Note on author: ICAHD member Hilary first heard about the “Unrecognised Villages” from a speaker contacted through Jews for Justice for Palestinians back in 2011. Since then she has visited Israel-Palestine several times, including an ICAHD tour in 2017, and been able to visit several of the villages. The plight of the people of Al Araqib, and the unhappy saga of Umm al-Hiran, has made a deep impression on her.
Note: Population numbers have been rounded for simplicity. There is variation between sources, but what is quoted here gives a quick impression of the numbers of people affected.
Overall, one fifth of Israel’s citizens are Arab – that’s 1.9 million people. Around 300,000 of them, the Bedouin, live in the south, in the Negev/Naqab area, the land stretching from the Gaza border through Beersheva, past the South Hebron Hills and towards the Dead Sea. Though dry, it can be farmed - unlike the area much further south. The Bedouin indigenous citizens from the Naqab, particularly those in the “Unrecognised Villages”, face many difficulties and need our support.
Contrary to popular myth, the Naqab Bedouin are not nomadic. Adalah (The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) made this point in their Ten Myths About the Bedouin written at the time of the 2012 Prawer Bill. They might use different areas for crop growing in the winter and for the summer grazing of their herds, but they had permanent homes and a recognised system of land ownership long before 1948.
The Bedouin of the Naqab value and wish to retain their indigenous culture and agricultural lifestyle. However the Israeli State has other plans, to “concentrate” the Bedouin into designated new townships; these are some of the poorest in the country, and crime and social ills are rife. The traditional clan structure and farming lifestyle are destroyed. Meanwhile land is “freed up” for new Jewish-only settlements, or extensive “ranches” for a single Jewish family, and for road building and mining. The State plans were encapsulated into the 2011 Prawer Plan, eventually shelved after extensive protest both inside Israel and internationally. Whilst it did not pass into law, nevertheless its aims are still being pursued today.
Historically, the vast majority of the indigenous Bedouin were expelled or fled during the Nakba of 1947-48 into Gaza, Egypt, Jordan or into what is now the West Bank. The 11,000 who remained have now grown to a population approaching 300,000. Up to 1966 the Bedouin were under military rule and were concentrated into a triangular “closed zone” to the east of Beersheva known as “The Siyag”. The Siyag therefore contained a mix of internally displaced Bedouin and others whose traditional villages had always been there. Later the Siyag area was mainly zoned as “agricultural” meaning most villages there are labelled “Unrecognised”.
Today there are some 35 “Unrecognised Villages” (and many more smaller hamlets) which are not represented on any state maps and whose localities are regarded as “empty space”. Close to 100,000 people live in these. The exact number is uncertain as the national census is not carried out in the unrecognized villages – with some important consequences for the Bedouin. The State uses strategies like home demolition, crop destruction, and denial of basic services like running water, electricity, paved roads, education and welfare to pressurise the Bedouin off the land. Demolitions are of course charged for and an increasing number of people will self-demolish to avoid the cost, the trauma, and the loss of possessions.
About 200,000 Bedouin live in the seven townships established by the state (Rahat City and six towns) and in 11 villages that have been recognised by the state. You can see these places as blue squares or circles on the Negev Coexistence Forum’s Interactive Map. You can also look up all the other unrecognised villages, see photos and read about their situation. Even the villages that have been recognised have far poorer services than Jewish settlements (see this 2014 report) and show no real difference to the unrecognised villages, because both lack building permits.
This map is just one of the resources produced by the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF) formed in 1997, a group of concerned Arab and Jewish residents of the region seeking to build a shared society and to provide a framework for Arab-Jewish partnership in the struggle for civil equality and the advancement of mutual tolerance and coexistence. NCF have issued many publications, including Discussing Racism in the Negev-Nagab with 16 portraits and testimonies of members of the Bedouin community; they keep a tally of home demolitions and crop destructions (the ploughing under of barley or wheat, often just before harvest). NCF also run Womens and Childrens Photography projects allowing the chance for people to record their lifestyle and record human rights violations by the authorities.
The Negev Coexistence Forum reported 3,004 structures being demolished during 2021, the highest ever number. Self-demolition represented 86% of all the demolitions carried out that year, reflecting the trauma and the expense of waiting for the authorities to visit with their bulldozers.
Some Bedouin villages have attracted international attention:
Al Araqib (al-ʿArāgīb) near to Rahat has been demolished over 200 times since 2010. Each time its residents erect new shelters; they are destroyed on an almost monthly basis. Community leader Sheikh Sayah Al-Turi has been imprisoned and was the subject of an “Urgent Action” by Amnesty International. The only place the bulldozers have pulled back from is the cemetery of Al Araqib.
Umm al Hiran close to the South Hebron Hills was slated for demolition to make way for a Jewish-only settlement (“New Hiran”), although there was ample space to site “New Hiran” slightly differently so the two villages were neighbours. Human Rights bodies including Adalah campaigned for years to save the village. The case was strong as the state itself had moved the residents to that place and they were being evicted purely to make space for a different group of Israeli citizens. Demolition began in 2017 with a dawn raid causing the deaths of a Bedouin schoolteacher and an Israeli policeman. Only the intervention of Forensic Architecture revealed the truth about the incident; even now there has not been a satisfactory investigation into the death of Ya’akob Abu al-Qiʿān. Since 2017, it also seems that State’s initial promises to villagers about getting plots of land in Hura (the nearby township) have not been honoured.
Residents from Atir close to Umm al Hiran were displaced to allow expansion of the Yattir Forest; Jewish National Fund forestry projects are a tool for the dispossession of Bedouin from their lands. The so-called “Ambassadors Forest” in the Negev is planted over some al Araqib land, for example. The JNF image of contributing to the land development and conservation of forests is inaccurate, as the tree varieties are rarely appropriate and native ecosystems are destroyed, researchers find.
In a flashpoint in the village of Sa’we in January 2022, Bedouin and activists protesting in front of the JNF bulldozers were met by Yoav (Special Unit) police on horseback, armoured dune buggies, stun grenades, and tear gas spread by drones. Many were arrested. This, combined with the demolitions in East Jerusalem, set off countrywide protests. After 3 days, the government halted the JNF work. But JNF World Chairman said “We will continue planting in all of the Negev, it’s part of the Zionist vision. There is no stopping no matter who’s in office”.
In May 2022 Amnesty International reported a threat to those in the unrecognised village of Ras Jrabah; 500 Bedouin residents are being ordered out of their homes because the Israeli Authorities are expanding the nearby town of Dimona, home to mostly Jewish Israelis. Now United Nations experts have also urged Israel to stop these forcible displacements.