Getting onto the map

Close to half of the Beduin population of the Negev lives in 45 ‘unrecognized’ villages that are fighting for recognition from the state.

Beduin village 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beduin village 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Around 13 kilometers west of Arad in the Negev desert, a narrow dirt track heads south off Route 31 toward a small cluster of buildings. Goats graze – somehow – on the stony ground near a signpost bearing the name of this tiny Beduin village: al-Sira.
Underneath, in Hebrew, another line has been added – Founded in the Ottoman Era.
Many places like to show off their historicity, but in al-Sira’s case there is a subtle but significant subtext to this assertion of pre-state establishment. It is a claim of legitimacy.
While al-Sira exists, you won’t find it on any official map. It is one of 45 “unrecognized” villages – built without permits on state-owned lands and considered illegal. Ranging in size from 60 through 600 families, these villages are home to almost half the Negev’s 185,000 Beduin.
Khalil al-Amor is a member of al-Sira’s village committee and acts as village spokesperson for the 400 residents. A high school teacher with a masters degree in educational administration, Amor’s Arabic-accented Hebrew is frequently punctuated by English terms as he emphasizes his family’s historic relationship with this patch of desert. He is keen to dispel the myth that the Beduin are nomads.
“Seven generations of my family have lived here,” he says, pointing out various landmarks: a tree marks a well, a distant hilltop a health clinic.
“I was born here. In summer we traveled north to work, but in winter we always returned. Every Beduin knows where his home is.”
Unrecognized villages like al-Sira do not receive municipal services like electricity, sewage, or water and Amor is a master of improvisation. He has partly solved the electricity problem by installing solar panels to supplement a diesel generator, but it’s still expensive.
“I’m thinking about building a wind turbine, but right now I don’t have the cash,” he says.
A dirt track might be the only way to reach al-Sira, but thanks to Amor, it is on the information superhighway – the village has wireless Internet via transmissions picked up by satellite receiver from a nearby town.
While there is no solution to the lack of drinking water, which is carried daily from a tap some distance away, Amor’s home has a flush toilet and shower.
Is Amor a squatter? The government says yes; these are state lands. Amor says no – they are ancestral lands on which his family has lived for generations.
Amor is campaigning for his village to be recognized.
“My dream is to have legitimacy in all respects,” he says.
What is the history of the Negev’s Beduin and the unrecognized villages? Beduin, from the Arabic badawin, means desertdwellers.
Originally nomadic tribespeople, Beduin are found all over the Middle East and in some parts of North Africa, where they traditionally herded camels, goats and sheep and traveled from oasis to oasis.
Today, most Beduin are no longer nomadic.
“Some of the ancestors of the Negev Beduin arrived in the 17th century, but most came at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, during Napoleon’s 1799 invasion of Palestine,” says Dr. Clinton Bailey, an anthropologist and scholar of Beduin history and culture who has worked for several decades with the Negev and Sinai Beduin.
These tribes came to the Negev from Sinai seeking better agricultural land and pastures, or fleeing blood revenge from other Beduin.
Ottoman rule in the Negev was weak, and Beduin tribes were able to settle much of the area.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, most of the Negev’s 65,000 Beduin fled the area. Between 11,000 and 19,000 remained. Placed under military administration, they were resettled to the triangle of land between Beersheba, Dimona and Arad.
“Some of those living in unrecognized villages are a result of this resettlement, and others are Beduin who already lived in that area,” explains Prof. Avner Ben Amos of Dukium, the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civic Equality, an Arab-Jewish organization seeking to advance civil rights and equality for the Negev Beduin.
Many of the bitter conflicts over Beduin land rights stem from the issue of whether Beduin land ownership can be proven.
In a case currently being heard in the Beersheba District Court, the state is contesting a suit by Nuri al- Okbi, a 68-year-old garage owner, who claims ownership of several plots of land including 800 dunams at al-Arakib near Beersheba. According Okbi, his family owned this land from the Ottoman period until their expulsion from it in 1951.
Okbi moved to Lod in 1964, but returned to al- Arakib in 2006, where he built structures and planted crops. Since then he has been repeatedly evicted by the state and charged with numerous counts of trespassing and other offenses.
Okbi is not the only Beduin claiming ownership of land at al-Arakib. The Abu Madyam and Abu Jabar families also claim land rights there based on similar assertions of historic title. Such incidents have increased in recent years, according to the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), who say that in some cases those claiming land ownership have evicted Beduin farmers with legal grazing rights.
In October the ILA, with assistance from the police, demolished several illegal structures at al-Arakib.
