Riding the rural desert roads south of Beersheba could give the wrong impression. The pastoral view of sand dunes, camels and sheep on the side of the roads, with the blazing sun above, creates a magical image of untouched land.
But go deeper inside on the off-road paths, and one can perceive an abundance of temporary shed-like houses and farms scattered everywhere, stretching as far as the eye can see, a testimony to the lack of planning and law enforcement in the Bedouin communities in the Negev.
On our way to visit Hlayel al-A’wawai, a resident of the village of Beir Hadaj, we discover that the paved road leads us only to the one school that serves the community of some 9,000 people. To get to his home we need to go back to the main road, make a dangerous turn in the middle of it, and continue on an unpaved path.
The dirt road is full of holes and pits that a normal car can barely drive through. Along the way, we see homes that look like poor improvisations: metal planks connected to one another in order to provide a rooftop to protect families from the sun in the summer, and the dreadful winds and rain in the winter.
Another glaring sight in the village is the solar panels that each family installs.
“We barely have basic infrastructures here, such as electricity or water,” said al-A’wawai, 53. “We install these solar panels that provide us with electricity in the summer, but there’s a big problem in the winter – we can’t even dream about heating our water for showers in the winter.”
“You see this pipe?” he says, pointing at the flimsy tube installed alongside the house. “It stretches for about 2,500 meters, and this is how we get water. I had to install it, and paid for it myself. It is connected to the only water point in the village, near the main road. This connection costs us 6,000 shekels. And having this pipe melting under the sun, our water tastes like plastic.”
Al-A’wawai was born in the area that is now part of the regional industrial zone of Ramat Hovav in the Negev and was evacuated from there in 1991. As a Bedouin, he grew up in a traditional tent and spent most of his childhood herding his family’s sheep and camels.
“We had around 25 camels, and 300 sheep,” he recalls. “I went to school until the seventh grade, and then joined my father as a full-time shepherd. Even while I was in school, all I could think about is how much I want to be in the field right now, watching over the sheep and playing my flute to them.”
Despite lacking essential basic services, Beir Hadaj is one of 11 Bedouin villages that the state recognized as legal in 1999.
TO UNDERSTAND the story of the Bedouin in the Negev, one must go back to the source of the story.
It is estimated that in 1948 there were 65,000 to 100,000 Bedouin in the Negev practicing traditional Bedouin life as semi-nomads, which included herding camels, sheep and goats, with limited agriculture in some areas. Tribes (Qabai’l) had their defined migration area in which they wandered according to the season. With no modern borders, the Bedouin in the Negev shared traditions and family connections with tribes in Sinai, Jordan, and the northern Arab Peninsula.
During the early 1950s and until the abolishment of Martial Law in 1966, the state concentrated the Bedouin in a designated area called as-Seyyaj, which means “the delimited” or “the defined” area. Villages that were established prior to the establishment of the country were displaced from their locations, mainly in the western and northern Negev, and were transferred to the Seyyaj.
In 1965, the Knesset passed the Planning and Construction Law to replace the British Mandate planning laws, under which the vast majority of the Negev lands were zoned as agricultural land. That created a situation in which constructing structures for housing was immediately labeled as illegal.
Between 1969 and 1990, the state established seven towns for the Bedouin communities in the Negev, among them Rahat, Tel Sheva, and the Segev Shalom. These towns were similar in structure to the “development towns” that were built for olim (mostly from Arab-speaking countries). These towns were mostly for residence housing, with no access to agricultural lands, and no commercial or industrial areas for employment.
Those who were not given plots of land in these towns were left in settlements that are now labeled as unrecognized villages. According to the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, there are 35 villages that the state does not recognize and refers to them as “diaspora” or “illegal villages.” Some of these villages are considered historic and existed in their location before 1948. Other villages were internally displaced since the 1950s into the Seyyaj area.
In 1999, the state decided to recognize 11 Bedouin villages, among them Beir Hadaj. However, the services provided to these villages, and the lack of proper approved plans, left them in the same physical and legal condition as the unrecognized ones.
The conflict between the residents of these villages and the state tells the entire story of the Negev’s Bedouin: while the locals want to preserve their villages and are asking the state to allocate some areas for agriculture so they can practice their old traditions, the state wishes to duplicate the planned towns in which families would live, but work in non-agricultural related occupations outside their towns.
The change that the Bedouin community has undergone in the past 70 years is essentially jumping 500 years into the future.
