Israel’s Governance of the Bedouin in the Naqab

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just formed the most radical right-wing government in the country’s history, even while personally facing charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The new Israeli government includes pro-settlement, corrupt, and unethical ultranationalist politicians as ministers, some of whom have previously been convicted of racist incitement, acts of terrorism, and tax fraud.

The government was sworn at the same time that Palestinian citizens of Israel, and especially the Bedouin in the southern Naqab (Negev) region, are facing increasingly difficult challenges. The policies of the State of Israel over the past 75 years have led to many social, political, and humanitarian problems for Palestinians, including high rates of poverty and unemployment, a housing crisis exacerbated by Israel’s cruel policy of land confiscations and house demolitions, and unprecedented levels of both officially and unofficially sanctioned violence that claims many Palestinian lives each year.

Despite the catastrophic situation and countless appeals by both local and national Palestinian leadership in Israel, the state has refused to take any positive steps in response. On the contrary, over the last few years, Israel has enacted several laws that practically legalize discrimination, most notably the notorious 2018 Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People.

Even worse, instead of reconsidering its long-term discriminatory policy against the Palestinian Bedouin who mostly reside in the Naqab, Israel continues to promulgate administrative measures designed to deprive them of their rights. Recently, the state began calling for the application of specific governing principles to the Palestinian citizens of the Naqab, claiming that there is a governance crisis in the area. By doing this, Israel is suggesting that the Bedouin are not law-abiding. But the reality is that the state is applying its decrees and regulations in a very selective and manipulative way that aligns with its many other discriminatory policies. This attitude only serves to exacerbate the situation and increase Israel’s oppression of the Bedouin in the region.

Israel’s practices in the Naqab are, in fact, utterly divorced from any serious definition of the principle of good governance. The United Nations defines good governance as relating to “the political and institutional processes and outcomes that are necessary to achieve the goals of development.” However, in Israel’s unique interpretation, good governance is only about its ability as a self-defined Jewish state to control all aspects of Bedouin life. In other words, the concept of governance has been emptied of its original meaning and replaced with a new, racist dimension that matches the mindset of Israel’s intolerant right-wing government, which is accurately reflected, among other things, in the new government’s appointment of extremist politician Itamar Ben-Gvir as minister of national security.

Thus, instead of ensuring equal enforcement and protection of the law by granting equal rights to all citizens of the state, Israel has begun calling for the rigid imposition of the law with a clear agenda of depriving the Bedouin of their rights as a form of collective punishment. It has somehow become acceptable among Israel’s political leaders—and among the Israeli public at large—to demand that the Bedouin be punished and their rights stripped from them, not for crimes they have committed but for their steadfast resistance to the state’s long-standing neglect and its discriminatory policies.

Israeli media (mainly, but not exclusively, right-wing outlets) have joined in the state’s campaign against the Bedouin. A case in point is the recent release of video and images of a few reckless Bedouin youths shooting guns into the air at a wedding or some other kind of celebration, with accompanying reports comparing them to terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State. The purpose here is to create the perception that the Bedouin are members of a supposedly criminal community that routinely violates law and order. And this stereotypical—and incorrect—Israeli image of the Palestinian citizen as criminal is often adopted by politicians, judges, and members of the general public throughout the country.

After creating this provocative stereotype, prominent media figures, Knesset members, and right-wing political leaders, who already do not hesitate to make fascist statements regarding the Bedouin, start to compete over who can make the most racist statements. Often, these campaigns promote a perceived consensus about actual plans to expel the Bedouin from their land in the Naqab and to displace them to Jordan or Syria. Such calls have been made by Ben-Gvir, who wants to place the Bedouin under military rule and has pushed propositions to cut off their welfare benefits and deprive them of other basic rights. Former Israeli Minister of Interior Ayelet Shaked publicly endorsed a plan to fight the so-called “Arab demographic threat” by limiting Palestinian birth rates. And current Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich falsely claimed in 2020 that the Bedouin population in the Naqab doubles “every 12 years,” and depicted their population growth as a “bomb” that Israel needs to defuse. He also called for “westernizing” the Bedouin in order to bring down their birth rate.

It is unfortunate that no one in Israel’s current government seems to understand that governance is essentially a two-way street. For the government to expect its citizens to be law-abiding, it must first ensure that it treats them equally and that it equitably implements and enforces its laws. Israel must first and foremost acknowledge the existence of Bedouin citizens, legalize their villages, and extend basic services to them that are on par with those provided to Jewish citizens, including roads, running water, and educational facilities.

Another critical factor that is relevant to the principle of governance is the assurance of security and safety. This means making sure that the police and other security forces carry out their basic duty toward Palestinian citizens, just as they do for Jewish citizens. In order to guarantee this, Israel should allocate the necessary budget, personnel, and tools for its police and security services to ensure safety throughout the Palestinian sector in Israel. Indeed, equal treatment of Palestinians and Jews and equal rights and responsibilities are the two more important principles of good governance that need to be addressed in Israel today.

Featured image credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO