The term “Bedouin” defines groups of traditionally pastoral nomadic desert-dwelling Muslim-Arabs. Since the 1950s, Bedouin in Israel have undergone a rapid process of sedentarization (mostly into agriculture), modernization and urbanization. Approximately 220,000 Bedouin live in the Negev, accounting for approximately one third of the population in the region. In addition, 60,000 Bedouin live in the Galilee and close to 10,000 in central Israel.
Negev Bedouin are by far Israel’s most disadvantaged community in terms of per capita income, unemployment and poverty rates, levels of education and nonexistent or substandard public infrastructure (e.g. schools, roads, public transportation etc.) According to the socio-economic ranking of 400 localities in Israel, the three lowest-ranking local councils are Bedouin townships and all Bedouin towns are ranked at the bottom two socio-economic rankings (out of a scale of ten). Negev Bedouin have the highest reproduction rate in Israel, around 3.5% in 2013, with families consisting of 6.5 children at average, and a median age of 16. In recent years Bedouin society is undergoing a process of enhanced education and economic development. Though there are still vast socio-economic gaps, there are a growing number of Bedouin academics, businessmen and civil society activists. Bedouin women especially are in the forefront of this societal development.
At the establishment of the State, around 12,000 Bedouins lived in the Negev. Under Israel’s Military Administration of Arab citizens (which lasted from 1948 to 1966), Bedouins were compelled to resettle within the “Sayeg Area” (between Beer Sheva, Dimona and Arad). In the 1970s and 80s, seven towns were created for Bedouins in the Negev: Kseifeh, Laqiya, Hura, Tel-Sheva, Segev Shalon, Ar’ara and Rahat, which became the first Bedouin city and currently has around 57,000 residents. Bedouin villages and dwellings outside these towns are not officially recognized by the state. In the early years of 2000, 11 small Bedouin villages were recognized, while the remaining villages continue to be “unrecognized”, meaning they are not connected to basic infrastructure. It is estimated that around 35% of the Bedouins are still living in over 30 such unrecognized villages.
An ongoing land dispute exists between the State and the Negev Bedouins. According to Israeli property ownership law, Bedouin ownership claimants do not have rights to the land, as they are unable to provide the documentation which the courts require. Over the past decade, the government has made an attempt to resolve this conflict and regulate Bedouin settlement in the Negev through a governmental program known as the Begin-Prawer Plan. The Plan, which passed a first Knesset vote in June 2013, was met with heated protest, resulting in a freeze of the legislation and transfer of its administration to the Ministry of Agriculture where it remains in development. The bill is criticized by Bedouin and civil rights organizations who claim it violates Bedouin rights, and from right wing organizations that claim it is too lenient and gives Bedouins too much land. (See the Task Force Legislative Update on this plan.)