Among the Bedouin community, Israeli laws barring polygamy amount to no more than rumors, and no one has ever even heard of the building code • The Bedouin have all but taken over the Negev and turned it into a neighboring country.
Lavish villas alongside traditional tents: Bedouin construction in the Negev
Photo credit: Ziv Koren
From 2,000 feet over land, one can take quite a despairing view of the Negev. Perhaps the time has come to just relinquish the entire thing. Give them the Beersheba-Arad-Yeruham triangle and spare us the headache, the blood, and the tears.
In every direction in which one looks, the Negev is “flourishing.” David Ben-Gurion would certainly have been proud to see it.
The territory is riddled with tens of thousands of very large, very beautiful homes. The picturesque scene, however, is blotted by the massive scale of illegal Bedouin construction. What is often known as the “scattering of villages” is actually one large chain that stretches to the horizon. Those charged with combating the phenomenon are helpless to stop it.
Beersheba-Arad-Yeruham is shaping up to be the desert’s Bermuda Triangle. This massive swath of land, dozens of times the size of central Israel, has been rendered a de facto extraterritorial entity that is now home to a neighboring country. The black-market economy that is currently thriving in the Bermuda Negev generates some 2 billion shekels ($568 million) per year.
Israeli law, which bars bigamy and polygamy, is not recognized in this neighboring state. The same goes for the laws governing traffic and road regulations. Building and zoning laws are routinely disregarded. When the State of Israel makes an attempt to restore this lost triangle’s place in the puzzle, it is met with a complete lack of cooperation and violence. Thanks to the efforts of the Islamic Movement and other radical elements, the triangle is gradually disengaging from the mother ship. What is even more ominous is the fact that it threatens to take with it other parts of the country.
The Bedouin are a Semitic people whose origins trace to Saudi Arabia. In the latter stages of the 18th century, they began to migrate northwards, trekking across the Sinai Peninsula. They reached all the way to central Syria. Some of them even made it to the southern portion of the Euphrates River. Along the way, they discovered ideal pasturing zones throughout Israel-Palestine, and they shepherded their flocks in these areas according to the season.
During the 1948 War of Independence, tens of thousands of Bedouin residents of the Negev fled, primarily to the Gaza Strip. Some of them were fearful of the Jews, while others were fearful that they would be forcibly drafted into the Arab armies as per the demands of the Arab Higher Committee. In 1951, the Bedouin population of the Negev stood at 12,000.
Since that census more than 60 years ago, the state has sought numerous times to win Bedouin consent for resettlement in neatly allotted, orderly and legally recognized townships. This was not always done with the wisest approach. In the early 1950s, when a military regime was imposed on the state’s minorities, the Bedouin were forced into two specially designated zones for living and pursuing their nomadic lifestyle. These areas, which were ringed by fences, were known as the major Siyagh (Arabic for “the permitted area”) and the minor Siyagh.
After the military regime was dismantled, it became clear that it was impossible to run a Western country with part of its population being nomadic in nature. Water, electricity, education and health services could only be provided to citizens with a fixed address.
The State of Israel built seven townships specifically for the Bedouin population: Kuseife, Tel Sheva, Segev Shalom, Aroer, Hura, Lakiya and Rahat. Whoever so wanted received a plot of land and connection to the main grids. Just half the Bedouin, particularly the poorer segments, took up residence these seven towns. The other half insisted on remaining in the scattered shantytowns and filing legal claims over ownership rights on the land.
Of the thousands of claims filed between 1967 and 1976, the courts reviewed only a few hundred. All the claims were determined to be baseless. The resettlement process that began then is being resumed now with the Prawer-Begin plan.
There are 300,000 Bedouin in Israel today, 80,000 of whom reside in the Galilee. The remainder live in the Negev. The Bedouin of Israel are world record-holders in population growth — 5.6 percent per year. By the year 2025, Israel will have to cope with a Bedouin population of 420,000 in the Negev.
Today, 120,000 Bedouin live either in recognized towns and cities in the Negev, or townships that are in the process of being legalized. Another 100,000 Bedouin cover the dry, arid area encompassed by the so-called “pzura” (“scattering”), which are state lands upon which they trespassed. In some instances, they encroach upon military training grounds and nature preserves.
