Editor’s note: In May, JTNews editor Joel Magalnick visited the Negev Desert in central Israel as a guest of Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s Robert H. Arnow Center for Bedouin Studies and Development. This article is the third in a series of stories about the Negev’s Bedouin population and the issues they face as they struggle to become equal citizens in the country in which they live.
Driving through the back highways of Israel’s Negev Desert, scatterings of makeshift homes and sheep herds interrupt the miles of rolling hills and desert scrub. These are the original, and in many cases, the current homes of Israel’s Bedouins, a tribal society that has yet to come to terms with its place in 21st-century Israel.
These small villages, often with several dozen of these shacks and strewn with garbage and rotting sheep carcasses, are not recognized by the Israeli government. As such, they receive no government services such as water, electricity or education, and as many as 50,000 of these structures are slated for demolition.
“State policy is to concentrate Bedouins in limited numbers of towns,” says Attia Assam, leader of the unrecognized village Abu Tlul and former head of a non-governmental organization known as the Council of Unrecognized Villages. “The state is not giving these towns services to pressure them to move into towns.”
It is this issue, who owns the land, that is probably the most divisive issue between the Bedouin population and the Israeli government.
“Many unrecognized towns were here before Israeli statehood, and what makes us sad is our towns don’t show up on maps,” says Assam.
When Israel became a state, nearly all of the Bedouins in the country who had not fled or been expelled were forcibly transferred to an area in the northern Negev called the siyag. Movement was restricted and land claims largely refused for lack of documentation.
“Under Israeli rule,” states a study by Ben Gurion University’s Bedouin Center and the Negev Center for Regional Development called A Preliminary Evaluation of the Negev Bedouin experience of Urbanization, “all of the land of the Negev was declared state land.”
Today, roughly half the population lives in unrecognized villages in so-called temporary structures made from canvas, wood refuse, asbestos tiles and, in at least one case, a Volkswagen. Some of these structures have stood for decades, but according to Ilana Meallem, a graduate student at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, “a tin shake roof or asbestos is considered ‘temporary.’” Homes built with tile or shingles on the roof may be destroyed by the government, as are structures with foundations.
Several government administrations have devised solutions to the land issue, all of which have been deemed unfair by the Council of Unrecognized Villages. According to Invisible Citizens: Israel Government Policy Toward the Negev Bedouin, a joint study by the Adva Center for Equality and Social Justice in Israel, the Center for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben Gurion University, and the Negev Center for Regional Development, a decision by the Barak government in 2000 sought to recognize several more villages and construct community service centers.
“The Council’s representatives refused to do so, asserting that from their point of view this would constitute political and social suicide, in light of the fact that the government decision did not solve the land question and tens of thousands of Bedouin still remained in ‘unrecognized’ villages,” the report stated.
Previous rejected resolution would have compensated Bedouins at a fraction of the value of the land.
A handful of villages have been recognized in the past four years, though many are still waiting to receive the basic services that are supposed to be guaranteed them as citizens of the state.
“In 2003 we were finally recognized by the government, but still nothing has happened,” says Yusef Al-Hawashle, a member of the town council in the town of Kasr Alssr. “We’re recognized, but not recognized.”
Israel has begun to install water pipes and electricity in some parts of the region where the 250-year-old Al-Hawashle tribe lives, and a modern elementary school that is hoped to be a model for future Bedouin schools opened in September 2006.
A tiny majority of Bedouins who can afford to do so, and have chosen to live away from what can sometimes be the uncomfortable confines of the tribe, live in cities such as Beer Sheva or Arad. They are far enough away to have their own lives but close enough that they can still consult with their tribal leaders or families when the need arises. The rest, following government policy since the late 1960s, live in one of seven Bedouin cities created by the Israeli government. The government’s first attempt, Tel Sheva, is widely considered to be a failure: it was designed without the input of any Bedouins, and did not take into account the large family size or that most Bedouins move as a tribal unit, which could be as large as several thousand members.
Kher Albaz, director of social services for the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom and a resident of Tel Sheva, says the original dwellings were about 580 square feet apiece — about the size of a studio apartment.
“This is an example of how ignorant Western planners are,” Albaz says. In 1968, when the town was built, Bedouins averaged 16.2 members per family.
From a bureaucratic standpoint, the movement of the Bedouins to cities makes sense: consolidation of public services, central school systems and community centers, and a tax base. But such has not been the case.
“Town income is based on taxes, one is industrial and others from private homes,” says Albaz. “Councils are basing mostly on property taxes since the industrial, at 100 percent, is hard to find in Bedouin towns.”
With high unemployment rates, that tax revenue is even lower, and federal budget allocation for the Bedouin cities are often left with lower-than-promised funding. Infrastructure has been lacking as well. Though like in the U.S., where more than 90 percent of homes have a television, fewer than half of the homes in the Bedouin cities have sewage lines. One of the newer cities, Laqiya, has no sewage infrastructure whatsoever.
Jamal Al-Kirnawi, a Bedouin graduate of Ben Gurion University who works with Arab students on the main campus, points out a curious feature of the Bedouin cities: no street names and no addresses.
