It’s past time to deal head-on with some harsh realities about the Bedouin Arabs in the Negev that have been ignored for a very long time. These realities are extremely relevant to what’s going on today. I will get to that, for it’s all interconnected.
But let’s start at the beginning:
Negev Bedouin men, to some considerable degree (more than 40%), practice polygamy, even though it has been illegal in Israel since 1951. They go through a procedure that allows them to present themselves to civil authorities as divorced, while remaining within the guidelines of what is permissible regarding multiple wives in Sharia (Muslim) law. Sometimes they take more than four wives; they do this in a fashion that adheres to the stipulations of Sharia law, divorcing the first four before taking others.
This is not a practice that is diminishing within the Negev Bedouin culture, but actually seems to be growing among younger Bedouin. At present, there is a higher rate of polygamy being practiced by these Bedouin than in Muslim majority countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where polygamy is against the law.
Sound crazy? Counter-intuitive, we might say. But this IS the reality. And we must begin by asking how Israel has permitted this. There has, it seems, been a reluctance to appear insensitive to the cultural norms of a minority population within the Jewish State. Yet this reluctance suggests a lack of confidence in Israel’s right, as a sovereign nation, to establish and then enforce laws.
The parameters of the situation are absolutely untenable. Consider:
- The Bedouin population of the Negev has what is likely the highest rate of population growth in the world. When measured recently, it was discovered that the population had doubled in 15 years. This is both because of the polygamy and the high birth rate (higher than for Jews in Israel or other Muslims Arabs in Israel.)
From one reliable source I learned of an old man who said he had 81 children (clearly from more than four wives), and I read of another who had 57.
- As there are not enough women in the Negev to go around, Muslim women from Gaza and the Palestinian Authority areas are smuggled into the country. These women are hostile to Israel.
- Women who have been discarded by their husbands, and the multiple children they have produced with those husbands, must depend upon National Insurance (Welfare).
Several weighty and worrisome repercussions follow from this:
- This is a situation that is terribly hard on the women and children. The status of women is obviously diminished by polygamy: the rejection that comes with being set aside or required to share a husband with as many as three other women is demeaning. (Bedouin women are beginning to speak out and take a stand against this.)
Those women who are brought from Gaza or the PA are without the traditional support of extended family; they suffer a sense of vulnerability. Bedouin men sometimes prefer them for their passivity.
What sort of fathering can children expect if they have 20 or 30 siblings?
- Those women who come from Gaza or the PA raise their children with a virulently anti-Israel perspective. This is a situation of serious concern.
In recent years there have even been some incidents of terrorism emanating from within the Bedouin community as a result of this.
- The situation generates a drain on the finances of Israel. This is not spoken of frequently, but it is not a small matter. The fact that there are many wives with their multiple children who rely upon National Insurance impinges upon funds that might be utilized for important national concerns.
In some instances, National Insurance is defrauded as a result of this complex situation: When a man represents himself as divorced within the civil bureaucracy, his wife – now listed as “a single mother”– is eligible for national support. In reality, however, this woman may still be married to the man according Sharia law, and he may still relate to her as his wife. Yet he has absolved himself of all responsibility to provide support for her or her children. Let the State of Israel do it.
- Because of the huge growth in the population, there is a growing tendency to illegally usurp areas of land in the Negev. In fact, as we shall see, the Bedouin often make the presumption that the Negev is “theirs.”
- The government of Israel has a responsibility to better serve the Bedouin women, who suffer within the strictures of polygamy.
- Most important, this practice of essentially allowing the Bedouin to “do their own thing” seriously undermines rule of law!! Israel’s tolerance of behavior that is prohibited by law generates in Bedouin males a sense of entitlement with regard to proceeding as they please in other respects. This is certainly the case with regard to usurpation of land, but may apply in other situations as well.
There has been a failure to address Bedouin lawlessness. This entire situation has gotten shockingly out of control. Bedouin have been known to sneak into army bases in the Negev and steal equipment. As well they may extort: threatening violence or destruction if they do not achieve their demands.
With a general lawlessness there has been a propensity for violence and rioting. See here an article about a “Wild Negev” where there are Bedouin gangs waving guns.
Regavim – https://www.regavim.org/ – is a key organization with regard to monitoring the situation in the Negev and addressing it with proposed solutions.
