The Bedouins in Israel's Negev Desert: Ubiquitous yet Invisible to the Dominant Society

Patrick Hiller
Julia Chaitin

November, 2006

We were standing on a hill at the base of a radio tower. To all sides we could see the beautiful horizons of Israel's Negev Desert. Scattered throughout the area one could see many settlements. They were ubiquitous, yet they seemed out of place. We were facing a number of unrecognized Bedouin villages — settlements consisting mainly of corrugated-iron and wood huts lacking the most basic needs. This place and time, overlooking the Negev, would become one moment that helped us widen our horizons as students in the field of conflict resolution. By participating in an experiential course from Nova Southeastern University, entitled Society, Culture and Conflict in the Negev in Israel, we left the theoretical safe haven of a U.S. university, where we were taught theories and engaged in role plays. We were in the field.

The aims of the course were to introduce us to the diverse ethnic communities in the Negev region of Israel, and to combine academic theories with a practical experience. During the two-week course, we spent one of the days traveling throughout the region accompanied and guided by the Jewish coordinator of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. Only a few days earlier we had arrived in Tel Aviv — the showcase of modernity in Israel. The social and ideological gap we encountered can hardly be put into words. The villages that we saw from that hilltop in the Negev were scattered throughout the desert adjacent to modern highways and beneath huge overhead power cables. To an unsuspecting passerby, they seemed like spots in the landscape.

The Arab Bedouin have inhabited the Negev Region for centuries. Their culture often has been romanticized in movies, literature and historic accounts. The term Bedouin has historically described nomadic tribes of the Middle East. These people have traditionally been associated with a pastoral nomadic lifestyle that includes raising livestock such as sheep, goats and camels. Over the last few decades, their semi-nomadic way of life and societal structure have undergone immense and rapid changes, as they have moved to a more sedentary way of living.[1,2]

Approximately 155,000 Bedouins live in the Negev Desert in Israel, with an estimated 80,000 of them living in 45 villages that are unrecognized by the Israeli government. These Arab-Bedouins are Israeli citizens. However, with respect to their political and legal rights, the Bedouins in the "illegal" villages find themselves in no-man's land. They are not granted rights to construct permanent housing, the names of their villages cannot be listed on their ID cards,[3] the villages appear on no maps, and the residents of these villages lack local voting rights, and basic services such as running water, electricity, garbage collection, roads, schools and health clinics. The Israeli government and ministries have stigmatized the Bedouins as "illegal settlers." As such, the residents of these villages live under the constant threat of their homes being torn down or having to pay fines for letting cattle graze on state-owned property.[4,5]

The other half of the Bedouin population in the Negev lives in government-created towns and find themselves in a situation only somewhat better than that of the Bedouins in the unrecognized villages. They are concentrated in eight towns that are characterized by high unemployment rates and the lowest income in the country. According to the National Insurance Institute of Israel, 52% of Arab Israelis live beneath the poverty line, many of them in the Negev region.[6] These towns also have poor educational facilities, thus perpetuating the poverty and creating situations in which the children of these towns are disadvantaged. This is another factor which strengthens the growing chasm between Israel's dominant Jewish society and the Arab-Bedouins. In essence, whether in the legal or illegal settlements, the Bedouins are hindered from living a life of their choosing, and are controlled by the Jewish-Israeli apparatus of state.[7,8]

Throughout the personal encounters that we had with members of the Bedouin population, not only on that day, but throughout our course, one central notion from the field of conflict analysis and resolution that seemed to best describe what we saw is structural violence.[9] Structural violence is defined as the ongoing and institutionalized deprivation of needs of survival, well-being, identity and freedom. Briefly stated, "...Structural inflicted slowly and in a chronic fashion, by keeping people in poverty...or preventing them from pursuing their chosen life on an equal playing field. Structural violence is built into everyday life, into the economy, a political system, and into the landscape."[10] And as Barak notes, it: "refers to the established patterns of organized society that have been institutionalized — rationalized and sanctioned — yet result in systematic harm to millions of victims annually, including disproportionately, members of the marginal classes of society."[11] Structural violence can be connected further to the concept of cultural violence. As Galtung tells us, cultural violence is used by one group "to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence... cultural violence makes direct and structural violence look, even feel, right — or at least not wrong... thus rendered acceptable in society."[12]

While these concepts capture an important aspect of the social world in the Negev, and issues of "legality" of settlements, at least concerning the Bedouin, they do not get at the roots of the status quo. This can only be done by taking an in-depth look at the complex power relationships that exist between Israeli governmental institutions and the Bedouin. These power relations are best understood in a historical context and in relation to the underlying values and ideology of Israeli society.

