Israel Does Not Know How Many Bedouin Live in the Negev, Watchdog Says

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A Bedouin village in the Al-Kasum Regional Council in the Negev last week.
A Bedouin village in the Al-Kasum Regional Council in the Negev last week.Credit: Eliyahu Herskovitz

Israeli government authorities don’t know the size of the Bedouin population in the southern Negev region, or the number of residents in various individual Bedouin communities, according to a report released Wednesday by the State Comptroller’s Office.

Among other failings noted in the report is the inability to implement a decision taken about a decade ago to relocate a large complex of educational institutions in the Negev located near the Neot Hovav industrial zone, where noxious chemicals are produced. In addition, the report states that during a four-year period, there were more than 1,600 criminal incidents targeting the Tze’elim army training base in the northern Negev.

According to the report, there are major disparities in the data on the number of Bedouin living in the Negev, where the Bedouin are largely concentrated, depending upon the sources, which include the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, the Authority for the Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev and other government ministries. Population Authority figures show a total of 151,000 residents in the seven major Bedouin communities in the region while the authority for the development of the Bedouin in the Negev reports a figure of 105,000.

There are also disparities in the data from various government entities regarding the population of unrecognized Bedouin communities – villages that were established without planning authority or government permission. The Population Authority reports that there are 80,000 Bedouin residents in unrecognized communities, while the Bedouin development authority pegs the figure at 103,000.

“The size of the population of the Negev in general and the Bedouin population in particular are difficult to estimate, and that is due in part to the fact that residents of unrecognized villages have no official address,” State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman noted.

The disparities among Bedouin population figures have a direct effect on national funding for individual Bedouin local governments. So, for example, according to the Social Services Ministry, as of August 2016, the Al-Kasum Regional Council governed an area with 51,000 residents, but the Population Authority put the figure at just 5,900 as of May of that year. The Interior Ministry had a figure of 33,000 as of March 2016, while as of the end of 2015, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported a population of 8,800. Education Ministry data showed a total of 42,500 residents there as of June of 2015.

With regard to the schools in the vicinity of the Neot Hovav industrial zone, State Comptroller Englman warned of the continued risk to about 3,000 students at two elementary schools and 13 kindergartens at the complex, which is just two and a half kilometers (a mile and a half) from Neot Hovav. There are roughly 20 industrial plants at Neot Hovav, producing hazardous substances such as bromine, pesticides and pharmaceutical products. In 2012, the Environmental Protection Ministry warned of the need to move the education complex at least five kilometers from the industrial zone.

The Neve Midbar Regional Council, which is the local government in the region, said in response that a plan exists to relocate the schools, but the plan has met resistance from parents, who have delayed the move. For its part, the Education Ministry noted that an elementary school for the region has been set up farther away from the industrial zone in mobile structures, but the parents have refused to send their children there.

In its report, the State Comptroller’s Office warned the education and environmental protection ministries regarding the delay in resolving the problem, “even if implementation involves dealing with opposition from the parents.”

With regard to the Tze’elim base, the report states that between 2017 and 2020, 1,628 criminal incidents were directed at the base, including 1,262 intrusions onto the firing range at the base. During that period, there were also 50 cases of theft of equipment, 49 stone-throwing incidents, 22 cases in which the fencing on the base was cut open and 60 break-ins. In addition, 185 cannabis hothouses were discovered on the base’s firing range, a problem that has grown in recent years.

In response to the report, the Israeli army said that several steps have been taken in response to the incidents, including the fencing off of parking lots at the base and the building of high earthen mounds at several locations where army equipment is stored, to combat theft. The army acknowledged, however, that the thefts and break-ins have become even more of an issue at spots where steps to combat the problem have not been taken.

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