Part of a Series – Hanukkah 2020 – Nes Gadol Haya Po – Be’er Sheva and the Negev

I’ve chosen to focus in the last section on present populations in the Negev and Be’er Sheva with the Bedouin.  These tribal peoples lived in most of the Negev desert, with rainfall between 250 mm (7 in.) to 100 mm (less than 3 in.) per year.  In these marginal environments, Bedouin shepherds were able to carve out a resilient existence throughout the centuries.  What has happened within Bedouin society in the last 200 years with the coming of modernity even to this remote part of the world?

In the recent Drylands, Desert, and Desertification conference (sponsored by Ben Gurion University of the Negev and including over 1000 participants), one of the sessions on the last day was on the Resilience of Desert Societies – New Paradigm and the Future – which centered around the subject of the Bedouin in the Negev.

Traditional Bedouin craft – cross stitch

Resilience is a culture’s ability to survive; populations who live in desert environments are seen as always on the verge of collapse.  Limited natural resources and temporal residences make these populations look unsustainable.  According to insights given by Noa Avriel-Avni from the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, “resilience” is achieved in arid-semiarid traditional societies through flexible social structure, spatial flexibility, and living lightly.  Flexible social structure means that groups can separate or join depending on external/internal factors; spatial flexibility stems from their ability to change location; and, living lightly is lack of physical objects (they don’t have a lot of stuff).  Instead of being considered on the verge of collapse, the traditional Bedouin society in the Negev has a lot of resilience.

That doesn’t mean all is peachy with the Bedouin.  Avinoam Meir, from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, looked at the Bedouin’s contemporary resilience in Israel and the struggle for controlling local governance.  This issue has been plaguing the Bedouin at least since the founding of modern Be’er Sheva as an attempt by the Ottoman’s to control the Bedouin population.  After 1948 Independence war, Israel also encountered the Bedouin as a population which needed to be controlled.  Israel’s program to control, contain and modernize Bedouin of the Negev is apparent through 2 main initiatives.  Firstly, the Israeli government encourages Bedouin to settle in recognized towns.  Secondly, they fill the city councils with non-Bedouin or hand-picked Bedouin who push the Israeli government policies. 

State settlement policies in Israel have rendered the significance of the Bedouin’s desert resilience obsolete.  Traditional resources (farming and shepherding) are only practiced by 5% of the 270,000 Bedouin living in the Negev.  These occupations led to the resilience spoken of by Noa.  Land once used for traditional lifestyle has been limited by the Israeli government, and so the most significant issue for the Bedouin society is controlling municipal government and administration.  Many cases in the Supreme Court now are seeking to return this authority to the hands of democratically elected Bedouin themselves.

On the issue of resilience in locales, Bedouin’s are petitioning also for the recognition of their settlements through the courts.  Some of the unincorporated Bedouin village are in the process of becoming “recognized” by the State of Israel. 

The Bedouin are a population in the Negev which is often overlooked in the mainstream, but in the periphery they are a part of the landscape.  Their contributions on how, in changing times, to maintain identity is a lesson for all populations who are facing similar pressures.  And with global warming threatening access to natural resources, there are some lessons here for all of us.

Bedouin are a part of the “po” – here – in the Negev.

2 Comments

  1. I believe that you should stop using the word “recognized” to describe the spontaneous Bedouin villages. All “non-recognized” villages are recognized – they all have names. The government uses the term “illegal” settlements, which also should not be used. I believe a much better term would be government sanctioned and non-government sanctioned villages or perhaps government authorized or non-government authorized villages.

    You also mentioned that the Israeli authorities “fill the city councils with non-Bedouin or hand-picked Bedouin who push the Israeli government policies”. I do not know where you obtain your information, but the settlements with which I am familiar have a Bedouin as the head and all council members and staff are all Bedouin.

    Allan Degen

    1. Thanks for your constructive input. Terminology is so difficult. I agree with your difficulty with the terms “recognized/non-recognized”. Perhaps “authorized/non-authorized” is more correct, but not generally used. The statements about the city councils being not truly representative was expressed at the Drylands, Deserts and Desertification conference. True representation without national governmental interference was brought up as an issue in the sessions there.

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