Bedouins of the Negev: Israeli ctizens or punishable trespassers?

“Negev land is reserved for Jewish citizens, whenever and wherever they want….We must expel Arabs and take their places…and if we have to use force, then we have force at our disposal — not in order to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev and Transjordan, but in order to guarantee our own right to settle in those Places.” — David Ben Gurion, in a letter to his son Amos, 5 October 1937.

Like all other Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Bedouins of the Negev (1) experienced land confiscations from 1948 until 1966. These two decades marked the dark era of Israel’s Military Administration of its Palestinian citizens, a period that saw Bedouins transferred and resettled against their will in the northernmost part of the Negev, which Bedouins call the “siege” area. This territory comprises just two percent of the Negev, the largest geographical region in Israel at 12,577,000 dunams (one dunam = 1000 square meters). The Negev constitutes over 60 percent of Israel’s pre-1967 landmass. Before 1948, Bedouin owned, de facto or de jure, 98 percent of the Negev (al-naqab in Arabic).

In addition to land confiscations, Bedouins were also subject to Israel’s ethnic cleansing policies. In 1950, Egypt lodged a complaint with the United Nations after 4,000 Bedouins were driven out of their Negev homes and across the border into Egyptian territory. Egypt also charged that atrocities had been committed against the Bedouins: Israeli forces had slaughtered their herds of goats.

A second wave of land confiscation affected Bedouin communities in Israel in the 1970s, when Israel decided to concentrate the 45 percent of the remaining Bedouins (today 130,000 people) into seven planned townships. (2) The government depicted this policy as an expression of benevolent attitudes and intentions towards its “primitive” citizens: “Bedouins must be brought into the 21st century. …They will now have access to proper schools and medical care.” (3)

The third wave of land confiscation came fast on the heels of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in the early 1980s as Israel seized more Bedouin lands to establish a military airport and an industrial zone in the aforementioned two percent of total Negev land allotted to the Bedouins. Further confiscations were yet to come. In May 2001, the Israeli Government declared five unrecognized villages, comprising 70,000 dunams of land, a closed military firing zone.

Approximately 85 percent of Negev land has already been classified as either closed military zones or protected environmental reserves. These classificatory procedures deny the Bedouins access to their lands and thus prevent them from practicing their traditional pastoral nomadic lifestyle. Today, Bedouin citizens of Israel are confined to poorly serviced, isolated, and frequently unrecognized localities in the small portion of the Negev that the State has left to them.

On February 20, 2002 during the annual conference of the Regional Council of the Unrecognized Bedouin Negev Villages (RCUV), Israel’s Bedouin citizens received yet another shock: They learned of a new governmental plan to build 14 new Jewish Settlements (4) — not in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, but in the Negev, within the Green Line. Various Jewish agencies will sponsor the14 settlements, the first of which, Givat Bar, will be built in March 2003 on Al Araqeeb village’s traditional lands. The inhabitants of Al Araqeeb were uprooted from their lands for “military reasons” for a 6-month period — half a century ago. They have not been allowed back since, and with the construction of Givat Bar, there is little chance they will ever reside on their traditional lands again.

Since the inception of Ariel Sharon’s premiership in 2001, governmental spokespersons have grown more ambitious in planning for the Negev’s infrastructural and ethnic future. Ministers recently declared that the state will be able, thanks to a new New Israeli Shekel (NIS) $1.75 billion plan, to “settle the Bedouin problem” within 5 years. This plan requires that the government appoint lawyers to take Bedouin communities to court to settle land disputes. (5) The considerable funding for this plan to privatize “house destruction” and “settle the Bedouin land” was allocated in the 2003 state budget.

The plan is premised on the Israeli government’s view that Bedouin lands fall under the category of mawwat (nonproductive) lands according to the Ottoman Law of 1858. Thus, vast areas of the Negev are legally categorized as having no owners, since the inhabitants are merely “roaming nomads,” not settled agricultural communities. Viewed historically, however, the Israeli government’s claim is entirely false, as well as ethnocentric in its views of people’s relationship to land. (6)

The second prong of the proposed plan to confiscate more Bedouin lands features a Ministry of Justice proposal to amend a sub-clause of the Law on Public Land, the “Eviction of Trespassers amendment of 2002.” If successfully implemented, the new amendment will give Israeli authorities enhanced powers to evict “trespassers” on the principle that neglecting to evict them only encourages them to remain. The new law would empower the Israeli government to evict anyone “guilty” of any acts of “trespassing” that have occurred in the last three years.