“When I grew up, we had nothing in our tent,” al-A’wawai said. “We couldn’t even dream of electricity. Now, it is as if we are in a transition period.”
Asked about the confrontation between old Bedouin traditional life and the progress that the State of Israel had forced him into, al-A’wawai provides a thoughtful answer.
“I think that what’s best for me is to be outside with my sheep and my flute the entire day. I was brought up as a Bedouin, and I think that it is the most desirable way of life. The ideal home for me is the tent – the Bedouin man likes the open space and would like to be able to see what’s going on outside. Sitting in a four-wall house prevents you from that.
“However, I understand that my kids belong to a different generation. I want them to be doctors or lawyers, and this is why receiving an education is above all in our home.
“But the state is making it harder for us. Our entire village is under the threat of home demolitions. When my kids see the Yoav Police Unit [the section dealing with illegal construction in the Negev], who are here coming here to look for illegal structures, they go into hiding. In addition, the state did not provide us with the opportunity to have a smooth transition, and maintain some of our traditions in our villages.”
Al-A’wawai’s personal story could also testify to the general trend of Bedouin in the Negev. While it was once relatively common for Bedouin in the Negev to join the IDF, there’s a sharp decline in the draft rate among the current generation.
“I served as a soldier in Givati for three years,” he said. “I will not send my children to the army. The sense we’re getting from the state is that we’re not wanted here. They’re trying to fight us and our traditions in every way.”
FROM BEIR HADAJ we continue to Wadi an-Na’am, which is the largest unrecognized village, consisting of approximately 15,000 residents.
Yousef az-Ziadane, 56, a member of the local council and an activist, criticized the role the state took upon itself in the major transition that the Bedouin-Israeli society is undergoing.
“The structure of the traditional Bedouin family broke throughout this major change,” az-Ziadane said. “Back in the day, the Bedouin used to respect and obey the father or the older brother. These days, the youth, which no one takes care of, see the gangs in the streets and see them as role models. In their spare time, they sit and watch the police chasing the gangs down the main road, and this is how they see the state in their eyes.”
Az-Ziadane uses his shig (the traditional Bedouin tent that is separate from the home and used mainly to host guests) to hold meetings with activists against home demolitions and in support of recognizing the unrecognized villages.
Inside his shig, which became a semi-permanent structure, there’s a large sign reading in Arabic, Hebrew, and English: “Wadi al-Na’am: Yes for recognition, no for displacement.”
Az-Ziadane was born in the village of Yatta, south of Hebron. His family, like many others, fled the country in 1948 and moved to the Jordan-controlled West Bank. He came to Israel in 1993 and married an Israeli-Bedouin woman.
“My family is part of the Al Azzazme tribe, the biggest one in the region,” he said. “There are some 600,000 members of our tribe in Jordan.”
Unlike al-A’wawai, az-Zaidane completed 12 years of school and then continued to college. Today, he works as a certified electrician.
He says the state is focusing mainly on how to concentrate the Bedouin in fewer territories as much as possible, instead of stretching out a hand for help.
“The change in the state’s attitude became stronger when the radicals gained more power,” he said. “Now, the authorities want to throw us all in small towns, and decide who gets to live where. We’ve seen the outcome in the Shaqib [Segev Shalom] and Rahat.
“The authorities, like the ‘directorate’ [the authority for development and settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev], want to decide for us who will get each plot and mix our families with others. This creates major problems,” suggesting that the majority of Bedouin society – which usually live in tribal neighborhoods – is not ready yet for such change.
“We wish the state would establish an authority, or a mechanism, that will learn the Bedouin culture and focus on its development – in education, in employment, in learning how to master a profession. An authority that would help young couples get loans so they could live in their own houses.”
Az-Zaidane said that he, like al-A’wawai, believes that the original Bedouin way of living is the best for him, but he also supports people who want to live modern lives.
“I think that sleeping in a tent with fresh air is better for your soul than sleeping with the air conditioning on. So I don’t understand what the authorities want from us, why they’re against us. We acknowledge the State of Israel. It’s here, and we are part of it.
“What they tend to forget is that the original people of Israel were also Bedouin. Sayyedna Ibrahim [Avraham Avinu] lived in a tent. We all share the same story and the same origins. I hope that at some point, we would all realize that.
“Unlike what many say, we don’t wish to replace the state. We are an integral part of it, and we just want it to acknowledge us – we want it to respect our traditions, and help us through this transition period.”