• 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

The Indigenous World 2021: 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, some 65-100,000 Bedouin lived in the Naqab. After 1948, most were expelled or fled to Gaza, Egypt, the West Bank and Jordan, with only approx. 11,000 remaining in the area.

During the early 1950s and until 1966, Israel concentrated the Bedouin into a restricted area, known by the name of “al-Siyāj”, under military administration, representing only around 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, some 258,500 Bedouin citizens of Israel live in the Naqab, in three types of location: 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 it as state land.[4] The land that belonged to those Bedouin who became refugees, as well as much of the land owned by the Bedouin who remained in Israel, was appropriated and nationalized by way of a number of laws, including the Absentee Property Law (1950)[5] and the Land Acquisition Act (1953).[6]

There was no exception made for the Naqab Bedouin, who were forcibly 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 law came 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 illegal.[7]

Since the beginning of the 1970s, Israel has been conducting an ongoing non-consensual and non-participatory urbanisation process. As a result, according to the CBS (Central Bureau of Statistics), more than 72% of the Bedouin population in the Naqab today 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.[8] In addition to the seven townships, the state recognised 11 Bedouin villages from 1999 onwards,[9] hailing their recognition as a fundamental shift in government policy, which had previously focused exclusively on forced urbanisation. Two decades later, however, there is no significant difference between these villages and the unrecognised villages. The residents of most recognised villages continue to be denied access to basic services and are under constant threat of house demolitions.[10] The remaining 28% of the Bedouin population (around 90,000 people) live in unrecognised villages[11] that do not appear on any official map and most of which contain no health or educational facilities or basic infrastructure. Their residents have no formal local government bodies and are represented only in the Regional Council for the Unrecognised Villages (RCUV), an informal community body.


Mechanisms of forced displacement during the COVID-19 crisis

In 2020, 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 will lead to the forcible transfer of around 1,200 families and result in health risks to the remaining Bedouin residents;[12]
  • the extension of Road 6, expected to result in the demolition of around 600 Bedouin structures across at least nine unrecognised villages;[13]
  • the establishment of a phosphate mine in Sdeh-Barir (which is expected to result in the demolition of more than 1,995 buildings and endanger the health of approximately 11,000 Bedouin residents) is currently on hold with a conditional order of two years; the state needs to explain why health implications and effects have not been taken into consideration. If that order were to become permanent, then its construction could be prevented. A hearing in the Supreme Court is scheduled for 23 February 2021 to review the status of the order;[14]
  • 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, including az-Zaʿarūrah, al-Furʿah, al-Bḥīrah, al-Gaṭāmā, al-Ġazzah and Rakhamah, that will be cut in half – causing significant upheaval and land seizures.[15]

Israel’s use of demolitions as a mechanism for the forced displacement of the Bedouin population in the Negev/Naqab has continued despite the pandemic, violating the right to adequate housing recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948[16] and in the ICESCR in 1966.[17] Tens of thousands of Bedouins in the Negev/Naqab currently live in homes that are subject to demolition orders due to the lack of approved building schemes for their villages, both recognised and unrecognised. In the case of the dozens of Bedouin villages in the Negev/Naqab that are unrecognised, they remain without approved building schemes, and without the possibility of applying for or receiving building permits, for as long as the Israeli government continues to define them as illegal villages.

Since March 2020, and in spite of the state of emergency and the government’s instruction to stay at home,[18] the authorities continued to distribute demolition orders and plough up hundreds of acres of fields in over a dozen Bedouin villages, both recognised and unrecognised by the state. This illustrates the continuation of the policies implemented in 2019, with a large investment of resources in enforcement, and which led to the demolition of some 2,241 structures during that year.[19]

In response to the request of civil society organisations[20] and a Bedouin Member of the Knesset, Mr. Saeed Al- Kharumi, the Ministry of Justice undertook to halt the demolition of residential structures in the Naqab, reduce administrative demolition orders and minimise direct contact between the National Unit for Enforcing Planning and Construction Laws and the population during the COVID-19 crisis.

