Backgrounder on the Bedouin Land Dispute

Unresolved land claims remain a source of friction between the Negev Beduins (alternate spelling: Bedouins) and the Israeli government, reflecting the long and difficult path to integrating this Arab Muslim minority into the civic fabric of the Jewish state. Recently, the Israeli government proposed a solution called the Prawer-Begin plan which offered generously funded services and economic incentives to Negev Beduins in exchange for their agreement to resolve disputed land claims and resettle the 30,000 Beduins who currently reside outside of recognized townships. Implementation of the plan was halted in Dec. 2013 due to opposition from across the Israeli political spectrum. On the left, critics felt the Beduins were coerced and on the right there was opposition from those who saw the plan as overly generous and unfair to the rest of Israeli society that did not qualify for such preferential treatment.
International news coverage often portrays the dispute between the government of Israel and its Negev Beduin population through the prism of societal discrimination against the state’s Arab population. The news media often ignores the considerable gains made by the Beduins and fails to establish that the majority of Beduins already reside in recognized towns that offer modern services. An accurate and balanced portrayal of the situation does not sustain the narrative that puts the main emphasis on discrimination towards non-Jews. Instead what emerges is the complexity involved in integrating into a modern society a pre-modern ethnic and religious minority with lingering historical antagonism.
Reporting on the topic invariably falls short in providing sufficient historical context and background to understand the essential elements of the land dispute and why Israel insists on settling the Beduins in recognized communities.
The following backgrounder provides this missing historical context and explores issues the news media often hesitate to discuss. The information provided here is drawn from a variety of sources including reports by non-governmental organizations involved with Beduin issues, official Israeli government web sites and the work of respected historians and demographers. This backgrounder provides answers to the following questions:
Who are the Beduins?
How many Negev Beduins are there?
What is the history of Beduin settlement in the Negev?

What is the relationship of the Negev Beduins to the State of Israel?

What are the basic land issues and claims?

Who are the Beduins ?

Beduins are traditionally pastoral nomads of the Middle East and North Africa. They live on desert and pasture lands. The Beduin population in the Middle East and North Africa is estimated by one web site at four million, but no reliable census exists. They are Muslims by religion and Arabs by ethnicity.
Beduins are distinct from the far more numerous settled Arab population by their social customs and kinship network. Traditionally they have been organized as tribes numbering several hundred to several thousand individuals.

The vast majority of Beduins are no longer nomadic and have not been for some time. By the 1930s, 90 percent of the Negev Beduin depended upon agriculture for sustainance1 Today, most live in permanent settlements.

How many Negev Beduins are there?

The most recent population data suggests there are about 210,000 Beduins living in Israel’s Negev. This is up from 115,000 in 2000 and 40,000 in 1983. The figures reflect a very high rate of increase.

Beduin women average 7.14 children, as compared to 3.84 among all Israeli Muslims and around 3 for Jewish Israelis in 2007. The median age of Beduins in 2009 was reported as 13 years old.
The Negev Beduins are distinct from the Beduins who live in the Northern district of Israel (Galilee). The Galilee Beduins are better integrated into modern Israeli life and many cast their lot with the Jewish state at its inception.

What is the history of Beduin settlement in the Negev?

Contrary to what many believe, the Beduins are not indigenous to the Negev although some have been there for a long time. They were first recorded as entering Palestine in the 5th Century C.E. from the south. They engaged in breeding camels, goats and sheep and often raided settled villages. The Ottoman empire exerted some control over the Beduin tribes. Beduin territorial possessiveness developed at the time of their transition to sedentary living around the middle of the 19th century.2 Following a tribal war in 1890, tribal boundaries were fixed until 1948.
Beduin land ownership claims are complicated. According to a report by a British non-governmental organization called the Minority Rights Group:
With few exceptions, those in the Negev did not register their lands in accordance with the law. In this way they avoided paying land taxes… Most of the land in the Negev… was legally characterized as mawat or “dead” – wastelands used by no-one and with no defined ownership. 3
However, Ottoman officials, the British Mandatory administration and Jewish organizations purchasing land prior to the establishment of Israel
all implicitly recognized Beduin land rights.

