The Bedouin in Israel

Israeli Bedouin have an ambiguous relationship with the state.

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"We're not big Zionists, but we are proud Israelis." This is how Ishmael Khaldi, who has a master's degree in Political Science from Tel Aviv University and serves in Israel’s Foreign Service, describes his own people, the Bedouin.

"The Bedouin are more tribal than nationalistic," Khaldi adds. It’s that deeply ingrained tribal culture that has allowed the Bedouin to survive centuries of nomadic existence, but it’s also the trait that presents barriers to their continued wellbeing in modern Israel.

Demographics

With a birth rate amongst the highest in the world, the Israeli Bedouin population has grown tenfold since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Today the Bedouin are almost three percent of the population of Israel, but in the stark Negev desert Bedouin make up one out of every four residents. 

bedouin woman

Bedouin Woman c. 1900

Most of the Bedouin in the Negev hail from the Hejaz, a region in the north of the Arabian peninsula from where they migrated between the 14th and 18th centuries, making them relatively recent arrivals in this ancient land.

Historically, the Bedouin have been nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes, traveling to grazing pastures while allowing other areas to naturally replenish. The Bedouin organize themselves around clans of extended family members; it’s not unusual for a Bedouin man to father several dozen children with different wives.

History in the Region

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, neither Turkish nor British occupiers of the Middle East could conceive of any kind of modern life in the desert, so the Bedouin were largely left to their own devices.

All that changed with Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, when Egyptian and Saudi Arabian forces invaded Israel, turning the Negev into a fearsome battleground. Some 90,000 Bedouin fled to Egypt or Jordan, and by the end of 1948, only 11,000 remained in the deserts of southern Israel.

The newly independent Jewish state saw the Negev as a potential area for growth and development, and gave little thought to the Bedouin living there. In this respect, the Israeli government was continuing a policy that began in the colonial period, when the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandatory authorities did not accept Bedouin claims of land ownership, which were based on the fact that Bedouin clans had lived on the land for generations.

Since the Negev constitutes 60 percent of Israel’s total land mass, it’s not surprising that every Israeli government since 1948 has tried to preserve Negev land for future development, and ignored Bedouin claims to the area.

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Judy Lash Balint

Judy Lash Balint is a Jerusalem based writer and author of Jerusalem Diaries: What's Really Happening in Israel. She blogs at jerusalemdiaries.blogspot.com