Between March and December 2020, NCF continued to monitor the situation, documenting over 85 incidents in which the enforcement authorities continued to distribute demolition warrants and execute demolitions, as well as interrogate livestock farmers and issue fines to herders, mainly for the purpose of harassment.[21] This and more - residents of the villages informed NCF that many inspectors and police officers were patrolling the villages and interacting with the population without taking any of the precautions required to prevent people from spreading the virus. As noted above, these enforcement measures, which are effective in driving the populace to destroy their own property, can and do cause extreme duress, especially during a pandemic.[22]

The rising trend in demolitions

Although data has not yet been released for the demolitions inflicted on Bedouin communities in 2020, the harmful rising trend has continued since 2019, even during the COVID-19 crisis.

There was a slight decrease in the number of building demolitions in 2019, 3.65% fewer than in 2018 (from 2,326 to 2,241), of which 30% (655) were being used as dwellings. The trend in demolitions performed by the owners of the structures (hereinafter “Self-demolitions”) continued, amounting to 88% of all structures demolished.[23] Another significant figure is the 146% increase in the number of demolitions undertaken by the owners of structures before any demolition order has been issued - 736 structures in 2019 (33% of all demolitions) compared to 299 structures in 2018.[24] These numbers reflect the individual decisions made by the Arab Bedouin residents to demolish their own residential homes to prevent the replication of former traumatic experiences that involved the violent presence of the police and law enforcement officers.

This rising trend must also be seen in the context of legislative measures determined by the 2017 Kaminitz Law designed to increase the enforcement and penalisation of offences under Israeli planning law.[25] This was also accompanied by the adoption of new regulations (in June 2018) that increased the fines for violations of the Planning and Building Law, as well as removing judicial oversight from the process.[26] These have increased the pressure on the Arab Bedouin residents to demolish their own structures because of the threat of receiving high fines.

Through judicial orders, heavy administrative fines, the constant presence of supervisors and police officers in the field, and the use of drones the enforcement bodies have contributed to increasing the element of intimidation and threat to Bedouin residents in order to bring them to “agreements” with the Authority for Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev (hereinafter “Bedouin Authority”) against their will. These mechanisms are ordained by the Bedouin Authority's priorities and serve “as an incentive... to reach evacuation agreements with the residents.”[27]

The State of Israel is using all means at its disposal to concentrate the Bedouin community in large, crowded townships and against the wishes of most members of the community, rather than negotiating fairly to resolve the issue of Bedouin land ownership and settlement. In practice, there is no obstacle to reaching a solution agreed upon by all, one that respects the wishes of the Bedouin population and the aspirations of the state. Dispossession and a policy of aggressive and violent negotiation, including the use of enforcement tools and demolition of homes, will not lead to such a solution. The use of demolitions in the Bedouin communities of the Naqab has devastating consequences, including the disintegration of the community’s social structure and a decline in levels of authority, together with feelings of fear and distrust of the state and the authorities acting on its behalf.

Insufficient basic services and emergency response during the pandemic

Arab Bedouin students from the Naqab were harshly affected by the pandemic since the government’s decision to switch to remote learning was not accompanied by the required infrastructure needed to continue with online lessons.[28] The Bedouin population has little access to the Internet, and there are difficulties in connecting due to lack of electricity and wireless connection – this is the case in most Bedouin villages and townships.

