If most of the half million Israeli Arabs are forgotten Israelis, the 40,000 Bedouins who live in the Negev are the forgotten of the forgotten. To a certain extent this is their own doing, for they have always considered themselves a people apart. Called Bedouin only by outsiders (from badiya, the Arabic word for desert), they call themselves el-Arab—the Arabs—and consider themselves the elite of the Arab peoples, the ones who spread the word of Mohammed throughout the Middle East. Traditionally, they have looked down on other Arabs just as other Arabs look down on them. Thus they have never considered themselves Palestinians—the Palestinians were in any case from the mountain country to the north of the desert—and they have taken no part in the rising enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause among other Israeli Arabs. On the contrary, they were considered for a long time the most loyal part of Israel’s Arab population. Hundreds of Bedouin men still serve as scouts and trackers in the Israel Defense Forces.

But one major problem has plagued relations between successive Israeli governments and the Bedouins since the inception of the Jewish state in 1948: land ownership in the Negev. The nineteen Bedouin tribes now living in this desert claim over a fifth of it as their tribal lands, while the government claims that it is all state land, and that the Bedouins have no legal right to it. The Bedouins have no papers to prove their claims; oral law and the tenancy of centuries were sufficient proof as far as they were concerned. In a modern state that requires documentary evidence, this leaves them in a very weak legal position. As the adviser on Arab affairs to several former Labor governments, Shmuel Toledano, put it (after he was no longer in office): “The law is on the side of the government, and justice on the side of the Bedouin.”

Many of those involved with the Negev land dispute see it as part of the conflict between nomads and settled people throughout the world. The Plains Indians in the United States and the aborigines of Australia, for example, lacking power in a society whose rules they were slow to grasp, never had a chance to hold on to their lands. In the Middle East, the rise of new nationalisms and regimes took its toll of Bedouin culture, and in most Arab countries the Bedouins have been deprived of both land and the freedom to move on it. Saudi Arabia and Syria nationalized Bedouin range lands in the early Fifties. Jordan introduced a law severely limiting the range possibilities of the black goat—the main herd animal of many Mideast Bedouins—by allowing only female goats to graze. The new Arab regimes were deeply distrustful of the Bedouins and of their fierce independence of what was to them outside authority. Struggling to enforce this authority in a notoriously unstable region, these regimes were unhindered by democratic processes and curbed the Bedouin threat without hesitation.

In Israel, still the only working democracy in the Middle East, the conflict between “nomad” and “settler” is exacerbated by another factor: the Bedouins are Arabs, and for thirty years Israel has been on a war footing with most of the Arab world. This has exacerbated the deteriorating relations between the Israeli authorities and the Bedouins, who see themselves being defined in political terms that are not theirs. A Bedouin lawyer, Khalil Abu-Rabiya, told me: “The Bedouin will be a refugee on his own land. He won’t be over the border dreaming of his original homeland like the Palestinian; he’ll be here, living here, going to work on a conveyor belt each day in a factory built on what was his land, established on the expropriation of his rights.”

This feeling, however, is relatively new. Until 1977, when Labor finally lost power to Menachem Begin’s Likud-led government, an uneasy status quo prevailed over the issue of land ownership in the Negev. Successive Labor governments were unwilling to force the issue, though they attempted various settlements to it. One was a plan for “industrial townships”—basically dormitory towns for Bedouin industrial labor—which was quietly shelved after strong Bedouin opposition to the first two such townships built. Another was a compensation plan under which the Bedouins would waive claim to half their lands and accept money and alternate lands for the other half. The Bedouins rejected this offer out of hand, refusing even to attempt to negotiate it.

While the Labor government equivocated, the new Begin government was clearly ready to force the issue. As on other matters, the new government adopted the de facto policy of its predecessors but introduced a radical change in strategy and tactics to make that policy official. In the heartland of the occupied West Bank territory, for example, Jewish settlements which the Labor government had tolerated but not formally approved were now declared legal, and more such settlements were established. In the Negev, the old Labor plan to move the Bedouins into industrial townships was revived, but whereas under Labor the plan was offered as an alternative to the prevailing Bedouin way of life, the Likud ensured that the Bedouins would have no alternative. The first stage of the new plan was to move all the Negev Bedouins into what was, in effect, a reservation in the northeastern Negev. To this end the government called on the services of a para-police unit called the Green Patrol.