Here you have an interview of some eight minutes of Naomi Kahn, Director of the International Division:
And here a lengthy report put out by Regavim that provides a wealth of information:
There have been some steps taken to address the situation in recent years. In 2015, Binyamin Netanyahu, then prime minister, appointed Ayelet Shaked, who was serving as justice minister, to research the issue of Bedouin polygamy and begin to address ways to improve the situation. Following this, some changes in policy were instituted, but they represented only a beginning. Adequate follow-through never came. In 2020, an Israeli Bedouin resident of the Negev desert was sentenced to seven months in prison by the Beersheva Magistrates Court for practicing polygamy. There had been a similar indictment in 2015. Yet these isolated cases, though they were saluted, hardly represent a substantial change.
What has severely exacerbated the situation at present is the current composition of the governing coalition of Israel, which includes (indeed depends upon) the Ra’am party, headed by Mansour Abbas. Abbas’s primary constituency is the Bedouin Arabs in the Negev and he attempts to secure all possible advantages for them.
Most recently there was passing of the Electricity Law, which allowed Bedouin in illegal housing to be hooked to the electric grid, after which other amenities would follow and they would be seen as de facto legal. See:
The Bedouin had been offered, as Prof. Hillel Frisch described it, “plots free of charge in organized towns in their immediate area and subsidizing in full the basic infrastructure, including electricity, modern sewage, paved roads and generous grants to the municipalities to service them; in short, all the amenities they claim the state denies them.” But they insisted on remaining in scattered housing that had been constructed on state land zoned for farming.
To provide them with amenities in their current location was to undermine the rule of law. The Bedouin were rewarded for flouting the law.
In the past couple of days, the Jewish National Fund began a project of tree planting in the Negev. This is an annual project of forestation. This time some planting was done outside the Bedouin village of Mulada. The location was selected at the direction of the Israel Land Authority; it had been determined that this was State land.
The local Bedouin tribe, however, insisted it was their land, and the violence began late Tuesday. Police were stoned, cars were torched, roads were blocked. Stones were placed on railroad tracks in an effort to derail trains.
Mansour Abbas declared that he would not vote with the coalition any longer, saying, “I have absorbed more difficult things in the past, but when they shoot straight in my chest I can’t stand it anymore. The south is Ra’am.” (Emphasis added)
Refusing to support the coalition is Abbas’s major weapon. Without him the government falls. We’ve heard it before. But please note carefully: “The south is Ra’am.”
There was a similar statement on the Facebook page of MK Mazen Ghanaim, also of the Ra’am party: “I, Mazan Ghanaim, son of the city of Sakhnin and son of the Arab Middle East, announce here on my official page and on every platform that from this day forward I am against this government.
“The Negev is my home, the Negev is my family, the Negev is a red line.” (Emphasis added)
None of this should be missed. What does it mean, “the Negev is a red line”? They believe they control it all. I found this particularly fascinating because he is a son of Sakhnin, which, it happens, is an Arab city in the north, in the Galil, far from the Negev. Rhetoric. It all belongs to them.
On Wednesday morning, planting continued for an interval under heavy police guard. Right-wing Zionist elements in the country saluted the government for its strength in the face of violence and threats. But then the planting stopped.
There was vague talk about “negotiations,” after which planting would resume. It is highly doubtful that planting will resume. But in any event, stopping, in and of itself, constitutes a caving. What is more, agreeing to “negotiations” makes the matter more serious still. We need to agree to some Bedouin demands before we can act in our own land??
There is talk about a possible agreement to normalize some 10 to 12 illegal Bedouin villages:
“According to the Kan public broadcaster, which cited unnamed sources with knowledge of the matter, an “unprecedented” plan to be advanced by the government would include recognition of 10 to 12 Bedouin villages that are currently illegal.”
A painful prospect, should this turn out to be the case.
“According to Kan, Ra’am has said its members would only attend Knesset sessions next week if comprehensive negotiations were started on the recognition of Negev Bedouin villages.”
As I prepare to send this out, there are reports of “fresh unrest” in the Negev. Roads near Be’ersheva are blocked, rocks are thrown at the police.
Police are utilizing riot dispersal methods. See a video here:
This is a deplorable scenario!
How will it affect the decisions of the more right-wing members of the government, that even after the planting was stopped and there was talk of negotiations, the response was violence??
Do they grasp the fact that the rioters may be thinking that if they were able to stop the planting with riots, they might be able to secure better conditions in negotiations if they riot some more?
Do they see that conceding on the electricity law probably made the Bedouins feel more empowered in their demands regarding the land?
Will the right-wing members of the government, such as they are, cave even further or finally, finally grasp the reality: that concessions make it worse and that a tough stance in sovereign Israel is way past due?
I keep waiting for some very small, sane segment of the coalition – people such as MKs Nir Orbach and Amaichai Chikli, both of Yemina, or some member of New Hope, perhaps (Sa’ar himself is a lost cause) – to finally declare that they have had enough. It wouldn’t take much to bring the government down.