The Bedouin Way: Israel’s Desert Dwellers

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Misconceptions about Israel’s Bedouin community hinder progress in their relations with the broader population. The prevailing image of nomadic poverty doesn’t reflect the modern reality. Land ownership disputes are at the heart of the issue, challenging the government’s attempts to establish coexistence. A new approach focusing on addressing gang-led crime and empowering Bedouin communities is suggested to pave the way for genuine cooperation and progress.

Akiva Bigman is an investigative journalist who lives in the Negev Desert. The original article was published in hebrew in the 23rd addition of Hashiloach, this essay has been translated and edited for the anglo society.

No society is a monolith. To assume uniformity of conditions, lifestyle, and values of any cultural group is a surefire route to relations riddled with misconceptions, which unfortunately often results in an inaccurate or even harmful treatment of said group. Unfortunately, claims Akiva Bigman, this is the general state most Israelis’ perception of the Bedouin, a group of native Israelis generally known for their nomadic desert lifestyle. Most Israelis thus assume the Bedouins to be a wholly nomadic people that uniformly assume such traits as poverty, isolation, and ignorance. This inaccurate view, which largely derives from simple lack of contact, does real harm to the goal of good relations with this group, especially when either its “glories” are romanticized or its issues (in this case, generally crime) oversimplified by either side of the political aisle.


As personally experienced by Bigman, there is often a large gap between the preconceived notions and the actual reality of many Bedouin communities. For all that we may foremost conjure up images of desert tents and a lack of material subsidies, many in the Bedouin diaspora actually live in comfortably modern homes and receive certain types of government aid as well. It is Israel’s general oversimplification of the diverse complexities of the Bedouin diaspora which leads to a critical inability to properly construct policy that will actually suit Bedouin society and allow for its advancement.


To properly understand how Israel ought to approach/interact with the Bedouin diaspora, we must first understand its makeup. The Beduins can be separated into three groups based on geographical population: 60% in legal, well-established towns, 7% in legal but poorly-organized settlements, and the remainder with the diaspora within the Negev. It is this last group that retains the least amount of functioning infrastructure, and thus, the most media attention. They are also a very young people—over half 18 or younger, resulting in a high dependency rate (ratio of non working to working people), with astonishing reproduction rates much higher than the national fertility average. This is in large part due to the practice of polygamy, which, due to its illegality, remains difficult to accurately monitor. Unfortunately, other indicative information, such as socioeconomic status, is similarly difficult to pin down due to the gap in reality between officially submitted data and actual common practice that is produced by a fringe group such as the Bedouins. The “official” information we do receive points to the following trends: lower than average employment rates (increasing in severity based on education level) and pay rates. However, the information gleaned from income and spending surveys provides a different picture: that Bedouin households have a higher monthly rate of spending than income, which means that they possess alternative sources of income, and thus there is clearly other economic information absent from official reports. This demographic and economic information paints a very different picture of Bedouin life—one that is less the backwards poverty-stricken people and more a legitimate, functioning alternative way of life. Education is also a major piece of Bedouin life that must be properly understood. Despite numerous generous monetary incentives offered by the Israeli government, Bedouin education rates have remained low. This would insinuate that this hesitance regarding education is not a fundamental “systemic” flaw or for want of resources brought on by poverty, but rather a larger incompatibility between the Bedouin social and cultural ideologies and the broader Israeli way of life.


In the eyes of the government, the most significant obstacle in the way of Bedouin advancement is “ownership claims.” As Bigman explains, these claims, by far the greatest and most volatile Bedouin-related issue, deal with a series of claims made by the Bedouin since the 1970’s, now numbering in the thousands, to land in the Negev, of disputed legality. Some of these claims are now inhabited by Bedouin, some are kibbutzim, and some are part of fully fledged cities such as Beer Sheva and Netivot. Though few of these claims have ended up in court and those have have having been discarded, they are frequently compensated at the state level. This treatment stems from two opposing views of Bedouin affairs: on one side, a desire to aid a “repressed minority,’ and on the other, fear of violent reprisal from the Bedouin community, who recognize these “land claims” in full and will often use force to help adjudicate the issue. Beyond this disconnect between official treatment and state handling, the claims themselves are often fraught, convoluted, and frequently contradictory, as a result of the lack of evidence of supposed land ownership required or examined at the time of the filing of the claim.


How did such a situation come to be? The answer lies in “land registration,” the process by which a government is meant to register land ownership within its borders. This is generally done through submission of a claim to a piece of land, thorough investigation by the government, and eventually either the granting of land, or the deeming of it state property. Unfortunately, this entire process was done far less rigorously in regards to the Bedouin, with the government showing for more effort in assisting the Bedouin with such claims, and far more leniency in investigating them as compared to non-Bedouin populations, out of a sense that the strictness of the established law was “unfair” to the Bedouin peoples regarding this issue. This policy has largely remained in effect since the establishment of the state, and thus the lands in the Negev have remained an unconfirmed mess of unofficial ownership, with the official legal status of these lands never fully settled. This has resulted in roadblocks to land development, and even open violence on the part of Bedouin on behalf of their right to these “historic lands.” And while some of these claims were eventually registered on-masse by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in 2017, tens of thousands of claims remain unverified, with their status still hotly disputed between Bedouins and the state.


