Israel’s Bedouin, Becoming City Dwellers


Many of Israel’s Bedouins, nomadic Arabs who have become less nomadic over the last two centuries, face the prospect of forced urbanization.

The Knesset is considering a bill that would remove tens of thousands of Bedouins from their villages and small settlements in the Negev desert, replace their communities with Jewish settlements and industrial projects, and resettle them in established townships.

While, according to media reports, thousands of Bedouin say they support the government’s offer of hundreds of millions of dollars for improvements to the resettled Bedouin communities, Bedouin leaders have denounced the bill as racist. And Haaretz recently called the government’s plan to build a new town, Hiran, on the site of a present Bedouin village, Umm al-Hiran, “a new low in the state’s treatment of the Bedouin of the Negev.”

Israel, the editorial in the Israeli newspaper stated, is “becoming an ethnocracy … a regime that exists for the good of a single ethnic group, and that grants rights on the basis of ethnic affiliation rather than the principles of equality.”

Umm al-Hiran is an “unrecognized” Bedouin community, which does not receive official government services such as water, electricity or sewage.

Israel’s Bedouin population is estimated at 200,000, two-thirds in the Negev, the rest in the north. About half of the Negev’s Bedouin — some prefer the term “Negev Arabs” — live in seven townships established by the government between 1968 and 1989; the rest live in unrecognized towns and villages that often are tent camps and shantytowns.

The Bedouins migrated to Israel’s desert area, from the 18th century onwards, from the Arabian Peninsula, Transjordan, Egypt and the Sinai Desert. Facing urbanization and the loss of grazing land during the times of the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate, a growing number built permanent homes that served as a base. Bedouin women, above, ride their donkeys in Beersheva, the largest city in the Negev.