The proportion of households connected to the Internet in Bedouin localities is only 34%[29] and, in the unrecognised villages, where there is no basic infrastructure for an Internet connection, they are forced to rely on the mobile network. This is also not a real solution, however, since there is no mobile reception at all in many unrecognised villages, while reception in the rest is only partial. The residents are thus not able to connect and most of them lack computers and devices with Internet access. In many communities, access to television or mobile services is also limited. As a result of the crisis, many services and much information was provided online – however, the lack of basic services prevented them from accessing this valuable information, receiving their benefits and allowances, applying for unemployment benefit, and more. Furthermore, there was an opportunity for the government to provide computing devices to every student in need but that plan turned out to be unsuccessful.[30]

There is much concern that many of the students will drop out because of the gaps in access to education and communication. There will apparently be a very significant drop out of Arab Bedouin students in the Naqab – 52% of Arab students are thinking of dropping their studies because the online learning is almost impossible for them to maintain and the university fees are too high for them to afford at the moment.[31] According to the evaluation of Dr. Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder, the inability of the state to provide timely solutions will result not only in high dropout rates but also in irreversible consequences for the future of the Arab Bedouin youth.[32]

In terms of health, medical services are gravely lacking in unrecognised villages and, for most of the population, the clinics are remote and inaccessible. MDA emergency services have no way of reaching large parts of the unrecognised villages (as there are no paved roads) and, in the absence of public transportation, distance is a major obstacle to receiving medical treatment. Sanitary conditions are dire, particularly due to the lack of running water and lack of sewage systems. The physical conditions of dwellings in the villages do not allow for real isolation. For Arab Bedouin women, this becomes even more difficult as there are currently no appropriate isolation facilities that are culture-sensitive and cater to their needs.

One of the basic conditions for minimising inequality in health is promoting cultural-specific access to information on the part of diverse population groups and communities. While the primary national tool for fighting the pandemic was initially based on active participation and awareness of the population as to the risk of infection, critical information was not made sufficiently accessible. In the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, the Ministry of Health exposed a lack of readiness to convey organised messaging in Arabic. The budget allocated by the Ministry of Health for Arabic-language campaigns was only 4.1 million NIS, some 10% of the budget, while the Arabic-speaking sector comprises approximately 20% of Israel’s entire population.[33] Moreover, NCF received reports of a shortage of Arabic-language telephone representatives on MDA hotlines, which further limited Arabic speakers’ access to healthcare services during the pandemic.[34] With the recent launch of a vaccination campaign for populations at risk and healthcare workers in Israel, only two locations are providing vaccinations in the Naqab: one in Rahat and one in Beer Sheva.[35]

With regard to appropriate isolation facilities for Arab Bedouin women, the government has not found any appropriate and satisfactory isolation solutions for Arab Bedouin living in the Naqab villages. Women from these villages live in homes that offer no real isolation. As of the end of December 2020, no isolation facilities had been established in the Bedouin townships, and the offered solutions were unsuitable for Muslim Bedouin women from the Naqab.

International intervention: unresolved land claims and home demolitions

On 12 October 2020, six UN Special Rapporteurs wrote to the Israeli government with concerns about the treatment of Bedouin communities.[36] Their statement expressed concern particularly at forced evictions and home demolitions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Naqab, as well as the use of criminal and administrative sanctions against human rights defenders, including Sheikh Sayah Abu Madhi'm al-Turi and other members of the family from Al-ʿArāgīb. As a result, they requested information on measures provided by the government to protect the residents of the villages and townships in relation to their health risk in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.[37]

The conclusions of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,[38] published in January 2020, expressed concern at house demolitions and the absence of meaningful participation and consultation with Bedouin communities in the formulation of such plans, affecting their access to land and property. The Committee also expressed concern for the limited access to adequate housing, water and sanitation facilities, electricity, and public transportation;[39] and commended several measures taken to improve the situation of Bedouin people, including the adoption of the Socioeconomic Development Plan for Negev Bedouin (2017–2021), and to enhance their educational opportunities and their access to public and social services. The Committee recommended resolving the pending land ownership claims in a timely, transparent and effective manner; recognising the unrecognised villages; taking all necessary measures to improve their living conditions and halting house demolitions and evictions of Bedouin from their ancestral lands.

