Although the Negev desert makes up 60 percent of the Israel’s land mass, it is a sparsely populated area in the south that holds only 8% of the country’s population. Home to the biblical Abraham and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, there are approximately 700,000 people who live in the Negev today including over 200,00 in the desert’s capital Beer Sheva.
While the Negev is known for its natural beauty as well as its historical and archaeological sites, there are several factors that are changing the region’s scenery. According to Regavim, an Israeli NGO dedicated to preserving Israel’s state land and national properties, the Bedouin population’s construction of thousands of illegal buildings is spreading rapidly across the Negev.
“The area of illegal Bedouin expansion reaches up to 800,000 dunams (200,000 acres) in the northern Negev between Beer Sheva, Dimona and Arad,” stated Meir Deutsch, Regavim’s Regional Director to Tazpit News Agency during a recent tour of the region. “The Jewish population remains in much more concentrated areas like Beer Sheva. The Bedouins simply build wherever they want to.”
“Israel’s backyard desert is in a terrible mess,” Deutsch says. “If Israel allows this building to continue, it will lose its sovereignty over the northern Negev.”
“Part of the problem is the rapidly expanding Bedouin population,” explains Deutsch. Bedouin families are large, averaging six to ten children and have one of the highest fertility rates in the world. While Israel bans polygamy, Bedouin men often marry two to three wives and can have families with as many as 25 children.
In 2008, Israel together with leading figures in the Bedouin community initiated a state program to address the phenomenon of Bedouin polygamy and its severely harmful implications on family structure.
It is estimated today that there are nearly 200,000 Bedouins living in the Negev, of which half reside in seven existing towns established by the Israeli government. The other half of the population lives in unauthorized communities with no municipal status on desert land that the Bedouins have never formally owned. Deutsch explains that 60,000 illegal structures have been built by Bedouins across the Negev and 2,000 new illegal structures are added every year. These areas are rampant with poverty, crime and lawlessness.
In addition, because the Bedouins are dispersed over extensive areas and not in permanent housing, they are not connected to Israel’s electricity grid or public services.
Another major problem Deutsch pointed out is the collaboration between Sinai and Negev Bedouins who work together to smuggle in illicit drugs and weapons for terrorists, jeopardizing Israel’s security.
“There are solutions to these problems,” Deutsch tells Tazpit News Agency. “But it must begin with the government taking appropriate action to address these issues in an effective way. This hasn’t happened yet.”
“The illegal building has to stop. On Google Earth, anyone can see how the Bedouin communities in the northern Negev are continually expanding. If something isn’t done soon, the impact will be felt everywhere,” he added.
It is important to note that Bedouin citizens are a minority within the Arab minority in Israel. Most of the Bedouins in the Negev were nomads who originally came from Hejaz, a region in the northern Arabian peninsula and immigrated to Israel between the 14th and 18th centuries. Bedouins in northern and central Israel hail from the Syrian desert, with northern Bedouin tribes fighting alongside Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.
While much fewer Negev Bedouins serve in the IDF, an estimated two-thirds of their brethren living in northern Israel serve in the army as elite trackers and scouts along the country’s borders.