The rebellion of the Bedouins in the Negev

Yossi Schwartz, ISL the RCIT section in Israel/Occupied Palestine, 13.01.2021

When Ra’am the conservative Islamic party (Southern branch) in Israel entered the government of Bennet we denounced it as a betrayal of the Palestinian people. Ra’am claimed that participating in this right-wing government will improve the condition of its social base, the Bedouins living in the south of Israel. This was a pie in the sky.

The Bedouins are estimated at around 200,000-230,000 people or 3.5 percent of the country’s total population, the Bedouin community in the southern Negev Desert is part of the Palestinian people citizens of Israel.  The community is split between those living in recognized villages (known as townships) and those living in the “unrecognized villages” that the Zionist state deems illegal. This is because of the state’s policy of marginalization and non-recognition that denies the existence of the unrecognized villages where more than 100,000 Bedouin lives. Since the establishment of the Zionist state in 1948, they have largely been denied access to basic services like running water, electricity, medical care, education, and housing., They are the poorest, most marginalized, and most discriminated population in Israel. In these villages, there are no hospitals or health clinics, while access to high schools and health services in nearby towns is limited. The fate of the Palestinian Bedouin tribes of the Naqab (Negev) has been no different from that of the rest of the Palestinian people. Along with other Palestinian, the Bedouin of the Naqab suffered expulsion and displacement during and after the Nakba of 1948. This policy has changed very little since 1948.

The Negev is a desert in an area exceeding 12,000 sq. km (7,456 sq. miles), which is 60% of the total land area of Israel before 1967. Bedouin were formerly nomadic shepherds and they are composed of many tribes. Most of the Bedouin tribes in the Negev arrived from Hejaz, a region in the north of the Arabian Peninsula. The expansion of Islam starting in the 7th century A.D. brought Bedouin from the Arabian Peninsula to Palestine. During the Ottoman rule, and under the British Mandate, the life of Bedouin in the Negev remained generally unaltered. They were, for the most part, allowed to live their lives without major interruption from, or interference by, the authorities. They were permitted to move freely about, and migrate according to need, in search of water or pasture for their flocks. Their grazing and water rights, as well as their periodic movements, were recognized. Before the establishment of the Zionist state, the Bedouin of Palestine reached the semi-nomadic stage. Nevertheless, tribal migration was still the overwhelming practice as the Bedouin wandered in the dry season in search of water and pasture for their flocks. In 1948 seventy-five percent of the Bedouin sub-tribes of the district of Beersheba were expelled.

“Some of the El-Azazmeh sub-tribes were expelled as late as 1953-1954 after a murderous massacre of their women and children carried out by the notorious ‘Unit 101’ of the Israeli army led by Sharon. In 1959 Bedouin were expelled to Egypt and Jordan. Bedouin was subject to expulsion at any time because they were not issued identity cards. Not until mid-1952 were Bedouin issued identity cards, by which time large numbers of Bedouin had been expelled. A report of the United Nations in 1953 stated that 7,000 Bedouin had been expelled[i]. The total number of Bedouin in the Negev was only about 10,000 after the 1948 war. The Negev was placed under Israeli military administration. Many of the remaining Bedouin were removed from the western Negev to a reserve northeastern corner of the desert where they were confined.”

Their former area becomes a new home for Zionist agricultural settlements and development hamlets. For example, the Israeli town of Arad was built on 11,250 acres of expropriated Bedouin land. The nomads were restricted to 10 percent of the area previously utilized by them and limited to 5.5 percent of the land under the Zionist state’s control. Land ownership disputes between the Bedouin and the Jewish state are due to the Turkish Tabu Law of 1858. This law obliged Bedouin, as well as other landowners, to register their properties by paying land taxes. As with many peasants in Palestine, the Bedouin, too, in many instances, either evaded payment of these tariffs altogether or minimized the amount paid by deflating ownership figures. Although the Bedouins knew the land had been utilized by them for centuries, they could not produce legal documents as evidence later when land titles or records of tax payment became recognized as the only valid landholding papers. After the establishment of the Zionist state, it claimed most of the Negev land. Lands in the Western Negev from which the Bedouins had been expelled were declared “abandoned” and subsequently expropriated by Israel under the land acquisition law. By 1959 the Negev Bedouin had lost at least 22 62,500 acres due to expropriation. However, in 1972, an additional 187,500 acres were reported to be in dispute between the Bedouin and the Zionist state. Some land that they considered their own was offered to Bedouin under a lease contract.

Master plans for the northern Negev, prepared in accordance with the 1965 Planning and Building Law, entirely ignored the existence of the Bedouin villages and their residents’ land rights. In the master plan, Bedouin lands were designated as agricultural land, or under other such headings as industrial, military, infrastructure, etc., all with the same result – that residential construction in these areas was prohibited. Bedouin villagers were placed in the impossible situation that continues to this day whereby they cannot legally obtain any building permits, and the homes in which they were born and raised are considered illegal by the state. These homes are perpetually under the threat of demolition and of incurring fines. It should be obvious that any construction without permits in the unrecognized villages is performed not out of a desire to break or flout the law, but out of necessity – a necessity created by the state policy which refuses to recognize the Bedouin rights to their land. At the same time, the state continues to establish new rural Jewish settlements in the Negev. More than one hundred Jewish settlements exist today in the Be’er Sheva district, with an average population of only 300 residents” [ii]

In 2002 Oren Yiftachel, from Ben Gurion University in his article “Bedouin-Arabs and the Israeli Settler State: Land Policies and Indigenous Resistance” [iii]. He wrote that Israel was among the “‘Pure’ settler states, such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, Israel, South Africa, and New Zealand”, and like they are characterized by the ongoing expansion of white settlement and the ‘frontier ethos’ that accompanied that settlement. In his “Towards Recognizing Indigenous Rights? Beer Sheva Metropolitan Planning after the Goldberg Commission“, he wrote that Israel is an ethnocratic settler state. [iv]

