The Arab Bedouin Community of the Negev

The Arab Bedouin are indigenous inhabitants of the Negev Desert, traditionally semi-nomadic pastoralists. In the late 1940s, they were estimated to number between 65,000 – 90,000. During the establishment of the State of Israel, the vast majority fled or was expelled to the surrounding Arab countries; some 11,000 remained. The community was settled in a designated Restricted Area (sayig) in the northeastern Negev, east and northwest of Beer Sheva. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the government formulated a program for the resettlement of the Arab Bedouin population into planned, urban-style settlements.Today, the Arab Bedouin community of the Negev is the most disadvantaged sector of Israeli society in all spheres: economic, social and educational. Numbering approximately 180,000 – a quarter of the total population of the Negev – the Arab Bedouin community’s challenges are threefold.

First, they are geographically situated in Israel’s periphery and must contend with widening social and economic disparities between Israel’s center and periphery.

Second, as part of the Palestinian national minority in Israel, the Arab Bedouin community bears the burdens of the tremendous gap between the State’s proclaimed ideals promising equality to all citizens and the reality. Notwithstanding that they are citizens of Israel with declared equal rights, in actuality, the 1.3 million Palestinians in Israel and the Bedouin Arabs of the Negev especially, are the most marginalized, discriminated against and poorest population in Israel. Over 30% of the men and 80% of the women are unemployed; there are high rates of illiteracy and crime. The Arab Bedouin birthrate is also one of the highest in the world: the size of the average Arab Bedouin family is 8-10 persons and more than half of the population is under 14 years of age. Half the community lives in 36 ‘unrecognized’ villages which are denied building permits and lack basic services such as running water, electricity, access roads and sewage systems.

Third, the rapid transition from a semi-nomadic and pastoral existence to a largely sedentary and urbanized way of life has brought great challenges to all life spheres. In the economic realm, traditional means of livelihood were lost, without replacement by adequate alternatives. Traditional leadership was attenuated, social networks disrupted and family life destabilized. Modernization became in effect a process of disempowerment, as self-reliance, mutual aid and community cohesion were replaced by a sense of inadequacy, passivity and dependency.

The Arab Bedouin Children
  • Infant mortality is about three times as high in the Arab Bedouin community that the national average.
  • Arab Bedouin children have higher illness and accident rates than Jewish children.
  • Availability of and access to health and well-baby clinics in unrecognized villages is insufficient.
  • For birth – age 3: With the exception of a limited number of home-care facilities and pre-schools supported by the Ministry of Social Welfare and those developed by AJEEC, no provisions or programs exist for this age group.
  • For 3-4 year olds: Less than half of children living in established towns and less than a third of children in the unrecognized villages have access to educational provisions
  • For school-aged children: Few unrecognized villages have elementary schools and there is only one high school in these villages; Nearly half of Arab Bedouin children drop out of school before completing high school; and less than a quarter of Arab Bedouin children earn matriculation certificates.
The Arab Bedouin Women
For the Arab Bedouin women of the ‘transitional generation’ (aged 30+), the transition from the traditional to the modern world has been especially disruptive and traumatic. Arab-Bedouin women lost their traditional roles as producers and partners in the economy, as well as the influence they exerted on the affairs of the tribe when the women worked outside the home in the fields, carried water from the well, wove and set up the tent – influential and meaningful activities within their tribe and society. Urbanization left the woman imprisoned within four walls; deprived them of the freedom of an open tent and open range; dispossessed them from the land which was their source of employment and income and transformed them into consumers dependent on their husbands. Women’s status in the community declined; today, for many women, their role is now limited to child-bearing, the only remaining path for self-expression and for providing the feeling that they can contribute to society.Most of the Arab Bedouin women in the Negev still live within the parameters of the conservative societal traditions. Women are usually not permitted to leave the residential boundaries of the clan or tribe unaccompanied by a male relative. Given the lack of opportunities for employment within the village, they often remain unemployed. Some 70% of the women over age 40 are illiterate, and thousands of girls are forced to end their education upon completion of elementary school, for lack of high schools in their immediate vicinity.