Bedouin Birthrate in Israel Is 'Bomb' That Needs Defusing, Far-right Lawmaker Says

At tour of Negev, Bezalel Smotrich calls for urbanization and 'Westernization' of Bedouin communities

Almog Ben Zikri
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Yamina lawmakers Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich during a tour of the Negev, June 11, 2020.
Yamina lawmakers Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich during a tour of the Negev, June 11, 2020.Credit: Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

Far-right Israeli lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich said on Thursday that the birth rate among Israel’s Bedouin community “is a bomb that must be handled,” warning that “If we don’t defuse it, it will blow up on us much stronger.”

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Speaking during a tour of the southern Negev region with his fellow Yamina lawmakers, Smotrich, who has a history of controversial comments targeting Arabs and other minority groups and has been accused of racism and homophobia, argued that the Bedouin community “today has some 200,000 people here… They double themselves every 12 years, and so it’s something that needs handling.”

He called for urbanization and “Westernization” of the traditionally nomadic community.

The lawmakers’ visit was scheduled following a police raid and arrest of 17 people on Wednesday in the Bedouin community of Bir Haj in the Negev after finding hundreds of cannabis plants as well as allegedly stolen military equipment.

Former minister Naftali Bennett also said the Bedouin community in the Negev is “a ticking time bomb, and the Netanyahu-Gantz government has raised a white flag.” Reviving a past remark he was scolded for, Bennett argued “people trying to travel in the Negev can’t leave their car even for several minutes without returning to a smashed car… Anyone driving to Eilat can see that we’ve lost the State of Israel here.”

A Bedouin man rides a donkey in Khan al-Ahmar, May 3, 2020.
A Bedouin man rides a donkey in Khan al-Ahmar, May 3, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

He also said the government “surrendered unconditionally” to issues of violence, polygamy, lawlessness, theft and land grabs, which he claims are prevalent among the Bedouin.

Smotrich, co-founder of right-wing nongovernmental organization Regavim that claims its mission is to “preserve national lands,” added that “The state shouldn’t interfere, but it will happen on its own… As far as the Bedouin population moves to planned towns and cities, acquires education and goes out to work, its birth rates will decrease accordingly. Surely I have an interest in reducing birth rate, because I want to maintain a Jewish majority, not just in Israel, but also in the Negev. It’s Ben-Gurion’s vision, not Yamina’s.”

Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who pushed for more strict enforcement of polygamy offenses, which specifically concern the Bedouin society, said the government “isn’t telling people how many children they should have, but… should educate and empower women so they refuse polygamous marriage. When a woman is powerful, she will tell her husband he can’t bring a second wife.”

Shaked claimed that after she left the Justice Ministry in early June far fewer cases of polygamy ended with charges being pressed. But in fact, charges were diminishing even during her tenure; in 2019 five indictments were filed, down from 18 in 2018.

Arab lawmaker Yousef Jabareen attacked Smotrich for his racist remarks, charging that "there is no place for a racist like him in public life."

"There is a racist policy of expelling Bedouin Arabs from lands in the Negev, where the state speaks to its citizens in the language of bulldozers," tweeted Jabareen. 

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