• Indigenous peoples in Israel

    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.
  • Peoples

    150,000 Bedouins live in seven townships and 11 villages that have been “recognized” over the last decade
  • Rights

    2007: Israel was absent in the vote on the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Conditions

    75,000 Bedouins live in 35 “unrecognized villages”, which lack basic services and infrastructure

Indigenous World 2019: Israel

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.

Combining herding with agriculture, they are settled in villages linked by kinship systems, and this has largely determined land ownership. Prior to 1948, some 65,000-100,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev. After 1948, most were expelled or fled to Egypt and Jordan, with only around 11,000 remaining in the area.

During the early 1950s and until 1966, Israel concentrated the Bedouin in a restricted area known by the name of “al-Siyāj”, under military administration, representing only about 10% of their original ancestral land. During this period, entire villages were displaced from their locations in the western and northern Negev and were transferred to the Siyāj area.1

Today, approximately 258,500 Bedouin citizens of Israel live in  the  Negev  in  three  types  of  localities:  government-planned townships, recognised villages, and villages that Israel refuses to recognise (unrecognised villages).2 There are 35 unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev that Israel refers to either as the “dispersion” or as “illegal villages”, calling their inhabitants “trespassers” on state land and “criminals”.3 Most of the Bedouin population lost their land when Israel declared it as Mawat (“dead”, uncultivated agricultural lands) and claimed them as state lands.4 In addition, the Land Purchasing Law of 1953 determined that any land not found in its owners’ right in April 1952 would become state land, resulting in more Bedouin losing all rights to their lands outside their living area.5 There was no exception made for the Negev Bedouin, who were forcefully evicted from their ancestral lands by the very same Israeli government that went on to become the “rightful” guardian of those homesteads.

Since the beginning of the 1970s, Israel has been conducting an ongoing non-consensual and non-participatory process of urbanisation. As a result, today more than 72% of the Bedouin population in the Negev resides in recognised townships and villages, which are characterised by poverty, deprivation, high unemployment, crime and social tension, as well as inadequate provision of state services.6 The remaining 28% of the Bedouin population (around 72,000 people) live in unrecognised villages7 that do not appear on any official map and most of which contain no health and educational facilities or basic infrastructure. Their residents have no formal local governmental bodies and they are represented only in the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages (RCUV), an informal community body.

Human rights defender Sheikh Sayah to spend ten months in jail

On 25 December 2018, Sheikh Sayah Abu Madhi’m A-Turi, the iconic leader of the unrecognised village of al-‘Arāgīb, and one of the  leaders  in  the  longest  battles  against  dispossession  of Bedouin land in the Negev, went to prison. Convicted by the Beer Sheva Magistrates Court8 in 2017 of 19 counts of trespass, 19 counts of unlawful entry onto public land and one count of “breach of the law”, and his appeal having been denied, Sayah was sentenced to ten months in prison, five months of probation and a 36,000 Israeli new shekel (ILS) fine.

Sayah, 69, was born in al-‘Arāgīb village in 1949. This village was established during the Ottoman period, on land village residents had purchased in the early 20th century from the al-‘Ukabi tribe and for which they paid land taxes to the Ottoman and British authorities. Since 2000, the Israeli government has nonetheless made repeated efforts to dispossess them of their homes while rejecting their claims to the land. It has tried to prevent the village residents from cultivating their land – initially by using aerial spraying of hazardous chemical substances,9 later by plowing the fields and destroying the crops. On 27 June 2010, the village was destroyed by state authorities, forcing village residents to build sheds and live in unbearable conditions, experiencing the continued destruction of their village every month – by the end of 2018, the village had been demolished 137 times.10

The criminalisation of Sayah’s life on this land and the findings that these offenses carry prison sentences effectively criminalises thousands of Bedouin citizens with similar status. There is reason to believe that Sayah and his family have been singled out for enforcement action to the full extent of the law precisely because they have opted for a non-violent struggle for Bedouin rights in the Negev. Sayah has used his public position to raise awareness and promote recognition of other unrecognised villages in the Negev facing similar difficulties.

Mechanisms of forced displacement

In 2018, Israel continued its deliberate policy of making the residents of the unrecognised villages relinquish their land ownership claims and move to crowded urban areas. While the policy of house demolitions is often presented as used only for the purpose of enforcing the planning and construction laws, it is actually used to reorganise and redesign the space in the Negev-Naqab Southern Region of Israel in accordance with the aspirations of the state to remove the unrecognised villages. In other words, laws designed to regulate planning and construction in Israel become tools for exerting pressure on citizens to enter “regularisation” procedures, which result in the dispossession of Bedouin from their lands and a forced transfer from the unrecognised villages into the government townships.

