Bedouins are a subgroup within the Arab minority in the State of Israel, with cultural, historical, social and political uniqueness. The Bedouin population in 2004 was comprised of approximately 130,000 in the Negev and 60,000 in northern and central Israel, making up about 3.5% of the Israeli population. Their total fertility rate is about 5.5% per year and is one of the highest in the world. Approximately 50% of the population in the Negev lives in the city of Rahat and in other towns established by the government. Bedouins in northern Israel live in settlements and municipalities recognized by the state.
Transition to permanent residences
In pre-state days, several tens of thousands of Bedouins lived in the Negev as semi-nomads. Many of them immigrated or escaped during the War of Independence, mainly to the Gaza Strip, and about 11,000 remained to live in the Negev.
With the establishment of the state in 1948, the Bedouins were under severe limitations of movement and their living grounds were reduced, causing several tribes to leave to the Galilee and other regions. In 1951, as military rule was applied to Israeli Arabs, the Negev Bedouins were forced to move to an area between Dimona, Arad and Beer Sheva. They lived in groups of tents, shacks and stone houses. The military rule was applied to them through their Sheikhs. Legislation of the Land Purchasing Law in 1953, which determined that any land not found in its owners' right in April 1952 will be made public, caused the Bedouins to lose all rights on their lands outside their living area. At this time, the government began in development of lands proclaimed by the Bedouins for purposes of establishing Jewish settlements, nature reserves, military camps and military firing zones.
Beginning in 1966, as the military rule was coming to an end, and into the 1970's and 1980's, the state made efforts to settle the Bedouins in permanent residences. The Bedouins proclaimed that the authorities did not take into consideration their way of living and their needs as a tribal society based on agriculture, while the state was working to override their lands and nationalize them. They made further allegations on unfulfilled promises made by the government to provide them with adequate services in their permanent settlements, and that the level of community services was fairly low. They proclaimed that development of infrastructures was neglected and their settlements lacked proper employment opportunities.
Nowadays the state is restricting Negev Bedouins to settle within the city of Rahat and 6 other towns. Thousands of Bedouins, who do not own land, moved to these places of residence with the encouragement of the state. The remaining Bedouin population of the Negev lives in dozens of unrecognized settlements, bearing no municipal status and facing demolishing orders. These facts create great tension between the Bedouin populations and state authorities.
Unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Galilee were granted municipal status between 1994 and 2001. Despite this recognition, few efforts were made to improve their infrastructure and promote essential community services.
Socioeconomic status of Israeli Bedouins
Bedouin society sustained itself in the past on agriculture – herding and growing field crops, but the global decrease in prices of agriculture produce and the development of modern manufacturing techniques reduced the incomes of populations continuing to work in agriculture using pre-modern methods. In recent years, the state has been destroying crops growing in fields found in disputed ground. For these reasons, the Bedouins had to look for alternate means of making a living, while facing difficulties of living in the periphery and lacking infrastructure for industry.
Polygamy is popular within the Bedouin society. Despite modernization among them, this phenomenon remains and is found among an approximate 25% of the population. Bedouins marry women from the Gaza Strip, Mt. Hebron and neighboring countries. In their traditional nomad lifestyle, wives were responsible for herding as well as for the household, and in modern times they are expected to stay at home and take care of the family needs.
The percentage of Bedouins serving in the IDF is fairly high, and has been so since the establishment of the state. They mainly serve in scouting or tracking capacities, and in 1970 a scouting unit was established in the Southern Command. It is now found in other regions, and in 1986 a desert-scouting unit was established and is since taking part in fighting in the Gaza Strip area. A monument honoring Bedouin contribution to the state and the army was erected in the Galilee. However, despite their mobilization to army service, Bedouin integration in the Israeli society remains minimal.
Urbanization and modernization in recent decades have shaken the socioeconomic foundations of the Bedouin society and brought with it delinquency, high school dropout rates, and drug abuse that were not as common before. The permanent residences also brought with it tension between the younger educated generation and the traditional leadership of Sheikhs and heads of tribes. The latter are being gradually replaced in their local councils and among heads of organizations working in fields of civil rights, welfare, religion and education.
The processes that have exposed Bedouin society to the Jewish culture have also brought them exposure to Arab and Islamic culture. Since the early 1980's, the questions regarding their ownership of land have been bound to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and strengthened their Palestinian identity. The foundations of the Islamic Movement in local and national politics have also been rooted within the Islamic stream among the Bedouins.
The Bedouin population is ranked at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in Israel. Unemployment rates among them are relatively high in comparison to the Israeli society, and their education level is also low in comparison to other minorities. The state of Bedouins living in unrecognized settlements is even worse.
In 1994, the Knesset installed a parliamentary inquiry committee regarding the Bedouin sector. The committee discussed different aspects of Bedouin life and submitted its report in 1996, in which there were two main recommendations: The Bedouin problem in the Negev is lasting longer than it should have and may have negative consequences unless the government takes an intensive initiative to resolve it; and furthermore, that the problem in the Negev depends on finding a solution for the land-ownership dispute. The committee recommended that the government resolve the issue in fairness to prevent the feeling of neglect and discrimination from turning into extreme nationalism.
The unrecognized Bedouin settlements
In 1986, the government established a directorate for promotion of Bedouins in the Negev, aimed to serve as a central authority for attending to the Bedouin population in unrecognized settlements, working in collaboration with all government ministries. The directorate's roles were defined as to establish further Bedouin towns and reach a compromise with the Bedouins on land issues. However, these land disputes prevent the establishment of new settlements and hold back the development of existing ones. The authorities stipulate any improvement on an agreement regarding the land issue.
Leaders of the 45 unrecognized settlements united the villages in 1997 under a regional council. Appeals to the Supreme Court enabled some of the villages to gain services in health, education and infrastructures. Schools were built near main roads and in proximity to large concentrations of population. Human rights organizations and national Arab organizations continue to promote the affairs of the unrecognized settlements.
In 2003, the Israeli government declared a program for resolving the problem. The program included the recognition of eight of the unrecognized settlements, the enhancement of existing settlements to uphold urban-agricultural lifestyle, the enlargement of compensations for lands and providing those willing to relinquish their claimed land for 20% return of alternative lands and the remainder in cash payments. The program also included an article on increasing enforcement against illegal construction among Bedouins. Land owners refused to accept the offer and the situation remains as it was.
Approximately half of the Bedouin community in the Negev, roughly 70,000 people, was living in unrecognized settlements in 2007. Most of them are not connected to water and electricity, and are distant from the main roads. Most of the children in these villages study outside their place of residence and their dropout rates are high, among various reasons due to lack of access and public transportation to their schools. The population in these settlements is increasing rapidly with high rates of unemployment, poverty, and crime.
Part of the pictures of this series was taken during a workshop that I led. photographs by Bar Kallos for myisraelimemories.com