The Bedouin Dilemma
A Moment Magazine Special Series | Israel’s Arab Citizens
This story is the sixth installment of Moment’s series on Israel’s Arab citizens.
Struggles over land & identity are at the heart of growing tensions between the Israeli government & its once-nomadic citizens.
Story by Eetta Prince-Gibson
Photographs by Ely Hershkovitz
Riad Abu-Quian drives his late-model Mazda over an unpaved road and through a treacherously steep gully to reach Umm al-Hiran. Some 700 people, about 150 of them children, live in the village, which clings to the slopes of a rocky hill in Israel’s southern Negev desert. To an outsider, it appears to be a jumbled collection of shacks and roughly built houses with solar panels and satellite dishes haphazardly attached. But to Riad and other Bedouin members of the al-Quian tribe who have lived here all or most of their lives, it is home.
A tall, lanky man of 40, Riad wears a snug-fitting black button-down shirt, dark jeans and a cap tipped jauntily to one side. He makes his way to his compound, which consists of three small, single-story, flat-roofed houses, perched near the top of the hill. One house is for his mother, who is one of his father’s numerous wives, and the second is for Riad’s first wife and the couple’s three children. He lives in the third with his second wife, Maryam, 32, and their two children, ages 10 months and three years.
Riad and Maryam, both graduates of the Middle East Studies program at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, have taken great pains to make their crowded three-room home comfortable. Wood paneling is glued to the walls and ceilings to cover the concrete, and curtains hide ill-fitting windows. Toys and books are crammed into shelves, and two cream-colored faux-leather sofas face a flat-screen TV, filling up the living room.
Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, Maryam serves fresh fruit and thick, sweet coffee as the children crawl among the clutter. “The house is just too small,” she says in Hebrew, which she speaks fluently, as do Riad and most young Israeli Bedouins. “But if we add even another small room, even a storeroom, the authorities will demolish it. Then they might demolish the whole house, too.”
That is because Umm al-Hiran is one of nearly 50 Bedouin villages that the Israeli government regards as illegal. These “unrecognized villages,” as they are commonly called, are literally off the official map—not even visible on most GPS navigation systems. Since they were built without official permission, any structures within them can be legally demolished. As a result, almost every house in every unrecognized village has been served with a demolition order, and hardly a day goes by without the destruction of at least one Bedouin home somewhere in the Negev. Some villages such as Al-Araqib, just a few miles north of Beer Sheva and slated to become a Jewish National Fund forest, have been completely razed by the government (and rebuilt by activists, many of them Jewish) dozens of times. These demolitions have become highly charged, capturing media attention and leading to demonstrations—some of them violent.
Umm al-Hiran’s saga began in 1956, when the Israeli government forcibly resettled the al-Quian tribe here after evicting it from its traditional lands in the northern Negev to make room for a kibbutz. The tribe members built houses and settled in, but the government never made the village legal, by leasing the land to the tribe or by providing municipal services such as running water, sewers or electricity. Although there were occasional demolitions, the villagers lived for decades in a relatively stable state of limbo.
But in 2002, whatever sense of security existed in Umm al-Hiran vanished. To encourage more Jews to move to the Negev, Ariel Sharon’s government approved the establishment of 14 new Israeli communities. Umm al-Hiran’s residents were horrified to learn that one of these communities, Hiran—a large, modern city of 2,500 households designed for young national-religious Jews—was to be built precisely where their village stood.
The government offered to resettle the residents of Umm al-Hiran in Hura, the sprawling, legally sanctioned Bedouin town three miles away, but most refused. In 2013, the villagers, represented by Adalah, an Israeli-Palestinian legal rights group, petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court against their removal and the demolition of their homes. In May, in a controversial decision that made international headlines, the villagers’ petition was rejected by a 2-1 decision. The Court agreed that the villagers were not trespassers, since the state itself had set them up on the land, and it criticized the government for the way it had handled the villagers’ case, and for presenting the residents as trespassers and squatters.
