The Bedouin of the Negev

It is difficult to sum up a people with a culture as rich as the Bedouins in brief statement, but here is a snippet of their history, heritage, and the challenges they are facing today.

The Arab Bedouin of the Negev were a nomadic people consisting of over 90 tribes. Until the beginning of the 20th century, each tribe wandered independently across Saudi Arabia, Sinai, and southern Israel, abiding by an inter-tribal status quo dealing with territories and politics. As a nomadic people, they did not establish permanent settlements. The first permanent settlement in the south of Israel was founded in the biblical town of Beer Sheva by the Ottoman Empire in 1900 as a part of a sedentarization program for the Bedouins. Today, it is the capital of the Negev. By the time of the establishment of the State of Israel, the Bedouin were semi-sedentarized.

Before Israel’s War of Independence of 1948 (known to Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel as the Naqba), approximately 65,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev. Afterward, fewer than 11,000 remained. Those that stayed were from 19 tribes, which were divided into many sub-tribes. By the early 1950s, all the Bedouin tribes in Israel’s south were concentrated on a “reserve” in the northern and central Negev, and were put under martial law until 1966 due to extreme fear by the Jewish leadership.

Land ownership in the South continues to be an issue of core dispute. The creation of the “reserve” consolidated Israel’s sedentarization policy and sought to quell the violence of the war. By concentrating the Bedouin population to one area, the Israeli government hoped to encourage the establishment of townships. Moving to a township in most cases entailed receiving land free of charge for building a house but on the condition of withdrawing any demand from the state to recognize any other land claim.

In 1968, the first new Bedouin township was established in Tel Sheva. Today there are seven recognized Bedouin villages in which 72,500 people reside officially: Arara, Hura, Kseife, Lakiya, Rahat, Segev Shalom, and Tel Sheva. However, not all of the Bedouin population decided to move to a sedentary lifestyle. There remain an estimated 50 unrecognized settlements  and an unknown number of smaller hamlets scattered throughout the countryside. The official estimate of the population living in unrecognized villages is over 55,00 though by different research bodies the number rises to 77,000. Thus, the total estimate of the Bedouin population in the Negev today is around 120-140,000, which constitutes over 25% of the population of the region, a significant minority.

By official government statistics, the Bedouin population is in the lowest socio-economic rung of Israeli society. Government expenditure on local Arab authorities is approximately 30% lower than on their Jewish counterparts. Over 40% of the Bedouin of the recognized towns earn less than minimum wage, a striking gap from the average Jewish Israeli working family, an estimated NIS 4,500 compared to NIS 11,000 combined total income for Jewish households.

Moreover, the Bedouin community is young and population growth is high. Thus, economists expect the socio-economic condition of the community to worsen as youth reach the age of employment if direct measures are not taken immediately to ameliorate present concerns.

The Bedouin community also suffers from serious gaps in education resulting from a weak educational infrastructure. The high school dropout rate is 35%, while fewer than 30% of students earn a full diploma. Worse yet, only 5% of the population is qualified to study at the university level. While members of the Negev Bedouin community do earn undergraduate degrees and beyond, they are the exception to the rule.

Traditionally, Bedouin society has fostered a strong sense of cultural pride as sons of the desert. Tribesmen conducted a relatively independent lifestyle, differentiating themselves from Palestinian farmers as well as other ruling cultures in the region (Turks, British, etc.). However, entry into Israeli society forced them to settle down and abandon their cultural heritage. At the same time, modernization and globalization processes leave no room for a local culture associated with the land.

This means young Bedouins are disregarding their heritage, as it is seen as irrelevant for those who want to be part of modern society. This phenomenon, which puts money in a place of honor, has a devastating effect on the environment, on social values and on family life. Young Bedouins are quickly losing the ideals of their heritage relating to lifestyle, abilities and life skills that their ancestors clung to for hundreds of years. The unwritten culture of the nomadic Bedouin has become irrelevant to them and is rapidly disappearing, along with their unique identity.  For the Bedouins this loss is exacerbated by their poor economic situation and neglect in recognized and unrecognized settlements, leading to alienation towards the state and the development of hostility towards it. This alienation has found expression in an increase in crime and in feelings of discrimination and oppression in everyday life.