Israel: No Place for Bedouin

Bedouin living in the Negev desert often lack even basic services, something Israel appears to promote

Bedouin women
Bedouin Arabs living in the Negev desert are being forced off their grazing lands into towns and villages that lack clean water, sanitation, electricity, and other basic services [GALLO/GETTY]

Ibrahim al-Atrash lifts the cover to a large, copper water tank. “Rust,” he says, pointing to the discolored rim. Moments later, one of al-Atrash’s children fills a pink, plastic jug with water that slowly trickles out from the container’s spout.

This is how the al-Atrash family – and the over 4,500 residents of al-Atrash, a so-called “unrecognized” Bedouin village in the Israeli Negev (Naqab) desert, which is named after the tribe – gets water: through a series of pipes connecting individual tanks to a central water system over 5 kilometers away.

“We don’t have any options. We’re obliged to drink from the containers and it’s not healthy. It causes a lot of health problems because sometimes there are holes in the pipe, water pressure issues, and lots of things,” says Ibrahim, who heads the al-Atrash village council.

Ibrahim explains that it cost him nearly 50,000 Israel sheckels (approximately US$14,500) to dig up the land in order to hook his pipes up to the water system. Despite the investment, the system is far from perfect; the water freezes in the winter and is boiling hot in the summer, water pressure is low and often there isn’t enough water to satisfy an entire family’s needs.

“We don’t have water here to drink. It’s hot here [in the Negev]. The minimum thing is to give us water so that our children can drink,” he says.

Today, nearly half of the entire Bedouin population in the Negev – approximately 80,000 people – lives in 45 Bedouin villages that are unrecognized by the Israeli government. Despite being Israeli citizens, the state views the Bedouin residents of these villages as illegal squatters and does not provide them with basic services or infrastructure, including electricity, water, sewage systems, roads, schools or hospitals.

On June 5, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled on an appeal filed five years ago on behalf of 128 Bedouin families living in six different unrecognized villages, including al-Atrash, who asked to be connected to the area’s water distribution network.

The court ruled that three villages – Gatamat, Umm el-Hieran, and Tel Arad – must be provided with an unspecified “minimum access to water” but rejected in part the claims of three other villages – al-Atrash, Tel al-Maleh, and Tla’ Rashid – since it stated that these villages already had reasonable access to water.

While the court stated that the right to water is a constitutional right for all Israeli citizens, including the Bedouins, “because it stems directly from the constitutional right to life and the right to dignity and equality,” it failed to specify what constitutes a fair minimum of water for the villages the state deems illegal.

Further, its ultimate conclusion dangerously adopted the official Israeli solution with regards to the so-called Bedouin “problem” – that the Bedouins of the unrecognized Negev villages should be moved into government-planned townships.

A history of Bedouin transfer

This, of course, has been the Israeli government’s plan all along, and has been promoted through various means since the state began building the first three Bedouin urban centers – Tel al-Sabe (Tel Sheva), Rahat and Kseife – in the early 1960s. Today, seven government-planned, Bedouin towns exist in the Negev, including the largest, Rahat, which holds over 50,000 residents.

These towns are the poorest in the entire country and lack basic services, including schools, complete sewage systems, banks, libraries and employment opportunities. They are largely seen as dormitory towns – people only sleep there and must go outside for anything else they need – and most importantly, the towns fail to take into account Bedouin culture and way of life, which is agricultural and deeply rooted in the land.

Today, the extremely difficult conditions prevalent in unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev is being used as an excuse to promote the urbanization of the Bedouin population. This effort comes despite the fact that the Bedouins have lived on their lands (considered state lands by the Israeli government) for generations, and despite the reality that the sub-par conditions in the townships mean that there is no real incentive for the Bedouins to leave their communities, despite being unrecognized.

“The court took for granted that these people are land squatters when in fact, they are not. This is very, very problematic,” explained Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which represented the villagers in their appeal to the Supreme Court. “[It] does not take into consideration that the Bedouins are living on their own lands, many of them before 1948, and many of them were moved onto the lands that they are living [on now] by an order by the [Israeli] military commander.”

Prior to and during the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, approximately 85 percent of the Bedouin population in the Negev was expelled from their lands to surrounding territories, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan and Egypt. Of the original 95 Bedouin tribes that inhabited the area, only 19 remained.

According to Ismael Abu Saad, the founder of the Bedouin Studies Center at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, after Israeli military rule was imposed on the entire Palestinian population that remained in the territory now known as Israel, the Bedouins of the Negev were deprived of the ability to travel with their herds and cultivate their lands.

