• Indigenous peoples in Israel

    Indigenous peoples in Israel

The Indigenous World 2022: 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 in 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 300,000 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 nationalised 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 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 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. The State documents that 72.9% of the Naqab’s Bedouin residents are poor and 79.6% of Bedouin children live below the poverty line.[8] However, Bedouin residents from unrecognised villages are not included in these national poverty indicators.[9] In addition to the seven townships, the State recognised 11 Bedouin villages from 1999 onwards,[10] 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 ones. The residents of most recognised villages continue to be denied access to basic services and are under constant threat of house demolitions.[11] The remaining 28% of the Bedouin population (around 100,000 people) live in unrecognised villages[12] 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 and wartime

Israel's use of demolitions, land uprooting and “development” projects as mechanisms for the forced displacement of the Bedouin population in the Negev/Naqab has continued despite the pandemic and the escalation of violence during May 2021, violating the right to adequate housing, the right to liberty and to security of person recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948,[13] the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1966[14] and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1966.[15] Tens of thousands of Bedouin 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, as long as the Israeli government continues to define them as illegal villages.

Development-induced displacement

In 2021, Israel continued to promote its policy of dispossession through its national “development” projects.[16] 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;[17]
  • the extension of Road 6, expected to result in the demolition of around 600 Bedouin structures across at least nine unrecognised villages;[18]
  • 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) is expected to take place under the responsibility of planning authorities. On 11 October 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that construction of the phosphate mine should continue and contented itself with an amendment to the building plan asking for the examination of the health consequences at the detailed planning level. In other words, a detailed programme will be produced that includes a health assessment although this was already stated in the original National Outline Plan; 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 including az-Zaʿarūrah, al-Furʿah, al-Bḥīrah, al-Gaṭāmā, al-Ġazzah and Rakhamah, which will be cut in half – causing significant upheaval and land seizures, and affecting approximately 50,000 residents.[19]

Dispossession through land uprooting continued during the year. On 22 February, the State ploughed up 2,800 dunams (280 hectares) of cultivated land in the villages of al-Ġarrah, Al-Ruʾays and Saʿwah.[20] Residents of nearby villages and supporters participated in demonstrations and called for recognition of their villages, requesting the State stop its demolitions and ploughing up of lands. The State’s response was to send a large police operation that violently arrested those who tried to prevent the tractors from ploughing their land and from cutting off a pipe that provides drinking water for the residents. During and after the demonstration, 15 people, including a minor, were arrested and detained in a police vehicle from the early hours until the evening without any food or water.[21]

May escalation of violence

In May 2021, an escalation of violence began, promoted by right-wing extremists and the police in Sheikh Jarrah, at Damascus Gate, and at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Those events led to escalations in clashes between Hamas and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and had an impact on the Arab Bedouin residents of the Naqab.[22] As a result of these escalations, large Palestinian-led protests began to form all around the country to protest at the police violence directed at the Arab community. In the Negev/Naqab, such demonstrations came in the form of mass protests along main highways.[23] Starting on 10 May, over 300 people, including Arab Bedouin residents of the recognised and unrecognised Bedouin villages and townships were detained in southern Israel. According to Bedouin testimonies, due to the repression and violence used by police officers, residents have since conducted fewer demonstrations.[24], [25] The violence exercised by the police in the Negev/Naqab consisted of hitting people with bats or with their fists and using tear gas.[26]

The Negev-Naqab as an unprotected area for its Bedouin citizens during wartime

During May 2021, Hamas fired thousands of missiles into Israel from Gaza, endangering the lives of millions of civilians.[27] As a result of the State’s discriminatory policies, and compared to the Jewish community in Israel, the Bedouin community disproportionally bears the brunt of conflict with Hamas. For most Israelis, the Iron Dome system and the IDF’s early-warning alarms provide protection and alert the citizens to enter shelters and designated safe spaces. In the unrecognised villages of the Negev/Naqab, however, most houses are built from light materials with no foundations so there are no shelters, above or below ground, and most construction lacks any protective architecture such as safe rooms, unlike many newly-constructed apartments and homes in Israel.[28] The Iron Dome system does not provide coverage for many of the Bedouin villages since the State considers them to be “open spaces”. Even in recognised villages, there are hardly any public shelters. In other words, the lives of almost 100,000 Bedouin citizens living in the unrecognised villages and many others are not taken into consideration by the State when it assesses citizens’ security during war. In previous operations, the IDF provided portable shelters to Jewish localities that lacked alternatives, such as in southern Israel, and even in settlements in the West Bank.[29] During the last violent escalation, rockets fell in two Bedouin villages, Abu Grīnāt and Awajān, injuring residents.[30] The residents received no warning of the impending attack. Two rockets also fell in the unrecognised village of Wādi an-Naʿam. Most homes in the seven townships do not have safe rooms and the public shelters are insufficient for the needs of the growing population.[31]

