At the end of November, 2013, Israel experienced a series of demonstrations throughout the Arab areas, some of which were violent, as part of the “Day of Rage” over the government’s decision to implement the “Prawer Plan” to solve the problems relating to land in the Negev. Arab spokesmen – all of whom are Israeli citizens - threw around slogans such as “third intifada”, “Land Day II” and “Bedouin revolt”, slogans that were meant to incite the Arab public, which represents a fifth of the citizens of the state. Politicians and leaders of the Islamic movement tried to stir up emotions against the state and its decision regarding the Bedouins settling on state lands in the Negev.
The impression is that the problem is about land, because the Bedouins, who live scattered over the area, have built houses on land that belongs to the state without permission or building permits, without general planning or infrastructure. Now the state wants to put matters in order, so questions arise such as how much each Bedouin should receive as part of the arrangement and how much monetary compensation he will get for the territory that he gives up, despite the fact that no Bedouin has or had any proof of ownership of the land that he claims is his. Until today, all of the Bedouins’ legal claims that have reached the courts have failed because of this, and now the state is interested in solving the matter of illegal Bedouin settlements through legal procedures.
However, the truth of the matter is that the problem is not only an issue of the land and the Bedouins’ illegal settlement on state lands, but is both wider and deeper. Wider – because there are still serious problems between the state and the Bedouins, and deeper – because all of these differences stem from the tremendous gaps between the Bedouin culture and a state culture.
Another problem related to the Bedouins is the problem of polygamy. Approximately four years ago (April 21, 2009), in The Marker, Haaretz’s economic supplement, Meirav Arlozorov published information stating that at that time, 5,829 women were listed as single mothers in the Negev, who had 23,855 children between them. At that time, 155 women had 10 children each, and there were even two women with as many as 17 children each. Anyone can easily understand that these are not single mothers, but each woman is the second, third or fourth wife married, according to Islamic Shari’a, to one man, and living together with him in one household. If this was the situation four years ago, what is the situation today?
The current situation is made possible because of two factors, cultural and economic. The cultural factor is that within the traditional Bedouin culture, a man is expected to marry more than one woman in order to prove his manhood. A man who lives with one woman is thought to be weak and worthless. In addition, a man hopes to expand his family as much as possible so that it will have more economic, social and political weight in the system of Bedouin society. For example: the number of votes in elections to the local council will be greater, so all of the candidates will come to him to solicit his support.
The economic factor in polygamy is that the government welfare institution grants subsidies according to children’s benefits for each woman separately, regardless of whether she reports herself as married or single, so bringing children into the world is a productive business. This year (July, 26, 2013), in the Tzedek supplement of the Makor Rishon newspaper, Yehuda Yifrach publicized the fact that Bedouin families receive hundreds of millions of shekels per year from government welfare programs by means of fictional divorces in Shari’a court, awarding negligible alimony to the “divorcees” (who usually continue living with their husbands) so that the government welfare institution would be obligated to give them supplemental payments.
The entire story of polygamy in the Negev is very puzzling, since polygamy is against the law in Israel. Therefore the question immediately arises: why does the state not enforce this law on the Bedouins, and why does it finance polygamy among them by granting children’s benefits and income supplements? The answer is clear: the state understands that the issue is a cultural matter related to the Bedouin sector so it prefers to pay them, using resources that would have been available to other sectors, just to keep the Bedouins quiet, so they will not demonstrate and not block the roads.
Another matter connected to marriage is unions between relatives. Most couples in the Negev are relatives, and the result is that many children suffer from genetic diseases, some of which are severe and life-threatening. The high rate of infant mortality within the Bedouin sector stems in part from this reason. The state must allocate many resources to care for the children who suffer from genetic defects. Marriage between relatives is also a cultural matter related to tribal conventions.
Another cultural matter related to Bedouins is the matter of honor killing and blood feuds. In this matter as well, the state prefers to close an eye and not see the serious transgressions that are committed within the Bedouin sector, whether because of the difficulty in investigating them – no Bedouin would testify against another Bedouin – or because of the leniency with which the law enforcement agencies (police, state’s attorney, courts, prisons and the mechanism of pardons) relate to these acts of murder. The researcher Manar Hasan exposed this leniency in an important and painful article that was published in the book “Sex, Gender and Politics”, edited by D. Yizraeli.