The Green Patrol had been set up in early 1977 under Rabin’s Labor government and given special police powers to ensure that the large numbers of Bedouin goats and sheep would cause no damage to agricultural crops or to nature reserves. This seemed a commendable purpose, and no one questioned the formation of the Patrol. Indeed, few knew of it. It needed no formal cabinet approval, since its members were officially employees of the Nature Reserves Authority. (The Authority is headed by reserve general Avraham Yoffe, an outspoken advocate of the Land of Greater Israel Movement which is dedicated to keeping all of the territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.) Most of the Green Patrol’s budget came from the Israel Lands Administration and from the Ministry of Agriculture.

After the change of government in May 1977, the Patrol came under the direction of the new minister of agriculture, Ariel Sharon, the daring and unorthodox general who has for years been a supporter of Gush Emunim, the illegal settlement movement operating in the heartland of the West Bank. His policy of “act-first-talk-later” was adopted by the Gush. Now the Green Patrol also began to work in Sharon’s style, harassing the Bedouins with every law at its disposal to drive them out of the main part of the Negev.

The force and even brutality used by the Patrol soon earned it the dubious distinction of becoming a curse word among the Bedouins. After one “operation” in which the Patrol had taken down Bedouin tents pitched on government-claimed land, slung them onto trucks, and then dumped them in a Bedouin cemetery some miles away, I talked to Alon Galili, the head of the Patrol, a man in his early forties. “This isn’t pleasant work,” he said. “It has to be done, but you really don’t want to know about it.”

I replied that I did.

“Listen,” he said. “Get one thing straight. There’s no such thing as justice in this world. One man’s justice is another man getting screwed. That’s it. Now there’s one thing I’ll fight to the ends of this earth for. And that’s that this land remain ours, Jewish. The Arabs have so much land, and all we have is this little state. Why can’t they leave us in peace with it? Land that we bought in the Negev with blood and money is ours. It was the Bedouins’ before? Fine. It’s ours now.”

But what would he want to see happen to the Bedouins?

“I want order, that’s all. Order. The laws exist, and they should be made to work. The Bedouins are citizens of the state, so they must abide by its laws. They didn’t choose to be citizens? That’s too bad. You’re talking justice, and there isn’t any. Now policy is just not my business; my business is simply to enforce the law. To make policy you first have to have order, and that’s what the Green Patrol is doing, making order.”

By the end of 1978, the Green Patrol had things in order: nearly every Negev Bedouin had been moved into the “reservation area,” joining those already living there on their own tribal lands. The government now planned six industrial townships within a ten-mile radius of Beersheba.

Bedouin opposition was relatively weak, mainly because of traditional hostility and suspicion among the tribes and the cupidity of the sheikhs, who often preferred personal deals with the government to caring for the interests of their tribes. But a small liberal nonpartisan group of Jewish academics and jurists called the Association for Civil Rights in Israel took up the Bedouin cause. Attacking the idea of the industrial townships, it made a detailed study of alternatives and presented the government with a report recommending the establishment of Bedouin moshavim—agricultural cooperatives.

Dr. Clinton Bailey, the association’s chairman and an anthropologist specializing in Bedouin affairs, estimated that 70 percent of the Bedouins would find this an equitable way to move from what remains of their traditional pastoral life into a modernized society, while still being able to live on the land. In this, however, he deliberately ignored government policy as stated by a senior official of the Israel Lands Administration when the Green Patrol first started policing the Negev: “Our aim is to sever the link between the Bedouins and the land.”


