RAHAT, ISRAEL — BEARING a small white flag that signals the imminence of a wedding, a large communal tent stands out starkly amid the cluster of masonry houses that give drab architectural definition to Rahat. Once a common sight in the Negev Desert, the patchwork goat-hair dwellings of Israel's 120,000 Bedouin have all but disappeared, symbolizing the end of 6,000 years of nomadic life. For Abu Yaihye, a town elder who, like all but a handful the country's Bedouin, is now suddenly an urban dweller, it has not been a change for the better.
``For centuries, the Bedouin have valued three things: a good horse, a nice wife, and a large green land,'' says Yaihye, gesturing from the tent toward a joyless row of newly constructed block houses that includes his own. ``Now the Israeli authorities need us to live like this. From here, it is a place where you only go to the grave.''
Not all of Israel's Bedouin share Abu Yaihye's bleak view of their new urban lifestyle. But few would disagree that in Israel, as across the Arab world, a rough and romantic way of life is vanishing almost overnight.
Lured by the comforts of 20th century living and prodded by the requirements of state-building in Israel, the vast majority of Israel's Bedouin have been prompted - some would say forced - to swap desert wanderings for urban settlements like Rahat, 12 miles north of Beersheba.
By the usual material standards, life is better for the Bedouin, who are now surrounded by amenities - schools and health clinics, television sets and real beds - not normally associated with tent living.
But the end of nomadic life has taken something crucial out of Bedouin life. Time, once measured by the lazy arc of the sun, is now governed by clocks and appointments. Land, once shared according to tribal etiquette, has been confiscated. Status, once a function of age and wisdom, is now determined by money, jobs, and connections.
``The hills I looked out on as a child had the rounded shapes of tents and camels,'' says Ali Al Asad, principal of a secondary school in the Bedouin village of Lagiya. ``Now the soft contours have given way to the stark cubes of the block houses. It reflects a new mind-set. Now we're thinking in cubes; we're thinking in frames that are already made.''
Before the state of Israel was created in 1948, there was little to challenge the free-floating lifestyle of the Bedouin, whose camels and herds of goats and sheep lived off the stingy offerings of the desert that comprises over half of Israel's land area.
After 1948, the Negev was forced to accommodate two peoples, as Israel's founding fathers built settlements and industries in the desert to attract waves of early immigrants.
The biggest change came after Israel relinquished the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982, forcing the transfer of key military installations to the Negev. To make room, the government expropriated 25,000 acres of Bedouin grazing land - one of several waves of land confiscation, according to the Beersheba-based Association for Support and Defense of Bedouin Rights in Israel.
The transition to sedentary life, begun gradually half a century ago by the Bedouin themselves, has been accelerated dramatically by Israel's carrot-and-stick policy toward the once-nomadic tribesmen, 75,000 of whom live in the Negev.
After Israel paved roads and built clinics and schools, many Bedouin were encouraged to settle in urban areas, the core of what Israeli planners hope will be seven major towns of 10,000 to 20,000 that will be home to nearly all Negev Bedouin. A similar policy is in effect in the Galilee, where most of the rest of Israel's Bedouin reside.
But there have been other ways of dealing with those more reluctant to abandon old ways. ``Green patrols,'' organized by Israel's agriculture ministry, have uprooted crops and seized thousands of goats and sheep grazing in ``unauthorized'' areas. Ostensibly organized to protect the environment, many Bedouin see the patrols as part of an effort by Israel to ``Judaize'' the desert.
Meanwhile, land confiscation has drawn a tighter and tighter circle around the Bedouin grazing lands.
``We feel like the Indians in the United States: They take all our property and put us in reservations,'' says Nuri El Ukbi, chairman of the Bedouin rights group that is attempting to persuade Israel to relinquish plans for urban townships in favor of a series of farming and shepherding communities.
Crowded into urban settlements, the transformation in Bedouin life - for good and for ill - has been drastic. Tribal loyalties have largely disappeared. Crime and drug problems, virtually absent before, are gradually surfacing. In the more sedentary setting, birthrates have skyrocketed. The men, once fiercely independent, are now dependent on low- status, low-paying service jobs in towns like Beersheba.
At the same, the changes have begun to upgrade the decidedly second-class status of women, as compulsory education leads to careers and transforms courting practices.
Meanwhile, as nomadic customs and lifestyle have been replaced, the Bedouin's sense of Arab identity has grown. Unlike Palestinian Arabs, Bedouin are considered loyal to the state and allowed to serve in the Israeli army. Yet more than 50 percent of all Bedouin voted for leftist parties demanding equal rights for Israel's Arab minority in last November's parliamentary elections.
``No people has gone through such a major transition in such a short time,'' says Avner Goren, an archeologist and one of Israel's leading experts on Bedouin life.
Opinion on whether Bedouin have been helped or hurt by the tide of change largely reflects the generational split such change has caused. The transition has been much harder on older Bedouin like Abu Yaihye, for whom the loss of the prouder, more self-sufficient life of his ancestors has been openly painful.
But for many younger Bedouin, the jury remains out.
``What's a good life? Money? Education?,'' asks Ali Al Asad. ``Value judgments are hard to make. I can't say for sure whether, with a computer and a master's degree, I have a better way of life.''
``I'm ambivalent,'' concurs 20-year-old Mohammed, who is spending his last few weeks in a traditional Bedouin tent before moving to Lagiya. ``There's much more comfort, not having to walk two kilometers for water. On the other hand, I'm no longer free. Being a Bedouin is the feeling of freedom.''