Israel’s Arab Bedouin citizens are indigenous to the Negev (Naqab, in Arabic) desert, where they have lived for centuries as a semi-nomadic people, long before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Members of the Bedouin community are an integral part of the Arab Palestinian minority, as well as citizens of the State of Israel. Combining herding with agriculture, they are settled in villages linked by kinship (tribes) systems, and this has largely determined land ownership. Prior to 1948, about 65-100 thousand Bedouin lived in the Naqab. After 1948, most were expelled or fled to Gaza, Egypt, West Bank and Jordan, with only about 11,000 remaining in the area.
Indigenous peoples in Israel
Bedouins are the indigenous people of Israel. Their indigenous status is not officially recognised by the State of Israel and the Bedouins are politically, socially, economically and culturally marginalised from the rest of the Israeli population, especially challenged in terms of forced displacement. Their representatives regularly attend and address UN bodies on indigenous peoples’ issues, but their indigenous status is not officially recognised by the State of Israel.
Israel did not participate in the vote on the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and has failed to meet the declaration’s provisions. The country hasn't ratified ILO Convention 169 either, and it is violating many of its provisions.
The Bedouins of Israel
Israel’s Arab Bedouins are indigenous to the Negev-Naqab desert. Centuries ago, they were semi-nomadic. Bedouins combined herding with agriculture in villages linked by kinship systems, which largely determined land ownership.
Prior to 1948, about 90,000 Bedouins lived in the Negev. After 1948 most were expelled to Jordan and Sinai and only about 11,000 survived in Israel. In the early 1950s, the Israeli government concentrated this population within a restricted geographical area that was about ten percent of the Bedouins’ former territory.
Currently, around 75,000 Bedouins live in 35 “unrecognized villages”, which lack basic services and infrastructure. Another 150,000 Bedouins live in seven townships and 11 villages that have been “recognized” over the last decade (Central Bureau of Statistics). However, these townships and villages hinder the traditional Bedouin way of life and provide few employment opportunities.
Main challenges for the Bedouins
A main struggle of the Bedouins in Negev relates to forced displacement as well as the few alternatives. The Bedouins comprise 34% or 240,500 people of the total population of 700,000 in the Negev-Naqab area, but only 18 settlements out of 144 are officially designated for them. Most of these settlements are overcrowded since hardly any construction permits are being issued and do not offer much in terms of infrastructure or employment opportunities. In 2017, there have been 130 violent incidents of demolition. Israel forces demolishing buildings in unrecognised villages, considered illegal, but they also demolished houses in recognised villages.
In 2017, all the petitions filed by unrecognized villages to the Supreme Court demanding government services and infrastructure have been rejected. Bedouin aged 15 or above who have studied for eight years or less may be as high as 50% or more.
The Atir-Umm al-Hiran case
The Israeli Supreme Court (SCT) ruled in 2015 that the people of the Bedouin village Atir-Umm could be evicted on the grounds that the state had merely allowed the Bedouin citizens to use the land. According to the SCT, the residents of Atir-Umm had acquired no ownership status or property rights to the land over the course of their decades of residence and land use.
This not only definitely closes the case for the 1,000 residents of Atir-Umm. It is also seen as giving the state a broader legal scope for destroying other Bedouin communities. By concluding that the state is within its rights to destroy Atir-Umm and forcibly displace its Bedouin residents, the SCT decision constitutes a dangerous precedent. It potentially implies that the residents of most unrecognised villages can be evicted for a clear discriminatory purpose in violation of their constitutional rights to property, dignity and equality.
Israel’s Arab Bedouin citizens are indigenous to the Negev (Naqab, in Arabic) desert, where they have lived for centuries as a semi-nomadic people, long before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.