Nomadism, once a common way of life from Mongolia to America, is fast disappearing worldwide, and Israel is no exception.
Known as Bedouins, Israel’s nomads have largely abandoned the camels and tents that had been their hallmarks since the days when Abraham camped in Beersheva. The estimated 70,000 who roamed that same desert, the Negev, on the eve of Israel’s establishment have since then more than trebled in number. But they have also gradually moved into permanent houses, shacks, and huts that make up to the improvised towns that now dot the highways between Beersheva and the Dead Sea.
The consequent civic confusion, environmental chaos, and social time bomb demanded policy response. That treatment has finally arrived, but with it came loud opposition, following the approval in late November of a government plan to regularise and legalise Bedouin settlements, and improve services to Israel’s Bedouin citizens.
Comprising 3.5% of Israel’s population, the Negev’s 220,000 Bedouins and the Galilee’s 60,000 are the Jewish State’s most socially disadvantaged group, reflecting their unique status as a minority within a minority.
Although there are millions of Bedouins throughout the Middle East, they do not see themselves as adding up to a nationality. Instead, their nuclear unit is the tribe, where most marriages also occur. Consequently, the Bedouin remain removed from the mainstream Arab population, in Israel, in the Palestinian Authority and elsewhere.
Though the Bedouins’ main language is Arabic and their religion is Islam, the landed Arabs who make up the rest of Israel’s Arab minority have not only refrained from marrying them, but also frequently look down upon them, echoing the biblical tension between farmers and shepherds reflected in the story of Cain and Abel.
This distance from other Arabs contributed to the Bedouin tradition of partial and voluntary enlistment to the IDF – unlike most other Israeli Arabs (except the Druze). Many Bedouins serve as IDF trackers and scouts, while some also become career officers in the standing army.
All of this has not prevented the emergence of friction between this community and the Jewish State, which like all modern states saw in nomadism a source of social neglect and a challenge to the rule of law and the state’s ability to administer public policy. The state found it difficult to properly educate an unsettled population, and to provide it with the kind of health and hygiene standards for which it strove for all its citizens.
Since the late 1960s, Israel has gradually established seven Bedouin towns in the northern Negev, the first being Tel Sheva just east of Beersheva, and the largest, Rahat, inhabited by some 55,000 people, some 13 kilometres north of Beersheva.
The government’s original aim, to help the Bedouin modernise and join the social mainstream, was successful in some respects. Industrial zones near the new towns provided thousands of jobs. Once mostly illiterate, Israel’s Bedouins became 95% literate. A growing number of their young adults now enrol in universities, and a rapidly growing number of Bedouin women are obtaining higher education. At the same time, polygamy remains common, high-school dropout rates are high, average income is lower than elsewhere in Israel, and crime rates are higher than the average. So is unemployment, affecting about a quarter of the potential workforce among the Negev’s Bedouins.
Meanwhile, the new towns did not encompass the entire Bedouin population. The unofficial villages, housing 90,000 Bedouins, were encroaching on state-owned land, expanding wildly without any legal regulation, while also lacking proper electricity connections, water supplies, and sewage systems.
This is what Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu set out to rectify when he assigned then-minister Benny Begin with devising a plan to regulate the Bedouins’ residency in the Negev, based largely on the findings of a commission headed by former Israeli Supreme Court judge Eliezer Goldberg in 2007.
Named after Ehud Prawer, head of policy planning at Netanyahu’s office, the Prawer Plan recommends expanding the existing towns by encouraging up to 40,000 people to move to them from 35 of the smaller and more remote unofficial settlements that have come to be referred to as the “Bedouin Diaspora.” Meanwhile, the majority of residents of unrecognised villages would remain in their current places of habitation with their unofficial settlements becoming formally recognised villages complete with requisite services. A new agency would be assigned with reviewing land claims by individual Bedouins.
Those who agree to leave their unauthorised locations and move to the expanded towns would receive compensation in both land and money. People staying put on unauthorised land would be taken to court. Those who failed to submit their land claims before a government-imposed deadline would lose their right to make future claims.
In all, the plan was to leave most Bedouins close to where they currently are, relocating no more than a few kilometres in the vast majority of cases, while giving them the benefits of a fully regularised and legalised status as documented landowners in proper towns with formal services and organised infrastructure.
There was a successful precedent for this formula. The Bedouin town of Tarabin a-Sana, just south of Rahat, came into being after its population agreed to relocate there from its previous location outside the mainly Jewish town of Omer, following elaborate negotiations between the Government and several rival groups within the tribe.
Even so, the Prawer plan’s approval has triggered protests, as activists claimed it would displace thousands of Bedouins, and argued that the compensation offered in the plan is too low. In addition, they said they feared there was not enough available real estate in the Negev with which to supply what the plan promises for those who relocate.
Most crucially, the demonstrators protested the plan’s call to demolish illegal houses in the unrecognised settlements that will not be legalised.
Demonstrations against the Prawer Plan were held in the Negev, Haifa, and outside Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. Car tyres were set on fire and stones flew through the air while 15 police were moderately injured and some three dozen demonstrators arrested.
Israeli Arab lawmakers have meanwhile treated the Prawer plan as a strategic target.
“The Prawer Law’s aim is to remove the Bedouins from their lands and not to regulate them,” claimed MK Ahmed Tibi of the Raam-Taal faction. Then again, Tibi is not Bedouin, and and the success of his effort to attach the Bedouins to his own anti-Israeli agenda has yet to be demonstrated.
Experience had shown that Bedouin leaders generally seek harmony with the government, and become pragmatic once they are convinced they are not being taken for a ride, and that government plans can be to their benefit. The fact that only just over a thousand people showed up to the main anti-Prawer Plan demonstration – with perhaps half of them Bedouins – may mean that opposition to the plan is more vocal than sizeable.
Meanwhile, Benny Begin denied earlier reports that he had consulted Bedouin leaders in conceiving the plan. Following this revelation, lawmakers from the coalition said they would likely revise the bill, which had at that point received Cabinet approval, and passed a first reading in the Knesset but was yet to pass the required second and third readings.
Even so, the plan drew international condemnation – including from the European Parliament and from United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who called Israel’s Bedouin policy “discriminatory” and said the Prawer Plan left her “alarmed.” The Foreign Ministry said in reply that the commissioner was poorly informed and called her remarks “unacceptable.”
Nonetheless, judging by Israeli precedent, the Government will likely proceed with its plan after revising it, but in piecemeal fashion – slowly enlisting individual tribes and sub-groups within them, while demonstrating to the rest that costs of cooperation are low and its benefits are high.
The Bedouin, for their part, will likely gradually accept the program, because the northern Negev is expected to thrive in upcoming years as the IDF relocates ten of its large bases from the greater Tel Aviv area to there – including its schools of logistics, intelligence, and military medicine. This mega-project will create thousands of jobs that will increase the Bedouin community’s interest in becoming part of this great developmental opportunity.
If so, this will, in effect, accelerate what has been happening to them since Israel’s establishment.