SEATTLE, Washington — Hailing from the southern desert of modern-day Israel-Palestine, the Negev Bedouin are a semi-nomadic Arab ethnic group who have inhabited the region for hundreds of years. With over 200,000 now living in the state of Israel, the Negev Bedouin are among the most impoverished demographic groups in the region. Bedouin poverty rates consistently exceed national and subnational averages across the Middle East.
The Bedouin have long practiced a heavily tribal and nomadic lifestyle, a hallmark of their unique culture and history. However, with the establishment of modern Israel, the state coerced tens of thousands of Bedouins to settle into planned towns and abandon their traditions in the hope of modernizing and concentrating the population.
As of 2020, approximately half of Israel’s Bedouins live in planned townships, while the remainder obstinately holds on to their ancestral villages scattered throughout the Negev desert. Israel refuses to recognize the vast majority of these 45 Bedouin villages, labeling them illegal and illegitimate.
Today, the Bedouins of the Negev, whether in planned townships or unrecognized villages, are all too familiar with poverty as a way of life.
Israeli Policy Toward the Bedouin
A welfare office in the Negev has estimated that a staggering 85% of all Negev Bedouin live below the poverty line, a stark contrast to the national average of only 20%. These drastic rates of Bedouin poverty in Israel have largely been due to state-enforced practices.
By pronouncing the dozens of traditional Bedouin villages as illegal, the government has refused to supply these settlements with any state-provided infrastructure or facilities, including electricity, running water, roads or sewage systems. This lack of basic services has given rise to extreme poverty and stunted growth in living standards for tens of thousands of Negev Bedouins.
Israel’s policies have also resulted in the repeated razing of Bedouin structures and confiscation of land on the basis that these villages are illegitimate.
From 2010 to 2020, state forces demolished the Bedouin village of al-Araqib more than 170 times, rendering its population utterly impoverished. In addition to facing the threat of razing and eviction, Bedouin inhabitants of these villages are also forced to pay for the expenses of these demolitions.
Bedouin Poverty in State-Built Townships
While the scores of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev have been afflicted by poverty and threats of eviction, the state-built townships exhibit extreme levels of poverty as well. These towns and urban areas consistently rank among the lowest in Israel in terms of nearly all socioeconomic conditions.
The state considers townships a largely unsuccessful project, as they have few commercial or industrial zones making employment opportunities few and far between. An estimated 87% of Bedouin women in these urban areas are unemployed, exacerbating the impoverished status of many Bedouin families.
With dense populations and little opportunity, these townships are all but neglected by the state and have an unemployment rate more than double the national average, leaving them as cradles of poverty.
Combatting Bedouin Poverty
In the past few decades, a number of NGOs have worked to protect Negev Bedouin communities and alleviate the poverty within them.
These include Adalah, a rights organization representing Arabs and Palestinians within Israel, and Rabbis for Human Rights, a group of over 100 Israeli rabbis that have taken action on the issue. These NGOs have received funding from a variety of sources, including the EU and European governments.
Another prominent group working in Bedouin communities is A New Dawn in the Negev. Hoping to foster Bedouin-Jewish cooperation, the organization aims to “promote education, employment and leadership,” with the goal of helping Bedouin youth rise from poverty and engage in society.
A New Dawn in the Negev has led various initiatives, including classes for employment training and efforts to provide education for Bedouin youth in Rahat, the largest of the planned townships.
While poverty is very much still a reality for the hundreds of thousands of Bedouin that inhabit the Negev of Israel-Palestine, work by people and organizations alike continues to make valuable progress on the issue. The hope is that a society that was once entirely self-sufficient and proudly independent may one day be able to rise from the poverty that now impairs it.
– Shayaan Subzwari