Facts about the Bedouins

Basic information about this misunderstood community of southern Israel.

This fact sheet was compiled by Dr. Elie Rekhess, Visiting Crown Chair in Middle East Studies, The Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, and Director of the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at Tel Aviv University and a team of Jewish and Arab researchers.

Demographics, Socio-Economics and Politics

-In 2008, 170,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev, accounting for approximately on quarter of the population in the region. In addition, 60,000 Bedouin live in the Galilee and close to 10,000 in central Israel.

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-The term “Bedouin” defines various groups of traditionally pastoral nomadic desert-dwelling Arabs (exclusively Muslims). Since the 1950s, the Bedouin in Israel underwent a process of sedentarization with an emphasis on agricultural production.

-The Negev Bedouin have one of the highest natural growth rates in the world, 4.3% in 2008. This means that the population doubles once every 18 years. The Israel Land Administration projects that the Negev Bedouin population will reach 300,000 by 2020.

-The Bedouin who live in the Negev are by far Israel’s most disadvantaged community in terms of per capita income, unemployment, education and public infrastructure.

-According to the Ministry of Interior’s socio-economic ranking of 400 localities in Israel, the four lowest-ranking municipalities and local councils are Bedouin townships (Kseife, Tel-Sheva, Rahat, Ara’ara in the Negev and Segev-Shalom).

-In February 2009, the average unemployment rate in all seven Bedouin townships was 16.2% (ranging from a high of 18.9% in Laqiyya to 12.2% in the large city of Rahat).

-Education has been one of the major vehicles of modernization for the Bedouin community in Israel. Within a single generation, since the Compulsory Education Law came into effect in 1949, illiteracy was reduced from 95% to 25%. Today the illiteracy rate in the Bedouin community has dropped to less than 10%, but approximately one third of those aged 45-59 and some 38% of those aged 60 and over are unable to read and write (2007 figures).

Schools in the Bedouin community are frequently housed in ill-equipped buildings, often not connected to electricity and water grids. Surveys conducted by the Israeli Ministry of Health in 2005 and 2006 in Bedouin townships pointed to the deteriorated level of sanitation in schools that serve the Bedouin educations system, in terms of cleaning, lack of restrooms, and lack of shaded playing areas. A large proportion of the teaching staff is uncertified and there are few school counselors, librarians and laboratory technicians. Drop-out rates are particularly high, and these schools report the lowest level of achievements in matriculation exams amongst all Arab sector schools in Israel; in 2008, only one sixth (700 out of 4,000) of Bedouin children with disabilities receive special education.

-In April 2010 Sheikh Hamad Abi Da’abas, a prominent Bedouin figure of the Islamic Movement in the Negev, was elected as the new head of the movement, replacing Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur of Kufr Qassem, who served as the movement’s head since 1998.

Land dispute

-The land disputes between the State and the Negev Bedouin centers on the lack of written deeds of sale and ownership in the Bedouin community, where land possession and land ownership is traditionally determined by custom.

Bedouin manIsrael does not accept the legal validity of oral agreements between Bedouin tribes, and rejected Bedouin’s claims for land ownership in large parts of the Negev.

-Thus, the ownership of some 160,000 acres occupied by the Negev Bedouin is under dispute. Of these, 87,000 acres are currently occupied by Bedouin encampments (also known as “unrecognized villages,”  see below) and 73,000 acres are used for grazing.

-Government agencies are deeply concerned with the uncontrolled expansion of Bedouin encampments which is considered an attempt to take over what is left of Israel’s largest repository of unsettled land.

-The government is trying to settle the disputes and stop illegal construction in encampments by reaching compensation agreements, allocating alternative land in legal Bedouin townships (see below), and demolishing illegal constructions.

-In November 2008, the Committee for Regulation of Bedouin Settlements in the Negev, headed by retired Justice Eliezer Goldberg, concluded that “Israel must change legal status of at least 46 villages so as to prevent perpetuation of the community’s unbearable state.”

Unrecognized villages

-Definition: Bedouin settlements in the Negev and elsewhere in the Galilee, which the Israeli government does not recognize as legal settlements.

-As of 2008, some 70,000 Bedouin live in 36 unrecognized villages.

-Ten formerly “unrecognized villages” have been legalized by the government in recent years (see Abu Basma, below).

-Many of the tent-filled encampments have become more permanent sites over time: Orchards have been planted, huts have been replaced by buildings, and generators have been installed to enable the use of most household appliances.

-Nonetheless, most unrecognized villages lack basic utilities such as municipal administration, running water, sewage, electricity, health care services, schools, and paved roads.

-The Regional Council of the Unrecognized Villages in the Negev was established in 1997. Its present chairman is Husayn al-Rifai’ya. The Council is active in participatory alternative planning and campaigning against the demolition of houses.

Government Development

-Between 1968 and 1990, the government of Israel resettled Bedouin in the Negev in seven newly-built towns: Tel-Sheva, Rahat, Kseife, Ar’ara, Segev-Shalom, Hura and Laqiya, from areas vacated for military use, particularly after the signing of the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979.

-Approximately one-half of the entire Bedouin population of the Negev live in these towns.

-The new towns were only partially successful. They were over-crowded, and badly serviced, and deprived the inhabitants of their traditional lifestyle.

-The Abu Basma Regional Council was established in 2005, incorporating 11 Bedouin unrecognized and new villages: Abu Krinat, Bir Hadaj, Qasr a-Seir, Mar?it, Dreijat, Umm Batin, Molada, Al-Sayyid, Al-Atrash, Makhul, Trabin al-Sana.

-The government allocated NIS 470 million for Council development projects. Some 25,000 Bedouin live in these newly recognized settlements.

-Altogether, the government invested NIS 1 b. (2008) in the development of existing Bedouin townships in the Negev.

-In May 2005, the government approved the construction of 4,500 new housing units, of a total 10,000 units planned in the town of Rahat.

Military service

-Bedouin have volunteered to the Israeli Army since the early days of statehood. The IDF maintains an all-Bedouin combat battalion and a reconnaissance regiment with several hundred Bedouin soldiers and officers.

-Dozens of Bedouin have been killed in military service since 1948. According to IDF official figures, 110 Bedouin soldiers have been killed in military service since 1948.

-In recent years, fewer Bedouin have joined the IDF. In 2004, 400 Bedouin volunteered to military service, while in 2007, this figure dropped to only 222. However, a sharp increase took place in 2008, with more than 400 Bedouin recruits for the IDF, due to intensive steps taken by leading government and IDF officials to encourage Bedouin youngsters to volunteer.

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