It seems clear to Bailey and other experts that the Bedouins could farm the desert moshavim as successfully as the Jewish settlers of northern Sinai, who took advantage of the desert heat and advanced agricultural technology to produce flowers and out-of-season fruit and vegetables for profitable export. In fact the Bedouins had already tried to explore this possibility three years ago, when five hundred families from four tribes applied for permission to start five such moshavim in the Negev. Their application has been ignored.

To find out why, I went to see a senior government official who had direct responsibilities for such matters. But the moment I mentioned the word moshavim, the official banged his fist on the desk. He told me several times that what he was about to say was not for attribution: “Of course we’ve rejected that idea,” he said. “Quite rightly. Moshavim! We should give good agricultural land to the Bedouins? The Jews do agriculture far better than the Bedouins, and the Jews will have the moshavim, not the Bedouins.”

“But the Bedouins can learn the new techniques of desert agriculture as well as Jews.”

“Listen to me. The Bedouins are human material that is the antithesis of order. And you need order to establish moshavim. We want that land for the Jews! Every inch of land is now of vital importance for the future of the country. The Jews of Israel need the land; that land belongs to the State, and the State will give it to the Jews to work. And the State will decide, not the Bedouins, where the Bedouins will live and what they will do.”

“As Israeli citizens, don’t the Bedouins have the right to choose what kind of life they want to live, and where, just as do Israeli Jews?”

“They can choose.”

“You mean you are considering an alternative to the townships?”

“I mean they can choose. Of course they can choose. They can go outside the reservation area with their flocks and the Green Patrol will come along every day and confiscate their goats and take their sheep off to the quarantine station and bring trespassing charges against them. But they can keep on like that if they want. Of course they have a choice. To keep on like that or go into an industrial township. What do you think they want the moshavim for? They want the land, that’s why, land and water. Well, I’m not going to give it to them. These six industrial townships are the maximum of what I have to offer—maybe another township or two, but that’s it. There are two possible options for settling the Bedouins—agriculture and industry—and I’ve decided that they’ll work in industry. If they had moshavim they’d only start spreading out, slowly annexing more and more land to their settlements. All they want is our land. And in any case there’s no water to give them.”

“There’s water to give to the twenty Jewish agricultural settlements now being built in the northwestern Negev.”

“The water is only for Jewish settlements. I’m not giving it to Arabs.”

Such attitudes were to lead to the biggest blunder the Begin government has yet made in its dealing with the Bedouins. Shortly after the peace treaty with Egypt was signed in March 1979, the “Negev Lands Purchase (Peace Agreement with Egypt) Law” was drawn up in order to allow immediate expropriation of part of the Bedouin reservation area in the northeastern Negev. The government argued that the land was needed urgently for a joint military and civilian airfield to replace one of the three military airfields in the Sinai to be evacuated by April 1982. The government did not mention the fact that the new airfield had been on the planners’ drawing boards for years and had been held up because the land was occupied by Bedouins. Now the proposed bill would solve this problem: it side-stepped any judicial proceedings by allowing the land to be expropriated without court orders and without any right of appeal to the courts. The government argued that normal expropriation procedures and appeals would take years and that an immediate start on the new airfield was vital to the national security. Other solutions were not considered, however; for instance, the possibility of a special judicial commission to expedite appeals was not even raised.

As originally introduced in the Knesset by the government, the new bill allowed for further expropriation of Bedouin land anywhere in the Negev. It awarded money and alternate land in partial compensation for Bedouin pasture lands but at a very low rate. In fact the payments already made to some Jewish settlers in northern Sinai, who have to move by April 1982 under the terms of the peace treaty, were thirty times that proposed for comparable Bedouin land by the new bill. The bitterness building up among the Bedouins came to a head: “If we were Jews, the government would never dream of such a law,” said Nuri el-Aukbi, chairman of the Committee for Bedouin Rights and Lands in the Negev.

At first only the Bedouins themselves and the Association for Civil Rights protested the proposed bill. It took three months to persuade the parliamentary opposition to join the protest. Swayed by the government argument that the land was urgently needed for security reasons, the Labor Alignment finally committed itself to abstaining on the first reading of the bill last July and to supporting it on its final readings, still to be held. They did so on condition that the land concerned be limited only to what was necessary for the airfield, that negotiations be held with the Bedouins, that the terms of compensation be made more flexible, and that there be right of appeal on compensation—though still not on expropriation.