Yet the majority ruled that since the land had never been leased to the villagers, there was nothing to prevent the state from evacuating them. In her minority opinion, one justice wrote that they should be permitted to stay and be provided with basic services. On the basis of that minority opinion and the recognition that they are not trespassers, the villagers intend to appeal to a larger panel of the Court. “If we are quiet on Umm al-Hiran, they can evacuate any village,” says Hassan Jabareen, Adalah’s chief attorney.
Riad, who has lived in Umm al-Hiran for most of his life, is angry that the country in whose army he served would see fit to take his home and village away. “Israelis see us as little more than a security threat,” he says. “And in the name of security they have dispossessed us, stolen our lands, and discriminated against us. But we will not allow them to replace our village with a Jewish village. That is racism.”
And so Riad and his neighbors in Umm al-Hiran have become a new nexus in an already fraught relationship between the Bedouin—who are fighting to maintain their way of life—and the State of Israel, a modern nation that wants to develop its least-populated region and fears expanded Bedouin settlement. The context, says Clinton Bailey, widely regarded as one of Israel’s foremost experts on Bedouin culture, history and politics, “is the complete lack of goodwill on the part of the state toward the Bedouins, the lack of flexibility on the part of the Bedouins toward the state, missed opportunities, and changes in the Bedouin community as it is pulled between modernity and tradition.
“And if the problems aren’t solved soon,” warns Bailey, who has studied and written about the Bedouin for more than five decades, “the whole situation could deteriorate into violence.”
While the Negev has long beckoned to the Jewish imagination as a Zionist frontier, in reality it has languished compared to other parts of Israel. Until recently, the region was made up of a few cities, such as Beer Sheva, Dimona and Arad (poor, neglected development towns largely settled by immigrants from Arab-speaking countries in the 1950s); and several dozen economically sound kibbutzim and less economically sound moshavim [cooperative communities].
But this has changed in recent years. Multi-lane highways and modern railroads now link the Negev to the country’s center. Beer Sheva has grown into a vibrant city of nearly 200,000 residents as its university, medical facilities and high-tech ventures attract young, urban Israelis. The Negev’s open spaces are drawing in a new breed of self-styled pioneers who are setting up small farms, vineyards and cottage industries. At the same time, the military is transferring a major part of its operations to the Negev, including its key technology and intelligence facilities, which will spur further development.
Until the State of Israel was founded, the Negev was mostly the domain of the Bedouin—the semi-nomadic desert inhabitants who lived in tents and depended on herds of camels and sheep, as well as subsistence farming, for their livelihood. A small number lived in scattered tumbledown villages or in Beer Sheva. After statehood, most fled or were expelled, primarily to Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and Jordan. Some 90,000 Bedouin remained, consisting of three major tribes and about 95 subtribes.
The Bedouin were granted Israeli citizenship during the 1950s, but like all Arabs during the early years of statehood, they lived under military rule until the late 1960s. Their movements were confined to 10 percent of the area where they had originally dwelled, in a compact stretch of land northeast of Beer Sheva. In 1963, then-Minister of Agriculture Moshe Dayan famously told Haaretz: “We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat in industry, services, construction, and agriculture…The children will go to school with their hair properly combed. This would be a revolution, but it would be fixed within two generations…The phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear.”
It didn’t. The Bedouin continued to inhabit the land, based on land claims derived from a complex system of tribal ownership, grazing rights and water access. Their claims were generally not recorded. Neither the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the region for generations, nor the British, who controlled it from 1917 to 1948, had implemented clear procedures for registration of land ownership. Israel, too, ignored Bedouin land claims until the 1970s, when it began to invite them to register, says Bailey. “In reality, the procedure was not intended to make their claims legal, but rather to enable the state to acquire their lands through purchase—and at minimal prices.”
Following through on Dayan’s widely shared belief that it was necessary to change the Bedouin way of life, the state instituted a process of urbanization. Between 1968 and 1989, Israel built seven urban townships for them, promising government services and benefits. Within a few years, half of the Bedouin population moved into these communities, which included the Bedouin cities of Rahat, founded in 1971, now with around 55,000 residents, and Hura (population: 20,000), founded in 1989.
