• Indigenous peoples in Israel

    Indigenous peoples in Israel

    Bedouins are the indigenous people of Israel. Their indigenous status is not officially recognised by the State of Israel and the Bedouins are politically, socially, economically and culturally marginalised from the rest of the Israeli population, especially challenged in terms of forced displacement.
  • Peoples

    150,000 Bedouins live in seven townships and 11 villages that have been “recognized” over the last decade
  • Rights

    2007: Israel was absent in the vote on the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Conditions

    75,000 Bedouins live in 35 “unrecognized villages”, which lack basic services and infrastructure

Indigenous World 2020: Israel

Israel’s Arab Bedouin citizens are indigenous to the Negev (Naqab, in Arabic) desert, where they have lived for centuries as a semi-nomadic people, long before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Members of the Bedouin community are an integral part of the Arab Palestinian minority, as well as citizens of the State of Israel. Combining herding with agriculture, they are settled in villages linked by kinship (tribes) systems, and this has largely determined land ownership. Prior to 1948, about 65-100 thousand Bedouin lived in the Naqab. After 1948, most were expelled or fled to Gaza, Egypt, West Bank and Jordan, with only about 11,000 remaining in the area.

During the early 1950s and until 1966, Israel concentrated the Bedouin in a restricted area, known by the name “al-Siyāj”, under military administration, representing only about 10% of their original ancestral land. During this period, entire villages were displaced from their locations in the western and northern Naqab and their people were transferred to the Siyāj area.1

Today, about 258,500 Bedouin citizens of Israel live in the Naqab in three types of localities: government-planned townships, recognised villages, and villages that Israel refuses to recognise (unrecognised villages).2 There are 35 unrecognised Bedouin villages in the Naqab that Israel refers to either as  the “dispersion” or as “illegal villages”, calling their inhabitants “trespassers” on state land and “criminals”.3 Most of the Bedouin population lost their land when Israel declared it as Mawat (“dead”, uncultivated agricultural lands) and reclaimed them as state lands.4 In addition, the Land Purchasing Law of 1953 determined that any land not found in its owners’ right  in April 1952 in certain areas would become state land, resulting in more Bedouin losing all rights to their lands outside their living area.5 There was no exception made for the Naqab Bedouin who were forcefully evicted from their ancestral lands by the very same Israeli government that went on to become the “rightful” guardian of those homesteads. The Planning and Building Law enacted in 1965 led to the classification of most of the Siyāj area as agricultural land. From the moment the lawcame into effect, every house built in this area was defined as illegal and all the houses and structures already standing in the area were retroactively declared as illegal.6

Since the beginning of the 1970s, Israel has been conducting an ongoing non-consensual and non-participatory process of urbanisation. As a result, today according to the CBS – Central Bureau of Statistics – more than 72% of the Bedouin population in the Naqab reside in recognised townships and villages that are characterised by poverty, deprivation, high unemployment, crime and social tension, as well as inadequate provision of state services.7 In addition to the seven townships, the state recognised 11 Bedouin villages from 1999 onwards,8 hailing their recognition as a fundamental shift in governmental policy, which had previously focused exclusively on forced urbanisation. However, almost two decades later, there is no significant difference between these villages and the unrecognised villages. The residents of most recognised villages continue to be denied access of basic services and are under constant threat of house demolitions.9 The remaining 28% of the Bedouin population (around 90,000 people) live in unrecognised villages10 that do not appear on any official map and most of which contain no health and educational facilities or basic infrastructure. Their residents have no formal local governmental bodies and are represented only in The Regional Council for the Unrecognised Villages (RCUV), an informal community body.

