Every few weeks Israelis get a reminder of the difficult conditions under which the Negev Bedouin live. This time it was the tragic case of the two little Bedouin girls strangled to death in the “unrecognized” Negev settlement of Al-Fura’a. There was also the bank robbery in Be'er Sheva, where a Bedouin customer, Omar Walid, was immediately suspected by the police. Even though he was wounded, he was arrested and handcuffed.
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The murder of the two Bedouin girls was symptomatic of family life in much of Bedouin society in the Negev – polygamy, innumerable children per family, fathers who don't know the names of all their children, a world-record birthrate and juvenile delinquency. The automatic arrest of the Bedouin customer in the bank robbery, and the Arad police's disregard of the complaints lodged by the mother of the two girls, reflected the stereotype of the Bedouin that has developed in Israeli society. This stereotype has flourished even though many Bedouin volunteer for service in the Israel Defense Forces, many are highly educated, and many are productive and loyal citizens.
But the Bedouin population in the Negev is the most disadvantaged sector of Israeli society. With their noble tradition of nomadic existence, wandering across deserts and herding sheep, goats and camels, they find themselves living in a rapidly urbanizing Israel, a modern high-technology economy, without the necessary skills.
There were 18,000 Bedouin in the Negev when the State of Israel was founded. Today there are 200,000. Their record birthrate, partly the result of polygamy practiced by many, is a source of stress and hardship in Bedouin society. Obviously, only a process of Westernization, or in this case Israelization, can bring normality to Bedouin society, and with it a rate of natural increase that's manageable in a Western society. The key here is education.
Successive Israeli governments have neglected this; instead they've tried to entice Bedouin out of the desert into the Bedouin townships that have been set up over the years, with only partial success. These townships are nothing that Israel can be proud of, and the Bedouin who prefer to stay in the desert can hardly be blamed.
After the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai and the abandonment of Israel Air Force bases there, new bases were built in the Negev, some on land occupied by Bedouin at the time. Thirty years ago, as defense minister, I met with Bedouin sheikhs in the Tel Malhata area to express my gratitude for moving out of the area to let the Nevatim air force base be built. I told them I hoped that the day was not far off when a Bedouin pilot would be flying an IAF jet from this base. Thirty years later this remains a dream.
Israeli governments have neglected the Negev Bedouin, but the vacuum has been filled by the Islamic Movement from the north. The Bedouin, who were never particularly religious, are now attending the many mosques that have sprung up all over the Negev. Teachers from the north are teaching their Bedouin students that they are Palestinians.
It's a mistake to think that the Negev Bedouin's problems can be solved by adjudicating conflicting claims over landownership. That is not the heart of the Negev Bedouin's problem. It will not raise their education level, and it will not bring the 21st century to Bedouin family life. Education is the key. Advancing the education of the Bedouin Negev should be made a first priority of government policy. It is too important to be left in the hands of the Islamic Movement.