After the Holocaust, and after years of Jewish immigration from many countries from Europe to what was then Palestine, an independent Israeli state was created in 1948. The land, which is present-day Israel, was chosen for religious reasons and nationalistic ideological reasons, in what was termed modern Zionism.[13] While Zionism can historically be dated back to 1200 B.C., the modern movement that led to the emergence of Israel as a state was a response to growing anti-Semitism in nineteenth century Europe. The continuous immigration of Jews, when Palestine was under a British mandate, took place against the will of the Arab leaders and the local population.[14]

While both the Jews and the Arabs historically claim the region to be their homeland, the outcome of the 1948 War left the Jews with a state, and the Palestinian Arabs without one. The Arab-Bedouin that remained within Israel's borders after the war did not belong to the hegemonic secular Jewish Zionist society. The Arab citizens of Israel, and the Bedouin among them, had no place in the nation of Israel and were systematically led to live in the cultural, political and economic margins.[15,16] Over the years, the Israeli government moved the Bedouin from their lands, often settling and resettling them in closed military zones (throughout the mid 1960s) and then in specific small areas, denying them access to their former lands. As a result, the Bedouin of the Negev region have two options — to either move to one of the eight established Bedouin towns, which often do not have the room to house them or the infrastructure to support them, or to live "illegally," dispersed in settlements throughout the desert.[17]

In order to combat this structural violence and discrimination, and to establish relationships based on equality, Jews and Arabs joined together in 1997 to form the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (also known by its Hebrew name, Dukium [co-existence]). The Negev Coexistence Forum is a grassroots organization that is built on the belief that social justice is only possible when people work together as equal partners. Approximately 30 Jewish and Arab volunteer activists regularly join forces to achieve this goal. In addition, Dukium has a network comprised of hundreds of people who participate in different activities and are kept abreast of issues of interest through their listserve and website ( The Forum's members come from diverse backgrounds and include community leaders, educators, lawyers, academics and social workers and it is unique in that it is the only Arab-Jewish organization that focuses on collaborative coexistence in the Negev region.

Dukium has set as its main mission the advancement of full civil rights and equality for all citizens of the Negev. The Forum's projects are focused around a number of key areas ranging from immediate "hands-on" activities to long-term processes that aim for sustainability. These projects include: conferences on civil and legal issues concerning the Bedouin; written reports of infringements on civil and human rights; guided tours of unrecognized Bedouin villages; work days in unrecognized villages (e.g. planting trees, fixing up a nursery school, etc.); a joint Arab-Jewish cultural center; university student group activities; and international activism in UN institutions on the rights of Bedouins as indigenous peoples.

During the advanced practicum in Israel, we were privileged to see these "invisible places" and to hear "unheard testimonies" by community leaders and activists. We were privileged because we were warmly welcomed by members of Dukium and by Bedouin citizens of the unrecognized villages. We were privileged because we heard a discourse outside the dominant one, one that few Israelis, and perhaps even fewer tourists, hear. As we visited these "illegal" settlements, and heard from the head of the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages and Bedouin activists about the inequality, lack of social justice and infringement of human rights that these Arab Israeli citizens face everyday, we contemplated how, at times, a democracy can fail its citizens. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all people have the right to recognition and equality without discrimination before the law.[18] Israel is a signatory of the major human rights treaties.[19] However, due to the government's treatment of the Arab-Bedouin minority, two of the major global human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have expressed concern about the infringement of this population's civil and human rights.[20,21]

The stories told to us by our Bedouin hosts and our Jewish guide had an impact going beyond pure sympathy and empathy. We students had come to this experience with a body of knowledge and assumptions based on our respective personal and educational backgrounds. Coming to Israel as outsiders, we were able to listen to the stories without previous acculturation into the dominant Jewish-Israeli discourse. While we were very much aware that our knowledge of the area was limited, and that we were dependent on the perceptions of our Israeli hosts, we also felt that our neutrality offered us the opportunity to understand the power relations at work that might be harder for an insider to appreciate.

One experience during our trip to the Bedouin settlements made an especially deep impression. In one of the villages, which looked to be not much more than a small shanty town, the head of the village, who was a long-time social justice activist, showed us governmental demolition orders that had been attached to shacks. When he took us over to the goat pens, he even jokingly noted that the authorities had posted one such sign on the fence around the pens, but that the goats had eaten it. Our host wondered out loud if the goat was going to be arrested for eating government property. We were touched by his ability to keep a sense of humor as his home and village were threatened with demolishment by his government, which offered him no alternatives for residence.

