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The Search for Sustainability in the Negev

Project: Reinventing Roots

Posted by Alice Gray over 12 years ago

An article about the context of Bustan's work in the Negev.....and why you should sign up for our latest extended permaculture course!


The Bedouin of the Negev are an ancient people whose cultural history spans centuries, if not millennia. Historically, the Bedouin have been semi-nomadic pastoralists, who made the desert their own through a combination of dry-land farming of forage crops and cereals, rainwater harvesting and seasonal mobility: rotating their presence between their winter and summer grazing grounds. When water and forage ran short, they would move on to another place where they knew they could find what they needed – a cistern that would probably be full, an area where small shrubs would be abundant.

Like all people, everywhere, they created a complex cultural landscape through their activities: modifying the environment they lived in to suit their needs. Like all people, everywhere, they developed their own codes of conduct for sharing the resources upon which they depended among themselves, between different families and tribal groups. Grazing rights, water rights and rights of safe-passage were enshrined in cultural codes, tribal territories were known and respected (or disrespected at the peril of transgressors).


The modern Bedouin are undergoing a difficult transition. Like many travelling people, their encounter with industrialized modern states has not been a happy one. As state borders have become more rigidly controlled, their migration routes have been interfered with or rendered impossible to traverse. As resources (particularly land) have become increasingly ‘owned’ and controlled, their resource use patterns have often been outlawed. In short, the culture that they had evolved to exist within the landscape they called home has been undermined and rendered unworkable.

In Israel, the situation of the Bedouin is exacerbated by the ongoing conflict between the Zionist State and the Palestinians. Not traditionally nationalist people, the Bedouin are having a hard time situating themselves within the political spectrum. At the same time, the State is pursuing a number of counter-productive and somewhat schizophrenic policies towards its Bedouin citizens, spurred on (it seems) by suspicion towards Arabs in general, and a sort of paranoid control-freakery born of a desperate need to ‘Judaize’ the land of Israel.

A brief review of recent history is sufficient to illustrate this point. During and after the 1948 ‘War of Independence’ which resulted in the birth of the Israeli state (known as the ‘Nakba’ or ‘disaster’ by Arabic speakers), approximately 55,000 Bedouins were driven out of the country or fled, reducing the Bedouin population from about 70,000 to 11,000. Shortly afterwards, the remaining Bedouin were rounded up and ‘concentrated’ in an area of land known as the ‘Siyag’ (fence): a small triangle of land in the north-east Negev around Beer Sheva. There they were placed under military rule until 1966.

In 1950 the ‘Black Goat Law’ was passed, prohibiting grazing outside of one’s own land holdings, while at the same time the State refused to recognize Bedouin land rights, passing the ‘Land Acquisition Law’ in 1953 that formally asserted State ownership over 93% of the Negev. Bedouin were also debarred from leasing farmland due to a Zionist prohibition on leasing land to non-Jews, and thus they were prevented from legally practicing all traditional means of self-support.

In 1963, Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Agriculture, was quoted in the Israeli daily Haaretz saying:

We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat… 88% of the Israeli population are not farmers, let the Bedouin be like them… this will be a radical move that means that the Bedouin will not live on his land with his herds…. His children would be accustomed to a father who wears trousers… and does not search for vermin in public…. Without coercion but with government direction… this phenomenon of the Bedouin will disappear.

The first Bedouin ‘township’ of Tel Sheva was founded in 1969 and was shortly followed by 6 more, the most recent of which, Hora, being completed in 1985. These towns were built with Israeli government funding and were designated as the only legal places that Bedouin could live in. All Bedouin who refused to move to the townships were considered ‘trespassers’ and ‘squatters’ on State lands. Today, approximately half of the 155,000 strong Bedouin population of the Negev live in these ‘legal’ townships (which are among the 10 poorest towns in Israel), while most of the other half live in around 45 ‘unrecognized villages’.

The unrecognized villages receive no municipal services: no water, no sewage network, no waste disposal, no electricity, no schools, no clinics. It is illegal to build permanent structures in them, they are not mentioned on any official maps and they are not marked on any road-signs. For this reason, development in the Siyag happens over and around them as if they did not exist, and they nestle cheek by jowl with a number of power stations, chemical processing plants and other polluting infrastructure that makes life unpleasant and unhealthy for their residents without yielding them any services.

Why would anyone remain in such conditions when they could live in a ‘modern’ town and receive the benefits that go with it, whilst at the same time avoiding the frequent house demolitions and destruction of crops that is the lot of the residents of the unrecognized villages? The reason is quite simple – by moving to the townships, Bedouins renounce their way of life and their claim on the land (the State offers a small compensation package as a final settlement for the land rights that the Bedouin do not have). And replace them with what?

Life in the townships has not turned out to be a bed of roses by any stretch. The municipal boundaries are tightly set and it is all but impossible to farm (and certainly impossible to practice traditional Bedouin agriculture), unemployment is high, education is poor, drugs problems and social tensions are rife. The townships lack public libraries, places of entertainment or public transport facilities. In short, they do not offer the benefits that other urban settings might (due to lack of government funding and lack of economic integration with the rest of the State), and are not an entirely tempting prospect to a people with a proud history of independence and self-reliance. Many people prefer to live illegally, in spite of the hardships that they face as a consequence.