The government became suddenly aware that it had moved too far too fast, and set up a committee to deal with the Bedouin problem, with Meir ben-Meir, Israel’s water commissioner in the Ministry of Agriculture, as chairman. Eight months later, ben-Meir is still trying to find a solution for Bedouin claims. Though he will not explain his work in detail to the press, reliable sources told me that the bill will be changed considerably in a more liberal direction when it undergoes final readings within the next few months. Indeed, if the bill had originally been presented in the form now envisaged, much of the bitterness and polarization of the Bedouins over the issue might have been avoided. Some of the rates of compensation are five times larger than they were before. But while compensation for Bedouin pasture land in the form of irrigated agricultural land, for instance, will now be at the rate of 5 percent instead of 1 percent, the Bedouins still are prohibited from living on moshavim. “We want the Bedouins in a few large settlements, not in many small ones such as moshavim where they’ll spread out onto the land again,” a senior official told me. And since a minimum claim of twenty-five pasture acres is needed to receive irrigated land at all, most Bedouins—some 80 percent—will have to work in industry for the main part of their income.

Although formal negotiations with the Bedouins broke down some months ago, informal negotiations continue. It now seems likely that “under-the-table” agreements will be made in the form of payoffs to important sheikhs—in land, not money—in return for their acquiescence in the bill. This is not a democratic solution but in the Negev it is the traditionally effective one. By the time the bill does reach the Knesset for its final readings, the government expects, I was told, that “only a few radicals” will still oppose it. The government has already lost one year of the three years available to build what it described as a vital airfield (comparable airfields in the Sinai took up to seven years to complete). And meanwhile, the Bedouins have been estranged from the government more than ever before, to the extent that their own sense of themselves as generally standing apart from the Middle East conflict is breaking down.

The tendency of the Begin government to identify the Bedouins along with all other Arabs as enemies was evident in a statement made to the press in 1978 by the Green Patrol chief, Alon Galili, who claimed that “we have recently discovered that the movement of the Bedouins and their flocks is not innocent. There is a hand guiding them from Saudi Arabia or from Jordan, telling them where to spread out, and dividing Israel up into plots of land.” Galili gave no evidence for this “invisible-hand theory,” and my own questioning of government officials and Arab experts turned up none to back him up. But by its insistence on identifying the Bedouins in this way, the government is pushing them toward the very extreme it accuses them of.

Since 1976, March 30 has been commemorated by Palestinian Israeli Arabs as Land Day, making a protest against land expropriation in the Galilee in which six were killed and many others injured by army units breaking up the demonstration. This year and last year, the Bedouins joined the Land Day demonstrations, holding a mass meeting of their own at Laghiya, the site of one of the planned Bedouin townships. Israeli Arabs and members of the Israeli Communist Party, which is supported by many Israeli Arabs as the main party representing their interests but was never popular previously among the Bedouins, were very much in evidence this year. (The Communist Party has four members in the Knesset.) Israeli leaders used to insist, quite accurately, that the Bedouins were not inclined to take sides against Israel in the politics of the Middle East. Now the Begin government’s tendency to see Arabs generally as enemies has forced the Bedouins closer to Palestinian Israeli Arabs and, through them, into painfully acute consciousness that land is the main issue of the Palestinian problem.

When Galili told me, “There’s no such thing as justice in this world. One man’s justice is another man getting screwed,” he was stating, although in its crudest form, a view that one hears frequently in Israel, and that usually is justified by Israel’s struggle simply to exist. But even if one were to accept this highly arguable view, no such justification could, until recently, have been made with reference to the Bedouins. Perhaps now that so many young Bedouins have been turning to more radical views, the security argument has become more powerful. The Begin government, already deeply enmeshed in ancient prophecies, has not been able to forgo the temptation to create new and bitter ones that are self-fulfilling.

This Issue

May 29, 1980