The rising trend in demolitions

Throughout 2020 and 2021, enforcement authorities continued to distribute demolition warrants, carry out demolitions, interrogate livestock farmers, and issue fines to herders. These enforcement measures cause extreme duress and self-demolition by the owners of the houses, which in 2020 numbered 94% of the total demolitions.[32] Adult heads of household, who on average support a family of approximately seven people, experience additional stress and mental health issues due to the house demolitions and housing insecurity, all of which were compounded during the pandemic.[33] Further, enforcement authorities disregarded the health and sanitation recommendations of such a state of emergency: residents of the villages informed the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF) that many of the inspectors and police officers patrolled the villages and interacted with the population without taking any precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.[34]

UN treaty bodies in relation to the Bedouins’ Indigenous rights in 2021

NCF, Sidreh Association, Alhuquq Centre, the Arab Medical Association in the Negev and the Human Rights Defenders Fund have all submitted an NGO report to the UN Human Rights Committee describing the violations of the ICCPR by the State of Israel in relation to the Indigenous Arab Bedouin population in the Southern Negev/Naqab Desert.[35] The report makes specific reference to the previous Concluding Observations (COs) issued by the Committee in 2014, the Fifth Periodic Report submitted by Israel in October 2019, as well as observations and recommendations made by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and UN Special Rapporteurs during the years of 2019, 2020 and 2021, in which they expressed serious concerns about Israel’s conduct towards its Bedouin citizens. The main issues brought before the Committee were forced evictions and displacement; exclusion of the Bedouin population from decision-making processes relating to their condition; discrimination in planning and zoning policies; voting intimidation and inaccessibility of polling stations; excessive use of force; harassment and criminalisation of Bedouin human rights defenders; and limited access to basic services. In addition, the report refers to the human rights situation of the Bedouin population amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the escalation of violence in May 2021.

The UN Commissioners for the Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory,[36] including East Jerusalem, and Israel (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) requested a meeting with NCF’s Executive Directors to hear about alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law leading up to and since 13 April 2021, for the purpose of investigating all underlying root causes of recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of the conflict, including systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity.[37] The informative session included a presentation of developments in the Naqab during 2021 and was followed up by delivery of NCF’s 2021 Human Rights Report.[38]

General outlook for 2022

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 their education during the lockdown.[39] There remains an enormous problem of equity since students who live in unrecognised villages in the Naqab are at a severe disadvantage in remote learning. Lacking Internet connection, computer devices and electricity demonstrated that while the pandemic exacerbated this inequality, it was not the cause and the government needs to solve the equity problem permanently, not just during the pandemic. The opportunity to mitigate this damage could entail massive logistical issues in distributing and connecting the Naqab’s villages to the Internet, which the Government of Israel has not yet even begun to plan.

The coalition agreement signed in June 2021 by Mansour Abbas, Head of the United Arab List and representative of the party in the Knesset, Yair Lapid, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister Naftali Bennet included recognition of the unrecognised Bedouin villages of Khašim Zannih, Rakhamah and ʿAbdih within the first 90 days of the government.[40] As part of the process to advance this commitment, the Cabinet approved the decision in November; however, it was with the requirement that at least 70% of the Bedouin residents’ consent to leave their lands and move to the new established villages before the recognition process is finalised. This condition is unprecedented when compared to Jewish localities and hardly feasible given its requirement of moving the residents into the boundaries of a village that has yet to be properly recognised. This condition is problematic, affects the trust building process between the Bedouin residents and the authorities, and may have far-reaching implications for future recognition processes.

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.

