Event Reports

Negev Bedouin society in a changing reality

A conference organized by KAS Israel and the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at the Tel Aviv University

For more than a decade, state agencies have been working to legalize Bedouin settlement in the Negev and resolve one of the most controversial and emotionally-charged issues between the State and Bedouin society: the issue of ownership of the Negev lands. At the heart of this dispute are 45 Bedouin villages in the Negev that have not received official recognition as part of a municipality, nor basic state services. These locales have come to be known as “unrecognized villages.”

In 2004, the government established the Abu-Basma Regional Council, through which nine of these villages were awarded official recognition. In early 2009, the government approved the principles of the Goldberg Committee Report, whose recommendations to the government included: the legalization of the Bedouin settlements in the Negev, and a proposal “to recognize the existing unrecognized villages to the greatest extent possible, and award them legal status.”

In 2011, the Prawer Committee, responsible for implementing the Goldberg Committee's recommendations, proposed the relocation of 30,000 Bedouin residents of unrecognized villages to recognized Bedouin townships in the Negev, with compensation. This decision led to an alarmed and frustrated outcry among the Bedouins of the Negev, who feel that, time and again, the commitment they honor vis-à-vis the State – as soldiers, civil servants, and citizens of the country – are simply not reciprocated by the country to which they are loyal.

To promote better understanding of the issues surrounding the Negev Bedouins, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung together with its Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at Tel Aviv University organized a conference to discuss Negev Bedouin society, its evolving collective consciousness, and the ramifications of changes in its collective identity in relation to the State, and, finally, how Negev land and planning issues contribute to this process of identity formation. Academics from several of Israel's most prestigious institutions of higher education, and experts on the contentious issues surrounding Bedouin land and citizenship rights joined together with Mr. Ehud Prawer, of the Prime Minister's Office, and author of the Prawer Committee Report, to inform and debate these pressing concerns.

There are approximately 200,000 Bedouins in the Negev, of which 63 percent are under the age of 18. With a very high unemployment rate, the Bedouin have the lowest socioeconomic status in the country. Further exacerbating their daily lives, the unrecognized status of several villages means they lack electricity, running water, and fail to receive a number of other basic services with which, as citizens, the state apparatus should provide them. In addition to the fact that the Bedouins of the Negev struggle to have most of their basic needs met, as a minority within the minority of the Arabs of Israel, Prof. Aref Abu Rabia, Ben Gurion University, claims that the existential needs of the Bedouins are also complicated by the fact that they neither belong to the Arab states, nor to the Palestinians, nor to Jewish Israel. They do feel, however, they are citizens and residents of the Negev. Consequently, clan and tribal identities remain penultimate to self-definition and the dealings of daily life. As such, Bedouin society of the Negev is primarily a traditional one, struggling in its interaction with modernity, and one that has failed to crystallize – socially, culturally and economically – due to a number of internal and external causes.

Amidst the day-to-day hardships and the ongoing search for a collective identity, a research study conducted by Mr. Atef Abu Ajaj, Ben Gurion University, shows that the Islamic Movement is on the rise among the Bedouins of the Negev. This phenomenon is taking place amongst the Bedouins of the Galilee as well, and, as Islamism is based on a promotion of Islam and its role in daily life, it is something that increasingly ties the Negev Bedouins and the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip together. Providing infrastructure and services that the State of Israel fails to deliver, Islamist leaders benefit from offering tangible services to the Bedouins (such as helping one unrecognized village install a water system), as well as a successful propaganda campaign with slogans such as, "The Negev is Not Alone," that is serving to win the hearts and minds of the Bedouins in the south.

Parallel to the rise of an Islamist identity, in the past twenty years a discourse on the indigenousness of the Bedouins has formulated, as well. Prof. Ruth Kark, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attributes the development of the indigenous discourse to a group of Bedouin and Jewish scholars who define indigenous peoples as "first nation" communities, who have been imposed upon by outsiders that have usurped their political sovereignty and the land upon which they formally enjoyed autonomy. For Kark, the indigenous discourse in the case of the Bedouin of Israel has been grasped for the purposes of political opportunism, and as a way to discredit Israel as a colonial, imperial, and therefore illegitimate “settler state,” according to one definition. Consequently, while there is no argument that Bedouins – as citizens of Israel – must be treated as such, with all rights and duties afforded to them, the indigenous argument is employed for different reasons, which are not apt to improve relations between the State and the Bedouins.

Nevertheless, Dr. Batya Roded, Achva Academic College, contended that the Bedouin of the Negev do, in fact, meet some criteria that define a people as indigenous. She illustrated that the case of the Bedouins is quite similar and resonates with the struggles of other indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world, such as Brazil, Australia and Canada. While this is an important factor that contributes to the heated discourse on the Negev Bedouins, Roded noted that the indigenous argument and recognition of this status is simply not accepted by the State of Israel. Furthermore, while the issue of recognition has been deemed as paramount by a number of activists and policy makers as a remedy to the difficulties of the Bedouins, "recognition" and the granting of such a status to Bedouin villages is not a panacea for the challenges faced by these communities. Poverty, political disenfranchisement, and inequality will not be fixed by "recognizing" Bedouin villages and the plight of the people within them. Moreover, the fact of the matter is, land issues for all citizens of Israel are rather complicated. Prof. Haim Sandberg, The College of Management – Academic Studies, pointed out the legacy of land laws that the State of Israel continues to try and sift through – Ottoman, British Mandate, and Israeli law – all of which were established to pursue different and, sometimes, conflicting interests.

For Dr. Thabet Abu Ras, director of the Negev branch of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the crux of the matter is not about indigenous status or village recognition. Rather, it is about having equal opportunities to build, to settle, to live, and to enjoy the same rights, as the Jewish citizens of Israel. He concluded his lecture with the question: “At the end of the day, the most pressing and important question to ask is: Are the Bedouins citizens of Israel, or not?”

Summarizing the conference and offering words from the government's vantage point, Mr. Ehud Prawer, of the Prime Minister's Office, stated that the government tries to meet the challenging issues of the Negev in the spirit of compromise and with creativity and flexibility. It is a daunting task to develop land and people, despite the fact that the Negev development funds are often allocated much more money than those proposed for any other parts of the country. The government is well aware of the identity issues prevalent among the Bedouins, the tension between tradition and modernity, and the unique rules that dictate relations between different clans within the Bedouin community of the Negev. While there are many obstacles to overcome, both internal and external, the government continues to seek solutions to competing claims for land and identity, he concluded.

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