Thousands of other buildings and structures are clustered together near the municipal boundaries of the legally recognized townships. This illegal construction enjoys the best of all worlds: building without the need for a permit; no need to pay municipal taxes; water and power are provided through pirate grids; and the residents still enjoy state-provided services like schools, medical clinics, and sporting facilities. On the main street that runs through Lakiya, one can notice that on the right side is a row of legally built structures (and a sidewalk), while on the left side, beyond the blue line that represents the municipal boundary, one can see illegally constructed buildings (and no sidewalk).
Just to get an idea of the scale of Bedouin land claims, consider that the entire State of Israel encompasses 5.2 million acres. If we were to subtract the total land mass used by the Israel Defense Forces for training purposes, we are left with 2.7 million acres set aside for civilian purposes. The Bedouin are demanding almost 247,000 acres. It is worth noting that of that area, Bedouin live in just a small fraction. It is the areas that are used for pasturing and grazing that are now being claimed by Bedouin as theirs to own.
Another startling fact to consider is that over 7 million Israeli citizens either own or rent 173,000 acres of land that are listed under their names. The Bedouins are claiming ownership of a similarly large chunk of land divided between 15,000 petitioners.
In recent years, the state has begun retroactively granting recognition to 11 illegal villages that belong to the Abu Basma regional council. The Bedouin have requested recognition for 45 additional villages, but aerial photographs reveal that the number easily surpasses 1,000. If one defines a village as any plot of land holding a cluster of tents, then there are more than 2,500 villages scattered in the desert.
A forced whitewashing
Al-Said is one of the villages currently in the process of being legalized and whitewashed. The dilemma is a sticky one. There is a municipal master building plan, but the residents there continue to ignore it while building without permits. Funds have been set aside to build a main road, but it cannot be paved yet because a particularly powerful clan has built a fence that runs along its planned route. The electricity and water grids cannot be installed nor can schools be built because somebody has encroached on just about every acre there.
The Abu Basma regional council has refrained from enforcing zoning laws so as to “preserve relations of trust with the residents,” as it told the court. Somebody built a beautifully designed, four-story home and surrounded it with 1.2 acres of olive groves. What would be the point of trying to explain to that person that the area was originally designated for a public playground?
In 2003, the Bedouin petitioners were offered a legalization proposal whereby the Israel Land Administration would grant 20% of the land as a legally recognized entity while they would then receive monetary compensation for relinquishing the remaining 80%. Very few of the petitioners agreed.
The al-Sanaa clan — to which United Arab List-Ta’al MK Taleb al-Sanaa belongs — from Lakiya was one of them. Lakiya was one of our stops along the tour through the Bermuda Negev. As part of an agreement, the state granted the al-Sanaa tribe dozens of developed plots of land with completely built infrastructure and sporting grounds. Nonetheless, tribal leaders are preventing a full-fledged resettlement in the area. Why? Perhaps to avoid a situation where they are forced to acknowledge entering an agreement with the Zionists. Perhaps it is because of the Victorian manner in which the resources are being distributed, whereby bloodlines determine who gets to build on a certain plot of land. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that a decade later, nearly all of the developed plots in Lakiya remain unused.
Lakiya’s main reservoir is a tiny hill surrounded by a plain. The scenic view is far less interesting than the reservoir itself, which is surrounded by barbed wire and security cameras on the roof of a nearby building. A thin, black tube snakes through the reservoir, extends to the nearby hill, and reaches the adjacent cluster of buildings. The water is pumped by the Mekorot national water company with our tax money, or, in this case, protection money.
Mekorot is not the only one. The Israel Electric Company, the National Roads Company and the cellular service providers all prefer to pay “protection” money every month — with receipts recognized by the tax authorities — rather than deal with the millions it would cost to cover the damages done to equipment.
The next stop on our tour is Hura. The infuriating green flags of Hamas flutter visibly. All of the mosques that we saw are designed to resemble mini al-Aqsas. Hundreds of developed plots that are ready for construction have been empty since the 1970s, waiting for the Abu-Aljan clan to assume control. The state failed to grasp the inner workings of the tribal politics. Since somebody else claimed ownership of these plots, the Abu-Aljan tribe refused to take what had been set aside for it.