With few exceptions, however, the towns failed to integrate the Bedouin into Israeli society. “Urbanization in itself is not necessarily bad,” says Bailey. “And certainly the state has the right to determine where localities will be established. But the towns were badly planned, with inadequate funding and no attention to employment and income.” Furthermore, he says, they were organized by tribes, a “dismal failure” that has led to new kinds of tribal tensions. “Although the urbanization was intended to limit land claims, the government’s demands were so high, and the compensation so minimal, that the people who moved into the towns were mostly those who had no land claims to begin with. So the towns created new problems and didn’t solve existing ones.”
The most intractable problem in these towns is poverty. Often located just a few miles from wealthy Jewish communities, Bedouin towns are Israel’s poorest and suffer from rampant joblessness, crime and violence. To some extent, Hura is an exception, thanks in no small part to its activist mayor, Muhammad al-Nabari. In Hura, the roads are paved, the traffic lights work, and there are small public parks with landscaping. Even so, Hura has one of Israel’s highest unemployment rates.
By the early 2000s, the Israeli government realized that the situation was untenable. In 2007, the Goldberg Commission, chaired by former Supreme Court judge Eliezer Goldberg, was created. Its 2008 report concluded that “Israel must change the legal status of at least 46 villages so as to prevent perpetuation of the community’s unbearable state.” It suggested that a committee be set up to hear and settle Bedouin claims relating to traditional land ownership. The report was praised by many nonprofits and civil rights groups, but its suggestions were rejected by the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages of the Negev, an ad hoc advocacy group. The Council maintained that the recommendations did not recognize Arab ownership of their land in the Negev, did not offer any just solution and continued to view the Bedouin primarily as a threat to the Jewish majority.
The Goldberg Plan was never implemented, and in 2011, the government established the Prawer Commission, headed by Ehud Prawer, then head of policy planning in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. In its recommendations, released the same year, the Prawer Commission called for some compensation to those Bedouin who resettled and an allocation of $300 million toward economic growth in the Bedouin community.
But most strikingly, the report called for a limited recognition of a few villages, and proposed to relocate nearly 20,000 Bedouins to recognized communities. The plan was championed by then-Minister Without Portfolio Benny Begin, who insisted at the time that the Bedouin “would gain a significant improvement in their living conditions, and will at last have electricity and water infrastructure, as well as the use of public institutions.”
The plan encountered objections from all sides. Many Bedouin leaders declared it undemocratic and racist. Israeli and international organizations condemned it as a violation of the Bedouins’ civil and human rights. From the other side of the political spectrum, right-wing politicians and groups like Regavim, which gives legal support to settlements and outposts in the West Bank, argued that there was no basis for recognizing Bedouin ownership of any Negev land. In December 2013, the Prawer Plan was scrapped.
But by now, the Bedouin population—with one of the highest birthrates in the world thanks to polygamy and a cultural emphasis on large families—has grown to some 180,000 in the Negev. Meanwhile, says Bailey, Israel has “not really ever decided what we want to do with the Bedouin. And until now, we’ve never really taken their needs or aspirations into account. But we will have to.”
As the thick night covers Umm al-Hiran, men are called to prayer at the small shabbily constructed mosque, halfway down the hill. (A banner that declares “Say No to the Prawer Plan” in Arabic, Hebrew and English hangs upside-down on its fence.) Riad goes, not to pray, but to greet the worshippers, using a flashlight to find his way in the dark. The lights of Hura burn brightly to the east.
After prayers are over, the men exit to the far-off barking of feral dogs. Riad tells the village’s sheikh that “another journalist” has come to the village, but the sheikh brushes past him, saying, “They only say what they want to say and publish what they want to publish. There’s no point talking to them.”
“Israelis see us as little more than a security threat and in the name of security they have dispossessed us, stolen our lands, and discriminated against us.”
