Decaying Loyalty?


Holding an Israeli flag his son had brought home from school, Salameh abu Kaf stood near the stream of sewage that runs past his home in this ramshackle Bedouin encampment.

Abu Kaf said his clan has lived on this land in the Negev desert for generations. For the last half a century, they have been citizens of Israel, and a number have served in its army. But the government does not recognize the clan’s land claim and provides no services to the 3,000 people who live here.

Abu Kaf, 32, said Israel deserves no honor in return.

“Bedouins have died defending this flag,” he said of the small plastic banner in his hand. “We are citizens of this country, but we are not equal citizens. We live in the sewage.”


For many of Israel’s 1 million Arab citizens, the Jewish state’s recent 50th anniversary celebrations served mainly to remind them of their unequal status and unmet aspirations within its borders. Most boycotted the observances.

But resentment is running especially high among the Bedouins--a quiet minority of the Israeli Arab population and traditionally among the most loyal to the state.

From the Negev in the south to the Galilee in the north, the Bedouins are increasingly frustrated by decades-old land disputes with the state and years of official neglect that have left them, by many measures, Israel’s most disadvantaged community. And more than ever before, they are coming to identify with the Palestinian cause.

The descendants of once-nomadic desert tribes, Israel’s Bedouins historically have been led by conservative sheiks who have allied themselves with the government and complained relatively little about how the community has been treated.


Now, however, for the first time, a small number of Bedouin activists are speaking out, demanding greater recognition and more funding for their people.

At the same time, Bedouin advocates and some Israeli officials warn of more dangerous trends: a new restiveness in the community and a growing, if still limited, support for militant Islamic groups such as Hamas.

Both, they say, underscore the urgency of new efforts, official and otherwise, to find a long-term solution to Bedouin grievances.

One Israeli proposal given preliminary approval in May calls for the creation of four new Bedouin towns. But advocates are divided on the merits of the plan.


“The Bedouin community has always been patient, waiting for fair treatment from the government,” said Ismael abu Saad, the director of a newly opened center for Bedouin studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba. “But Israel’s policies are gradually turning a very loyal and peaceful community into a hostile one.”

Elie Rekhess, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University who specializes in Israel’s Arab minority, agreed.

“The situation with the Bedouins is very, very explosive,” he said. “All you need is a match.”

Israel’s 150,000 Bedouins are descendants of the tribes that once roamed the deserts of the Middle East, unfettered by borders or national allegiances. Their world today bears little resemblance to the images enshrined in Hollywood movies--an independent way of life defined by goatskin tents, curved daggers and boundless space.


Concentrated mainly in the Negev, a huge, pie-shaped wedge of desert and semiarid land that makes up half of Israel’s area, they live in a handful of bleak towns established by the government or in illegal, officially unrecognized communities like this one, without running water, sewers or paved access roads.

At the heart of the matter, as always here, is land.

The Israeli government controls the vast majority of land in the Negev, where it has used the great open spaces for military training and to establish more than 100 towns, villages and farming communities for nearly 300,000 Jewish citizens. But Israel has not recognized the claims of most Negev Bedouins to ownership of the land where they grazed their herds or pitched their tents in the days before Israel was a state or where they were moved after 1948.

“Of course, the government cannot give all of the Negev to the Bedouins,” said Dodik Shoshani, who heads the Negev Bedouin development administration under Israel’s Ministry of National Infrastructure. “Sometimes the tribes are spread out on a very wide area, and we have plans to make a road or a factory or a railway there. But we are trying to find a better solution to this problem.”


In recent years, the government has sought to concentrate the Negev Bedouins in seven towns, arguing that it is more economical to provide them with services in larger communities. More than half have resisted, fearful of losing any rights to the land they claim along with the last vestiges of their independent, clan-based way of life. An estimated 60,000 remain in the unrecognized communities, despite the hardships.

Mohammed Hussein abu Quaider, 65, said his 2,000-member clan has been told several times to abandon the dusty encampment where it settled decades ago and to move to one of the government towns. The few cinder-block structures in the encampment are under court orders to be demolished because they were built in areas that are classified as “state land,” where construction is not allowed.

“But we would prefer to stay here,” Abu Quaider said, welcoming visitors to a corrugated metal shack lined with carpets and pillows for guests and gatherings. “We have our land, and we don’t want the social problems of the families that live in these places,” meaning the government towns.

Added his kinsman Hassan abu Quaider, 28, who still lives in the family encampment and commutes to his job as a certified public accountant in nearby Beersheba: “We are demanding that Israel recognize our rights to live here, if we want, and to give us the services that all citizens are entitled to. If I want to live in the traditional way and not in a town, I should be allowed to live that way.”


