Beduin of Israel

Alternative names: various tribal names
Location: Negev desert, Galilee
Population: probably 130,000
% of population: 3% of Israel’s population, 15% of Israel’s Arab population
Religion: Muslim
Language: Arabic

Many nations in the Middle East and North Africa have Beduin populations — pastoral nomads who inhabit desert areas stretching from Iran to Western Sahara. At one stage they were a substantial part of the population but today are a minority in every country.

The Beduin Arabs of Israel are no longer nomads and they are part of the Palestinian Arab minority, which comprises 18% of the population of Israel within its 1967 borders. 15% of this group are Beduin who are classified as a separate minority group by the Israeli government, along with the Druzes and Circassians. Beduin Arabs in Israel are divided into two main groups — the smaller of about 40,000 lives in the Galilee and the larger of about 90,000 lives in the Negev desert. Both communities are tribally organized into common descent groups of widely varying size although the importance of these groups has diminished in the context of the modern state.


Beduin tribes first entered Palestine in the fifth century AD but little is known about them in the following centuries. During the centuries of Ottoman rule Beduin tribes controlled the Negev and were established in the Galilee. The Ottomans halted Beduin raids on settled villages and by the second half of the nineteenth century the Beduin economy had become a mixed pastoral and agricultural one. Most land in the Negev was not registered in accordance with the law and was characterized as “mawat” or dead land. Under the British authorities who ruled Palestine from 1917 to 1948 land registration was completed everywhere except in the Negev. However Beduin ownership and use of the land was recognized by the authorities and also by the Jewish organizations who bought some Beduin land around Beersheba. Beduin however remained very poor and wage labour played an increasing role in their life.

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war most of the Beduin Arab population fled or were expelled. In the Negev numbers fell from an estimated 65,000-95,000 to about 13,000 and Galilee Beduin, already a much smaller community, were also reduced. The Beduin who remained were confined to various closed military areas and in the Negev into one “reservation” east of Beersheba. Eleven of the 19 remaining tribes were forcibly removed from their lands and although they were assured that they would later be able to return, this was never permitted and most still live on the land where they were relocated at the time.

Israeli rule

The Arabs of the Negev suffered the harshest rule under military government. The reason given for this was security but the real reasons were concerned with the expropriation of land and houses and the resettlement and employment of the large numbers of Jewish immigrants who were now entering Israel. Military government was not lifted until 1966 and the Negev Beduin, who had been very isolated in the closed areas, found out that most of their lands had been registered in the name of the State under a 1953 law which confiscated the land of “absentees” — even if they were refugees or had been earlier removed from the land by the State. This also happened in the case of the Galilee Beduin, although most of their lands had been registered.

Although there were promises of a land settlement from 1966 and throughout the 1970s the Beduin filed land claims, no claims have been settled and it is not possible for Beduin to prove ownership of land in court. However it is relatively easy for the Beduin to prove ownership for the purposes of compensation and title to much Beduin land has passed into the hands of the State in this manner. Further land was expropriated to construct the Tal-al-Malah air base constructed in the area of the former Beduin reserve. The Negev Land Acquisition (Peace Treaty with Egypt) Bill which became law in 1980, eventually resulted in the evacuation of 700 Beduin families from the base area and the expropriation of their land at inadequate rates of compensation.

The government has also attempted to settle Beduin in concentrated urban settlements although this is very different to the preferred Beduin way of life of small tribal concentrations living in hamlets near their lands. In the Galilee about 85% of Beduin live in government settlements and in the Negev about 45%. Others in the Negev live in two large unplanned villages for which the government has promised infrastructure and legal status and various smaller, illegal hamlets. Buildings in areas other than government settlements are regarded as illegal and those who live in or construct buildings without a licence are liable to have them demolished and risk a fine or jail sentence. This process has placed great pressure on Beduin to move into government settlements although the government has claimed that the provision of government services in the settlements encourages people to move there and services such as electricity and paved roads are denied to illegal settlements.


There have been many allegations of brutality by Beduin and others of the activities of the “Green Patrol”, a force operated by the Nature Reserves Authority and which deals almost exclusively with Beduin. Beduin Arabs, like other Arabs in Israel, do not receive equal access to water quotas and are subject to restrictions on leases of agricultural and grazing land and herd restrictions. The government settlements for Beduin do not have the same funding or facilities as Jewish Israeli settlements and there are longer periods before elections are allowed to the local councils. A survey in one settlement found that Beduin disliked the relatively high population density and would prefer to give up town life. Employment in the settlements is low because there is no industry and Beduin therefore must seek employment outside them—mainly low paying jobs in Jewish Israeli development towns. In areas of education and health Beduin are also disadvantaged.

Beduin are generally perceived by Jewish Israelis as being “loyal Arabs” and therefore different from other Palestinians. However Palestinians in the Occupied Territories also often see Beduin this way and have the impression that all Beduin serve in the military. In fact both these views are misleading: although some Beduin do serve in the military, often those are from a small number of tribes, or do so for financial reasons. Beduin see themselves as Palestinians although they are in general resigned to being Israeli citizens. In the past Beduin have tended to be seen as passive but today there are Beduin organizations working for change and greater awareness in the social and cultural field. Both Beduin communities have undergone radical social change over the past 40 years from largely traditional societies under the control of sheikhs to ones in which younger educated men play the most important role.