“Neighborhoods have the tribe names and mail is delivered that way,” says Al-Kirnawi. “It’s a small community.”
The land issue goes back to 100 years before Israel even became a state. Most Bedouin land transactions during Ottoman rule in the 1800s were by word of mouth. The Bedouins steered clear of the power structure, which only made matters more difficult later.
“The Ottoman authorities expected all of the Empire’s subjects who used mawat [‘dead’] lands — including the Negev Bedouin — to make the effort to present themselves at government offices in order to register the land in their names and receive title deeds,” according to the Invisible Citizens study. “However, having their own ownership arrangements, the Bedouin failed to comply with the authorities’ edicts.”
When Israel was founded, “the Ottoman lands ordinance now served the new state, enabling it to assume control over Bedouin lands.”
Bedouin claims to the land, most of it undocumented, continues to be unresolved while many still wish to use large swathes to maintain their centuries-old agrarian livelihoods. But their options are limited.
Bedouins farmers have long been subject to institutionalized discrimination — examples cited by the Invisible Citizens study cite land lease permissions for farming. Israeli Jews are able to lease arable land from the government for 49 years, whereas Bedouins must renew the lease each year. In addition, water allocation rights are either more expensive or non-existent for Bedouin farmers, and drought compensation, available to Jewish farmers, was eliminated for Bedouin farmers more than 40 years ago.
The government has been increasingly aggressive in its attempts to limit farming by unauthorized Bedouins. The Green Patrol, a paramilitary unit created in 1976 to preserve nature and oversee state lands, “primarily acts to police, harass and evict the Bedouin living outside the urban settlements,” according to the urbanization study.
The Green Patrol is most active in unauthorized fields where Bedouins attempt to grow grains. Prior to 2004 the patrol would spray the crops to kill them, but a court case won on behalf of the Bedouins, citing health effects, has since resulted in crops being plowed under instead. Whatever the methods, however, social workers in Bedouin villages can cite the effects on children.
“We did a study where the government destroyed houses, and we asked the kids about how they look at the Israeli army and the Israeli police when they destroyed their houses, the psychological impact,” says Alean Al-Krenawi, chair of the Spitzer Department of Social Work at Ben Gurion University. “There’s a hate in the eyes of the kids. They see the army as guerillas, the police as monsters trying to destroy their houses…. They draw their houses demolished, with their belongings thrown around, their fathers being touched by the police.”
But not everyone believes the Green Patrol’s actions are unjustified.
“If you want to preserve the land, if you don’t want it to desertify, you have to respect the fundamental ecological concept that is called carrying capacity,” says Alon Tal, a founder of the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies and often considered one of Israel’s leading environmentalists.
“Every other country has to accept that a pastoral, nomadic society cannot continue to exist if it wants to be ecologically sustainable….It has zero to do with racism — it has to do with ecology.”
Tal, who also sits on the international board of the Jewish National Fund, sees the illegal building and continued lack of action by the government in coming up with a workable solution to the Bedouin issue as a way that Israel’s Jews will lose their sovereignty.
“The amount of land Bedouins are illegally squatting on is almost as much as the entire Jewish National Fund land ownership, which is about 12 percent of the land [of Israel], which we bought over the years on behalf of the Jewish people,” he says.
Tal says many Bedouins that work the land legally have built good relations with NGOs such as JNF, and that the registered herds have been a low-impact solution to keeping the underbrush under control. But what called “the level of lawlessness [that] has crept into a lot of Bedouin culture” resulting in thefts from Jewish farmers and uprooting of their trees, has created a state of fear.
“It’s unbelievable that this is our state,” says Tal. “If you wish to have a pastoral life, either you respect the carrying capacity of the land and work with the grazing authorities or have a feedlot center. Buy wheat and other things like most Jewish farms do and don’t have a nomadic grazing life.”
Tal believes that either the Bedouins in the unrecognized villages must follow the rule of law or find someplace else to live. Assam of the Council of Unrecognized Villages disagrees — he believes his fellow Bedouins have not been presented with any realistic options.
“Our approach is to go to government offices and ask a simple question with a simple answer: Are Bedouins citizens or not? If so, why aren’t we getting government services?” he says. “We see a Jewish person nearby, [requesting permits for] a ranch house — single farmer — and the next day they have an access road with electricity, with telephone, with water. That means we don’t get equal treatment.”
Despite these issues, experts who have worked with Bedouin populations believe that moving to the recognized cities is the best way to keep the population healthy, educated, and better equipped to contribute to Israel’s economy.
“It will be tough on some individuals, on some small tribes, but they will need to do it,” says Rivka Carmi, president of Ben Gurion University, which has been one of the only state entities to champion for the Bedouins. “We have evacuated the whole Gaza neighborhood of Jewish settlements. It’s very painful, it’s awful. It broke everybody’s heart.”
By helicopter, Carmi says, you can see how Bedouins, with among the highest birth rate in the world, are beginning to take up most of the space.
“One day, the tribes, if they won’t comply, they will need to be removed…. The whole Negev is being settled by Bedouins. That’s another problem we cannot push under the table.”