Even so, life in the unrecognized villages would probably be culturally unrecognizable to the Bedouin of say a century ago – or at least, it is very different. Things are not quite so simple as ‘maintaining the traditional way of life at any cost’. The traditional way of life is gone. Modern realities are here. For one thing, the Siyag constitutes just one tenth of the Bedouin tribal holdings prior to the creation of the Israeli State, but hosts about double the population. That is a serious hike in population density (20-fold) that renders previously sustainable land management strategies unsustainable. Even if all the land in the Siyag was available for grazing (and it is not), it would be impossible for all of the Bedouin to make their living out of raising livestock using traditional methods. Since all of the Bedouin do not make all of their living in this way, the scale of the problem is not as large as it could be, but overgrazing is certainly an issue to consider.

In addition, the residents of the unrecognized villages do not shun all things modern. They make use of many of the products of industrialized society and generate the resulting non-biodegradable wastes that go alongside them. There is no traditional method for dealing with these wastes in a safe and environmentally sound way, and denied access to modern waste disposal services and infrastructure, the villages develop ugly ‘dumps’ where rubbish accumulates and is periodically burned causing a health and environmental hazard (industrialized society doesn’t currently have very good methods either – we bury and burn just as much rubbish as the Bedouin – we just do so in a less immediately visible way).

These challenges, alongside the normal social stresses experienced by ‘traditional’ cultures encountering ‘modern’/ ‘industrialized’/ ‘liberal’/ ‘permissive’ cultures, all call for adaptation of cultural norms. However, there is one challenge posed by the Bedouin encounter with the Zionist State that is very difficult to adapt to – and that is the State’s policy of demolishing Bedouin homes and destroying Bedouin crops in the unrecognized villages, whilst simultaneously denying the Bedouin the right to adapt their culture to modern challenges at their own pace, but instead imposing ‘urbanization’ on them in the most obnoxious way possible where their only alternative is to live in the ‘failed modernization projects’ (to quote a recent report prepared by the Council for Unrecognized Villages) that are the government townships.

As an example of the dynamics of the situation, the unrecognized Bedouin village of Al Araqib was demolished for the 33rd time since July 2010 on December 21st 2011. The residents are clearly determined to hold on to their land and way of life, even under this extreme pressure, having rebuilt their homes more than 30 times in less than 18 months. The Israeli government seems equally determined to dispossess them, having gone to the trouble of sending bulldozers and large numbers of police and security forces to the village (a costly business) on over 30 occasions. Apparently the State Attorney’s Office is also determined to sue the residents of Al Araqib for over 1 million ILS to cover the costs of the repeated demolitions.

The justification of the State for this behavior is that the unrecognized villagers are in violation of urban planning and zoning laws, that they constitute an environmental hazard and that the land has now been officially ‘zoned’ as an aforestation area that will be planted with trees by the Jewish National Fund with the support of the Israel Land Administration (the funding for this initiative, called ‘God-TV Forest’ has been provided by American Evangelical Christians). In short, the State, in its wisdom, has ‘more appropriate’ and ‘more legitimate’ ways of using the land than the Bedouin community that has existed there since before the State was created.

Earlier in this article I referred to the Israeli government policy towards the Bedouin as ‘schizophrenic’, and that remark requires further explanation. The truth seems to be that the Israeli government has not really decided whether it wants to integrate the Bedouin population or obliterate it. Occasionally there is a move that suggests that there is some will to integrate. For example, Bedouin are not required by law to serve in the Israeli army, but they are permitted to do so (unlike the Muslim and Christian residents of Palestinian towns in Israel such as Nazareth and Jaffa). Every year between 5-10% of young Bedouin men of draft age volunteer to serve in the army. Additionally, there exist in the Negev several ‘Museums of Bedouin Culture’ and Israel’s ‘multi-cultural character’ is proudly boasted of on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. President Shimon Peres is currently sponsoring a program called ‘Maan Tech’ aimed at ensuring that Arab citizens of Israel are able to get jobs in the high-tech sector, encouraging leading firms to engage in positive discrimination to hire Arab workers.

In 2003, in what was cautiously hailed as a positive move by the Bedouin community, the government of Israel decided to form the Abu Basma Regional Council, recognizing seven of the previously unrecognized villages in situ. Shortly afterwards, four more villages were added to the list. Despite a number of problems with the set-up of Abu Basma, it did at least open a line of dialogue between the Israeli government and the Bedouin community. The main problems are as follows:

  • Abu Basma is the most populous Regional Council in the South with over 30,000 constituents, but it is also the smallest in area.
  • There is no territorial contiguity between the villages controlled by Abu Basma making it difficult to plan and execute development.
  • The Regional Council is staffed and governed by Jewish Israelis, with little to no representation of Bedouin citizens.
  • The villages were recognized within fairly tight ‘municipal red-lines’ stripping a large amount of land from them and leaving little room for later expansion.
  • The government wants the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages to accept the Abu Basma deal as a final settlement of the Bedouin land claim. The RCUV does not accept (their position is that all unrecognized villages should be recognized and their land claims settled since “the entire area under dispute is no more than 2% of Negev lands and the Bedouin constitute more than 25% of the Negev population”).

