How to Solve Israel's Bedouin Problem

Integrating the Negev Bedouin community into Israel will require education and time, not laws.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

The 200,000 or so Negev Bedouin are the most disadvantaged sector of Israeli society. Their education is at the lowest level; their housing conditions are the worst; health care is poor. On top of that, they are in the midst of a traumatic transition from their age-old nomadic desert lifestyle to living in an urbanized, high-tech society.

Although illegal in Israel, polygamy is practiced widely among the Negev Bedouin. Wives are being imported from Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. The population rise among Bedouin is not only the highest in Israel but also among the highest in the world.

There were 18,000 Bedouin in the Negev when the State of Israel was established 65 years ago; now there are over 200,000. As a result, about half of them are living across the Negev in so-called “unrecognized villages,” lacking the basic infrastructure needed for life in a modern society, and leaving little space for development of the Negev.

Successive Israeli governments have all ignored the fate of the Negev Bedouin and, with great alacrity, Israel's Islamic Movement has jumped into the vacuum left by the state. This ally of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is preaching to the Negev Bedouin that they must turn to religion, that they are Palestinians, that their young men should not volunteer for service in the Israel Defense Forces, and that the State of Israel is their enemy.

You might want to congratulate the Netanyahu government for its intention of finally dealing with the problems of the Bedouin. Until, that is, you see the methods the government is planning to apply in the so-called Prawer plan currently going through the Knesset. These include the recognition of the dubious land-ownership claims made by some Bedouin, the nonrecognition of other similar claims, and the forcible removal of Bedouin to the new townships being planned for them.

No wonder this has aroused the furor of many of the Negev Bedouin (incited by the Islamic Movement). Now radical Arab MKs, who previously cared little for the fate of the Bedouin, have jumped on the bandwagon, trying to turn the issue into part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So what to do? First of all, assisting Bedouin to move from their ancient lifestyle to one that is commensurate with modern-day Israel is not a subject for lawyers, or even judges. It may have some legal implications, but basically it is not a legal problem and cannot be solved by law.

Nor should it be solved by force or the use of the police. We have already seen what happened when the settler residents of Gush Katif were forcibly moved from their homes in 2005. We need not go through that again.

Aiding and assisting the Bedouin to overcome this traumatic change requires the input of anthropologists.

That said, you don’t have to be an anthropologist to discern the main thrust of what needs to be done. The main problem is not one of claims to land ownership, but one of inadequate education.

This means providing the Bedouin with an opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for integration into Israeli society.

Anyone who is acquainted with the Bedouin educational system in the Negev must realize that a massive government effort – from kindergarten all the way to university studies – will be required over a period of many years to achieve this aim.

The move away from the dispersed “unrecognized villages” will happen automatically thanks to those who have acquired the skills needed for integration into Israeli society. No force will be needed. Land claims should be handled by the courts – no new laws are required.

In addition, polygamy must cease: it is most injurious to the Bedouin themselves.

The Islamic Movement should be kept out – they do not have the best interests of the Bedouin at heart. And the IDF should provide incentives to young Bedouin to serve in its ranks. The IDF is, after all, the best educational institution in Israel.

After so many years of neglect, it is going to take time.

An unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev.Credit: Alberto Denkberg

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