In the early 1950s, the Bedouin population of the Negev was a little over 10,000. Today, 70 years later, there are almost 300,000 Bedouins in the Negev. Alongside infiltration into Israel, primarily in the years after its establishment, this astounding increase is the result of unprecedented natural growth—in Middle Eastern terms as well. Israel’s Bedouin population has doubled every 15 years.
In 1951, there were 12,700 Bedouin. Twenty years later, in 1970, there were 25,000. In 1980, that number stood at 37,000 and by 2000, it had reached 120,000.
Successive Israeli governments allowed and even encouraged this natural growth and it is, therefore, their creation and something they can be proud of. They allowed polygamy, in which each Bedouin man can marry several women. They allowed Israeli Bedouin to marry women, or should I say girls, from Gaza and the Hebron Hills, where dowries are ridiculously low. Finally, they granted generous benefits that encouraged family cells that comprised a man, a few women and dozens of children. It’s no wonder that the cuts in child benefits at the end of 2002 led to a dramatic decline in the birth rate among the Bedouin, from about 10 children per woman to five.
Israel is not the only country in the region dealing with a challenge that is in its essence demographic, but which also integrates tensions between an itinerant, wandering population that tends to be rebellious and a modern state that wishes to impose its will upon them and integrate them into the fabric of society. This was the case in Syria, where the Bedouin tribes took an active role in the protests that erupted against the Syrian regime in 2011. And this is the case in Jordan, where the Bedouin, while being the backbone of the Hashemite regime, have in recent decades also instigated, again and again, protests over their economic situation.
Just as in other countries in the region, the government of Israel has failed in dealing with the Bedouin of the Negev. It has not succeeded—perhaps it is a lost cause—to provide housing solutions, employment and, before all of that, an education system that will take Bedouin children out of the cycle of poverty. This before we have even mentioned the lack of governance and absence of law enforcement.
It seems that of Israel’s politicians, only the late Moshe Arens, in his various positions, among them defense minister, was attentive to voices from the ground. In the 1980s and 1990s, he called for increased integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society and for them to be enlisted into the Israel Defense Forces, but his was a lone voice in the desert, and nothing was done. In the meantime, the Bedouin were abandoned to the influence of the Islamic Movement and in particular to that of the radical Northern Branch. They also adopted a Palestinian identity that was alien to them when the state was established.
Thus, when one does not open nursery schools and classrooms, when one does not provide employment and housing, and when one does not make sure to maintain governability and the presence of the state institutions in the Negev, at the end of the day, one harvests a storm.
But there is no need to give up. A policy that combines law enforcement and governability alongside providing a true response to the economic and social distress of the Bedouin population is the solution—but the time has passed for lofty declarations and plans left in drawers. Now is the time for deeds—before it is too late.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.