Havatselt Yael is an alumna of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program. She is the Head of the Lands Department of the Negev in the District Attorney’s Office at the Israeli Ministry of Justice. She can be reached at Havatzelety@Justice.gov.il

A few weeks ago, the Forum for Society and Law in the Northern Negev held an event that focused on the Bedouin sector. The event included a brief survey, a tour of various Bedouin settlements, and a visit to a carpet-weaving factory which was established through the initiative of Bedouin women in Lakiya.

The Bedouin population in the Negev has undergone considerable transformation since the establishment of the State of Israel. From a group of approximately 11,000 people in the 1950s, it now totals almost 180,000 people. The natural increase of this population group is one of the highest in the world (it has been measured at 5%); in addition, the group is characterized by the phenomenon of polygamy (more than one-third of the men are married to more than one wife).

Although most of the Bedouin live in recognized settlements which were established by funding from the State, a not inconsiderable proportion thereof – about 70,000 individuals – live in illegal buildings scattered throughout what is known as the “area of dispersion.” Over the years, the State has established urban settlements for the Bedouin, and a recent Government resolution provides for the establishment of additional settlements, some of which are rural. The total number of existing and planned settlements is 16. The State offers free land (approximately 3⁄4 of a hectare) to any Bedouin living in the “area of dispersion” who wishes to move to a recognized Bedouin settlement, as well as monetary grants to help cover the cost of the move. Nonetheless, most Bedouin prefer to remain in the “area of dispersion” for various reasons. They receive support and encouragement from various NGOs, which assist them by supporting and financing their struggle (including the financing of illegal construction, which was subsequently destroyed). 

The Bedouin have numerous contentions against the State in matters involving protracted discrimination in various areas of life. The residents of the “area of dispersion” demand to receive education, health, welfare, water, electrical power, and other services at their present places of residence, while ignoring the question of the legality of their habitation. They demand that their present places of residence (to which they refer as “unrecognized villages”) be recognized and given complete infrastructures by the State. The State, on the other hand, claims that it does want to regularize the Bedouin settlements and has even passed a series of resolutions on the subject, but that the continued illegal construction, which is presently spread over tens of thousands of hectares, rules out the possibility of providing the service is in question. According to the position adopted by the State, it is neither possible nor justified to establish dozens of settlements which, in any event, would be doomed to failure and could not become economically self-sufficient.

Another major debate focuses on the question of ownership of tens of thousands of hectares of land in the Negev. On one hand, the Bedouin claim that they are entitled to ownership of the land, as they were present in the Negev prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. On the other hand, the State, which relies on the provisions of applicable law and case law, argues that the lands in question are wholly owned by it. At the same time, on the basis of its desire to find a solution to the dispute, the State has nonetheless decided to offer them compromises, according to which they will be given ownership of part of the claimed areas and monetary compensation for the rest. Most of the Bedouin claimants have refused the offer, arguing that it is too low.

Until recently, the State took no action to enforce its rights in the land, and even now, the operations being carried out toward the enforcement of its rights are very few. Recently, however, a committee headed by Judge (ret.) Goldberg deliberated on the subject; and the conclusions of the Goldberg Committee have been forwarded to the Government of Israel for examination. It is to be hoped that the Government will establish an overall policy on this subject and will act toward the implementation of that policy in practical terms.

I will be pleased to provide additional information to anyone who is interested in this subject.