The definition of “trespassing” is left up to any employee or observer from the Israel Lands Authority. Thus, a “trespasser” can be any person, animal, or plant that the state deems to be in the “wrong” location. Furthermore, the “trespasser” does not even have to be identified by name. This marks the first time that the legal term “trespasser” has been applied to the Bedouins of the Negev — all of whom are Israeli citizens under the law. (7)

Reviewing actions undertaken by Israeli authorities against the Bedouin in the Negev since May 2001 under the pretext of preventing encroachment on State lands and/or unlicensed building, we see the continued success of the government’s policy of confiscating lands and uprooting people. When the government realized that the Israeli citizens of the Unrecognized Villages are rejecting the resettled plan into (Under the most recent plans) (following Be’er Sheva Metropolitan and other planning projects), the state has resettled Bedouins into three new townships: Meraeit, Beit Falet and Beit Hai. The “successful” execution of these plans, coupled with the election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister two years ago, undoubtedly hastened the implementation of the plan for the aforementioned 14 new Jewish Settlements inside the Green Line. Sharon’s history among the Bedouin is particularly grim. It was he who created the infamous “Green Patrol” (known locally among Bedouins as the “Black Patrol”) in 1978.

While Israel’s apparent aim in the Negev was to transfer the Bedouins elsewhere and take their land, there were also strategic and military considerations behind the subsequent resettlement patterns of some Bedouin clans. Decades ago, the chief of staff of UNTSO (the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization), Lt. Gen. E.L.M. Burns, commented on the strategic dimensions of Bedouin resettlement. He reported that 3,500 Bedouins from the Azazme tribe, expelled in 1950, were the original inhabitants of the El Auja demilitarized zone, renamed Nitzana by Israel. This was a strategic 145-square-kilometer juncture between Israel and Egypt along the western Negev-Sinai frontier, demilitarized in the 1949 armistice between Egypt and Israel. Israel paid particular attention to this area because it was a major invasion route along the Cairo-Beer Sheva-Jerusalem axis.

When some members of the Azazme tribe drifted back to El Auja they attracted the attention and wrath of a young and ambitious commander of Israel’s anti-terrorist Unit 101: Ariel Sharon, who would later become Israel’s minister of defense and prime minister. In September 1953, Sharon led Unit 101 in an attack on “trespassers” in this demilitarized zone, killing an unknown number of Bedouins. Israel eventually took over and re-militarized much of this zone by hook or by crook (8).

It was again Sharon, in his capacity as infrastructure minister during the early 1990s, who proposed the plan to build 14 new Jewish settlements in the Negev. Today as prime minister, he is developing a 5-year comprehensive plan for eliminating the most pressing Bedouin problem today: The Negev’s “Unrecognized Villages.”

“We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat in industry, services, construction and agriculture. Eighty-eight percent of the Israeli population is not farmers; let the Bedouins be like them. Indeed, this will be a radical move, which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on…. The children would go to school with their hair properly combed. This would be a revolution, and it may be fixed within two generations. Without coercion but with government direction… this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear.”
— Moshe Dayan (9)

In 1948, Be’er Sheba District was home to 100,000 Palestinian Bedouins who cultivated a minimum of 3,750,000 dunams, depending on average annual rainfall. Some of those who remained after 1948 were arrested and relocated to military labor camps, where they were forced to work on near starvation diets. (10) Just like their counterparts in the north, the unrecognized villages of the Negev are not shown on Israel’s maps, nor are they connected to roads or provided with electricity, water, health or education services. Because of the great distances between these villages and schools and clinics, Bedouin residents of unrecognized villages must travel miles to obtain basic services due to them as Israeli citizens. The only regularly provided and consistent state “service” they receive is the brutality of the Green Patrol.

Israel has dumped toxic wastes in Ramat Hovav near Bedouin villages, which have been linked to several cases of blisters and cancerous growths among Bedouins. The catastrophic housing conditions besetting the 70,000 citizens in the unrecognized villages, among other abuses, has led to an alarming infant mortality rate nearly four times higher than the infant mortality rate among the Jewish population of the Negev.

