A Brief History of Negev Bedouin Land
Recognized Villages & Towns
Under both the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, the Bedouin never registered any of their lands as their own, because it went against their values and cultural practices. Because there was no precedent of governmental recognition of Bedouin ownership over the land they had lived on and cultivated for generations, there was no reason for Israel to be the first state to recognize their claim to the land in the Negev.
After the 1948 war, there were around 11,000 Negev Bedouin, and the Israeli government decided to concentrate them in an area called the “restricted zone” that spanned the land between the Dead Sea, Beer Sheva, and Dimona. In 1965, the government released the Planning and Construction Law, zoning the majority of land in the Negev as agricultural and thereby making all other construction on the land illegal. In order to combat this, the Bedouin began settling land in the restricted area. The Israeli government responded by establishing seven urban-esque towns in the Negev, where they intended the Bedouin to live in concentrated populations. All seven were established between 1962 and 1991.
As the Bedouin moved into these towns, the restricted zone slowly dissolved, and is currently defunct. Unfortunately, these towns were not as successful as the government had hoped for a multitude of reasons, namely economics. Today, just over half the Bedouin population - roughly 100,000 people - lives in these towns, but there is little impetus for more people to move into them, as the economic situation is so poor. In 2020, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics ranked local authorities in Israel on a socioeconomic index; the seven government-established Bedouin towns were the seven lowest authorities on the list. For reference, the closest Jewish town in the Negev, Yeroham, is ranked over 60 places higher on the index. On top of that, Talal al-Krinawy, mayor of Rahat - the largest of the seven towns - has said that there are very few job opportunities within and around the towns, leading to little to no economic growth or success for their residents. There is also a significant lack of infrastructure within these towns; there is no public transportation, no official sewage system, and schools to this day are lacking basic necessities.
Aside from the original seven Bedouin towns, there are five other agrarian-zoned government-sanctioned towns, as well as eleven recognized villages. This is the only land that the government acknowledges belongs to the Bedouin people. Although the eleven villages were recognized around twenty years ago, very little has changed in terms of quality of infrastructure and government aid.
Today, there are roughly 45 unrecognized villages in the Negev. Lack of government recognition causes a lot of difficulties for residents of these villages; there is essentially no infrastructure to speak of, including water, sewage, and education. None of these villages are on the power grid, meaning all their electricity, if any, comes from decades-old diesel generators known to release carcinogens. The current Israeli policy regarding unrecognized villages is housing demolition. Community members of unrecognized villages are unable to build or repair structures on their land, because the government has zoned it for other uses and will not grant construction permits to the Bedouin living there; instead, the government systematically demolishes Bedouin structures on unrecognized land. Due to the lack of incentive to move to recognized land, between cultural differences between tribes, and less-than-optimal living conditions on the government-recognized land, the Bedouin living in unrecognized villages continue to undergo and endure these conditions.
Although the Israeli government refuses to recognize the majority of Bedouin land, the state still knows it exists. When Bedouin communities reach out to the government to negotiate recognition of their land, historically the deal has been that Israel receives half the land directly, then buys 30% of the remaining land and pays the Bedouin for it, then the Bedouin receive the remaining 20% of the land. This remaining 20% is not all fit for farming, as it typically has either military or other government allotments on it, meaning the Bedouin are not free to use this government-granted land as they please.