The crowded room felt like a sauna, a natural effect of the scorching sun hitting the tin roof and the lack of a fan or air conditioner to ease the desert heat. Everyone was talking about the “Wine Route,” the Israeli government’s plan for a series of farms and wineries designed to draw tourists to the Negev, and the latest insult to its marginalized Bedouin population.
“It is high time to strategize,” one person said. “There is no way to oppose it,” another responded. This heated discussion went on for several minutes until people began settling down on the mats and pillows adorning the concrete floor.
The meeting’s organizer, a coordinator from the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, asked our hosts to speak. One after another, the Bedouin men stood up to relate their personal stories. They all told of the state-sanctioned abuse carried out against their community. Injustice followed injustice to produce a merciless tale of expulsion, violence, repression and deception.
Ali Abu Sheita recounted how his parents had been torn from their tribal land and transferred to a barren region where for years they had had to walk fifteen kilometers with their camels and donkeys just to bring water to the village. Yet in the Jewish village nearby, Abu Sheita continued, pipes delivered water directly to every sink. Halil al-Aseiby pointed to the high-voltage electric poles just outside the shack, emphasizing the regulation that forbids “unrecognized Bedouins” from connecting their homes to the power grid. “Even people who need to keep life-saving medicine refrigerated do not receive an exception,” he said. Another man suddenly waved a demolition order that was pasted on his “illegal” shack on April 25. “Any day now,” he said, “the bulldozers might arrive.”
These Bedouins are Israeli citizens just as I am; their only crime is that they are not Jewish.
Bedouins are the indigenous people of Israel’s arid Negev Desert. Before the establishment of the State of Israel, approximately 60,000 Bedouins lived in the area, but following the 1948 war only 11,000 or so remained; the rest fled or were expelled to Jordan and Egypt. Under the directives of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, those who remained in Israel were uprooted from the lands they had inhabited and were concentrated in the northeastern part of the Negev, a mostly barren area known as the “enclosure zone,” while the more fertile western part of the Negev was reserved for Jewish settlement.
Throughout the 1950s and until the mid-1960s, a considerable portion of their ancestral lands was confiscated and registered as state land. In the 1970s about half of the Bedouin population was moved once again by the Israeli government, this time into seven townships. The idea was to concentrate the Bedouin population within a small area that makes up only a very small percentage of their original tribal lands, the land from which they had been expelled. These Bedouins had to give up all claims to their ancestral land in order to be granted the dubious privilege of living in these overcrowded townships.
The remaining half of the Bedouin population, which today totals about 75,000 people, were unwilling to give up their property rights and are now scattered across the Negev in forty-five villages that have never been recognized by the state.