Addressing the sheikh’s behavior, Riad says, “There are three demolition orders against this mosque alone. Some of the people don’t believe in anyone anymore, especially after the Supreme Court decision. But I still believe that we should talk, that Jews and Arabs can live together, that a solution can be found.”
Riad’s cousin Sammy, a construction worker, is less hopeful. Sammy, 30, is recently married and lives in the village. Huddled into his zipped-up sweatshirt, he says, “I have never felt as angry and depressed as I do now. The Jews have taken our lands before. But now they are taking down an entire Arab village to build a Jewish one. We go out to work in the morning, and we are never sure if, when we come back, our homes will still be standing. I was born here, my father was born here. This is where I want my children to grow. In the quiet of the desert.”
At 5:30 a.m., Riad’s wife Maryam is up, preparing to bathe herself and the children. Because the water is pumped in from local wells or piped in through a single pipe stretching across the rocky terrain from Hura, there is no water pressure and no way to bring hot water indoors. Maryam fills huge metal pots and heats them on the stove, then carries them to the bathroom, where she washes the children, then herself, in plastic tubs. The toilet is “flushed” by sloshing water into the bowl.
Maryam emerges, dressed in a traditional full-length, deep-purple coat-dress, her hair carefully covered by a matching floral scarf. Riad has bought a car for her, and she will drop the baby off at a relative’s and her older daughter at preschool on her way to teach at an elementary school in Hura.
At 7 a.m. the sun, still low, is already beginning to burn, and Riad’s father, Salim Abu-Quian, takes me on a tour. A trader, Salim is Umm al-Hiran’s unofficial spokesman. We trudge up the hill to the main road, where the children from Umm al-Hiran catch buses and mini-vans to their schools in Hura. To get to the road, they have to walk down into the gully and then up the hill, schoolbags slung on their backs.
“Do you see what they have to go through to get to school?” says Salim. “Most of the families here don’t have cars, so the children have to walk all this way because the school buses can’t make it into the village. By the time they get to school, they are exhausted. And if they miss the bus, they just won’t go to school that day. In the winter, if the gully is flooded, they have to stay home because they can’t cross. Or worse, if there is a flash flood, they could be stuck in school in Hura, and we don’t know who will take care of them.”
He laughs bitterly. “The prime minister talks about a computer for every child? For us— how about a pail of water for every child? Or a medical clinic for every child? Or electricity and running water for every child?”
I ask him why he has rejected the government’s offer to resettle in Hura. “Some people from our tribe did settle with the government and moved there a long time ago,” he says. “But not us. We are in a bitter conflict with those people, and if we move to Hura, there will be blood.” He refuses to say more about the conflict. Media reports refer vaguely to murders and revenge killings, still practiced among the tribes. “And anyway,” he adds, “there’s no room in Hura for us.” Later, an official of the Hura municipality, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirms this: There is no available housing in the village, and there is competition for each and every plot of land that opens up. “It’s not a viable idea,” he says.
“The way I see it,” says Salim, “there are three options: Build the Jewish settlement somewhere else, build it next to our village and let us stay where we are, or let us buy into Hiran. But not many of us would be able to afford that.”
And if it comes down to it, if the government does insist on forcibly evicting them from Umm al-Hiran, will they resist? Will there be violence? “I hope not,” he says curtly.
The anger over demolitions in unrecognized communities and the impoverished conditions in most of the recognized towns are dramatically changing Bedouin attitudes toward Israel. In the first decades after the establishment of Israel, Israeli officials considered the Bedouin apolitical. Unlike other Arab groups, Bedouin men regularly volunteered for the military, where they served in all-Bedouin combat and reconnaissance battalions.
Today as few as 5 percent of eligible Bedouins serve in the army, according to IDF records. Leaning on a dilapidated wall of stones and cement, next to an empty lot in the Bedouin town of Tel Sheva, a young man who identifies himself only as Yasser says that although his older brothers served in the army, he has no intention of following in their footsteps. “In the army my brothers were kept in a separate unit, and they couldn’t advance anywhere,” he says. “When they came out, they couldn’t find jobs or decent housing. Israel has given me nothing. The Bedouins have lousy schools, lousy towns and no hope. So why should I serve in their army?”
