In 1948, on the eve of the establishment of the State of Israel, about 65,000 to 100,000 Bedouins lived in the Negev-Naqab region, the southern part of Israel. Following the 1948 war, the state began an ongoing process of eviction of the Bedouins from their dwellings. After the war, only 11,000 Bedouins have remained in the Negev, most of the community fled or was expelled to Jordan and Egypt, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. During the early 1950s and until 1966, the State of Israel concentrated the Bedouins in a closed zone known by the name ‘al-Siyāj’ (سياج) under military administration. In this period, entire villages were displaced from their locations in the western and northern Negev and were transferred to the Siyāj area.
Under the Planning and Construction Law, legislated in 1965, most of the lands in the Siyāj area were zoned as agricultural land whereby ensuring that any construction of housing would be deemed illegal, including all those houses already built which were subsequently labeled “illegal”. Thus, with a single sweeping political decision, the State of Israel transformed almost the entire Bedouin collective into a population of ״lawbreakers״, whereas the Bedouins’ only crime was exercising their basic human right for housing. In addition, the state of Israel does denies any Bedouin ownership over lands in the Negev. It does not recognize the traditional Bedouin law or any other proof of Bedouin ownership over lands.
Nowadays, about 230,000 Bedouins reside in the Negev area, in three types of settlements: about 40 unrecognized villages; 7 governmental planned towns; and 11 newly recognized villages. While the state’s urbanization process was pretty successful, with more than a half of the community residing today in planned towns, tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens still live in unrecognized villages.
The Unrecognized Villages | The unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev are about 40 villages that the state of Israel does not recognize and refers to them as a “diaspora” or “illegal villages”. Amongst these villages are some villages which are historic villages since they exist in their location prior to the establishment of the state of Israel. Other villages were internally displaced during the 1950s into the Siyāj area. The state does not recognize the historical villages nor does it recognize the internally displaced villages.
The residents of the unrecognized villages get very little governmental services and in most cases no services at all. In most of the villages there are no schools, kindergartens or health clinics. In all of them there is no infrastructure, including electricity, running water, paved roads and sewage disposal systems. These villages have no representation in the different local government bodies and they cannot participate in municipal elections. Consequently, the populations of these villages are reduced to severe hardship and poverty, compounded by the fact that they cannot access their basic civil, political and social rights.
As part of its struggle against the unrecognized villages, over the years Israel has employed a variety of mechanisms to displace residents of the unrecognized villages into planned towns, including the establishment of special government authorities for this purpose. Planning policies have ensured that villages remain unrecognized and are subjected to house demolitions and legal penalties, and that basic infrastructure and services continue to be denied to these localities. While these policies have proved successful to some extent, the unrecognized villages remain.
The Governmental Planned Towns | In the late 1950s, the state began planning the urbanization of the Bedouin community. By concentrating the Bedouin in delimited urban areas, Israel aimed to strengthen its control over the community, prevent the Bedouin villages from growing, and cut infrastructure costs. In 1966, when the military administration came to an end, the urbanization process began. The State established seven Bedouin towns, mostly within the Siyāj area, that promised residents modern services in return for their settlement in organized urban lots. The first Bedouin town, Tal as-Sabaʿ, was established in 1969, and until the 1990s, six more towns were established. All seven Bedouin towns are characterized by deprivation, high unemployment, crime and social tension, as well as insufficient services. Until the mid-1990s, Israeli policy had endeavored to concentrate the entire Bedouin community of the Negev within these seven towns. This process did not respect the Bedouin traditional way of life which is based on agriculture and rural communities.
The Newly Recognized Villages | As of 1999 the state of Israel, in various government resolutions, decided to recognize 11 Bedouin unrecognized villages in the Negev. This was allegedly a fundamental change, after years in which the only settlement option for the Bedouin community was forced urbanization. Yet, 15 years later, in reality there is no significant difference between these villages and the villages which remained unrecognized. In most of the recognized villages there is no planning so their residents cannot get building permits, the policy of house demolition continues and infrastructure of water, electricity, sewage disposal and roads are still not available to the residents.
The House Demolition Policy and the Housing Crisis | The main Israeli policy toward the Bedouin community in the Negev is an ongoing policy of house demolition. Within the ‘green line’ territories, such measures are taken mainly against the Bedouin community. Despite the villages having been inhabited for years, in 1965, most of the houses located in the unrecognized villages were retroactively deemed illegal. Since then, it is not possible for the residents of these villages to acquire building permits as their villages are considered by the state illegal. Therefore, community members are unable to legally build or repair their houses, and those who choose to do so face demolition and homelessness.
Far from sufficient to meet the needs of the broader Bedouin population, the seven governmental planned towns are already unable to accommodate their own natural growth. The recognition of 11 villages, have likewise failed to remedy the Bedouin housing crisis. House demolitions do not occur merely in unrecognized villages, and actually, many of the demolitions take place in the towns and the newly recognized villages. Although the housing crisis, there is a drastic increase in house demolitions in the Negev area each year. With hundreds of Bedouin houses demolished every year, instead of solving this crisis, state authorities mainly focus on expanding it.
Land Ownership | Recent ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court (al-Uqbi verdict, May 2015) makes it almost impossible for Bedouin citizens to prove ownership over lands in the Negev. While in the 1970s the state allowed Bedouin to claim their ancestral lands yet later decided to freeze this process, during the 2000s the state attorney started filing counterclaims over the same lands, demanding to register them as state lands, with 100% rate of court winnings in such cases.
Although living on and cultivating these lands for hundreds of years, the state of Israel does not recognize Bedouin ownership over lands in the Negev. The slight moment in which the state does recognize such ownership is when a Bedouin decides to give up his land, then, the state gives ridiculous compensation and registers it as state land.
In the al-Uqbi ruling, Miriam Naor, the Supreme Court President stated: “I will advise my colleagues to reject the claims of the appellants in everything relating to the rights they purchased on these lands whether by means of the traditional Bedouin land laws, by virtue of Ottoman and Mandatory Land Laws, or by the laws of honesty, International Law or Basic Laws […] in light of these conclusions, the appellants are not entitled to compensation or land exchange under the Acquisition of Lands Law because of the expropriation of the said lands״ (HCD 4220/12, article 83).
Summary | The Bedouin community in the Israeli Negev is an indigenous group to the area. Yet, the state of Israel does not recognize it. Although comprising about 34% of the population of the Negev, the Bedouin community is still neglected by the state in all levels. Instead of recognizing the Bedouin as indigenous people, allow them to practice their traditional way of life in their villages and support this disenfranchised community, the state of Israel keeps on struggling against the Bedouin community.