Israel's Bedouin citizens

Israel went forth from Egypt – ביצאת ישראל ממצרים – and on Seder night we retell the story of the Exodus, where the Israelites were freed from bondage and left Egypt for the Holy Land. The 40 years of wandering in the desert that followed also occupies an integral place in this story, as well as the Jewish people’s collective memory.

There are parallels between the Jews wandering in the desert, living a nomadic life, and the lives of Israel’s 230,000 Bedouin citizens. Some of the core values tied to this story – self-determination, respect of culture and living a life of dignity and security – are desires that still elude many in these communities.

For many, exposure to the Bedouin may only be an artificial outreach with an organised tour where one visits a tent, drinks tea, eats some food and goes on a camel ride. However, in reality, Bedouin culture is far richer and much more complex.

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 the Negev Bedouin at 90,000. After 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 now live in Gaza, Egypt, the West Bank and Jordan as Palestinian refugees.

Meet Sultan

Today, Bedouin communities are among Israel’s most disadvantaged. Sultan Abu Obaid, Director of Shatil’s Beer Sheva office, explains that they are “the poorest and most underprivileged population in the State of Israel”. Three of the most pressing issues facing these communities are poor education outcomes, high unemployment and a lack of recognition of Bedouin villages.

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.


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.

This issue is often blamed on an incompatibility of Bedouin culture and a school environment, however the roots of this problem are far more complex and related to other issues. In a survey conducted in the mid-2000s amongst Bedouin and Arabs living in unrecognised villages, nearly 60% of respondents said they dropped out of school due to financial distress or a lack of schools in the vicinity.


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.

Any solution for the Bedouin community needs to be one that empowers them to participate in Israeli society in a way that does not force them to assimilate or leave their communities.

As Sultan Obaid puts it, “that doesn’t only mean finding jobs for people – the State is always preoccupied with ‘finding jobs’. While that is good and important, we also need economic development. We need to create an economy in which Bedouins can be entrepreneurial, start small and medium-sized businesses so that they can integrate into the Israeli economy in all areas; in agriculture, industry, trade, tourism [and] hi-tech.”

Recognition of Villages

Another 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 for an easier provision of services to residents. The Bedouin believe that this is a tactic to remove them from their 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 half of the Bedouin community live in these ‘unrecognised villages’.

Bedouin residents, particularly those in unrecognised villages, face housing insecurity, with town planning mechanisms totally unable to cope with the number of residents and permits rarely issued. Sultan Obaid sums it up when he says that “the threat of demolition and lack of recognition is still a live threat for many Bedouin villages.”

All three of these areas are strongly intertwined. Sultan Obaid says that “the state must invest with a long-term plan, with clear outcomes and a clear strategy, to raise this underprivileged population. This is not a difficult task, it is achievable.”

Discussion Questions:

Set up a mini-debate with a couple of people on an ‘affirmative’ team and the same on a ‘negative’ team to debate that “It is Israel’s responsibility to improve the living standards for the Bedouin communities.” The two groups have to convince the rest of the seder table to vote for their argument.
What similarities can you see between Israel’s Bedouin citizens and Indigenous communities in Australia?
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?

Fact box:

The Bedouin population in Israel is approximately 230,000
In the Negev, the Bedouin population is approximately 160,00. Around 45% live in unrecognised villages.
More than 66% of residents in recognised Bedouin villages live in poverty. This figure increases to 80% in unrecognised villages.