The truth about the Bedouin in the Negev

One could argue that if the conflict with the Palestinians was miraculously solved, the next conflict simmering under the surface would be the fate of the Bedouins in the Negev.

For decades, NGOs have educated the world with a shocking narrative of an indigenous population under threat of extinction. We are told that the Bedouin citizens of Israel live in a mere 45 historical villages and are forced to build illegally because their communities are not recognized by the state. That they can’t provide for their families because the government doesn’t allocate adequate funding to their communities. Above all else, apparently all they are asking for is 5% of the Negev.

These would all be fair and logical arguments, if any of them were based on fact or an iota of truth. In reality these are six major myths or mantras that have been repeated so many times that even members of the government of Israel have blindly adopted them as truth.

The first of these myths is the issue of indigenous status. Internationally accepted determinants of indigenous status rely on the following five determinants being met: 1. Original Inhabitants. 2. Extended period of Time. 3. Pre-Colonial Sovereignty. 4. Group connection to the Land. 5. External Validation.

The Bedouin that currently reside in the Negev are not the original inhabitants of the area. Even if a very limited amount of these nomadic tribes were in the area two or even three hundred years ago, this is not considered as an extended period of time warranting the title indigenous. This does not place them in the area before the first colonialist invasion by marauding Arabs from Arabia in the 8th Century CE or the beginning of the long period of Ottoman domination that started in the 1500’s.

Nomadic life also precludes any specific fixed connection to the land. There is no long-standing proof in Bedouin tradition establishing a spiritual connection between them and the Negev specifically, a logical result of their relatively brief presence there and to their nomadic lifestyle.

Although the UN Committee on Indigenous People did bestow indigenous status on the Bedouin of the Negev, the fact that no other Bedouin tribe in the Middle East ever made a claim of being indigenous raises questions as to the motives and authenticity of such a claim and raises the obvious questions of the committee’s objectivity.

Major myth number two is the Bedouin claim of “historical villages” which can be easily refuted with historical aerial photographs. Tens of aerial photographs of these so-called historical villages have been examined and made publically available and show that these villages did not exist prior to 1945.

No one is denying that there were nomadic tribes living in the Negev earlier than the 1940s. However, due to the nature of these tribes, no permanent residences were established. There are signs of cultivation in the aerial photography that was examined, but the form of farming used was seasonal, not long term, in order to supply feed for their herds as they moved from place to place.

Myth three is the existence of only 45 “unrecognized” villages where tens of thousands of Bedouin live. A map funded by the now infamous OXFAM in 2006 institutionalized this. Today anyone using Google Earth/Maps can easily see that there are not 45, but thousands of illegal residential clusters/hamlets/villages spread throughout the Northern Negev between Beersheva, Arad & Dimona.

Myth four speaks of the inability to receive building permits and thus the need to build illegally. This ignores the hundreds of millions of dollars that has been invested in developing new neighborhoods exclusively (based on a Supreme Court ruling in 2006) allocated to the Bedouin, such as the towns of Lakia and Hura. It ignores the largest residential building project in Israel, a new neighborhood in the Bedouin city of Rahat. It ignores the fact that each and every Bedouin male who live in an illegal village is offered quarter acre plot gratis and thousands of additional shekels to solidify their homestead and livelihood.

Myth five states that Bedouins are discriminated against by the government. The fact is that the government participates in 80% of the local budgets for the Bedouin authorities, as compared to 51% for other development towns in the Negev. Additionally, the fact that government budgets per person are higher in the Bedouin authorities than those same development towns doesn’t stop the constant assertion that the Bedouin are discriminated against by the government. In reality, the facts uphold a stronger case of affirmative action than discrimination.

Myth six relates to the seemingly modest statement that the Bedouin are claiming less than 5% of the Negev. The fact that 80% of the Negev is inhabitable means the figure is actually 23% of available land in the area. Among all the sectors of Israeli society, there is no sector so small that makes a claim of private ownership over an area so large, despite the fact that from a legal perspective, it has been proven time and time again that their claims are without basis.

By bringing these myths to light and exposing them for what they are, our hope is that this will clear the air and return the discourse to one that will allow for a more informed and educated discussion on the way forward for the Negev.

About the Author
Ari Briggs is Director of the International Department of Regavim, the non-profit advocacy group for Israel’s national lands. As director, Briggs works to ensure responsible, legal & environmentally friendly use of national lands, and to educate about proper and legal land claim issues through aerial photography, maps and historical documentation.