Meanwhile, the state ordered the demolition of a different home belonging to the same tribe in the village of Atir. The High Court of Justice ruled that the home was built illegally. In 2004, hundreds of police officers arrived at Atir to carry out the order. They were supported by representatives of the Interior Ministry, the “Green Patrol” unit responsible for maintaining municipal cleanliness, and riot and crowd-control equipment.
Somebody in the village fired two shots into the air. The commander of the police force said that he was in no way willing to accept responsibility for one of his charges being injured. The house was left untouched.
The third stop on our tour is Bir Hadaj. The state has legalized property in the town and it has approved a master plan in areas where there are no claims of ownership. All the territories are divided up so that each section is allotted to one family — one family being tantamount to one woman, so a man with four wives would receive four plots of land. Each house would be attached to about three-quarters of an acre for agricultural use.
Even the neighborhood of “Banim Mamshichim” was officially put on the map. But the designated owners want no part of it. The residents of Bir Hadaj have no desire to enter the designated grounds. Instead, they insist on living in scattered shantytowns that are disorderly and unrecognized while shedding tears claiming persecution.
The state, however, did not do nearly enough. In 2008, the government was presented with the Goldberg Report, which recommended legalizing a large portion of the outlaw construction and compensating those squatters in other parts. Three years later, the current government is ready to implement those recommendations by way of the Prawer plan: Existing Bedouin towns will be expanded, new townships will be built in accordance with demographic and occupational considerations — agricultural, rural, suburban, urban — and all of the claimants will receive 50% of the value of the land as compensation.
The recently approved Begin Bill makes the package even more attractive: The claimants would be compensated with between 50% and 63% of alternate plots of land while the rest would come in the form of monetary compensation. The petitioner is not required to prove a thing or to produce documents. All that is needed is a vague claim that their family was here generations ago.
The townships currently in existence are not realizing their full potential. A huge project in Rahat which was funded by the state currently stands empty. It is hard to explain why. Lakiya’s master plan is tailored for a population of 35,000 people. In practice, however, there are only 10,000 residents.
An outstanding example of a successful resettlement of the Bedouin population is what took place in the town of Taraabin al-Sana. A Bedouin tribe had illegally settled near the Beersheba suburb of Omer, in effect interfering with plans to expand the community. The state located land where there were no claims of ownership, drew up plans for a new township, granted monetary compensation to those who voluntarily left the vicinity of Omer, and managed to convince the entire clan to pull up stakes.
What used to be the old Tarabin is now the newest neighborhood of Omer. The new Tarabin, however, is not devoid of warts, for there are those who want to enjoy the services provided by the municipality without having to pay municipal taxes. And the State of Israel is chasing its own tail.
An illegal haven
Meir Deutsch is a 30-year-old activist who serves as field coordinator for Regavim, an nongovernmental organization which monitors illegal use of state lands. According to Deutsch, the Zionist side has its finger in the dike. A native of Jerusalem, Deutsch became enchanted with the Negev during his military service in an elite unit.
“During navigation exercises, I saw the Bedouin villages and thought to myself, ‘There are two options here — either the State of Israel is discriminating against and persecuting the Bedouin since they don’t have highways or infrastructure, or it’s illegal and the state has yet to begin evicting them.'”
As an operations officer in the south, he heard that uniformed police did not enter Bedouin villages. That was when he realized that “the State of Israel doesn’t exist.” When he completed his military service, he decided to devote himself to the Negev. Since 2006, he has worked for Regavim, traversing, filming, and documenting the dusty paths of the Bedouin state that has arisen. Sometimes he introduces himself as an environmental inspector. He has been on the receiving end of stones thrown in his direction, physical assaults and threats.
Where do you expect them to live?
“Now, after the legalization of the towns in Abu Basma, there will be 18 recognized Bedouin towns. That’s not a small amount for 200,000 people. The Begin law gives them generous compensation. A Jew can’t live in a Bedouin town, as the High Court of Justice case involving Segev Shalom proved, but a Bedouin can certainly live in a Jewish town. Even Beersheba and Dimona are welcoming to them,” Deutsch said.
One of the arguments is that life in the urban environment contradicts the spirit of the nomadic Bedouin.
“First of all, a fraction of a percent of them deal with agriculture or shepherding herds. There’s also not enough land in the state to enable 200,000 Bedouin to shepherd herds. Secondly, even townships that are agricultural in nature need to be authorized legally. The immigrants from Ethiopia were accustomed to tents, but they made the transition.