In addition, 12 of the 19 remaining tribes were forcibly displaced from their lands and confined to a restricted area in the northeastern Negev, which they could only leave with a special permit. Known as the Siyag, this area covered only ten percent of the land the Bedouins controlled prior to 1948, and was known for its low fertility.

“These restrictions represented a form of forced sedentarization, which virtually ended their traditional way of life,” Abu Saad wrote in a paper titled, “Defining the ‘Other’ as the Enemy: the Indigenous Palestinian Bedouin in Israel”. As most of the Bedouins of the Negev were forced into the Siyag and were therefore not occupying their original lands, they lost ownership claims to land that they had used for generations.

After Israel had expropriated 93 percent of the lands in the Negev for Jewish settlement, the state’s next priority was the forced urbanization of the Bedouins. “We should transform the Bedouins into an urban proletariat–in industry, services, construction and agriculture. 88 percent of the Israeli populations are not farmers, let the Bedouins be like them,” stated Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan in 1963.

“Indeed, this will be a radical move which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children would be accustomed to a father who wears trousers, does not carry a Shabaria [traditional Bedouin knife] and does not search for vermin in public. This would be a revolution, but it may be fixed within two generations. Without coercion but with government direction, this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear,” Dayan said.

Ethnic cleansing continues slowly

The Judaization of the Negev has been a priority for Israeli leaders since before the state was even founded. In 1937, David Ben-Gurion, who would go on to be Israel’s first Prime Minister, wrote in a letter to his son: “Negev land is reserved for Jewish citizens whenever and wherever they want. We must expel the Arabs and take their place.”

Over 60 years later, not much has changed. Indeed, in 2005, the Israeli government publicly stated its goal to strengthen Jewish settlement in the region and increase the population by 70 percent by 2015, up to 900,000 residents. As such, virtually every Jewish development project in the Negev – whether for a kibbutz, agricultural village, individual farm, or city – is immediately given basic services and infrastructure and encouraged to grow, while these same resources remain at unlivable levels in Bedouin communities.

Individual settlements – provided with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dunums of land for the use of one single Jewish family – have been promoted since 1997 in the Negev. These farms are equipped with basic infrastructure, including vast reserves of water and electricity, and their stated purpose is to safeguard state lands from Arab citizens of the state while ensuring that Jewish Israelis use the most land possible. According to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the earliest individual settlements were built “without tenders, without clear criteria for distributing the land, without building permits or approvals as required by law, and without examining development and policy needs.”

Not only are projects for the benefit of Israel’s Jewish population promoted without going through the proper legal channels, they are actively pursued at the expense of the Bedouins, who continue to be viewed as a threat by the state. For example, the Israeli planning authorities in the Negev are arrogantly working on plans to completely destroy the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hieran – currently inhabited by 150 families and approximately 1,000 residents – to build a Jewish town, which will be called Hiran, directly on top of it.

In another example, the 300 Bedouin residents of the unrecognized village of al-Araqib have seen their rights trampled in order to make way for a forest sponsored by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The village has been completely demolished nearly two dozen times, including the most recent demolition on June 21, and JNF bulldozers work the villagers’ lands each day in preparation for planting.

And so while Israel promotes Jewish residential and forestation projects, every Bedouin community in the Negev – whether recognized or unrecognized – struggles to meet the basic needs of its residents, all of whom are citizens of the state.

In this context, it is clear that withholding access to water for the Bedouins – not to mention electricity, schools, healthcare, and virtually all other services – has nothing to do with the legal status of their villages.

Instead, it can be seen as a tactical tool that highlights the deep-rooted, state-sanctioned discrimination and inequality prevalent in the Negev and confirms that the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens will always be sacrificed in the name of preserving Jewish control over all aspects of the state, from the use of land to the allocation of resources.

“Why is recognition in the country’s hands? They say that we are illegal, but then they will build 20 houses for Jews and call it a recognized village. Why do they recognize 20 houses, but not 5,000 people? You can’t recognize us? Give us water, electricity, and streets?” asks Ibrahim al-Atrash, sitting in the shade just outside his family’s home.

“It’s a way to pressure the people. They didn’t agree to give us water as a way to pressure us to give up our lands,” he adds, “But what will they give me in exchange?”

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. She regularly contributes to The Electronic Intifada, Inter-Press Service and Free Speech Radio News. More of her work can be found at

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.