Mechanisms of forced displacement

In 2019, Israel continued to promote its policy of dispossession through its national “development” projects. These include:

  • the expansion of Ramat Beka Special Industrial Zone, resulting in severe construction restrictions that may lead to the forcible transfer of part of the Bedouin population and result in health risks to the remaining Bedouin residents;11
  • the extension of Road 6, expected to result in the demolition of around 600 Bedouin structures across at least nine unrecognised villages, possibly including 350 homes;12
  • the establishment of a phosphate mine in Sdeh-Barir that is expected to result in the demolition of more than 1,995 buildings and endanger the health of approximately 11,000 Bedouin residents living in the area;13
  • and the creation of two new railway lines, planned to cut through several Bedouin villages –including the two Bedouin townships of Ksīfih and ʿArʿarah an-Nagab, as well as several unrecognised villages that include az-Zaʿarūrah, al-Furʿah, al-Bḥīrah, al-Gaṭāmā, al-Ġazzah and Rakhamah, which will be cut in half – causing significant upheaval and land 14

Part of the contentious nature of these plans is the perception that authorities crafted the proposals to cause maximum possible upheaval for Bedouin communities, for example extending Route 6 through Bedouin communities despite the excess of open, unpopulated land available for the project.15

On 6 October 2019 the Authority for the Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev (hereinafter: Bedouin Authority) made public their plan for ‘Temporary Housing Solutions and Public Buildings for the Bedouin Population in the Negev’. This plan is said to allow for the rehousing of Bedouin people living in unrecognised villages to facilitate the construction of the national projects. However, these plans are more accurately seen as feeding into the centralisation, forced urbanisation and forced transfer of Bedouin people, moving them to temporary accommodation on the outskirts of the recognised townships and councils. Given the inadequate provision of basic services even within recognised villages and townships,16 the habitability of the proposed temporary houses is doubtful. This unsuitability, as well as the indefinite period for which people would have to live there, means that it is likely that these plans would result in the internal displacement of 100,000 people17 across the Naqab region, where civil society, and the heads of all Bedouin cities, local and regional councils have objected to the plans.18

International intervention: unresolved land claims, exclusion from decision making and home demolitions

On 1 May 2019, six UN Special Rapporteurs wrote to the State of Israel with concerns about the treatment of Bedouin communities.19 Their statement expressed concern particularly with the incarceration of Sheikh Sayah Abu Madhi’m al-Turi and subjecting him to both civil and criminal sentences.20 He was released from prison on 23 July 2019 and re-arrested two days later for trespassing, but was released again that same day. They also expressed doubt that the state took all necessary steps to avoid evicting Bedouin people and concerns at the high number of demolitions. As a result, they requested information to show how they collaborated with and consulted the affected communities before proceeding with the programmes.21

The conclusions of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, published in November 2019, expressed concern about the number of unresolved Bedouin land claims and the absence of consultation of Bedouin people in the formation of the Socioeconomic Development Plan for Negev Bedouin, 2017-2021 (2017). They also expressed concern at reports of the eviction and relocation of Bedouin people in the Naqab and the substandard living condition in both recognised and unrecognised villages, “characterised by very limited access to adequate housing, water and sanitation facilities, electricity and public transportation”. 22 As a result of their concerns, the Committee called for the State to improve their efforts to resolve pending land claims, consult the affected Bedouin communities on the implementation of the Socioeconomic Development Plan, stop the evictions of Bedouin people from their ancestral land, recognise the unrecognised villages, and improve the living conditions and infrastructure across all Bedouin communities in the Naqab.23 The state has yet to engage with these concerns and recommendations.

The concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination raise similar points. Their conclusions published in December 2019 refer to the high number of demolitions of Bedouin property, as well as the exclusion of Bedouin people from the consultation process in formulating the Socioeconomic Development Plan and the substandard living conditions in both recognised and unrecognised villages.24 The Committee calls for the unrecognised villages to be recognised, the resolution of pending land claims and an end to the evictions of Bedouin people from their ancestral land.25 The committee have requested the state provide a report one year after its adoption of these conclusions to provide information on its work to implement these recommendations.26

