans, including for flocks of sheep.”

The biggest problem, the villagers said, is that no category exists for their type of village – a tribal village.

“Just like Jewish communities are fighting for their Jewish character, we want to maintain our Bedouin character, values, heritage and traditions. Ever since they recognized our villages, we think these characteristics haven’t been taken into account,” one Bedouin from the Galilee said.

“We’re a tribal society of shepherds. It’s inconceivable that the dairies in the nearby kibbutzim have LCD screens while among us even the paddocks aren’t legal. The kibbutzim receive enormous pasturage areas, while we get nothing.”

He said the biggest problem is the shortage of housing. Khawaled recently marketed 11 new lots, of which a quarter were open to any bidder. Two of those were bought by people outside the village. The town has therefore decided to freeze the next sale until it can ensure that all the lots will go to locals.

“Several demobilized soldiers bid,” said Saleh Kozali, a village activist. “And some didn’t win because two lots were bought by an Arab land merchant from Shfaram. He bought them for 200,000 shekels [$54,800] and sold them to outsiders who have money. My nephew, a demobilized soldier, has been running around and working for two years already, and his mother and father are helping, but where would he find 300,000?”

The chairman of the village council, Sharif Kozali, added, “Anyone who has money can buy – at the expense of the soldier.”

From the right, Saleh Kozali. an activist in the Bedouin village of Halawed in the north, and a relative Amin Kozali, June 27, 2018.
Rami Shllush

No discrimination in a city

Mustafa Khaledi, another Khawaled activist, said that even when residents of Ilut wanted to buy in Zarzir – both are Bedouin villages that have their own local councils – “the mayor of Zarzir didn’t let them. We also want to have the right to decide. We don’t want crime families to come here, to suddenly become like Umm al-Fahm and Kafr Kana with police inside the village.”

In the Jewish community of Kfar Vradim, the mayor recently halted a phased auction of plots in a new neighborhood after half the winners in the first phase were Arabs. “How come your mayor has that power and our mayor doesn’t?” Khaledi asked.

Another resident said there was no comparison to Afula – where residents have protested over the past two weeks against the sale of homes to Arabs – because Afula is a city. “If I go to Tel Aviv, there’s no reason why they should reject me, because that’s discrimination,” he said. “There’s a difference between a big open city and a small community.”

He also doesn’t reject the idea of admissions committees for Jewish rural communities.

For Bedouin, the village is “rural, communal, familial and tribal,” he said. “People live here who are connected by ties of blood, with tribal laws. Nobody who isn’t from the tribe, except in the case of marriage, will come to live in this village if the tribe doesn’t agree.”

Khaledi said the goal is to incorporate legally, like a kibbutz or a communal village does, but “even the registrar of [cooperative] associations hasn’t managed to provide an answer for how to define a Bedouin tribe. An agricultural association? A cooperative association? A community association? We aren’t a tribal association, a village that’s all one family. We’ve drafted bylaws, but they don’t know how to define us.”

In answer to their application, the registrar of cooperative associations suggested that they “obtain outside legal advice” on the character of their association.

A minority within a minority

Mustafa Abbasi, who teaches in the Galilee studies program at Tel-Hai College, said the Bedouin “are the most oppressed people in the Arab community, both in the north and in the Negev” in the south. They have undergone “a process of forced urbanization that was accompanied by a severance of their connection with their traditional sources of livelihood – herding and agriculture.”

As a result, he said, “the standard of living in Bedouin villages has suffered. There’s more poverty and the education level is low compared to other Arab towns – and that’s without even mentioning the problems of planning and construction.”

He believes Bedouin villages should benefit from affirmative action. “Fair and professional handling of their problems would improve the atmosphere in the Galilee and the Negev, an atmosphere that sometimes leads to tension or violence,” he added.

In the village of Ibtin near Khawaled, people would be happy to have problems associated with selling plots just as their neighbors do, but they’re stuck far behind. In contrast to Khawaled, a small village with only a few hundred residents, Ibtin is home to 3,000 people, and like many Arab communities, has no vacant plots at all.

They look on with envy as communities around them expand – Kfar Hasidim and Rekhasim, for example – while they have to build floor upon floor for sons who wish to remain close to their parents, according to their tradition. When Mohammed Amaria, a 30-year-old man who is married with two daughters, tries to count the number of people living under his roof, he reaches at least 25.

Mohammed Amaria, right, and a relative, Fahri Amaria, at the Bedouin village of Ibtin in the north, June 27, 2018.
Rami Shllush

“For 25 years we’ve had no vacant plots or space to build on,” said Fathi Amaria, a former head of the local council in Ibtin, adding that since 2007, construction plans have stalled.

“Young people aren’t getting married because they have no place to live,” Amaria said, adding that the village is now home to more than 100 bachelors. This is a new phenomenon in a society where the average marriage age is lower.

Someone who did marry even though he had no house of his own is Fathi’s brother Munjad, who has been living with his family in the lower floor of relatives’ house “temporarily” for 14 years.

“My nephew is 17 – in a few years I’ll have to vacate the house for him,” Munjad said. “That creates problems – their sons grow up and they need the space. It’s not mine, it’s my brother’s. There are many squabbles over that issue here. It tears families apart. When a parent living in the house dies it leads to war.”

Munir Suad, the head of the Salame local council in the Misgav region, says that among the Bedouin, “if a young man doesn’t build a house he has nowhere to go. You don’t rent a house in the city or leave your family and tribe. We have many young men who’ve been engaged for many years but aren’t getting married.”

This is true for men – a woman who marries a man from another tribe or village moves to his house, but Suad believes that in Salame 80 percent of the women marry someone from the village.

He’s not angry about being part of a broader regional council and says there are certain advantages to that. For example, in recent years, the village of Arab al-Naim has turned from a village of tin shacks into a community with houses and infrastructure, after massive intervention by the regional council.

Adwan Khaldi was born in Khawaled and now lives with his family in Ibtin. He feels betrayed. “For years we’ve been going with the state and the state has abandoned us,” he said. We’ve lost our identity. We’re Arabs for all intents and purposes, but we’re a minority within a minority. I have no rights; why should I fulfill my obligations?”

He says that the situation is reducing the Bedouin’s incentive to join the army. The rift between the state and the Bedouin was caused by the state, he says, “but we bear some responsibility too. We needed better leadership. We feel we’ve lost our uniqueness.”

What will happen if their demands aren’t met? “If no one picks up the gauntlet we’ll continue to deal separately with different departments, but that’s not the right way to do it,” said one of the activists, adding that “a department for Bedouin settlement needs to be established in collaboration with the communities.”

As he put it, “there’s a ministry for Jerusalem’s heritage; why can’t there be one for Bedouin heritage? In the U.S. there’s native peoples’ heritage, in Australia there’s Aboriginal heritage – we need that too.”

He notes that the Bedouin communities in the south are larger, thus they wield more power. But in the north “one has to think about ways to create successful communities with tourism, industry and agricultural areas while still maintaining our traditions.

“Shepherds can keep tending their flocks while their children become engineers in the high-tech world. A lot of money has gone in but the problem is the policy, not the money.”