A December, 1941 census put the Negev Beduin population at 66,553, a mix of settled and semi-nomadic communities. In the wake of Israel’s War of Independence, the majority of Negev Beduins resettled in the Gaza strip, Jordan, the Hebron mountains and the Sinai peninsula. In 1951, an official count put the Negev Beduin population at 12,740.

Over the next 60 years the Beduin population grew at an astonishing rate of more than 5.5 percent per year. This increase was a result of continuing high birthrates and substantially reduced child mortality rates due to improved living standards and healthcare. One study calculated that 75% of pre-1948 Beduin families suffered the loss of a child, while two generations later, the number had fallen under 10%, still significant, but dramatically improved.4
In As Nomadism Ends: The Israeli Bedouin of the Negev, Avinoam Meir provides an in-depth discussion of the multiple factors that resulted in an atypical increase in fertility rates as the population transitioned to a modern lifestyle.5 Israeli government policy of providing subsidies for each child has also favored large families among beneficiaries. This policy provides an additional impetus for high fertility rates.
Polygamy (men having multiple wives) is widely practiced in the Beduin community. Wives are often drawn from outside Israel. According to a report prepared for the Israeli Knesset, polygamous homes account for 25 percent of Beduin population.

Recognized settlements
Over 60 percent of the Negev Beduins live in seven recognized (legal) permanent communities. The remaining 40 percent live in unrecognized settlements. It is the intention of the Israeli government to recognize most of the currently unrecognized settlements. This last fact is often overlooked in media coverage. For example a New York Times slide show  posted on Dec. 7, 2013 claimed that 70,000 Negev Beduins face relocation by the Israeli government, when in fact the true figure is 30,000. The other 40,000 live in unrecognized settlements the government intends to upgrade to recognized status.
The first Beduin township was Tel Sheva established in 1967. Several Beduin townships were established in the 1970s. The largest, Rahat, shown to the left, is home to approximately a quarter of the Negev Beduin population. These settlements have received extensive funding from the Israeli government for infrastructure, modern services – electricity, sanitation, clean water – and education to the residents. The Prawer-Begin plan would have devoted 1.2 billion NIS to further economic development for the Beduins.

What is the relationship of the Negev Beduins to the State of Israel?

Education and employment

As a group the Beduins are less educated and have lower rates of employment than the majority of Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. Beduin women have very low rates of labor force participation, although they have made dramatic gains in education.

A report on Israeli Beduins put out by the Brookdale Institute calculated that the Beduins received less years of education than other Israelis. However, there have been substantial gains and the gap has closed considerably in the last 20 years. The table below is reproduced from the study:

Average Years of Education among Bedouin, Arab-Israeli and Jewish Men and Women, Age 15+, 1990-2007
Women     1990    2007
Bedouin         3.0        6.5
Arab-Israeli    7.5     10.0
Jewish          11.0     13.0
Bedouin        6.5      10.0
Arab-Israeli   9.0      10.5
Jewish         12.0      13.0
The substantial increase in Beduins in higher education (nearly doubled over the time period of the study) was almost entirely due to rising female matriculation rates, a common trend throughout the Arab world. The male rate has changed little.
The study found about half of men between the ages of 25-69 were employed in 2008. Only 1 in 8 female Beduins were employed
. This contrasts with 1 in 4 Arab-Israeli women employed, and 3 in 5 Jewish women.

A study  prepared for the Israeli Knesset in 2005 found that exposure to modern life has exacted a toll on beduin society. It noted, “Urbanization and modernization in recent decades have shaken the socioeconomic foundations of the Beduin society and brought with it delinquency, high school dropout rates, and drug abuse that were not as common before.

Early Israeli relations with the Negev Beduins

Prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, Beduin sheikhs sold land to Jewish buyers, who were willing to pay above market prices. The Beduin sellers came under harsh criticism from both Arab nationalists and Beduin activists.6
The relationship between Jewish settlers and Negev Beduins was characterized by both mutual suspicion and cooperation. Beduins benefitted enormously from irrigation lines built by the Jews as well as from the introduction of modern medicine.

During the war of 1947-49 some Negev Beduins fought against Israel. The majority fled as the Egyptian army retreated from the Negev. Others were forced out by Israeli authorities during and after the war.