Two recent laws are such tools:

The Kaminitz Law was enacted on 6 April 2017 to increase the “enforcement and penalisation of planning and building offenses”. The law harms Bedouin citizens of Israel as it disregards their historical claims to their ancestral land, as well as decades of forced displacement, dispossession and discrimination in state land planning and allocation against them, which has left them unable to comply with the law. In addition, the law is intended as a tool for promoting home demolitions in the Bedouin villages.11

The Basic Law: Israel – The Nation-State of the Jewish People was enacted in July 2018 and institutes ethnic segregation as a new legal norm throughout Israel (Article 1). Article 7 of the new Basic Law stipulates that the development of Jewish settlement is a “national value”, and that the state must act to encourage, promote and consolidate it. Within the Green Line,12 the law is likely to be used to establish exclusively Jewish towns, including in the Negev and other areas where Arab citizens are most concentrated.

Three categories of demolition

The authorities classify demolitions in the Bedouin villages as “initiated”, “self-afflicted” and “in procedure”. “Initiated” demolitions are those carried out by the authorities and performed during concentrated days of demolition, in which inspectors from the various authorities, accompanied by large forces from the Israel Police’s elite Yoav Unit13 and bulldozers, enter villages in order to demolish structures.14

Demolitions carried out by the buildings’ owners are called “self-afflicted”. They also include structures that are demolished “in procedure”, i.e., demolitions carried out by the owners prior to receiving any order. The latter amount to approximately 30% of the total “self-afflicted” demolitions.

The self-afflicted and “in procedure” demolitions are carried out for a variety of reasons: the desire to avoid the trauma of the arrival of large police forces without prior warning; the criminal sanctions that may be imposed on the owners of the structures; the possibility of saving personal equipment and building materials in controlled demolitions; threats by the authorities to sue the owners for the costs of the demolition, and more. This type of demolition has become more common in recent years, quadrupling in a period of just four years: from 376 demolitions in 2013 to 1,579 in 2017.15

Since the Bedouin are poor and located at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in Israel, it is reasonable to assume that many of them will not be able to pay these fines, thus risking criminal proceedings. The data indicates a hardening of the authorities’ stance and an increase in pressure aimed at achieving the forced transfer of Bedouin citizens from the unrecognised villages to the recognised townships and villages, through a constant presence of law enforcement units, demolitions and patrols.16

The impact of the demolitions

Initiated demolitions are carried out violently and with heavy tools. At times, the forces are accompanied by horses, dogs and various aircraft, such as drones. Residents report feelings of humiliation, trauma from their physical displacement from their homes, and confusion as to their future.

In January 2017, the planned demolition of Umm al-Hīrān went terribly wrong when Israeli police shot and killed a 50-year-old Palestinian math teacher Ya’aqub Abu al-Qian (see The Indigenous World 2018) while he was driving away in his car with his personal belongings before his house was to be demolished. His car subsequently hit and killed a policeman. The police and the Minister of Public Security immediately claimed it to be a deliberate act of terrorism. Subsequent separate investigations by the Police Investigation Department and Shin Bet (Israel General Security Service) found no evidence of Abu al-Qi’an’s intention to kill the policeman. At the end of 2017, Shin Bet forwarded its findings to the State Attorney, Shai Nitzan. In April 2018, Nitzan decided to close the file. Claiming the evidence to be inconclusive and stating that “it is impossible to decide whether this was a terrorist attack”, Nitzan did not mention any of Shin Bets’ findings; nor did he clear Abu al-Qian of the allegations directed against him.17

In March 2018, Umm al-Hīrān residents received notice that their homes were to be demolished during the second half of April 2018. A majority of the residents later signed an agreement with the state, under great duress, to move to the Bedouin town of Hūrah. A community leader, Ra’ad Abu al-Qi’an, said that the Israeli authorities had forced residents to sign the agreement in the early hours of the day as the Israelis brought police and demolition teams into the village. He said that the families of some 170 residents signed the agreement, fearing a repeat of the “blood and murder” of January 2017.18

High poverty rates

Of every 20 Bedouin babies born today in the Negev, 14 will be poor.19 Data published in 2017 by the Israeli National Insurance Institute (NII)20 show that the poverty rate among Bedouin families was 58.5% in 2016, compared to 13.3% among Israeli Jewish families and 48.7% among non-Bedouin Arab families. Among Bedouin individuals, the poverty rate stood at 63.4%, and among Bedouin children at 68.2%. These figures compare to rates of 17.4% and 23.9%, respectively, among Jewish

Israelis living in the south. According to this official data, a staggering two-thirds of Bedouin families, individuals and children were thus living below the poverty line in 2016. Despite this reality, Israel has no plans to alleviate poverty among the Bedouin.

As alarming as these figures are, they significantly underestimate poverty levels among the Bedouin, since the most impoverished group, the 72,000 people living in unrecognised villages, were not included in the NII’s survey. These people receive very few government services and, in most cases, no services at all. In most of the villages there are no schools, kindergartens or health clinics. There is no infrastructure, including electricity, running water, paved roads and sewage disposal systems, in any of them. 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. The policy of house demolitions, led by the Israeli government and various enforcement authorities, contributes to the poverty of the Bedouin people as they are constantly being denied their basic right to adequate housing.

