Battling the Bedouins' birth rate for Israeli-style democracy

Battling the Bedouins' birth rate for Israeli-style democracy
Comment: The fight against polygamy is less about protecting vulnerable women and children and more about demographic control, writes Nick Rodrigo.
6 min read
14 Sep, 2015
Israel does not recognise several Bedouin villages where thousands of them reside [AFP]

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein released a statement late last month declaring their intention to tackle the phenomenon of polygyny within Israel.

The joint statement by Israel's top lawmakers outlined their intentions to address the issue through granting the relevant authorities new powers to implement disciplinary measures, which included sanctioning benefits and prosecuting offenders.  

Shaked noted that polygamy is a major cause of poverty in Israel; referring to the detrimental impact it appears to have upon Bedouin women and children. However, an analysis of Israel's treatment of its Bedouins unveils a more calculated and opportunistic agenda at play.

The Bedouin population within historic Palestine has been a marginalised community, even by their city dwelling, and fellaheen based Palestinian compatriots.

The lifestyle which characterises Bedouin culture, gravitates around a pastoral-nomadic lifestyle and clan based social structure. Land ownership for Bedouins across the Middle East is a fluid concept, a fact which Israel has manipulated for its own policy of land expropriation.

The 20th century has seen the rapid urbanisation of Israels Bedouins. The foundations of this phenomenon are based in the Nakba of 1948, when the Israeli state was created and two-thirds of Mandate Palestine's indigenous Arab population were forced from their homes.

During the Nakba the Bedouin population was reduced to 15-20 percent of its pre-1948 size. The Nakba was followed by a complete topographical overhaul of the Palestinian landscape under Israeli control, with centuries-old villages bulldozed, and Israeli "development towns" built in their place.

These towns in the Naqab grew into large metropolitan cities such as Arad and Dimona, relying on cheap Bedouin labour for their service and construction industries. Due to the apartheid structure of Israel's expanding metropolises, and the nature of Bedouin communal existence, most of Israel's remaining Bedouin communities were swept into reservations.

     Due to the apartheid structure of Israel's metropolises... most of Israel's Bedouin were swept into reservations

Poorly administered and often lacking adequate sanitation and electricity, these reservations served as suitable spaces to hold a people constantly on the move, while the state could engage in "making the desert bloom".

This policy would be conducted by increasing the number of kibbutzim and development towns in the Naqab, while manipulating Ottoman Empire-era absentee laws to block any protest at this flagrant state-sanctioned land grab by the Jewish National Fund.

According to data collected by Israeli historian Illan Pappe, only 0.15 per cent of land expansion on state-owned territory was granted to Arab communities in the 1980s, of which a vast majority was used to build shantytowns for the rapidly urbanising Bedouins.

Today, around 220,000 Bedouin live in the Naqab desert, known to Israelis as the Negev desert, and 60,000 in northern and central Israel - comprising 3.5 percent of the country's total population.

According to statistics collated by Inter Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, of the 400 localties in Israel, the lowest-ranking local councils are the Bedouin townships of Lakiya, tel-Sheva and al-Batuf, with a socioeconomic status of 1/10 for its citizens.

This is directly contrasted with neighbouring Jewish townships such as Lehavim, which has a 9/10 status.

Thousands of Bedouins live in "unrecognised" villages in the Naqab. In research conducted by the Negev Coexistence Forum, it was found that Israel was failing its own domestic obligations, specifically the Compulsory Education Law, when it comes to mandatory education for Bedouin children in the Naqab.

The right to water is also severely limited for Bedouin communities, especially those living within those aforementioned unrecognised villages and towns, most of which are systematically destroyed by the Israeli military, citing their illegality as the reason.

In 2014, 859 Bedouin structures were destroyed in the Naqab. Some 54 percent of these were in planned towns and recognised villages.

In a macabre twist, more than 78 percent of those demolished were done so by the Bedouin owners themselves, under duress by the authorities.

Bedouin communities, however, are not agentless. In the spirit of resistance, community organisers demonstrated against Israeli policies.

In 2013, MK Benny Begin drafted the Prawer plan, a project which was engineered to forcibly displace tens of thousands of indigenous Arab citizens from their recognised villages. After mass grassroots mobilisation from Bedouin communities across the Naqab, the plan was shelved.

The systematic and constant harrying by Israel of its Bedouin population stems from two parallel projects within the meta-project of Zionist conquest and consolidation, as laid down by its founding fathers - the development of the Naqab, and the need to win a perceived demographic war with its Arab population.

The Naqab is home to Israel's nuclear arsenal - in the former development town of Dimona - as well as its burgeoning cyber-security sector, which is growing apace in Beersheba, ear marking Bedouin land for expansion due to huge revenue streams from abroad.

     The Naqab is home to Israel's nuclear arsenal as well as its burgeoning cyber-security sector

These both contribute to making Israel the geopolitical and economic heavyweight it is today.

Expansion into the Naqab is a deeply existential project for Israel. In a 1955 speech titled The Significance of the Negev, Ben Gurion stated: "It is in the Negev that the people of Israel will be tested - for only with a united effort of volunteering people and a planning and implementing state will we accomplish the great mission of populating the wilderness and bringing it to flourish."

In the same speech, Ben-Gurion noted "it is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigour of Israel will be tested and this will be a crucial test".

The "demographic threat" posed by Israel's Arab population has cast a spectre over the Zionist project. The logic goes that Israel's Jewish and democratic character is predicated on a delicate ethno/religious balance. For Israeli administrations of varying political alignments, this issue has been framed as a pressing strategic concern.

In 2012, Israel's High Court rejected a legal challenge to the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (2007).

This law places restrictions on the ability of Palestinian citizens of Israel to live with their spouses from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The interior minister at the time of the ruling noted that endangering a Jewish majority would constitute national suicide, indicating the deep fears the Israeli establishment have of a perceived "fifth Arab column".

With a birth rate standing at five percent annually, one of the highest in the world, Israel has long recognised the direct threat a growing Arab population in the Naqab poses - not only to the land earmarked for expropriation, but also to the supposed façade of democracy within a Jewish state.

Family planning in Bedouin townships is not a crusade against poverty and gender discrimination, it is a crude attempt to open a new front on Israel's 70-year conquest of the Naqab.

Nick Rodrigo is a freelance researcher working for the Afro-Middle East Centre based in Johannesburg. He holds an MA in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights from the University of Essex, and has previously worked with Iranian and Palestinian human rights organisations.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.