Israel's Bedouin Citizens

More than 200,000 Bedouin live in Israel – and are one of Israel's poorest sectors.

The Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and the forty years of wandering in the desert that followed, occupy a crucial place in the Jewish people’s collective memory. There are parallels between our experience leaving Egypt – nomadic, wandering through the desert, but with a clear collective identity – and the lives of Israel’s 230,000 Bedouin citizens. There are also similarities between the socio-economic and political status of the Bedouin in Israel and that of remote Indigenous communities in Australia.

The oldest Bedouin community in Israel can be traced to the 11th century, long before the arrival of the Ottomans. The government of Mandatory Palestine set the population of Negev Bedouin at 90,000. After the events of 1948, only around 11,000 remained. Today, most Bedouin identify as Palestinians; indeed, many of their family members who left during the War of Independence today live in Gaza, Egypt, the West Bank and Jordan as Palestinian refugees.

In this video, the director of Shatil's Be'er Sheva office, Sultan Abu Obaid, discusses the two main challenges facing Israel's Bedouin communities.

During that time, many Jewish settlements and townships took over the most fertile agricultural land previously used by Bedouin communities. The process of ‘making the desert bloom’, a policy inspired by David Ben-Gurion’s wish to settle the Negev with Jews, continues to this day, with the Bedouin villages of Umm al-Hiran and Atir currently in the process of being replaced by the new Jewish town of Hiran.

Today, Bedouin communities are among Israel’s most disadvantaged, with poor health and education outcomes, high unemployment and poverty. While there has been significant progress in recent years, only 1-in-5 Bedouin-Israelis graduate from high school, compared to 1-in-3 in the wider Arab community, and 1-in-2 Jewish-Israelis. More than 66% of Bedouin live in poverty – in unrecognised villages the number exceeds 80% – compared with around 25% in the general population. The infant mortality rate in the Bedouin community is as high as five times that of the general population.

These issues are similar, in many ways, to those that certain Australians face. Many of the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – with regard to high school completion, health outcomes, and life expectancy – are mirrored in Bedouin society.

The other major issue Bedouin face is with native title and land ownership, which remains largely unresolved, and is a constant cause of conflict with the Israeli government.

For almost 60 years, successive Israeli governments have sought to unify Bedouin life into just a few towns and villages, which they claim will allow an easier provision of services to residents. Bedouin, however, claim that this is just a ploy to remove them from their traditional lands, and that the services provided in these large towns are substandard, especially when compared to Jewish towns in the area.

While some Bedouin towns and villages in the Negev operate like any other, many are not recognised by the Israeli government, and suffer deeply as a result. They are often not connected to the electricity grid or water mains, and they have no sewage or waste disposal services. Around a half of Bedouin live in these ‘unrecognised villages’.

As the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Bedouin residents, particularly those in unrecognised villages, face housing insecurity – with town planning mechanisms totally unable to cope with the number of residents, permits rarely issued, and house demolitions a near-constant threat.


  1. What responsibility does Israel have to improve the living standards for the Bedouin communities?
  2. What similarities can you see between Israel’s Bedouin citizens and Indigenous communities in Australia?
  3. The Australian Jewish community has a long history of activism campaigning for the rights of Indigenous Australians. Given the similarities between the two communities, what can we do to raise the profile of the Bedouin issue in our community?