Israeli institutions systematically fail to collect specific, detailed data on the Bedouin citizens of Israel, leaving them absent from many relevant surveys, statistical reports and other sources of data. The state’s inconsistent and incomplete data-gathering on the Bedouin as a whole, and those in the unrecognised villages more specifically, adds to the exclusion of the Bedouin, as it impedes effective policy-making by Israel to protect and promote their human rights.21

Outlook for 2019

Plans to go ahead with the development of the planned phosphate mine at Sde Barir, near Arad, were approved by the inter-ministerial cabinet for planning, building, land, and housing (Cabinet HaDiyur) in January 2018.22 This approval has paved the way for the forced dislocation of the al-Fur’ah, al-Ġazzah and az-Za’arūrah Bedouin villages, which are home to thousands of Bedouin. It will also expose thousands more to health and environmental hazards. An environmental impact survey has not yet been finalised. Adalah, the municipality of Arad and others, have petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court against the new mine and the first hearing on the matter will be held on 27 February 2019.

Several other “development” plans are already slated for final adoption and implementation in the coming years and could likewise result in the forced eviction [transfer] of several thousand Bedouin. These plans include the extension of Road 6 (Trans-Israel highway);23 the Ramat Beka special industrial zone for the use of Elbit Systems, a recently privatised Israeli Arms-producing company;24 and the expansion of the Beka’at Kana’im firing zone for military purposes.25

Notes and references

  1. See NCF, “The Arab-Bedouin Community in the Negev-Nagab” at http://bit.ly/2T1Ddrk
  2. See Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 1 January 2018 at http://bit.ly/2T0wRZa
  3. For an interactive map of the Arab Bedouin Villages in the Negev-Naqab, including background and information on services and infrastructure, see https://www.dukium.org/map/
  4. For example, see Colonialism, Colonization, and Land Law in Mandate Palestine at http://bit.ly/2T0u7uT
  5. See the Knesset, 2010 at http://bit.ly/2T8fHIY
  6. See CBS, Total population estimations in localities, their population and other information.
  7. Ibid
  8. Beer Sheva Magistrates Court is one of Israel’s five Magistrates Courts the basic trial courts of the Israeli system (first instance).
  9. This practice was ended as the result of a petition filed with the High Court of Justice, with the help of the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel Adalah, and the Negev Coexistence
  10. Record of House Demolitions and Crop Destruction, 2018 at http://bit.ly/2NeMire
  11. The law is also intended as a tool for promoting home demolitions in Arab towns, villages and neighborhoods throughout Israel and East Jerusalem. See Haaretz at http://bit.ly/2T5wH2C
  12. The Green Line refers to the 1949 armistice lines established between Israel and its Arab neighbors in the aftermath of the 1948 War of
  13. The Yoav Unit is a special patrol unit of the police established in 2012 as part of the government’s decision to approve the Prawer Plan, and with the purpose of assisting the plan’s implementation. The area of work of the Yoav Unit is mainly the Bedouin villages in the Negev/Naqab.
  14. See NCF Report “House Demolitions as a Central Tool for the Dispossession and Concentration of the Bedouin Population in the Negev/Naqab Updated Data for 2017”, 2018 at http://bit.ly/2T5x0KO
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. See NCF Report, op cit.
  18. See Jerusalem Post, “Bedouin agree to leave village that saw deadly standoff with police” at http://bit.ly/2T0x3Yo; See The Electronic Intifada at http://bit.ly/2T2DQ3P
  19. See NCF, 1 March 2018 at http://bit.ly/2T5U8ZJ
  20. See NII, December 2017 at http://bit.ly/2T53Uep
  21. See NCF, 21 January 2019 at http://bit.ly/2TbpLBj
  22. The master plan for the Sde Barir phosphate mine was approved in 2015 by the National Committee for Planning and Construction but its development has been delayed due to, among other things, objections from the Health Ministry, which expressed concern that mining activity at Sde Barir would pose a danger to the health of residents of nearby
  23. See BTL at http://bit.ly/2T3POtN
  24. See Branza at http://bit.ly/2T5xNLM
  25. See Adalah, “Israel announces massive forced transfer of Bedouin citizens in Negev” at http://bit.ly/2T4resU

The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF) was established in 1997 to provide a space for Arab-Jewish shared society in the struggle for civil equality and the advancement of mutual tolerance and coexistence in the Negev/Naqab. NCF is unique in being the only Arab-Jewish organization that remains focused solely on the problems confronting the Negev/Naqab area. NCF considers that the State of Israel is failing to respect, protect and fulfill its human rights obligations, without discrimination, towards the Arab Bedouin indigenous communities in the Negev/Naqab. As a result, NCF has set one of its goals as the achievement of full civil rights and equality for all people who make the Negev/Naqab their home.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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