“[Bedouins] are a bloodthirsty people who commit polygamy, have 30 children, and continue to expand their illegal settlements.” — Mosheh Shohat

Continuing Israeli land confiscations in the Negev have exacerbated the dire economic, social, and educational conditions besetting Bedouin citizens of Israel. A few examples serve to illustrate the correlations between state policies and Bedouins’ miseries. The largest Palestinian planned town in Be’er Sheba, Rahat, is the poorest in all of Israel. In terms of education, the percentage of Bedouin students completing their secondary education is just 10 percent compared to 47 percent for Jewish students and, significantly, 44 percent for Palestinian refugee students in the West Bank and Gaza.

As for university education, the percentages are 0.6 percent, 8 percent, and 10 percent respectively. These statistics demonstrate that Palestinian refugees, despite the severe economic and political hardships they confront day-to-day, achieve levels of education comparable to Jewish students while Bedouins—Palestinian citizens of “democratic” Israel—fare much worse.

The 1953 Land Acquisition (Validation of Acts and Compensation) Law states that land that was “not in the possession of its owner” in April 1952 could be registered as state property. This legal ruse facilitated a massive transfer of lands from Arab to Jewish hands throughout the state, but particularly in the Negev, since the Bedouins by that time had been forcibly transferred to the aforementioned northern “enclosure” (or “siege”) zone. Although some tribes returned to their lands after the enclosure zone policy was lifted, they discovered that since the land was now registered with the state, they either had to lease it, or in using it without a lease, commit the crime of “trespassing.” Consent to lease constitutes a judicial recognition and a legal proof that the land was never the property of the Bedouins to begin with.

According to the first article of the 1965 Land Law, Israeli land, and any other governmental lands, cannot be transferred by selling or any other means. This law confirms that state lands are not the property of the citizens of Israel, 20 percent of whom are not Jewish, but rather, are the eternal patrimony of the Jewish people, wheresoever they may reside. The 1953 Land Law states that confiscated Land cannot be returned unless incontrovertible proof indicates that the land registration was wrong. The Land Rights Settlement Ordinance of 1969 classified all mawwat (unproductive) lands as state property, unless a formal legal title could be produced. Mawwat (literally “dead”) land was defined as unworked land lying more than 1.5 miles from the nearest settlement. The last time the Bedouins had an opportunity to register their lands as non-mawwat was in 1921, nearly 30 years before the establishment of the State of Israel.

In 1971 state authorities decided to settle outstanding issues concerning Be’er Sheva District’s land ownership. Legally, any registration officer could erase any name from the land claim list. Most Bedouins knew nothing about the land registration, and those that did know were often afraid to register. By not registering in their own names, their lands were automatically registered as state land and governmental property. Furthermore, the state recognizes these registered lands as Bedouin property if and when a Bedouin is ready to sell his or her land). The Negev Land Acquisition (Peace Treaty with Egypt) Law of 1980 facilitated large-scale confiscations of Bedouin lands in order to build military bases and an airport in the wake of the peace treaty with Egypt.

No appeal against these confiscations was allowed, and the compensation terms that the state offered the Bedouins ranged between 2-15 percent of the terms granted to Jewish settlers who had been relocated from Sinai. The military base at Umm Tinan (slated to be established on 56,000 confiscated dunams) was never built, and in 1994 these lands were turned over for use by Jewish farmers.

Prior to 1948, approximately 90 percent of the Bedouins in the Negev earned their living from agriculture and 10 percent subsisted by raising livestock. Today, over 90 percent of Bedouins in Israel are wage laborers. The state’s policy from 1948 until today has been to prevent the Bedouins from maintaining their ties to the land (12) by making their traditional lifestyle infeasible. This can only be accomplished through land confiscation coupled with targeted policies that restrict Bedouins’ access to land and water. Although the state regularly gives large areas of former Bedouin land to Jewish farmers on long-term leases, (a good example is the farm that Ariel Sharon owns in the Negev), the state will only lease lands to Bedouin farmers for a three-month period, never granting anyone access to the same lands twice in a row, and preventing any permanent cultivation (i.e., perennial crops).

Bedouin farmers are either denied adequate — or any — water quotas, or they are assessed fees according to domestic rates (i.e., 12 times the agricultural rate). No assistance is provided to Bedouin farmers during drought years.