Other Bedouins—educated young adults with strong social and political awareness—are also disillusioned, and are encouraging their own society to emerge from its traditional, tribally oriented conservatism while challenging the State of Israel to recognize their national and cultural rights. For them, the unrecognized villages have become a symbol of resistance to the Israeli authorities, a call for solidarity in the Arab struggle for equality and a source of heightened Palestinian nationalist identity, all of which have galvanized them into political activity.
One such activist is Fadiel “Fadi” Elobra, 31, marketing strategy and communications director at AJEEC-Nisped, a Beer Sheva-based organization that promotes Jewish-Arab cooperation in the Negev. “Our grandparents were so traumatized by the events of 1948 that they wanted only to please the Israeli authorities. They were willing to grovel,” says Elobra. “Our parents were no longer willing to grovel, but they were not yet willing to make demands. We, the next generation, are making demands. We are not willing to be ‘good,’ obedient Arabs any longer. We will not settle merely for another clinic in another forgotten village. We want to live as equals.”
Elobra speaks fluent Arabic, Hebrew and English, and like many young people he is more interested in issues than loyalty to the tribal system. He chooses to be interviewed in a trendy coffee shop in Jerusalem, where he lives. “My culture is Bedouin, my narrative is Palestinian, and my civilization is Arab. And I live in the State of Israel and hope to create a shared society with Israeli Jews,” he says.
“Because our society was not literate, our part in the Naqba was never recorded,” he continues. In using the Arabic term Naqba (“the catastrophe”), for the period that Israeli Jews refer to as the War of Independence, he reveals a Palestinian political sensibility. “My family was expelled, too, and I have relatives in Jordan and in Gaza,” he says.
Clinton Bailey sighs when he hears comments such as this. “It didn’t have to be this way,” he says. “The Bedouin never identified with, or even took an interest in, the Palestinian cause until recently. Historically, they have seen themselves as different. The identification of the younger Bedouin with the Palestinian cause is a reflection of the failure of the Israeli Jewish establishment to treat them fairly, to offer them hope and a belief that they could be part of Israeli society.”
This identification has led them to occasional violent political activism. In January, one man died and another was seriously injured in clashes with police as thousands attended a funeral for a man killed by the police the previous week, also at a demonstration. Some two dozen people were hurt at the January demonstration when the police used riot dispersal means because the event, the police spokesman said, had turned violent.
Israeli-Palestinian politicians are taking note. In late March, just after the elections, a group of young leaders— Elobra prominent among them—organized a four-day “Awakening March” from the unrecognized village of Wadi al-Naam in the Negev to Jerusalem. Its goal was to bring attention to the plight of the unrecognized villages and it was led by Knesset member Ayman Odeh, who is not a Bedouin but head of the Arab Joint List party, which is now the third-largest party in the Knesset. In Jerusalem, Odeh announced, “Recognition of the unrecognized villages will improve life for all of the residents of the Negev, Jews and Arabs alike.” The destination was the presidential mansion where marchers were met by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s wife, Nechama, since the president was abroad. But the president’s office never released a formal statement, and even if it had, it would not have made much difference: The position of president in Israel is largely ceremonial.
Like Clinton Bailey, Eli Atzmon—an expert on Bedouin affairs and a former adviser to successive governments—is deeply dismayed by what he sees. This increasing “Palestinization” of the Bedouin, he says, is the result of several intertwined processes. “On the one hand, the breakdown of the tribal structure, partly because of Israel’s interventions and partly because of modernization, has left young Bedouins searching for an identity. At the same time, the way that the State of Israel has treated them has left them alienated and angry. They can’t identify with the state because it discriminates against them, so they identify with the other ‘outside’ group that feels discriminated against—the Palestinians. And they find the parallels between the two groups’ stories—the land-grab, the forced expulsions, the ongoing bigotry and intolerance.”