In 2004, Adalah published Kedar’s article entitled “Land Settlement in the Negev in International Law Perspective”[v]. He wrote that the “Arab Bedouin” of the Negev should be given “the rights of indigenous people”. He argued that the relevant international law applying to Israel was International Labor Organization Convention 169 (adopted 1989, enacted 1991) on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. He also said that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial discrimination applied. He referenced the 1994 U.N. draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Kedar wrote: “To sum up, Israeli law has the tools to apply the relevant international norms to the case of the Arab Bedouin. Employing principles such as human dignity, equality, and distributive justice, it is possible to interpret and create rules of law that will strengthen the Arab Bedouins’ status relating to the land they possess” [vi]

On 11 September 2011, the cabinet of Netanyahu decided to implement the controversial ‘Prawer plan’ which was supposed to provide infrastructure and facilities to the unrecognized Bedouin villages. The plan was drawn up without any consultation with Bedouins and would extinguish Bedouin land claims without adequate compensation Bedouin who lives in these villages not recognized by the Zionist authorities have faced frequent home demolitions. Hundreds of families have to watch as Zionist armed forces come with bulldozers and flatten their homes. Demolitions were expected to rise dramatically under the proposed government plans. The demonstrations of the Bedouins and some liberal Jews forced the government to retreat from this plan.

The JNF (Jewish National Fund) workers concluded forestation work on the disputed lands in the Negev on Wednesday after three days of planting that infuriated local Bedouin communities who viewed the operation as part of a government effort to expel them from their unrecognized hamlets. The planting led to clashes with the police that caused a crisis of the shaky coalition, government when the Islamist Ra’am party vowed to boycott plenum votes as long as Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund’s (KKL-JNF) work continued in the Negev.

JNF workers concluded forestation work on disputed land in the Negev on Wednesday after three days of planting that infuriated local Bedouin communities who viewed the operation as part of a government effort to expel them from their unrecognized hamlets.

The planting and the violent clashes with police that it sparked turned into the latest crisis that threatened to topple Israel’s nascent, motley coalition, with the Islamist Ra’am party vowing to boycott plenum votes as long as Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund’s (KKL-JNF) work continued in the Negev, where they enjoy the largest bloc of support.

Meanwhile, MKs from the right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties, who campaigned on clamping down on alleged Bedouin lawlessness in the Negev, pressed for the forestation work to continue, viewing it as part of a nationalistic effort to entrench Jewish presence in the area. Authorities deem the land as belonging to the state and have contracted KKL-JNF to plant there.

The cessation of KKL-JNF’s work on Wednesday was attacked by right-wing critics as a “surrender to terror,” while the forestation was only scheduled to last three days in this stage.

Some protesters on Tuesday evening hurled stones at vehicles on a highway near Beersheba, blocked the railway line, and torched a vehicle. Police said two officers were wounded in the violence and local media reported at least 18 people arrested” [vii]

Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, the government-appointed man on the legalization of unrecognized Bedouin villages, said Wednesday that he managed to negotiate an agreement between the sides to hold negotiations starting Thursday to reach a compromise on the matter.

“Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Tuesday that “politicians on both sides need to calm things instead of fanning the flames” and called for the planting to be halted until a solution could be found. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu issued a combative statement, saying: “No one will stop tree planting in the Land of Israel. I give my backing to the security forces and demand that Bennett immediately condemn the incitement by Ra’am, his senior government partner” [viii]

On Wednesday, the government agreed that future work by JNF in the Negev will be negotiated by coalition partners, in a bid to ease tensions after days of violent clashes over forestation work on the land used for agriculture by local Bedouin. Despite the deal, negotiated between Labor Minister Meir Cohen and United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas, UAL legislators boycotted the votes in the Knesset Wednesday over the JNF’s tree-planting, during which the opposition passed five different bills in preliminary votes. Protesters gathered Thursday along an inner-city highway near the Bedouin village of Sawa and were dispersed with stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets. At least three were injured, activists said. [ix]

Abbas who a few days ago said that he recognizes Israel as a Jewish state is now between the hammer and the anvil.

Considering the nature of Israel as a colonialist settler state one has to be really stupid or politically blind to believe that the Zionist state will stop its efforts to remove the Bedouins of the Negev to a reservation in the North of the Negev. Already Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin from the New Hope party which is a member of the government has vowed to carry on with the tree-planting. “We will continue with the planting as needed, today is the last day of this round,” Elkin told Kan News. [x]

If you want to know what is the value of settler colonialists’ promises to native people, ask the native people of North America. The government may stop the forestation work for some time but this government or the one that will replace it, will continue the policy of destroying the unrecognized villages and removing the Bedouins to the reservation.

Mansour Abbas has only two choices; the first one is to bring down this government by resigning from the government and the second one is to expose his betrayal of the Bedouins.

Say no to the collaboration of Mansour Abbas with the Zionists!

Down with the Zionist apartheid state!

For a Palestine red and free from the river to the sea!


[i] Sabri Jiryis, The Arabs in Israel (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976 P.121


[iii] Oren Yiftachel, “Bedouin-Arabs and the Israeli Settler State: Land Policies and Indigenous Resistance,” Trans europeaness 22 (2002

[iv] Oren Yiftachel, “Towards Recognizing Indigenous Rights? Beer Sheva Metropolitan Planning after the Goldberg Commission,” Tichnun 11 (2009): 56–71 [Hebrew]

[v] Alexander (Sandy) Kedar, “Land Settlement in the Negev in International

Law Perspective,” Adalah Newsletter 8 (2004): 1–5.

[vi] Ibid





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