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.