One of the major policy challenges for successive Israeli governments has been administering the Negev, which accounts for around half of the country's land area. Alongside planning for new Jewish communities, developing the area's agriculture and resources and setting aside land for the military and national parks, one of the major issues has continued to be the Beduin and their expanding settlement and population. According to a recent article by veteran researcher Dr. Clinton Bailey, they now number around 170,000.
The Negev Beduin can be divided into two demographic portions. Around 85,000 of them reside in seven planned communities built by Israel between 1969 and 1989. The rest, of which estimates differ, live in around 49 unrecognized "villages" (actually sprawling settlements of intermittent shacks, corrals and villas). A veritable industry has grown in support of the Beduin claim to the state land that they have, over the last 60 years, occupied illegally. This industry includes such groups as the Adva Center, Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights and numerous activists.
These advocacy groups receive extensive funding from European governments, including European Commission grants from 2003-2007 of more than a $1,000,000 for projects involving Beduin rights run by Shatil, Physicians for Human Rights, Adva and Al-Awna. The latter's project called for "right for recognition, housing, land and social services for the unrecognized Beduin villages in the Negev."
Bailey has observed that despite the allocation of resources to various government committees sent to solve the problem, very little has been accomplished over the years. He argues that "the state has forced [the Beduin] to break the law."
There is a general belief among pro-Beduin activists that the Beduin must be incorporated into Israeli society through a pluralistic framework. The extensive European funding for Beduin "rights" to land is part and parcel of a human rights approach that might be called "European." However, with the exception of Roma (Gypsies), who are atrociously treated by various European governments, the Europeans have little experience dealing with large, formerly nomadic groups that live on huge swaths of government land.
IN CONTRAST, Israel's neighbors have expertise in dealing with large numbers of Beduin, and it might behoove the government to examine how they have dealt with similar problems.
Egypt has seen the least success in settling its Beduin. Donald Cole, a researcher on the matter, noted that the Nasser regime "assumed their own way of life was more advanced, more modern, than that of the nomadic Beduin." The various Egyptian socialist governments have preferred to settle more reliable Nile Valley peasants in desert areas such as Sinai than to grant the Beduin land.
The Syrian government has pursued similar policies. Independent Syria inherited various French laws and policies that were sympathetic to the Beduin. However, in 1958, tribal holdings ceased to be recognized by the government. Since 1971 the government has been dominated by Alawites, a Muslim minority group, and the rulers have had few values in common with the former nomads of the western deserts.
In contrast to Egypt and Syria, which contained extensive non-Beduin settled populations, Jordan was populated almost exclusively by Beduin until 1948. The king of Jordan, himself of a sort of semi-Beduin heritage, established his regime with the Beduin playing a crucial role in its administration and military.
Arab researchers such as Salah Mustafa al-Fawal have documented numerous small projects in Jordan where Beduin, in cooperation with the government, have been settled in villages. A key to settlement has been the development of hospitals, community centers, wells, agricultural land and conscription to the military.
Like Jordan, Saudi Arabia's origins lie in its Beduin heritage. Through the 1950s the country's population was still estimated to be 70 percent Beduin with many of them semi-nomads or nomads. The settled Beduin population consisted of one extensive project which had seen the establishment of 550 settlements between 1912 and 1932. Saudi Arabia purposely settled the Beduin along the border with Jordan to cement its claims to land.
One of Saudi's greatest innovations was the Public Land Distribution Ordinance of 1968 which provided for people who resided on land for a fixed period, sometimes five years, to receive up to 50 dunams. This allocation of state land to those willing to live on it and work it is akin to the American Homestead Act of 1862. Under that act around 1.6 million people came into possession of 270 million acres of land in the American West.
ISRAEL'S PRO-BEDUIN lobby groups, especially outspoken voices like Prof. Oren Yiftachel of Ben-Gurion University, like to view the Beduin as an "indigenous" group with the Jewish immigrants portrayed as a "pure white" colonial group. They want to situate Israel as part of a European historical narrative of colonialism and racism. However Israel exists in the Middle East and its people (Arab and Jew) are Semitic.
The Beduin issue requires a Middle Eastern solution and examples of such solutions, some failures and others successful, exist in the region. Much could be learned from the Jordanians and Egyptians. What is clear is that continued inaction is slowly leading to a situation whereby large swaths of the Negev have been completely alienated from state control and are in a state of quasi-rebellion against the government.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University.