These, the sixth round of demolitions at the site, led to accusations that the ILA’s actions have rendered several hundred Beduin homeless.
The ILA refutes this claim.
“Before 2000, there was nothing on this land,” ILA spokesperson Ortal Tzabar told Metro. “These families began squatting there illegally only a decade ago. We have aerial photographs of the area showing this.
[The Abu Madyam and Abu Jabar families] are not homeless but have large villas in Rahat on land provided to them free by the state.
“The courts have ruled many times that they are trespassing and should be evicted, but each time they return.
They are violating the law.”
In a written statement, the ILA also accused the al-Arakib protesters of “inviting the general public to join in and finance the illegal construction.”
The ILA say the state has invested considerable sums in providing housing and infrastructure for the Negev’s Beduin. Starting in the late 1960s, seven new towns were created in the Negev – Rahat, Tel Sheva, Kuseifa, Arara Banegev, Segev Shalom, Hura and Lakiya – to provide the Negev Beduin with permanent housing with modern infrastructure.
Residents of unrecognized villages were offered plots of land in these towns free of charge, or with heavy subsidies to compensate them for the move.
Rahat, the largest of these specially created towns, has a population of 50,000 – making it the largest city in the Negev after Beersheba and the world’s largest Beduin town. It is also one of Israel’s poorest urban centers. Crime is rife, school dropout rates are double the national average, and unemployment is estimated at over 30 percent – although the exact figure is hard to obtain since most women and many men do not register as unemployed.
A REASON for these dismal statistics can be found in the struggle many Beduin experienced transitioning from a semi-nomadic to urban lifestyle, particularly in a town built without understanding of the residents’ unique needs.
“The towns were built without consulting the Beduin,” says Dukium’s Avner Ben-Amos. “Most of the people who moved there felt they had nowhere else to go.”
Ra’ed al-Mickawi, executive director of the Beduin- Jewish NGO Bustan, has firsthand experience of moving to a new town. When he was 17, he and his family were rehoused in Tel Sheva.
“It was like being in a vacuum,” he recalls. “Before, everyone lived in the same space, as a family.
Suddenly we were individuals, each in his own private room.”
While their populations are ethnically Beduin, the new towns are far from homogeneous. “Every neighborhood in Rahat is populated by a different tribe,” explains Rahat’s mayor, Faiz Abu Sabihan, in a telephone interview with Metro.
“Personally, I’m against this – I am pro-integration – but in order to provide an incentive to people to come and live in the city, the government told people, OK, you can have a whole neighborhood for your tribe.”
Yet another issue for city planners is the expanding population: With an annual growth rate of 5 percent, the Beduin are Israel’s fastest-growing ethnic group. Around 65 percent of the population is under 18.
“Rahat is a children’s city,” says Abu Sabihan.
To address these issues, in 1992 the government launched a far-reaching plan to almost double Rahat’s capacity by expanding its borders southwards, providing land for new housing units, schools and community facilities. Responsible for planning 12,000 of Rahat’s new housing units was architect Amos Brandeis, who has managed a number of large-scale urban and environmental planning projects in Israel and overseas, including in partnership with indigenous and local communities.
“The new south Rahat neighborhoods are very different from the older ones in north Rahat,” says Brandeis.
“When Rahat was built in 1972, there were many mistakes. This time we worked closely with the Beduin to figure out exactly what they require. They have very different needs from the Jewish population.
They have their own culture, and they want to preserve it.”
This cooperation and sensitivity was the key to success, says Brandeis.
“The local Beduin said that this was the first time they had been worked with in partnership to find the best solution,” he adds.
According to Brandeis, southern Rahat and its neighborhoods have been meticulously planned to accommodate residents’ needs, from locations of mosques and schools to traditional community buildings.
Plans are also under way to address the issue of Beduin land and housing issues. In 2007 the Knesset established the Committee for the Regulation of Beduin Settlements in the Negev. Headed by retired Judge Eliezer Goldberg, the committee was tasked with proposing solutions to the problem of unrecognized villages.
The committee’s response in December 2008 was to urge the state to recognize the villages. Its report also included recommendations to provide assistance to help Beduin integrate into Israeli society.
IN RESPONSE, the government recently established the Authority for the Regulation of Beduin Settlements. Part of the Ministry of Construction and Housing, the authority’s objectives include regulating land ownership claims and permanent residences, including infrastructure and public services. It also aims to assist Beduin with integration into the workforce and with coordinating education, welfare and community services.
“Our role is to find a solution, to give the Beduin population a home – a place to live, not just a physical house,” said Eyal Hiyyon, a negotiations manager at the authority, at a recent press conference.