As he spoke, he fielded calls from clients--Israeli and Bedouin--on a mobile telephone, a sure sign that progress is coming, however slowly, to Bedouin life.

One of a number of young, educated Bedouins who are organizing to lobby the government for recognition and benefits for the community, Abu Quaider said the Bedouins are in the midst of what for many is an unhappy transition to a more modern way of life.

The government, he argued, should make the transition easier by establishing agricultural communities for them in addition to the urban areas.

Indeed, the government towns offer little that might entice anyone to move. Even in Rahat, the largest with a population of 30,000, there is no industrial base, and unemployment stands officially at 11.9%, one of the highest rates in the country. Community leaders say it is actually closer to 50%. An estimated 65% of residents in the communities live below the poverty line, according to government figures.


“We need so much development,” said Kassem abu Serhan, the mayor of the older town of Tel Sheva. “We need public buildings, youth centers and money to remodel our schools, complete our streets and develop an industrial zone.”

He and others warn that the economic plight and hopelessness in the towns is providing easy inroads for Islamic fundamentalists. New mosques are going up in several towns, and militant anti-Israeli groups are gaining adherents through social welfare and youth programs.

Until the last few years, such groups were never part of the conservative Bedouin community, said Abu Saad, the director of the Ben Gurion University Bedouin center.

“But when people are desperate, they turn back to religion, and some become fanatics,” he said. “It’s still limited, but it’s a very dangerous trend.”


The movement is strongest in Rahat, where an Islamic candidate, a former mayor, is considered likely to recapture the post in elections later this year.

Hamas enjoys considerable support in all seven towns, where it runs preschools and recreation and anti-drug programs. Vendors say a Hamas newspaper is far and away the most popular in the area.

In April, 44 people were injured in a rare confrontation between residents of a northern Bedouin village and Israeli police over the demolition of several illegally built homes. The next day, Israeli President Ezer Weizman warned that the situation is “going to explode” unless the government takes action to address the problems of Israeli Arabs, specifically the Bedouins.

Hoping to help resolve this long-festering problem, Shoshani, the Bedouin administration director, has persuaded Israel’s National Planning Council to give initial approval to a proposal he hopes will improve life for Bedouins.


If the plan goes forward, Israel will establish four new communities for the Bedouins in the Negev, Shoshani said, as part of what he envisions as the first step in a multipronged program aimed at providing an overall solution for the Bedouins.

“We want to change the behavior of the government to the Bedouins,” said Shoshani, who works for Ariel Sharon, a former army general who is now the national infrastructure minister. “We are now at our 50th anniversary in Israel. It will take a long time, perhaps 10 years, but it is time for us to help the Bedouins and help Israel too.”

Twenty years ago, Sharon, then the agriculture minister, advocated a policy of evictions and demolitions to force the Bedouins off the land and into the towns. But Shoshani said Sharon is now convinced that the iron-fist policy has not worked and that it is time to try another approach.

Moti Zaken, the prime minister’s advisor on Arab affairs, said Shoshani’s plan, which could cost $1.2 billion over five years, has the potential to provide “a very good solution” for the thousands of Bedouins who still live outside recognized communities.


Some advocates are applauding too.

Clinton Bailey, a former Tel Aviv University professor who is one of Israel’s most respected experts on the Bedouins, said Shoshani’s plan “is as appropriate a solution as you can find under the circumstances.”

Some Bedouin leaders are doubtful.

Taleb Sanaa, the only Bedouin now serving in the Israeli parliament and a frequent critic of the government’s policies toward them, said four more towns are not enough.


“We still demand recognition of all the [unrecognized] Arab villages in the Negev,” he said.

At the same time, an alternative plan for the future of the Bedouins is taking shape. Although still in its early stages, the plan by the nonprofit Jewish-Arab Economic Development Center calls on the government to recognize and support the existing, illegal communities rather than relocate those who live there.

Sarah Kreimer, the founding director of the center, which is based near Tel Aviv, said preliminary studies suggest that it would be cheaper for the government to provide basic services to the scattered communities than to buy the land and move the inhabitants to the towns.

The $100,000 study is funded by Robert Arnow, a wealthy New York entrepreneur and longtime fund-raiser for American Jewish organizations who became interested in the Bedouins when he served as chairman of the board of Ben Gurion University.


Arnow, who was also a driving force behind the university’s new Bedouin center, said he hopes that the government will consider the alternative.

Ben Gurion University’s Abu Saad, for his part, said he hopes that any eventual solution will allow the Bedouins to choose the community--urban or rural--in which they live and give them a voice in decisions about their future.

“The policies, so far, haven’t worked,” he said. “We need to give the Bedouins a chance to be part of the solution. That’s the only way any of this can work.”