It furthermore recommended that the State of Israel remove all barriers faced by Bedouin women in terms of obtaining access to employment, education, health care and justice, and incorporate a minority women’s perspective into all gender-related policies and strategies. Regarding rights to education, work and health, the Committee expressed its concern as to limitations in employment for the Bedouin communities, and recommended Israel address the high dropout of Bedouin students and the shortage of classrooms and kindergartens as well as providing education and training for Arab Bedouin women, tailored to their experience and level of job skill.

General outlook for 2021

Arab Bedouin students from unrecognised villages and townships were harshly affected by the pandemic as remote learning was the only alternative offered by the government to continue education programmes during the lockdown. There remains an enormous problem of equity, however, since students who live in unrecognised villages in the Naqab are at a severe disadvantage in remote instruction. Lacking Internet connection, computer devices and electricity demonstrates that while the pandemic clearly exacerbates this problem, it is not the cause. The government needs to solve the equity problem permanently, not just during the pandemic. The opportunity to mitigate the damage would have entailed massive logistical issues in terms of distribution and connecting the Naqab’s villages to the Internet but this is what responsive governments do in times of crisis, although our politicians chose not to.

The government recently postponed a motion to vote on the resolution to establish three Bedouin villages that are still unrecognised: ʿAbdih, Rakhamah, and Khašim Zannih.[40] This delay was due to the opposition of most of the right-wing ministers and their demand to vote through the establishment of 46 “young Jewish settlements” (illegal outposts) in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, as the main priority of national interest.[41] The ministers that disagreed with recognising the Bedouin villages argued that the regularisation of a young Jewish settlement on the West Bank that they had promoted recently had been blocked, and upheld that a government that approved the regularisation of Bedouin villages in the Naqab but not that of a young settlement in the Occupied Territories was in danger of losing its “right to exist”. These governmental manoeuvres are based merely on political interests rather than on the benefit of the Arab Bedouin Indigenous people, who unfairly continue to experience a lack of water resources, electricity, paved roads and basic services with which to carry out a dignified life. The decision not to recognise the Bedouin villages is evidently intertwined with the next round of upcoming elections in Israel and the inability of the government to reach an agreement.

Given the crisis in trust among the Bedouin society in the Naqab, and as a result of the government’s eviction policy and negligence, only 15% of Arab Israelis aged 50 and over are getting vaccinated, compared to 25.5% of non-Haredi Jews and 27.8% of ultra-Orthodox groups.[42]


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 organisation 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 fulfil 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 35th edition of 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 2021 in full here


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, 2018.

[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/ColonialismColonizationLand.pdf

[5] Absentee Property Law, 1950. [Hebrew] https://www.nevo.co.il/law_html/Law01/313_001.htm

[6] Land Acquisition Law, 1953. [Hebrew] https://www.nevo.co.il/law_html/Law01/p214_002.htm

[7] See the NCF Report on demolitions, July 2020, p.8, for more details, available at: https://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/HDR-2020-Data-on-2019-Eng-3.pdf

[8] Op. Cit. (1)

[9] Op. Cit. (7)

[10] See the NCF and Adalah’s report to UN CERD, January 2019, p.2, available at: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=INT%2fCERD%2fNGO%2fISR%2f37260&Lang=en

[11] CBS, Total population estimations in localities, their population and other information, 2018.

[12] Op. Cit. (7)

[13] Op. Cit. (7)

[14] Op. Cit. (7)

[15] 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”

[16] Declaration of Universal Human Rights, UN, https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

[17] The United Nations General Assembly. (1966). International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Treaty Series, 999, 171, https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cescr.aspx

[18] Explained: New coronavirus guidelines edging Israel closer to total lockdown. (2020). Retrieved 28 December 2020, from https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/new-coronavirus-guidelines-edging-israel-closer-to-total-lockdown-1.8683889

[19] Op. Cit. (7)

[20] Ministry of Justice’s response to civil society request to stop home demolitions, March 2020, https://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/%D7%9E%D7%A2%D7%A0%D7%94-%D7%9E%D7%A9%D7%A8%D7%93-%D7%94%D7%9E%D7%A9%D7%A4%D7%98%D7%99%D7%9D.pdf