This ongoing and explosive issue has only highlighted the deeper disagreement at the heart of Bedouin affairs: who has authority over settlements within the Negev, the Bedouin communities or the state? This debate has been pushed to its breaking point in recent years in several prominent legal cases. The claimants to the land argue against their lack of legal, documented claim with the appeal that their “native rights” to the land belong to their own system, one that preceded and trumps the founding of the state, and was supposedly recognized by Ottoman and British authorities. It is not a matter of practicality, over misfiled papers or unsubmitted claims, nor even of poverty and degraded conditions, for many of the Bedouin leaders of this struggle are actually quite wealthy. Further, all government offers of generous compensation have been refused. Rather, it has become such a vast matter of principle that these cases have become a larger banner for the Bedouin cause, and another means to strike against the Israeli government’s land regime—one that has been taken up by human rights groups, left-wing radicals, and an array of Bedouin communities. More importantly, these two cases show starkly the the Bedouin have no plans to give up quietly regarding land issues, and that these volatile cases will be seized and used as ammunition to more largely denounce Israeli policy.


Unfortunately, despite the Israeli government’s repeated willingness to take a firm stand in court and on legal proceedings, as well as their frequent attempts to offer financial restitution, it is clear that opponents of this course of action will continue to oppose the government in any manner possible—including through violence and the criminal element. To successfully establish a long-lasting and effective policy regarding the Bedouin in the Negev, the government must first launch a concerted opposition to these forces determined to oppose the state’s presence.


The reigning government voice on matters regarding the Bedouin is the Authority for Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev, and despite the large amounts of money sunk into establishing settlements in the Negev, have had very few successes in encouraging actual communities of Bedouins. This lack of Bedouin interest in the neighborhoods specifically built for them stems from many causes, from a desire for greater state compensation to the principle-rooted complaints voices in the aforementioned court cases. The ever-present threat of violence, as well as political pressure emanating from Bedouin authorities also plays a role, given that it is used to enforce internal claims to land, which in Bedouin eyes, carry more weight then the word of the state, or to threaten parties out of cooperating with the Israeli government. This has at times included sabotage, arson, assault, theft, threatening messages, and barred entry, all done by Bedouins—even by some Bedouin authorities—to prevent the construction of new settlements by the government, and even the cooperation of other Bedouins with these efforts.


This forceful approach can even extend to sabotaging education: cutting electricity to schools, dismantling remote educational technology, assassinating principal—anything possible to halt the inroads of larger Israeli society into the traditional Bedouin way of life, whose internal power structures remain dominated by the criminal organizations. Major corruption and noncompliance from police and other authorities hampers efforts to tamp down on this wave of targeted violence and provides yet another indicator of just how deep such attitudes run amongst the Bedouin. Such resistance is coming from a deep-rooted cultural, ideological, and overall societal standpoint. As pointed out already, though it is not so clean cut and stereotypical as many non-Bedouins would believe it to be, there are still significant gaps between the Israeli and Bedouin ways of life, and these gaps are only exacerbated by the lack of accurate public perception regarding the Bedouin. If the Israeli government wants to affect long-lasting, positive change, it must focus its efforts on fighting the major centers of power intent on widening these divisions in service to their own illegal ends. Arresting scores of low-level drug runners will not stop gang cut off this crime at its source, and neither will throwing gigantic amounts of public funding towards establishing organized, well-maintained settlements when it has become very clear that the problem is not necessarily lack of resources.


Instead, Bigman proposes that a larger war on gang-led crime, especially drug trade, be the government’s main focus, with the goal to discredit, arrest, and eliminate the societal influence of the criminal leaders who are forcefully maintaining traditional Bedouin power structures so that it is the hope of cooperation and advancement driving Bedouin day-to-day decisions, rather than fear of such shadowy predators wielding their considerable societal influence. Such a thing will, hopefully, lead to more open and honest communication between the Bedouin and the state, finally allowing for the growth and aid modernity can provide the Bedouins, should they find themselves able to make room for it in their lives.

Picture credit: צילום מתוך אוסף התצלומים הלאומי, באדיבות לע”מ.

This article was translated from its original Hebrew form by Avi Woolf and edited by Gavriella Cohen.

Akiva Bigman

Akiva Bigman is an investigative journalist who lives in the Negev Desert. The original article was published in hebrew in the 23rd addition of Hashiloach, this essay has been translated and edited for the anglo society.

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