As our informant pointed out, and as we heard from others during our stay in the desert, the authorities use the cover of legality to undertake demolitions within the unrecognized villages. The public discourse and disinterest can be easily explained — if it is the law, it must be right. The common knowledge as to the illegality of the Bedouin settlements is derived from a power context embedded in the social structure of society, which is framed by the rhetoric of the government. In Foucauldian terms, the constant interplay between societal power structures and the derived body of knowledge has led these villages to be defined as illegal by the Jewish-Israeli majority — a status, understandingly, not shared by the minority Bedouin inhabitants of these settlements.[22]

Meeting people located on all levels of the social continuum, especially the ones in the social margins of society, is an invaluable experience for any conflict resolution scholar or practitioner. Only when we start to question our knowledge concerning the definition of illegality, can we move in the direction of understanding the topic more profoundly. We must be aware that our way of thinking and the use of knowledge is the result of the social structure, which reflects power relationships.[23] When we work in the field of conflict and peace studies, we need to be able to bracket our implicit and explicit knowledge in order to hear, but more importantly, understand the often silenced words of the marginalized and disenfranchised. Simply placing what we read and hear in pre-programmed thinking patterns can lead us to acceptance of hegemonic discourse, without critically analyzing the knowledge we are being told to blindly accept. By listening to the diverse voices, but most especially to the voices of the marginalized, Western approaches for the resolution of inter-group conflicts, which are often narrow and ethnocentric, can be broadened and made more profound, thus leading to sustainable solutions that have the potential to benefit all involved. In their work on the Bedouin community, Al-Krenawi and Graham demonstrated the importance of cultural mediators, individuals who are highly accepted in and knowledgeable about Bedouin communities.[24] Dukium's projects, which are aimed at supporting the Bedouin community and opening up dialogue between Jewish and Bedouin citizens of the Negev region, provide such a culturally sensitive addition. Not only do they collaboratively work toward the achievement of their goals of enhanced civil liberties for all, they also stress the importance of listening to the local voices thus making their work meaningful for the Bedouin community.

[1] Al-Krenawi, A., & Graham, J.R. (1999). "Conflict Resolution Through a Traditional Ritual Among the Bedouin Arabs of the Negev." Ethnology, 38(2), 163-174.

[2] Cole, D.P. (2003). "Where Have the Bedouin Gone?" Anthropological Quarterly, 76(2), 235.

[3] In Israel, all citizens carry an identity card that has a picture and includes their ID number, name, birth date, address and nationality (Jewish, Arab).

[4] Khamaisi, R. (2006). "Environmental Policies and Spatial Control: The Case of the Arab Localities Development." Arab Studies Quarterly, 28, 33-54.

[5] Swirski, S., & Hasson, Y. (2005). "Invisible Citizens: Israeli Policy Concerning Bedouins in the Negev." Executive Summary [Electronic Version] from mmary.pdf.

[6] National Insurance Institute Israel. (2006). Retrieved October 4, 2006, from

[7] Abu-Saad, I., & Lithwick, H. (2000). "A Way Ahead: A Development Plan for the Bedouin Towns in the Negev." Center for Bedouin Studies and Development and the Negev Center for Regional Development, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

[8] Swirski, S., & Hasson, Y. (2005).

[9] Galtung, J. (1969). "Violence, Peace, and Peace Research." Journal of Peace Research, 6(3), 167-191.

[10] Bornstein, A. S. (2002). "Crossing the Green Line Between the West Bank and Israel." Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. 6.

[11] Barak, G. (2003). Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 113.

[12] Galtung, J. (1996). "Peace by Peaceful Means." Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization. London: Sage Publications. 196.

[13] Almog, O. (2000). The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[14] Kimmerling, B. (2001). The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[15] Bickerton, I.J., & Hauser, C.L. (2002). A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

[16] Kimmerling, B. (2001).

[17] Boteach, E. (2006). "Background." Retrieved October 6, 2006, from

[18] United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved October 4, 2006, from

[19] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2004). Status of Ratifications of the Principal International Human Rights Treaties. Retrieved October 13, 2006, from

[20] Amnesty International. (2004). Israel and the Occupied Territories Under the Rubble: House Demolition and Destruction of Land and Property. Retrieved October 5, 2006, from y/index/ENGMDE150332004.

[21] Human Rights Watch. (2001). Second Class: Discrimination against Palestinian Arab children in Israel's schools. Retrieved October 5, 2006, from

[22] Foucault, M., & Gordon, C. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (1st American ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.

[23] Barak, G. (2003). Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 113.

[24] Al-Krenawi, A., & Graham, J.R. (2001). "The Cultural Mediator: Bridging the Gap Between a Non-Western Community and Professional Social Work Practice." British Journal of Social Work, 31(5), 665-685.