I’m not saying that the Bedouin need to be placed in high-rise apartments like those who were evicted from Kfar Darom during the disengagement plan, but the state gives every Bedouin over the age of 18 between one and four dunams for free. After four years of army service, I didn’t get a single meter.”
Deutsch is just as familiar with the Negev as he is his own living room. In one of the Interior Ministry’s most recent reports, it was mentioned that four pirate gas stations are currently servicing the shantytowns. Deutsch, unconvinced, found 75. All of them are carefully documented.
“The alienation from the State of Israel stems from a sense of persecution,” he said. “The state invests a significant amount of money here, but, subjectively, a child who grows up in these shantytowns bears a sense of persecution that is undeniable. When we continue to allow life to go on in an illegally built village that has no infrastructure, we perpetuate the socio-economic inequality, the despair, the crime. Most of the younger generation which isn’t incited by charities or Arab members of Knesset wants education, progress, legalization of their towns. There is no vacuum. The State of Israel was never here, so the Islamic Movement entered the picture.
You can see how the way in which the men and women dress here has come to resemble the Taliban and other fundamentalist streams of Islam. The conflict with the State of Israel has went from being a civic dispute to a nationalist dispute.”
Deutsch brought up the sense of alienation felt toward the state. The polygamist tradition among the Bedouin has created a shortage of eligible women. This leads to women being “imported” from the territories and kept in Israel illegally. Their children are registered as full-fledged Israeli citizens by being named as the children of another woman who is also an Israeli citizen.
“At Soroka [University Medical Center in Beersheba], you could see Hanukkah miracles in which a woman gives birth to babies three months apart,” he said.
The lie being propagated about “historic Bedouin villages” is dismissively brushed aside by Deutsch. The town of Al-Sara has a street sign that reads in three languages:
“Al-Sara, founded during the Ottoman period.”
This was also what was claimed before the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. A video clip that has made the rounds on the Internet shows a resident of the village describe how his father and grandfather were born and raised there. The clip also shows Professor Oren Yiftachel, a far-left activist, claiming that “the village that was here even before 1948.”
An aerial photograph taken in 1990 by Survey of Israel, the government’s official mapping body, shows a tiny cluster of tents. A photo shot in 1945 shows a sliver of tilled land.
“We are not claiming that the Bedouin weren’t in the Negev,” Deutsch said. “But there were no villages. A village is a fixed point on a map with houses and a mosque. None of the 45 points which the Bedouin are demanding today was a village.”
The unrecognized village of Al-Araqeeb is a flashpoint, a symbol of the conflict. The Bedouin claim that it’s a “historic village.” An aerial photograph from 2000 proves that there never was a village there. In court, the claimants said they had returned to the lands from which they were expelled during the War of Independence. Deutsch, in response, pulled out an aerial photo from 1965 in which barren land is seen on the site of the village today. Identical photos from 1945 and 1956 were also produced.
We climb aboard an old Cessna-127 aircraft. From a higher altitude we see the black hole that is the Bermuda Triangle: a tiny state comprised of 65,000 illegally built structures. To put it in perspective, left-wing organizations claim that settlers in Judea and Samaria have built 2,000 illegal buildings. Earlier this week, a news website posted a headline following the rioting against the Prawer plan that read: “The State of Israel is a state of settlers.” That was a quote from a Bedouin protester, a quote which was accepted as indisputable truth. What would happen if a settler tries to seal off a balcony, or if a settlement council tries to build a health clinic? Then compare that result with the haven that has taken shape in the Negev.
The Bermuda Triangle that lies between Beersheba, Arad and Yeruham is almost the only region that is suitable for settlement in the Negev. Most of the southern and western Negev is area used by the IDF as training grounds or territory that is covered by nature preserves. But it’s almost slipping through our fingers.
Lahavim, Arad, Dimona, Yeruham, Mitzpeh Ramon — all of them look like tiny islands surrounded by an ocean of illegal construction.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Bedouin of the Negev are at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole. But the houses that I saw — some of them three-story and five-story edifices made of stone and marble — make a mockery of this claim. The myth of trash cans, tents and a camel has been supplanted by luxurious villas. The shepherd’s cane has been replaced by a satellite television dish.