Granted citizenship in 1954, the remaining Negev Beduins, like the rest of the Israeli Arab population, lived under Israeli military administration until 1966. During that time most remaining Negev Beduins were relocated to a 1000 square kilometer area in the northern Negev, east of Beersheba.

What are the basic land issues and claims?

15.4 percent of the Negev was registered as owned by Beduins in 1945. Under Israeli military administration, many of the Beduins were relocated. This created a problem after 1966 regarding land claims as the Beduins generally did not possess legally recognized proof of property ownership. The problem of conflicting property claims was partly dealt with by a compromise where Beduins sold land they claimed to the state of Israel. Lengthy legal procedings were avoided as it was easier for Beduins to claim land ownership if their intention was to sell it for compensation than to prove title to land they intended to retain.7
In 1976, the Israeli government developed a more formal plan to deal with the Negev Beduin land claims. This involved allowing the Beduins to retain a portion of land on which they could provide some proof of ownership; compensation was offered for another portion of the land and the Israeli government would take a third portion without compensation. The Beduins rejected the plan and a lengthy court battle ensued.
Over the years a majority of the Beduins have relocated to towns constructed for them by the Israeli government. This has resulted in a substantial improvement in their living standards, but a minority of Beduins resist abandoning their property claims.
In recent years further efforts to resolve the issue were undertaken. The Goldberg Commission for the Regulation of the Beduin Settlements in the Negev (2009) followed by the Prawer-Begin Plan offered comprehensive plans involving funding for services and economic development in exchange for resolving land claims. These plans have been derailed for the time being by internal opposition and outside interference. Foreign non-governmental organizations like “Adalah, funded by the NIF [New Israel Fund], the European Union, Switzerland, the Ford Foundation, Welfare Association and other foundations” testified before the EU Parliament subcommittee on human rights, claiming that the Prawer-Begin plan “represents two principles: Apartheid and Military Rule.” 8Such political posturing seems detached from the actual problems experienced by the Beduins.
Israel’s growing population and limited open space

While activists portray Israeli policy as coercive, it is important to understand that the dispute mainly revolves around issues related to Israel’s increasing population, improved standard of living and security needs. The Beduin and the Israeli state have a mutual interest in raising the standard of living of the Beduin community and integrating its members into the economy and society of the modern state. There are also geographical issues of critical importance to Israel.
Israel’s Southern District, which mainly consists of the Negev is nearly 2/3 of Israel’s total land area, accounting for 5,477 out of 8,522 square miles (Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics). Israel is among the most densely populated countries in the world and 85 percent of the population resides on the 1/3 of its land that is not in the Southern District. The population density of Israel’s other districts is approximately 2,800 people per square mile (more than 1,000 people per square kilometer). This excludes the Golan Heights which serves as a buffer zone with Syria and has few people. The densely populated 1/3 of Israel contains much of Israel’s agricultural land and must also provide defense margins on its borders. Packing all of that into 2,433 square miles (6300 square kilometers) means Israel’s citizens have had to accomodate to living in densely packed urban areas featuring predominantly multi-storied, multi-family dwellings.

The Negev is Israel’s only expansive open land. Allowing the rapidly growing Beduin population to reside widely dispersed over the land creates environmental and aesthetic problems. Although Beduin land claims affect only a small portion of the Negev, much of the Negev is uninhabitable. The land claims remain a signific
ant issue in a state starved for open and useable land.

There are security issues that dispersed and uncontrolled Beduin habitation impacts. The Negev is the location for Israeli airbases and military zones needed for training and manuevers. It also serves as a buffer zone for Israel’s population centers to the north, providing manuevering space for the Israeli army in the case of attack from the Sinai peninsula.

Three examples of a distorted portrayal of the Israeli-Beduin dispute from the Guardian:

1 Page 5, Penny Maddrell, The Beduin of the Negev, publication of The Minority Rights Group, report no. 81, 1990
2 Page 74-83, Avinoam Meir, As Nomadism Ends:The Israeli Bedouin of the Negev, Westview Press, 1997
3 Page 4, Maddrell
4 Page 118, Meir
5 Page 30, ibid
6 Page 56-57,  ibid
7 Page 6, Maddrell
Shira Michael, NGO monitor, published in the Jerusalem Post, Nov. 10, 2013

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