According to Hiyyon, as many as possible of the 45 unrecognized villages will be formally recognized depending on certain conditions, including population size.
“If a village has a large enough population we will recognize it, but if the population is very small, say 400 or 500 people, we cannot do so,” Hiyyon later told Metro in a telephone interview.
Since the government must provide recognized villages with basic services, tiny communities would prove unrealistically expensive. In these cases, the residents will have to move elsewhere, but they will be given financial compensation (the amount yet to be decided) and receive land in a different community at highly subsidized rates.
Another condition is that recognition must not prevent the state from carrying out established regional plans. If a village is on land used by the IDF as a firing range or base, for example, it will not be possible to recognize it.
According to Hiyyon, two villages – Abu Tlul, near Dimona, and al-Forah, south of Arad – are already in the process of being recognized.
Planning for the future of the villages is essential because of the high rate of Beduin population growth.
Abu Tlul has a population of 5,000, but the plans will accommodate 7,000 people. In addition to receiving regular municipal services like water, electricity and sewerage, the village will gain public buildings and plots for family homes.
Architect Amos Brandeis is involved with the Abu Tlul plans.
“The plans for Abu Tlul are completely different from those in Rahat because the population is different,” Brandeis says. “We want to create a balance between the older buildings in the village, built without infrastructure for electricity or water, and new ones. We are also planning public buildings like a community center, a cultural center, a park and schools.”
All of the planning is conducted in close cooperation with the village residents.
“So far, it is going well,” says Brandeis, who adds that the first formal debate over the plans is soon to be scheduled in the village.
ABU TLUL and al-Forah will be incorporated into the Abu Basma regional council, which currently includes some nine already recognized villages.
One of these villages is Kasr al-Sir. Home to 800 families, the village was recognized in 2003 together with six others as part of a government decree. An additional two villages joined in 2004.
Today, Kasr al-Sir has full municipal services, plus other facilities Israelis take for granted: a Tipat Halav mother-and-baby clinic, a Clalit health clinic, elementary and high schools.
Spokesperson for the village is Muhammad al- Huwashle, deputy principal of the local high school.
He stresses his long-standing connection with the land and says the Huwashle tribe has lived in the area since Ottoman times.
“We were displaced from our lands in 1952, but in 1982 we came back,” he says. “Our village was considered an illegal settlement, and in the 1990s we received a demolition order.”
Eventually, the villagers began to work things out with the authorities. “We started to think differently.
We went to the negotiating table and became the first recognized village in the Negev,” Huwashle explains.
“We decided as a community what we needed, and created an economic plan to include the local population.”
Huwashle is insistent that, like anyone else, the villagers want to take charge of their own local affairs and have a say in how and where they live. He is critical of the way the local population has so far been prevented from electing its own head of the Abu Basma Regional Council.
Abu Basma is currently led by Amram Kalaji, a former director-general of the Interior Ministry.
Although the original plan appointed Kalaji for a four-year term while local residents prepared to take over and run matters themselves, this has not yet happened.
Dr. Aharon Zohar, Abu Basma’s regional and environmental planning consultant, says this is because as yet, nobody in the community has the experience to take over from Kalaji, and practical measures are being taken to change this.
“We care a lot about developing local leadership skills. We have run courses at Ben-Gurion University for local Beduin, including in economics and business administration,” says Zohar. “We are teaching them everything we know.”
Zohar says that land in Kasr al-Sir is currently being developed so local families can purchase plots. “All these projects are carried out strictly in partnership with local people,” he adds.
The villagers are also running their own economic development and community-building initiatives.
The village has partnered with Bustan, a local NGO.
“We want people to think about how they can develop the village, so that it can become self-sufficient,” says Bustan’s al-Mickawi.
Another aspect of these initiatives is to preserve traditional Beduin culture. One example of this is a project to renovate Kasr al-sir’s khan, a historic way station where travelers stopped overnight en route to Gaza. The khan will be a community building and guest house where visitors can taste traditional Beduin hospitality and also experience a living, modern village.
Despite considerable challenges, including internal conflicts within the Beduin community and lack of trust exacerbated by recent struggles over land rights, there is determination from Israel’s government, NGOs and the Beduin themselves to help find a working solution to land, housing and community issues.
Above all there needs to be recognition that these matters should be worked on with mutual goodwill and in partnership to ensure an outcome that balances the needs of the Beduin with those of the state and Israel’s other populations.
Metro visited the Beduin villages of al-Sira and Kasr al- Sir as part of a tour for the Israeli media organized by Bustan. For information about Bustan’s projects visit