Elianne Kremer is a Uruguayan-Israeli development expert with experience in field research, analysis and M&E in humanitarian aid and social development. She directs the Research and International Relations department of NCF, working closely with community activists.


This article is part of the 36th 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 2022 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 10 January 2022: https://www.dukium.org/the-arab-bedouin-community-in-the-negev-nagab-a-short-background/

[2] Online database Life characteristics of Bedouin society in the Negev. 2022. Online Database - Life Characteristics of the Bedouin Population in the Negev - Demographics. [online] Available at: <https://in.bgu.ac.il/humsos/negevSus/SYBSN/Pages/demographics.aspx> [Accessed 10 January 2022].

[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://tinyurl.com/y2ckm8kl

[6] Land Acquisition Law, 1953. [Hebrew] https://tinyurl.com/y6p2aq4x

[7] See the NCF Report on demolitions, July 2021, p.7, for more details, available at: https://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/HDR-2021-Data-on-2020-Eng-5.pdf

[8] Dimensions of Poverty and Social Disparities - Annual Report, 2018, retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/6jve9ckz [Hebrew]

[9] Negev Coexistence Forum. 2021. Uncounted: Indigenous Bedouin citizens neglected by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. [online] Available at: <https://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Indigenous-Bedouin-citizens-neglected-by-the-Israeli-CBS.pdf> [Accessed 10 January 2022].

[10] Op. Cit. (7)

[11] 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

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

[13] Universal Declaration of  Human Rights, UN, https://tinyurl.com/y3xelaw9

[14] Ohchr.org. 1966. OHCHR | International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. [online] Available at: <https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx> [Accessed 31 January 2022].

[15] 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

[16] Negev Coexistence Forum. 2022. NGO Report to the UN Human Rights Committee in Advance of its Review of the State of Israel. [online] Available at: <https://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/NGO-report-to-the-HRC.-Violations-of-the-ICCPR.pdf> [Accessed 31 January 2022].

[17] Op. Cit. (16)

[18] Op. Cit. (16)

[19] 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”

[20] Negev Coexistence Forum. 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/HR-report-2021-online.pdf> [Accessed 31 January 2022].

[21] Op. Cit. (20), pg. 11

[22] Op. Cit. (20), pg. 10

[23] Op. Cit. (20), pg. 10

[24] Rakan, M., 2021. Justice for our students. [online] Youtube.com. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/hdezvkrc

[25] Conversation with Huda Abu Obaid, local lobby coordinator at NCF and Bedouin activist

[26] Op. Cit. (24)

[27] Op. Cit. (20), pg. 17

[28] The Association for Civil Rights in Israel. 2021. Providing Protection for the Unrecognized Bedouin Villages in the Negev. [online] Available at: <https://www.english.acri.org.il/post/__316> [Accessed 31 January 2022].

[29] Levi, D., 2019. Exposure: The Ashkelon municipality received shields before the escalation and did not distribute them in the city. [Hebrew] Kan South-Ashkelon. Available at: https://www.kan-ashkelon.co.il/news/35416. Inn.co.il. 2019. Channel 7| Israel News. [Hebrew] Available at: https://www.inn.co.il/flashes/665316.

[30] Op. Cit. (28)

[31] Op. Cit. (28)

[32] Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. 2021. No shelter in place: State demolitions in the Naqab Arab Bedouin communities and its impact on children. P.16. [online] Available at: <https://tinyurl.com/w9sezhds>

[33] Op. Cit. (32)

[34] NCF produced a video about home demolitions during the pandemic, which can be accessed through the link https://tinyurl.com/y2tjqszu

[35] Op. Cit. (16)

[36] Ohchr.org. 2021. OHCHR | CoIOPT-Israel The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel. [online] Available at: <https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIOPT-Israel/Pages/Index.aspx> [Accessed 31 January 2022].

[37] Op. Cit. (36)

[38] Op. Cit. (20)

[39] Kremer, E. and Yaffe, D., 2021. Internet accessibility solutions for Bedouin students as an integral part of exercising their right to education. [online] Dukium.org. Available at: <https://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Education-and-Internet-position-paper-final.pdf> [Accessed 31 January 2022].

[40] A coalition agreement to form a unity government. (2021). Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/2shszxk3



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