In September 2011, the Israeli government announced a plan to forcibly relocate 30,000 Bedouin citizens from unrecognized villages into recognized towns (Abu Basma villages and the ‘townships’) – a culmination of the plan to make Abu Basma the ‘final settlement’ of Bedouin land rights issues. In a recent interview for the Israeli documentary ‘Blue ID’ the mayor of Ramat Ha-Negev (the largest Regional Council in Israel) shed some light on the reasoning behind this move:

I want the Negev to be Jewish […] The Jewish settlement must grow, must continue. At the same time we must develop the Bedouin settlement, because if we don’t make it permanent now, we will find ourselves in 20 years, not with 45 [Bedouin] settlements, but with 90 settlements. […] What do you mean by “they also deserve”!? You know what – after all this, it is no longer possible to conceal the core problem, which is the struggle over land. Who does this land belong to – us, or them? Time will tell.

This is the essence of the schizophrenia: Israel wishes to be (or at least to be perceived to be) a multi-cultural and democratic state that protects and respects the rights of minorities. Bedouin citizens have the right to a passport, to serve in the army, or to participate in the society….on the society’s own terms. These terms do not include control over any area of land, for arbitrary reasons involving a Zionist obsession with Judaizing the land and an ‘us or them’ mentality. However, this policy is back-firing against the State’s own interests for several reasons.

One is that, although the Bedouin are not nationalists by tradition, the abuse and alienation that is taking place is pressuring them towards Palestinian nationalism rather than Israeli nationalism (if there is no acceptable place for them within the Zionist State where are they expected to turn?). Another is that the policies the State is pursuing are promoting severe environmental degradation in the Negev that will impact the lives of all Israelis, Jewish and Bedouin alike. 45 unrecognized villages with no sewage infrastructure? 45 unrecognized villages with no waste management? Water, air and soil are common resources that, if damaged, will be damaged for everyone.

So where to go from here? How to reverse ‘us or them’? How to find a pathway towards sustainability, in the truest sense of the word, not only referring to environmental factors but also to human cultural factors? Despite the myriad problems of the Abu Basma Regional Council, it does offer one small ray of hope: it provides a testing ground for Bedouin self-determination. It provides a place where Bedouin communities can legally develop along lines that are not pre-determined by the State – not a pre-made urban landscape like the townships, where the government decides what sort of houses people should live in and what sort of lifestyles they should lead (a forced transformation to an urban proletariat). Here, and perhaps not for very long, there is a chance for the Bedouin community to explore possibilities for transitioning towards an integrated life in the modern Israeli State that is culturally acceptable to them….and perhaps not perceived as a threat by the State?

Within Israeli civil society, there are certainly advocates of this approach. Bustan (www.bustan.org) is one of several Israeli NGOs advocating for Negev co-existence. But Bustan’s approach is innovative and unique in that they have seen the potential of permaculture to provide sustainable solutions for Bedouin communities struggling to adapt to the realities of the modern Israeli state. The organization was founded by a Jewish woman (Devorah Brous), but is now directed by Ra’ed Al Mickawi, a Bedouin resident of Tel Sheva (the first Bedouin township to be established).

Currently Bustan are focusing their work in one of the Abu Basma villages (Qasr a-Sir), developing a ‘Green Centre’ where permaculture can be taught to local residents and to foreign students, micro-business initiatives can be developed and incubated, eco-tourism can provide a revenue for the villagers and models can be developed for sustainable living in the desert that could serve as an example to all the people of the region.

The first permaculture course to be taught in the Qasr a-Sir Green centre will start in March 2012 and will provide crucial impetus to Bustan’s ambitious program. The participants will live and work with the community, studying Arabic and Middle East studies as well as permaculture. As part of their 5 month permaculture course they will play an instrumental role in building and developing the Green Centre following permaculture principles, under the guidance of their teachers, and will eventually design and implement projects in consultation with the local community, passing on knowledge and ideas as they do so. The surplus income generated by the course will be returned to the project to help further community education and micro-business initiatives.

Learning permaculture in this context will give participants in this course unique insights into the intricacies of permaculture and its potential to create positive change even under very challenging circumstances; as well as high-lighting the importance of ‘people care’ as a fundamental value of permaculturalists that must be respected in order to create true sustainability. It will furthermore allow them to embark on a fascinating cultural journey, as they learn to see the Negev through the eyes of the Bedouin people, to understand their perspectives and aspirations, and to participate in developing permaculture systems that cater to their needs.

There are still a few places left for those who would like to immerse themselves in this unique experience and participate in a truly exciting and cutting edge initiative — contact permanegev (at) bustan.org or visit the following link for more information:


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