The Plant Protection (Damage by Goats) Law of 1950 requires Bedouin shepherds to obtain special permits from the Ministry of Agriculture in order to graze their goats outside of their privately owned land on surrounding state lands (most of which are now military areas). Permits are issued at the discretion of Ministry officials, and only on the condition that the state is not responsible for any casualties. Since the mid-1970s, it has been state policy to seize unregistered flocks and to reduce registered flocks by 10-15 percent.

Such tasks are the responsibility of the Green Patrol, an environmental paramilitary unit established by Ariel Sharon and mobilized for special operations, e.g., pulling down Bedouin tents, seizing flocks, and destroying crops planted without appropriate permits. During the Patrol’s first three years, Bedouin flocks were reduced by nearly 60 percent, from 220,000 to 80,000. The Green Patrol’s physical coercion of Bedouin farmers has led to hospitalizations and even several deaths. In 1997 the Green Patrol was expanded to accelerate the sedentarization process.

On February 15, 2003 eight airplanes accompanied by a large number of police forces and Green Patrol members destroyed the agricultural land of 10 villages, including lands inside the villages. This operation also targeted farmers who were in their fields during the act, as well as 400 students who were in their Al-Amal School at Kharbet Al-Watan village, without any prior notice.

In 2003, in accord with the new Sharon-backed 5-year plan, the Green Patrol will be beefed-up with additional resources and special police forces and police stations. The government has used a policy of Denial of Services as an effective pressure tactic to convince Bedouins to move into the planned townships. It is official state policy to deny these communities basic amenities while also preventing them from developing infrastructure.

Planning laws are wielded as weapons of ethnic discrimination, discouraging Bedouin villagers from building any permanent constructions or even repairing existing temporary ones. Any connection to state water and electricity networks is prohibited.

The Bedouin community and their representative organizations have long since realized that appealing to the Israeli High Court to defend their legally codified human rights is a dead-end. Although the law is clearly on their side, the High Court’s decisions in their favor never have “teeth.” On the one hand, the Court has confirmed the Bedouins’ rights, but on the other hand, the Court has never issued a firm directive to implement or restore Bedouins’ rights.

In the end, the Bedouins of the Negev have finally absorbed the grim message that they are not true citizens of Israel, but simply trespassers in the Jewish state.

Maha Qupty is public relations director and grant writer for the Regional Council of the Palestinian Unrecognized Negev Villages, an Israeli non-governmental organization serving Bedouin communities.


(1) In 1948, Bedouins owned 98% of Negev Land. The Negev is 62% of Israel’s land.

(2) According to Israeli anthropologist Clinton Bailey, “most never got beyond the sprawling desert slums of shanties and ragged tents around Beersheba, because Israel has never provided the necessary finances to develop the townships … Many in the townships are unemployed, and some have become dependent on welfare and turned to drugs.”

(3) Ibid.

(4) According to Ha’aretz, Sharon’s government plans to build 14 new settlements in the Negev. One of them is Gva’ot Bar, to be located between Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev and Lehavim Junction. See also the RCUV press releases.
(see : Tsahar Rotem, Jewish Village slated to replace Bedouin town, Ha’aretz, December 16, 2002. According to RCUV Press Releases.

(5) The Regional Council for the Unrecognized villages Press Release. And Law draft.

(6) Particular names of the present clans have been cited in fifteenth-century writings. The advisors who accompanied Napoleon during his 1798-1801campaign listed the names of the clans, the number of their inhabitants, and their places of abode in the voluminous “Description of Egypt”. Various travelers in the nineteenth century also described the district and its people in some detail.

(7) Public Land Law amendements for 2002 (Draft).

(8) Donald Neff, The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 15, No.7, March 1997.

(9) Moshe Dayan, Ha’aretz interview on 31/7/63.

(10) Interviews with the population.

(11) Tuesday, July 24, 2001 Av 4, 576i, “Education Authority director calls Bedouin ‘bloodthirsty polygamists’.” By Joseph Algazy and Jalal Bana. See also RCUV Press releases.

(12) In 1970, the Interior Ministry amendment of the population law concerning the residence of the unrecognized villages stipulated that they are to be registered according to their tribe and according to their historical villages.