The rising trend of demolitions

Though data has not yet been released for demolitions inflicted against Bedouin communities in 2019, the damaging, rising trend has continued since 2018. There was a 5% increase in the overall number of demolitions in 2018, rising to 2,326 buildings, 604 of which were homes. The scale of this problem is particularly evident when seen as a trend, which represents a staggering 334% increase in the number of demolitions since 2013, according to figures released by the Southern Administration for the Coordination of the Enforcement of Land Laws.27 Of these demolitions, 89% were self-inflicted; conducted due to constant enforcement and police presence, as well as fear of severe economic and civil sanctions.28

This rising trend must also be seen in the context of recent legislative measures aimed to increase enforcement and sentencing for planning offences. One of these is the 2017 Kaminitz Law, designed to increase the enforcement and penalisation of offences under Israeli planning law.29 This was also accompanied in June 2018 by the adoption of new regulations which increased the fine for violations of the Planning and Building Law, as well as removing judicial oversight from the process.30 These have increased the likelihood of unrecognised Bedouin buildings being identified and demolished, as well as the punishment of their owners. In 2018, a quarter of demolitions done by the owner of a building were classed as ‘demolitions performed in process’31 – those carried out by the owner prior to receiving an official order but often while an official order is being processed. In some of these cases, the demolition was probable and so by demolishing the building before being ordered to, the owner can avoid the humiliation, fear and cost incurred in an initiated (state-conducted) demolition.32 These demolitions are forcing Bedouins into increasingly concentrated, urban areas, removing them from their ancestral lands, replaced with land that is culturally incompatible and consists of unsuitable living conditions. Increased demolitions mark the rising pressure on the Bedouin community and the deterioration of relations between the state and Bedouin communities.

Denial of indigeneity

The State of Israel has continued to refute the notion of Bedouins as an indigenous group. This is in the face of overwhelming academic and international opinion, including that expressed by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the UN Human Rights Council. Moreover, two previous UN Special Rapporteurs for indigenous peoples have supported Bedouin indigenous claims.33 Refusing to recognise their indigenous status harms the Bedouin community in a range of ways. This denial is used to defend the policy of claiming Bedouin ancestral land as state land, as well as justifying the eviction and transfer of Bedouin people and concentrating them in urban areas around recognised villages. Additionally, excluding Bedouin people from the category of ‘indigenous people’ means they are not afforded the protection offered to other indigenous groups by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), which details indigenous rights over land, settlement, resources, culture and identity.34

The state’s continued failure to recognise Bedouin indigeneity is then deeply significant, not just by undermining their land claims, but also by “manifest[ing] in the denial of basic services, home demolitions, recurring waves of State violence, and the omission of such villages from official documents and maps.”35 Improvements in relations between the state and Bedouin communities, as well as the future improvement of life for Bedouin communities, hinges on the state’s eventual concession to the weight of academic evidence and strength of international opinion in support of recognising the Bedouin people as an indigenous group.

General outlook for 2020

The national ‘development’ projects are set to progress despite attempts to prevent them, so there are expectations of significant displacement, demolitions and evictions in the coming years. Although the proposed Sde Barir phosphate mine near Arad is currently on hold until a survey into its health effects can be conducted, once this survey is completed and its findings are published, there will be a further opportunity to engage with authorities with an aim to prevent its construction.

There were last minute negotiations before new national elections were called in which support for a government was requested on the back of a pledge to repeal the Kaminitz Law.36 Although no agreement was reached, the question of freezing this law has been established as something for the next Knesset to consider, following the elections in March 2020. This could well provide an opportunity to improve the status quo and strengthen the relationship between the state and Bedouin communities. The temporary housing project proposal is still in early days, and so more information about its scale and its impact should become clear over the coming year. Currently, these plans are not going through but we are worried that they will be promoted through different outline plans in the local, regional and national planning committees.