[21] Coronavirus: As Israel shuts down, authorities destroy Bedouin crops. (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/coronavirus-israel-shut-down-authorities-continue-evict-bedouin

[22] As part of our multimedia and advocacy project, we have produced a video with a compilation of demolition orders served and execution of demolitions that occurred during the COVID-19 crisis in the Negev. Demolition of buildings in the Naqab during COVID-19. (2020). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcf6pYfY7tQ&t=3s

[23] Self-demolitions are carried out by the owners of the structures themselves, after a demolition order has been issued, to avoid the presence of police forces and criminal sanctions that may be imposed on the owners. See the NCF Report on demolitions, July 2020, available at: https://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/HDR-2020-Data-on-2019-Eng-3.pdf

[24] Ibid

[25] Op. Cit. (7)

[26] Op. Cit. (7)

[27] Southern Administration for the Coordination of Enforcement of Land Laws, 'Summary of Working Year 2019', 2020, p. 21 Section 15 [Hebrew], https://foi.gov.il/sites/default/files/%D7%A1%D7%99%D7%9B%D7%95%D7%9D%20%D7%A9%D7%A0%D7%AA%20%D7%A2%D7%91%D7%95%D7%93%D7%94%202019%20-%20%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%A0%D7%94%D7%9C%D7%AA%20%D7%9E%D7%A7%D7%A8%D7%A7%D7%A2%D7%99%D7%9F%20%D7%93%D7%A8%D7%95%D7%9D.pdf

[28] Green, D. (2021). Bedouin in remote Negev villages fend for themselves during COVID-19 pandemic. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-bedouin-in-remote-negev-villages-fend-for-themselves-during-COVID-19-pandemic-1.8799409

[29] Abu-Kishk, H. and Mendels, Y., 2020. Digital Divide and Distance learning among Bedouin students during the COVID-19 crisis.

[30] The Follow Up Committee on Arab Education-Israel, 2020. Arab life in Israel: Needs and problems that require immediate treatment in preparation for the opening of the 2021-2020 school year.

[31] www.calcalist.co.il. 2020. Survey: Half of students fear they will not find a job after graduation. (Hebrew).

[32] Everything is political. The Ministry of Education abandons the children and leaves them to take care of themselves, 2020 [Hebrew], https://www.themarker.com/news/education/.premium-1.9282515

[33] Rosner, Y., Ziv, H., Litvin, A., Gutzeit, Z. and Majadle, G. (2020). The First 100 Days of COVID-19 in Israel’s Healthcare System. [online] Physicians for Human Rights.

[34]Model for developing local emergency response in Arab local authorities to address the challenges of the coronavirus”, Sikkuy, April 22, 2020 [Hebrew].

[35] Health officer from Clalit (5.1.2021), personal communication.

[36] Communication sent to the State of Israel on behalf of the Special Rapporteurs on housing, cultural rights, human rights defenders, Indigenous Peoples, internally displaced persons, minority issues and racism, https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=25601

[37] Ibid

[38] See the conclusions of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, E/C.12/ISR/CO/4, 27 January 2020. Available at: https://www.un.org/unispal/document/concluding-observations-on-the-combined-seventeenth-to-nineteenth-reports-of-israel-advance-unedited-version-cerd-c-isr-co-17-19/

[39] Ibid

[40] And there comes the Minister of Settlement, Tzachi Hanegbi. (2021). https://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/.premium-1.9427890

[41] Lazaroff, T. (2021). Settlers start hunger strike, saying they, not Arabs are Netanyahu's base. https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/settlers-start-hunger-strike-saying-they-not-arabs-are-netanyahus-base-654243

[42] Boxerman, A. (2021). Officials concerned by low vaccination rate among Arab Israelis, https://www.timesofisrael.com/officials-concerned-by-low-vaccination-rate-among-arab-israelis/



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

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