The Negev Desert’s Vanishing Bedouin
By Ben Hattem

For decades, Israel has been funneling the Negev’s Bedouin tribes onto reservation towns that offer little economic hope to the families living there.

Driving south through central Israel toward Rahat, it’s only a few kilometers before the city that the landscape started to feel like a desert. The late-spring greenery around Jerusalem fades to rolling fields of grass, then scrub brush and grain fields, then emptiness. We’ve arrived in the Negev.

The Negev desert—Al-Naqab in Arabic—stretches across southern Israel down to Eilat and the Red Sea. The region contains 60 percent of the land within Israel’s 1967 borders, but only 8.1 percent of the country’s population. Further north, around Tel Aviv’s latitude, the country is a mere 10 km across; here on the outskirts of Be’er Sheva, with the desert spread around from Jordan to Sinai, it’s more than 100.

It’s little wonder, then, why this place so dominated the dreams of the early Zionists. In 1898, Max Nordau called for a new kind of Jew—a “muscle Jew” —whose dual dedication to body and agriculture would make world Jewry fit to do the nation-building necessary for the Zionist cause, especially the difficult labor of drawing sustenance from the arid Negev. Nearly 60 years later, in Israel’s early days of statehood, Ben Gurion called the Negev a “crucial test” for Israel. “The people of Israel will be tested in the Negev,” he said in 1955, “since only a concerted effort of a pioneering nation, constructing and building its state, can overcome challenges like making the desert flourish and populating it.”

There’s been only one impediment to Israel’s charge to make the desert bloom, a charge descended from the Hebrew bible and inscribed in the country’s Declaration of Independence: tens of thousands of Arab Bedouin, on whose ancestral lands lies Zionism’s agricultural frontier.

Since the late 1960s, Israeli policy has focused on concentrating the Bedouin population into a handful of government-developed towns—seven in total, plus 11 more villages that have gained recognition from the state. This policy has been formalized in a succession of laws and government initiatives spanning almost 40 years, beginning with the 1976 adoption of a proposal from a committee headed by Plia Albeck of the State Attorney’s Office, progressing through several iterations of government committees in the 1990s, the Goldberg report of 2008, Prawer implementation plan of 2011, and the Begin proposal of January 2013.

While the details have changed, the framework of government policy established by the Albeck Committee has remained constant. In the Goldberg report, the crux of the policy is described as a three-part plan: “no recognition of Bedouin rights over the land, a willingness to offer land claimants compensation ‘beyond the letter of the law,’ and conditioning the payment of compensation on the evacuation of the land and transfer to one of the recognized settlements.”

The population transfer and concentration of Negev Bedouin inherent in the last of those three proposals has an even longer history than the towns built to hold them. In 1948 and 1949, as the military of the newly-founded Jewish state was pushing aside the British mandate borders that placed much of the Negev in Arab hands and the residents were fleeing en masse, the Bedouin population of the desert dropped from 70,000 to 11,000. In the subsequent decade, the Bedouin who remained in the Negev were moved into a northeastern plot of land called the Siyag Triangle, roughly 300,000 acres between the Israeli cities of Be’er Sheva, Arad, and Dimona.

The first state-sanctioned Bedouin town in the Negev, named Tel Sheva, was established in 1968. In 1971, after poor urban planning created widespread Bedouin resistance to relocation into Tel Sheva, the government launched its second town-creation project, Rahat.

Nearly10 years passed in relative quiet. Then the government resumed its town-building, founding the remaining five localities that make up the developed Bedouin towns of the Negev today. Rahat continued to grow, far outpacing the population of the other government-built localities. An expansion of the city’s southern neighborhoods let off some of the pressure from the population growth, but residents still say it’s nearly impossible to find available plots of land to move into—a considerable problem for a community with one of the highest birth rates in the world. Rahat “[doesn’t] even have a place for new couples,” said Rawia Aburabia, an attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Hussein Al-Majira, sheikh of the unrecognized village of Al-Sir at the westernmost point of the Siyag, told me what to expect before I visited Rahat. Like the other recognized towns, he said, Rahat was a model of urban decay—crime, drugs, prostitution. “A good family would never want to move to these areas,” he told me with more than a hint of disdain.

