Deep Dive — Bedouin in the Negev: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

3 February 2022
By: Esther Sivan, Director of Shatil

Back in 2010, the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet L’Israel (JNF-KKL), planned to plant a forest on top of the Bedouin town of Al-Araqib in the Negev. The Bedouin opposed the plan, and protested. But the state demolished the village – in its entirety – anyway. It took 1,300 police officers, acting under the orders of the Israel Lands Authority (the body that manages public lands, including those belonging to JNF), to expel the Bedouin residents from their homes.

But the Bedouin community of Al-Araqib—all of whom are full citizens of Israel– took the state to court, and for six years fought for their land. In the end, despite their proof of private ownership, the courts ruled against them. But they didn’t give up. They returned to their ancestral land over and over and over to rebuild.

Of course, every time, that building was technically illegal, and their village was “unrecognized,” which meant that the state had a legal license to demolish it. And it did. Over and over again. One hundred and eighty six times, all told, as of April 2021.

Since 1948, the State of Israel has implemented a variety of policies to dispossess Bedouin communities like Al-Araqib in the Negev. That has included intentional neglect, selective law enforcement, and policies that restrict these communities’ growth. The Bedouin were granted citizenship in 1966 (they lived under martial law until then), but the state zoned their lands as agricultural state lands. This meant that all existing villages were now labelled “unrecognized,” homes were “illegal,” and residents became lawbreakers overnight. Such “unrecognized” villages face constant threats of demolition, are still not listed on official maps, and are not connected to basic infrastructure or services.

Shatil, NIF’s action arm that I direct, and a long list of our grantees including Bimkom — Planners for Planning Rights, the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Sikkuy-Aufoq, Adalah — The Legal Center for Minority Rights, work every day towards achieving recognition of these villages.

During the 1970s, the state built seven Bedouin townships where it intended to concentrate Bedouin residents. Almost 50% of the Bedouin in the Negev moved in; they were granted a house or an apartment, but were required to sign over their claims to their ancestral lands. To this day, of the 287,000 Bedouin in the Negev, and somewhere between 70 – 100,000 live in unrecognized villages.

But a tremendous years-long effort — pressure exerted by the Bedouin leadership, Members of Knesset, and NGOs, many of them NIF grantees — showed some dividends in the early 2000s. It was then that the state decided it needed to change its attitude, and it declared eleven of these unrecognized villages legal. The government would accept them, literally, onto the Israeli map. At the time, I was the director of Bimkom, an organization that works with communities to draw up and present the kinds of urban planning to the government that they need to thrive.

It was an incredible feeling when these communities were finally told that they would be connected to water and electricity, and that the state would build them schools,health clinics, and sewer systems. It was a huge win.

But change has come slowly, and the state has been sluggish in connecting these villages to basic services, approving communities’ urban planning proposals, and maintaining the facilities it has installed. What’s more, while the struggle for recognition, basic rights, and a home for all might seem like a struggle that everyone could get behind, sadly, this is not the case. The right-wing messaging machine has been hard at work in the last few years.

During the last election cycle there was an intense negative campaign by the right against the Bedouin — smearing the entire community as invaders, trespassers on state lands, criminals, and thieves. They tried to paint the Negev as the “wild south.”

Indeed, the Bedouin and their desire for safety, security, and a home, have become a political tool in attempts to drive a wedge between the parties of the governing coalition which includes Ra’am, a party that was essentially elected on the Bedouin vote.

So, when the JNF came to “plant trees” last month, reinforced by hundreds of policemen and Shin Bet agents, most Israelis viewed the Bedouin as lawbreakers – not as citizens of the state who have undergone decades of neglect and dispossession. They didn’t understand why local residents and observers protested over several days. And when over one hundred protestors (including several children) were arrested and several injured, they didn’t have much sympathy.

We work to change that. Shatil convenes and coordinates NGOs and activists. We organize forums where these folks can strategize and work together for progress. Critically, we are the go-between for the local committees, recognized local authorities, regional committees, civil society, and government officials.

When it comes to policy change, we guide civil society and take part in writing and distributing position papers, train how to advocate with government planning committees, and work with Knesset Members, including some new, powerful friendly faces in the government. Indeed, the government recently agreed to recognize three more Bedouin villages, but stipulated “in return” that at least 70% of the Bedouin population sign an agreement to evacuate their lands in favor of cities and recognized villages. Israel would confiscate 10,000 dunams of Bedouin lands; the Bedouin who moved would benefit from state subsidies, but those unwilling would be doomed to further demolitions, evictions, and dispossession.

At Shatil, our role is to act as a support system for Bedouin-led campaigns, campaigns that bring different players to the table and strategically position this community. We organize coalitions with ACRI, Bimkom, Sikkuy-Aufoq, the Coexistence Forum, and others to draft positions, and demand better from our government.

The goal is not just to make it through to tomorrow, and respond to each and every rights violation on its own (though we will do that too), but rather to be proactive and build out a democratic space in which equal rights for all is assumed, and that, in the years to come, all — Israelis, Jews and Arabs as one — will see the struggle for basic rights in the Negev not as a danger or a threat but as an opportunity to build a truly equal, just and shared society.

Esther Sivan - photo by Yanai Yechael

Esther Sivan, Director of Shatil

Esther Sivan began serving as Director of Shatil, the NIF Initiative for Social Change, in October 2018. Esther’s background in philanthropy and her executive experience in Israeli social change organizations make her uniquely prepared to lead Shatil in addressing the most pressing challenges facing Israeli society. In the past two decades, she has served in leadership roles in civil society organizations and initiatives; most recently, she was with the Merchavim Institute, where she served as Director of Kulanana, a multi-year civil-society partnership to promote social cohesion, led by the Arison Foundation. Prior to that, she served as legal counsel to the Israel Women’s Network (IWN), was the first Executive Director of NIF grantee Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights, where she served for a number of years, and was Director of B’Zchut: The Israeli Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities. Esther has a BA in Law and an MA in Public Policy from Hebrew University.