Israel continues to struggle in dealing with the unregulated settlements and growing lawlessness among Bedouin in the Negev Desert.

Videos of Bedouin shooting illegal weapons and driving in Jeeps have spread over social media in recent months, shocking the Israeli public.

“Bedouins all over the Middle East usually reject any kind of statehood, since the Bedouin mindset is totally different from the modern state way of thinking,” Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a leading scholar on Arab culture, told JNS.

“The state has the choice between appeasing the Bedouin and coercing them to obey the state law,” said Kedar. “Bedouin in Israel are not different. Israel usually tries to appease them, but sometimes, it has no choice but to force them to obey the law.”

Historically, Bedouin in Israel have been pragmatic and non-ideological, though they have also been associated with local thievery, settling on unauthorized land and tapping into government water lines. Several hundred serve in the Israeli army, using their innate skills as trackers, and most are hospitable when visited. But in recent years, a sector of younger Bedouin men have become radicalized by the infiltration of the Islamic Movement and by the co-option of land disputes by Israeli Arab politicians, activists and supporting NGOs.

These anti-Israel actors are trying to bring the Israel-Palestinian conflict to the Bedouin in the Negev, making the conflict much more difficult to solve.

On a more positive note, Israel closed a compensation deal to evacuate the residents of the illegal village of Umm al-Hiran. Could this be a model for the removal of the hundreds of other illegal villages and construction sites in the Negev?

Agreements for evacuation and relocation

Israel has been trying unsuccessfully for years to regularize the Bedouin villages in the Negev through compromise, yet radical Arab forces and NGOs have come and taken a hard line on the Bedouins’ behalf. The State Comptroller report of May 2016 estimated that around 200,000 Bedouin live in illegal villages, a number that is most likely even higher today.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the state could demolish the scattered shacks that made up Umm al-Hiran to make way for the building of a Jewish town, but the evacuation got violent in January of 2017 when forces had to move in because residents refused to comply with the law and leave. A local Bedouin killed Staff Sgt. Maj. Erez Levi, 34, in what Israeli authorities called a car-ramming attack, though locals called an accident. The police shot and killed the Bedouin driver, and an investigation was opened.

Amichai Yogev, southern director of the NGO Regavim—describing itself as seeking to ensure a responsible, legal and accountable use of the country’s land and other resources—told JNS that the government is scheduled to evacuate Umm al-Hiran by the end of August.

Asked if Regavim supports the deal, he responded: “Until we see the details of the deal, we won’t know how enthusiastically to support it. The question is what did the state promise them?”

The problem with offering a generous agreement would be to set a precedent, with Bedouin living in illegal villages seeking to use the agreement with Umm al-Hiran as the starting point in future negotiations.

Nonetheless, Yogev went on to point out “the fact that there was an agreement with Bedouin to voluntarily evacuate an illegal village is a success, and this will hopefully pave the way for many more relocation agreements.”

As for the illegal construction that he continues to monitor, Yogev noted that the Bedouin build illegally and quickly. “They know how to work around the law.” He estimates that only some 25 percent of the illegal construction is caught and destroyed by the authorities.

Incorporating the idea of the ‘carrot’ and the ‘stick’

Yair Maayan, head of the Bedouin Development and Settlement Authority in the Negev, is responsible for negotiating deals with the Bedouin in the unrecognized villages and facilitating their relocation on land granted by the state. Maayan told me last March that he is optimistic in the government’s ability to evacuate all illegal villages and persuade Bedouin to move into legal modern villages within six to eight years.

“The state will not give up on this issue and is doubling the number of inspectors,” he said at the time. He did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Yogev said, “Yair Maayan cannot do everything alone. He can make deals with the Bedouin and prepare new land for them to go to, but if no agreements are reached, what can he do?”

That is why, according to Regavim’s expert on this issue, Israeli authorities “must work together with him in order to evacuate and relocate the residents of illegal settlements.”

In other words, there must be a “stick”—uncompromising law enforcement and evacuation of illegal villages—to back up the “carrot” of generous relocation deals, asserted Yogev.

The reason that Umm al-Hiran residents agreed to a deal is because they saw that the state was serious and fully intended to destroy the unrecognized village, continued Yogev, adding that Umm al-Hiran is a good model to follow.

Salim Abu Al-Kian, member of the committee of the unrecognized villages of Umm al-Hiran and Atir, told JNS that what he called “military rule” in the Negev is causing the Bedouin “worry” and “feelings of racism,” going on to add that “the situation is not good.”

Despite the government deal with Umm al-Hiran, Al-Kian complained that the agreement has not yet been carried out.

Asked if this deal could be replicated throughout the Negev in other unrecognized villages, he responded that “it won’t work. The deals cannot be done elsewhere,” noting that the situation in Umm al-Hiran was unique.

“The state is treating us poorly, and the situation is getting worse,” stated Al-Kian. “The state institutions view the Bedouin as the enemy.”

Bedouin wedding celebrants shoot M-16s in the air on an Israeli road. (Source: screen capture)

A need to enforce law and order

Yogev, whose job entails monitoring and documenting the illegal construction throughout southern Israel, said the general situation in the Negev seems to be anarchy when it comes to the Bedouin sector.

Asked about the recent videos of heavily armed Bedouin firing at random from moving Jeeps, which are reminiscent of videos taken in Syria or Libya, Yogev replied that the police are not a formidable presence in the area. They are preoccupied with drug and traffic offenses, and have not been able to address other issues, he said.

“If they really want to bring order to the Negev,” suggests Yogev, “they will have to bring heavy police and military reinforcements to the area.”