Additional problematic matters with the Bedouin sector that have come to light in recent years are the culture of “protection money” in building sites and industrial areas, for example: Emek Sarah in Beersheba, and smuggling of drugs, guns, women and foreign workers from Sinai and Jordan.
All of these matters – illegal building on state lands, polygamy, marriage among relatives, murder, blood feuds, protection and smuggling – which are connected to the Bedouin sector, prove that rather than being a case of a few isolated incidents, the problem is that the Bedouin culture sees the law of the state as law that is not part of the Bedouin culture. In this, the Bedouins in Israel are no different from the Bedouins throughout the Arab world, who live parallel and separate lives from the rest of the state, and within another legal system – “customs and tradition” – which is based on the sense of “we are here and the state is there”. The group gives them power, because the state – for reasons of convenience – does not deal with each separate Bedouin, but with a consolidated and violent tribe that would not hesitate to take to violence if it feels that its interests are endangered.
Tribal culture is the basis for all of the problems that are connected with the Bedouins, not only in Israel but in the entire Middle East: in Libya, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Syria, in Algeria, in Egypt (Sinai) and in many other places, tribes struggle with the state in order to maintain their culture, their laws, their customs and their traditions, that are usually contrary to the laws of the state and its regulations. The tribe has its own leadership and its own legal system and in many matters it conducts itself as an entity that is independent and separate from the state. Among the Bedouins, the state is considered a hostile entity since it aims to enforce its laws on the tribe.
The situation among the Bedouins of the Negev is not different in principle from the situation of the Bedouins throughout the Middle East. Since the State of Israel was established more than 65 years ago it has not dealt correctly with the matter. Beginning in 1968 the State of Israel has been attempting to settle the Bedouins in towns that were built for them: Rahat, Tel Sheva, Kuseifa, Lakiyya, Hura, Aro’er and Segev Shalom. A significant part of the Bedouins indeed did move to these towns and changed their lifestyle considerably, but tribalism has also moved from the desert to the city: the neighborhoods in the city are usually settled according to the tribal code, and the people’s conduct and behavior still have traditional tribal characteristics: in one of the Bedouin towns in the Negev, a child was run over by a member of another tribe, and every child belonging to the driver’s tribe stopped walking to the neighborhood school, since they had each become a potential murder victim, in revenge for the child that had been run over. They demanded that the state build a special school for them, because the way to the school passes through the neighborhood of the child that was killed, and therefore they can no longer walk to the general school in the community.
Moving to the town does not solve the issue of polygamy, since in the cities as well, there are families in which one man lives with several wives according to Islamic Shari’a, despite its being a transgression of the laws of the state. And many Bedouins in the towns continue to earn their living from illegal occupations. The state hesitates to enforce its laws on the Bedouin sector, and this is obvious in the lack of enforcement of the planning and building laws. Local politics in Bedouin towns is based on the tribe, and inter-tribal conflicts make it difficult for the local authorities to function. In many cases, when a Bedouin town's council becomes dysfunctional due to endless conflicts between the tribes, the interior minister is forced to disband the municipal council, dismiss the mayor and appoint a committee and a mayor from outside to manage the town.
In conclusion: the basis of the problem with the Bedouin sector is that it has been left behind on the platform as the train of the state has progressed into the twenty first century. Great parts of the Bedouin sector still live tribal lives, according to rules that are contrary to the laws of the state. The tribal lifestyle influences all areas of life – type of housing, education, occupation and family relations – and interferes with the state’s ability to solve the problems of its citizens in the Bedouin sector. The state has never tried to deal with the problem in a holistic way, but has rather tried to solve the problem of housing without regard to dealing with the other problems. This is where the difficulties in dealing with the problem of lands and housing stem from. In the absence of a state policy, the door is opened for the involvement of foreign bodies such as the Islamic movement, which exploits the confusion in the state’s institutions, and conducts a boom of illegal building on state lands in projects that include thousands of people who come from other areas into the Negev for one day for just this purpose. These projects are carried out openly with many advertisements before and afterwards, and the state doesn’t do a thing; it is paralyzed when confronted with the determination of the Islamic movement.