Notes and references
  1. “The Arab-Bedouin Community in the Negev-Nagab – A Short Background”. Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, accessed 17 February 2020: https://www.dukium.org/the-arab-bedouin-community-in-the-negev-nagab-a- short-background/
  2. CBS, Localities and Population, by District, Sub-District, Religion and Population Group (2.15), 31 December
  3. For an interactive map of the Arab Bedouin Villages in the Negev-Naqab, including background and information on services and infrastructure, see https://www.dukium.org/map/
  4. For example, see: http://law.haifa.ac.il/images/documents/pdf
  5. See Adalah https://www.adalah.org/en/law/view/533
  6. See the NCF Report on demolitions, June 2019, 6, for more details, available at: https://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Demolition-Report- Eng.2018-1.pdf
  7. Cit. (1)
  8. Cit. (6)
  9. See the NCF and Adalah’s report to UN CERD, January 2019, 2, available at: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download. aspx?symbolno=INT%2fCERD%2fNGO%2fISR%2f37260&Lang=en
  10. CBS, Total population estimations in localities, their population and other information,
  11. Cit. (6) Page 21.
  12. Cit. (6)
  13. Cit. (6) Page 21.
  14. For more details of these projects and their implications for the Bedouin community see NCF and Adalah report, 2019, ‘Joint NGO Report: UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Re: List of Issues for the State of Israel Violations of the ICESCR by Israel against the Arab Bedouin in the Negev/Naqab desert’
  15. Op. Cit. (6) Page 18-19.
  16. This lack of adequate provisions was acknowledged in: UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 2019, ‘Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of Israel’.
  17. See NCF submission to the UN CERD, November 2019, available at: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download. aspx?symbolno=INT%2fCERD%2fNGO%2fISR%2f39638&Lang=en
  18. For more detail on the proposal and its impacts, as well as the doubts about the habitability of the temporary accommodation, see Adalah reoprt, December 2019, available at: https://www.adalah.org/uploads/uploads/Adalah_Position_pdf
  19. Special Procedure Internal Communication of the Human Rights Council, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHR), 1 May 2019: https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/ DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=24545
  20. Ibid
  21. Ibid
  22. E/C.12/ISR/CO/4, 12 November 2019, 4. Available at: https://www.un.org/ unispal/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/E.C.12.ISR_.CO_.4-3.pdf
  23. Ibid
  24. See the conclusions of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD/C/ISR/CO/17-19, page 6, paragraph 28.
  25. Ibid, paragraph
  26. Ibid, page. 10, paragraph
  27. Cit. (6)
  28. Cit. (6)
  29. Cit. (6), Page 16
  30. Cit. (6) Page 17
  31. See the NCF Report on demolitions, June 2019, for more details (page 22), available at: https://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Demolition- Report-Eng.2018-1.pdf
  32. See IWGIA Indigenous World 2019 for details of each demolition type
  33. For detail of the academic and international support for Bedouin claims to Indigeneity see Adalah and NCF, 2019, ‘Joint NGO Report: UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Re: List of Issues for the State of Israel Violations of the ICESCR by Israel against the Arab Bedouin in the Negev/Naqab desert’, available at: https://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/PDF-NGO-Report-Adalah-NCF-to-the-UN.pdf
  34. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,
  35. Adalah and NCF, 2019, ‘Joint NGO Report: UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Re: List of Issues for the State of Israel Violations of the ICESCR by Israel against the Arab Bedouin in the Negev/Naqab desert’: https:// dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/PDF-NGO-Report-Adalah-NCF- to-the-UN.pdf
  36. “Blue & White to Joint List: Will repeal law on illegal building”. Israel National News, 22 September 2019: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News. aspx/269221

The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF) was established in 1997 to provide a space for Arab-Jewish shared society in the struggle for civil equality and the advancement of mutual tolerance and coexistence in the Negev/Naqab. NCF is unique in being the only Arab-Jewish organization that remains focused solely on the problems confronting the Negev/Naqab area. NCF considers that the State of Israel is failing to respect, protect and fulfill its human rights obligations, without discrimination, towards the Arab Bedouin indigenous communities in the Negev/Naqab. As a result, NCF has set one of its goals as the achievement of full civil rights and equality for all people who make the Negev/Naqab their home.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here


IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. The Indigenous World 2019.

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