Bedouins slam Israel's desert development as 'Nakba in the Negev'

An Israeli development plan for the Negev desert would evict 40,000 semi-nomadic Arab Bedouins, who compare it to the Palestinian expulsion after Israel's founding. 

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Ground which has been prepared for the construction of new homes is seen in front of the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom, near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, August 25.

The Bedouins of the southern Negev desert have volunteered for the Israeli military, worked as trackers along the Lebanese and Egyptian borders, and gone along with various Israeli development projects that have required them to give up their nomadic way of life and relocate.  

But they feel betrayed now by the latest Israeli government project, a $5.6 billion initiative called the Begin-Prawar plan that will free up space for Israeli development of the Negev by relocating Bedouins in the area if it is approved by the Knesset after it returns from recess next month. 

The Israeli government has slated for eviction 40,000 Bedouins in “unrecognized” villages throughout the southern Negev, which are ineligible for basic services such as electricity, water, or sanitation because they are on disputed land and were built without state permission.

Some of the villages will be granted status as formal towns, entitled to state and municipal services including schools, sewage, and healthcare facilities.   Residents of the other villages will be resettled into seven existing approved townships.

The government says the move will improve Bedouins’ standards of living and describes it as an opportunity for integration into mainstream society, while many Bedouins say that being disconnected from their traditional agricultural land and lifestyle will mean cultural extinction. 

The draft law will “make it possible for Bedouin children to leap in time into the midst of the 21st century,” said Benny Begin, a former minister and one of the creators of the plan 

Bedouins have historically been one of Israel’s weakest populations, facing discrimination and disproportionally high rates of illiteracy and unemployment.  In 2007, more than two-thirds of the Bedouin in the Negev lived below the poverty line, more than four times that of Israeli households, according to the National Insurance Institute.

Half of the 200,000 Bedouins of the Negev – descendants of semi-nomadic tribes – have already voluntarily relocated to urban centers, where crime and poverty are rampant, and, in some cases, running water and electricity are still lacking.

But many Bedouins, who have worked for the state and for Jewish farms in the region, see it as a betrayal and a violation of their rights as Israeli citizens.

“It’s an exile plan,” says Bedouin Atiyeh el-Ghassan, who represents the “unrecognized” villages in the Beersheva district court. 

He says that Bedouins were not consulted during the planning process, and that as Jewish agricultural communities are growing throughout the Negev, traditionally nomadic and pastoral Bedouins are being forced to urbanize. Many Bedouins say such projects have left their way of life and identity in tatters. 

Refusing to be relocated

The Bedouin village of Al Araqib has steadfastly refused to be relocated. Since 2010, Israeli forces have razed homes and uprooted olive groves here 57 times, claiming that residents are illegal trespassers, according to long-standing land disputes.  The village’s only surviving structure is a century-old Islamic cemetery.

Hakmeh Abu Medeighim lives in a shoddy wooden tent next door. She and a handful of other families have refused to leave their ancestral lands, strewn with rubble from their homes that were razed, rebuilt, and razed again. Though pine trees stand where their olive trees once were, they pledge that they will die in this harsh desert “even if mourners will have no water for the ritual prayer,” says Al Araqib’s elder, Sheikh Sayyah al-Turi.

He has been waging a losing battle in municipal courts to prove land ownership, using pre-1948 land deeds – rejected by Israel – as his only legal documents.

He didn’t always have to fight, but growing racism in the government has eroded respect for the Bedouin community, allowing things like the Prawar plan to come about, he argues.

“From the creation of the state of Israel onwards, Israel said, ‘Bedouins are our best Arab brothers in the country,’” says Sheikh al-Turi, in Hebrew. “Only now they call us ‘trespassers,’ ‘criminals.’”


But, beginning in 1999, the quasi-governmental Jewish National Fund began trying to lure “pioneering” Israelis away from overpopulated, expensive coastal areas by promising cheaper housing and a relaxed lifestyle. Suddenly, the arid desert region was considered valuable.

Marginalization and common experiences with Palestinians have led younger generations of Bedouins identify more closely with Palestinians than Israelis.

“We feel alienated in this country that treats us as second-class citizens,” says activist Amir Abo Kweder. He and fellow villagers protest the Prawar plan alongside droves of Israeli Arabs, and in coordination with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, under banners such as “Nakba in the Negev.”

“While Bedouins have preserved a very strong local identity as Bedouins or Muslims, exposure to Palestinian culture and proximity to the occupied territories has nationalized them,” says Thabet Abu Ras, director of Adalah, an advocacy group for Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens.

However, this new alliance, serves a Palestinian agenda interested in garnering more Arab support, “not really interested in having Bedouins progress,” says Lirit Serphos, the Israeli government's policy director for Bedouins in the Negev. 

Israel sees Bedouins as a minority group entitled to basic services, she says, but these services do not include support for sprawling, “uneconomical” villages.

“Their wish for their kids to be shepherds, and for Israel not to touch their traditions is a really romantic view that our government cannot tolerate," Ms. Serphos says. Development of the Negev is a high government priority.

But life in existing Israeli-built Bedouin towns is not necessarily an improvement, even with some basic services. Rahat, the largest Bedouin city, is rife with crime, and receives a score of 1 on a 10-point scale of the government's national socioeconomic indicator. Many Bedouins there, all of whom relocated voluntarily, work 12-hour days in low-tech factory jobs, and return only to sleep in characterless dormitories crowded by large families and, occasionally, livestock in the yard.

The Prawar Plan seeks to address systemic poverty issues. One of its main goals is to promote education and employment amongst Bedouin women by offering opportunities in the high-tech and industrial companies now being constructed in the Negev. 

But if the efforts are not organic and local, Bedouin women may actually suffer more, says Amal Al-Mufassa, who runs Sidreh-Lakiyeh, an NGO backing small businesses owned by Bedouin women. One 70 women-strong initiative based out of Lakiya, an official town, sells traditional handicrafts and rugs woven from local Bedouin wool.

“For empowerment to work, it has to be local,” says Ms. Al-Mufassa.  “They want to integrate the modern and the traditional, not to choose one side.” 

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