The thread that ties together all of the problems related to Bedouins is the Bedouin culture, which is based on the tribe. Tribal culture is a high barrier that separates the Bedouin public from life in a modern state that conducts itself according to the law of equality for all of its citizens. If the state desires to bring the Bedouins to a situation where they are normative citizens, it must not only take them out of the desert, it must take the desert out of them. The solution to the Bedouin problem in the Negev must not be limited to dealing with the matter of housing, since the problem of housing is only a small part of the tribal culture. If the state desires to solve the problem at its root it must take care of problems that are a result of tribal culture.
The treatment of the Bedouins must involve a holistic, inclusive approach, and relate to all areas of life: housing, occupation, education and family relations. Moreover, the state must relate to the Bedouin lawbreaker as it does to any other lawbreaker, and if he breaks the law, the state must not treat him leniently just because he was born to a large and powerful Bedouin tribe that can exert pressure on the enforcement agencies.
Towns for Bedouins must be planned, with infrastructures for water, sewage, electricity and communications, and with public institutions, industrial areas, employment and social services. The state must invest all of the necessary resources in this effort so that the Bedouin towns in the Negev will be equal to any other city in the state of Israel. On the other hand, private building, scattered outside the communities, must be considered a severe transgression of the laws of the state, and these lawbreakers must be tried and punished. The state must behave toward its citizens in the Negev exactly as it does toward citizens in Tel Aviv or in Herzliya, because if it is not so, severe discrimination is created between the citizens of the state: the situation would exist where the citizen in Tel Aviv is forbidden to build illegally on state land, while a citizen in the Negev is permitted.
The state must establish places of employment and industrial areas in the Bedouin towns in order to develop incentives and grant its Bedouin citizens the ability to make an honorable living in normative occupations. The institutions of higher education in the state must be open and accessible to any Bedouin, man or woman, who is interested and capable of learning in them. On the other hand, the state must enforce the law to its fullest severity on anyone who deals in smuggling, “protection” or any other illegal occupation.
The state must use the educational system to impart to the young generation of Bedouins the concepts of citizenship that will supersede tribal laws. A Bedouin girl must learn that according to state law, as well as Islamic law, she has the right to choose a life partner for herself, even if he is from another tribe, and that she can marry him with the condition that he not take another wife after her. The educational system must provide the youth of the Bedouin sector with information and awareness regarding the genetic dangers associated with marriage between relatives, and that everyone – whether woman or man – has the right to learn, to progress in life and to develop a professional career.
The educational system must impart to the youth of this sector the obligation to obey the laws of the state and especially if they are contrary to the laws of the tribe. The prohibition against violence must be a guiding principle for every citizen, including the Bedouin. Education must relate to polygamy as something that is against the law and is therefore forbidden. The educational message must give to the new generation of Bedouin men the sense that their manliness does not stem from the number of wives that they have but from the way that each man relates to his only wife, and that the number of children is less important than their education and making sure that each child gets what any modern child should from his parents.
Educators in the Bedouin sector must act in accordance with the principle that their task is to impart to the young generation the desire and the ability to be a citizen with equal rights and obligations, that he is an autonomous person with the right to make decisions independently, and is not subservient to any group.
The state must enforce the law of National Insurance in such a way that it will not subsidize breaking the law, which forbids polygamy. The state must limit the children’s benefits according to each household, in such a way that every man can get benefits only for one wife to whom he is legally married, and her children. The state must stop the benefits to wives who were brought to the Negev from Mount Hebron, from Jordan, from Saudi Arabia or from the Gaza Strip, including Ismail Haniye’s sister. There is no reason that the state’s money should be spent on the citizens of foreign states.
The government’s policy towards the Bedouin sector must be consistent over the years, without regard to changes in government. Cultural change does not occur overnight and calls for a large and long-range investment. The state must allocate the necessary resources to bring this cultural change to the Bedouin sector in order to bring it into the twenty first century, otherwise this important sector will remain in the cultural desert of the Middle East.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.
Translated from Hebrew by SallyZahav with permission from the author.