Lirit Serphos, the government’s policy director for Bedouins in the Negev, painted a very different picture. Her Rahat used to be the overcrowded and underdeveloped disaster described by Al-Majira and Aburabia, but dedicated work by the Israeli government and the municipal officials of the city in recent years have started to transform the city into a viable settlement. “It’s completely different [now],” said Serphos. “I think that Rahat is an example of how those towns can come to be.”

In particular, Serphos said, the government has been trying to target the massive unemployment rate in Rahat, which may reach 40 percent without including residents who don’t register for unemployment benefits. She said a 2012 resolution from the Prime Minister’s office worth 1.2 billion NIS contained “a lot of money allocated for employment,” including subsidies to employers to hire Bedouin.

In fact, Serphos claimed the persistent unemployment was due not to lack of jobs, but lack of interest in work among the unemployed Bedouin of the city. Life was good enough on unemployment benefits, she said, that people didn’t want to take jobs and lose their welfare checks. “They don’t want to make the effort,” she said. “It takes an effort to go to work.”

So which Rahat would I find when I left Route 40 just north of Be’er Sheva —the cesspool of crime and poverty devoid of basic infrastructure, or the emergent city, Serphos’ “modern town,” where welfare checks paid out well enough that no one much wanted a job?

The answer shouldn’t come as a shock; the situation in Rahat is neither as bad as Al-Majira feared nor as good as Serphos wanted me to believe. The Al-Sir patriarch’s visions of drugs and prostitution may not have been justified, but if the government’s view of Rahat is as anything other than a dumping ground for dislodged Bedouin from the surrounding villages, it isn’t evident in town.

Spend some time driving the streets of Rahat and it becomes clear pretty quickly why unemployment is still so high: in a city of 55,000, there’s only one small area zoned for commercial use, which contains Rahat’s community center, the two bank branches in town, the eerily ramshackle municipal government building, and a cluster of shisha cafes and electronics shops that residents know as the town’s mall. The rest of Rahat’s commerce takes place in strips of ground-floor apartments repurposed for retail against zoning regulations and an open-air market erected downtown on Tuesdays where Jewish Israelis from Be’er Sheva hunting for bargain deals do business with Rahat’s Bedouin sellers.

That’s it for business in town. Many people in Rahat are on unemployment benefits as a result, said Aisha Ziadna, a student in the city who works as international coordinator for the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, also known as Dukium. The 1000 NIS (about $280) per month provided through the welfare system is “not very much,” said Ziadna. “It doesn’t do anything.”

Serphos and the Prime Minister’s office think they have solutions—in particular, the establishment of new employment centers in the towns and an industrial zone shared between Rahat and two Jewish municipalities nearby. The embattled Israeli company SodaStream is scheduled to open the first factory in the industrial zone this summer, and Serphos said the government is working on encouraging other employers—the hotels at tourist hotspots near the Dead Sea, the national railroad, electricity companies, the prison system—to hire Bedouin.

But Ziadna points out that when people have been displaced from the agricultural lifestyle of the villages and moved into Rahat and the other towns, they generally don’t have the skills or education necessary to get jobs even when they’re available. Atwa Abu Frih, a former head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages who now works in Rahat, says that only 40 percent of Rahat’s residents have finished high school, and only two percent have higher degrees.

Furthermore, without jobs in Rahat itself, the municipal government will continue to miss out on the essential tax base of local business. Compounding the problem, the recognized Bedouin towns are second only to the unrecognized villages among demographic groups in Israel for poverty rates, with 61 percent of households below the line, and the tax revenue of the municipalities is gutted by the widespread poverty. Serphos said that in Hura, widely regarded as the most successful of the towns built for Bedouin, half of the households pay no municipal taxes because of their income level.

With little tax revenue, the municipalities of the towns have no money to develop their infrastructure or services. Until five years ago, said Ziadna, there was no public transportation to get out of Rahat except unregulated van drivers who charged exorbitant rates because of the lack of competition. As recently as 2002, Rahat, like all six of the other government-planned towns, lacked a completed sewerage system.

Ye’ela Raanan of the RCUV says that in contrast to the government’s hopes, people have been migrating from the recognized towns into nearby unrecognized villages because of the overcrowding and lack of infrastructure or employment in the cities. “When you take away the traditional way of making a living and you put them inside the town and you don’t give proper education and you don’t give any type of economic opportunities…there’s nothing,” she said.

“Israel took everything from you, and gave you nothing,” said Abu Frih.