Part of the problem is the constant turnover of Israeli governments. “Now that we have a new government,” says Atzmon, “the same thing that always happens will happen again. A new minister will begin a ‘restart’ and say that he has to learn about the problem. And by the time he does, his term will be over.”
Sure enough, in early June, newly appointed Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Uri Ariel (from the hardline T’kuma faction of the Jewish Home Party) issued a statement following a tour of the region. “We view the issue of the Bedouins as a national priority,” the statement said. “The purpose of my visit is to meet with the leaders of the community to hear their problems and reach a solution that is acceptable to all sides, and to build a clear working plan in order to take care of all of the problems.”
“My culture is Bedouin, my narrative is Palestinian, and my civilization is Arab. and I live in the state of Israel and hope to create a shared society with Israeli jews.”
Does this mean an end to demolitions? Liad Aviel, a spokesman for the minister regarding Bedouins, does not answer directly. “It is not acceptable that special legislation should be enacted in order to move people from their houses without finding a housing solution for them. It is inconceivable that we will continue to use the existing planning tools, and if we are seeking a solution on a national level—then we have to find specific answers.” He adds: “We cannot ignore that these are state-owned lands on which people knowingly built illegally.”
Atzmon says there is no need for grand plans that take years to formulate and are never implemented. “We could turn the situation around in a year or two,” he says. “First and foremost, the government should try to lower the rhetoric. And offer real changes in the lives of Bedouin—make their townships worth living in. Invest in education and occupational training. The Bedouin community would benefit and the state would benefit.”
He also sees it as a mistake for the government to engage in legal battles over land rights with villages such as Umm al-Hiran. “Instead of approaching the Bedouin with goodwill,” Atzmon says, “the state chooses to react to them as a problem and a threat and tries to solve that problem by turning it into a legal-political issue. But courts are not the place to deal with history, culture and loyalties. Courts can only give black and white answers, and that is not how we should be dealing with the Bedouin.”
In the end, Clinton Bailey says, it’s a matter of mutual respect. “We have to engage the Bedouins much more and create a feeling that we are meeting them halfway,” he says. “Then they will be more willing to acknowledge that the state has rights and interests, too, and would be reluctant to engage in activities against the state. All it would take is lots of money—and goodwill on both sides, but especially on the part of the state.”
Salim Abu-Quian watches as the school buses filled with Umm al-Hiran’s children take off toward Hura. He turns to me. “I speak as a father, a grandfather,” he says. “How will fathers in Umm al-Hiran explain to their children that their homes were destroyed to make room for Jews? And how will the Jewish fathers explain to their children that they are living and playing where Bedouin children used to live and play?”
Future residents of Hiran, currently numbering several dozen families, are living some three miles to the east, in a temporary settlement, which has all the necessary utilities and services. The road to the site is well maintained, and the pathways are paved and planted with bougainvillea and flowers, watered by drip irrigation.
“How will the Jewish fathers of Hiran explain to their children that they are living and playing where Bedouin children used to live and play?”
A guard at the gate refuses me entrance into the settlement, and a spokesman for Hiran does not respond to inquiries. But at a gas station a mile or so down the road, a young man identifies himself as a resident of Hiran. He says that the residents “are not allowed to speak to the press”—but does not say who has forbidden them. He introduces himself as David but explains immediately that it’s not his real name.
“I do feel a bit bad for the people of Umm al-Hiran, but I believe in the institutions of the state,” “David” tells me. “If the government says that they don’t have the rights to the land, then they don’t. If the government says that they should move to Hura, then they should. That is not for them, or us, to decide.”
“David” continues: “We are fulfilling the Zionist dream. This is Israel proper, not even the West Bank or any other area that some might think is contentious. But because we wear kippot, the press presents us like usurpers, and that serves the left-wing agenda and the so-called ‘human rights’ organizations.”
Would he agree to Bedouin living in Hiran in a shared community? “That really wouldn’t work, would it? We are different people,” he answers. “Of course, they could apply.”