No economic improvement in sight.


Not only does the Negev Bedouin community not stand on solid ground, with many of its members still deprived of full civil rights; neither is it a full-fledged partner in Israel's economy. While many of their Jewish neighbors, and in particular the Middle Eastern Jews who were brought to the Negev in the 1950s and '60s and underwent proletarization, making them full-fledged (albeit blue-collar) actors in the Israeli economy, the Bedouin have remained in the wings of the country's economic scene. Some of them subsist on farming and raising sheep with the scantiest of resources, without the generous government subsidies that enable Jewish agriculture to thrive, while many others eke out an existence from unskilled and woefully underpaid casual jobs on the margins of industry, trade and services in Negev localities.

From this point of view, the Negev Bedouin community is quite similar to groups of indigenous peoples in other countries, such as those of Latin America, who are on the margins of the formal economy, on the borderline that both connects and simultaneously divides between the capitalist economy, which is controlled and directed by the dominant group, and the subsistence economy of the indigenous peoples. The capitalist economy will cross the line when it needs one of the available resources--a natural resource, or land--but will generally fail to make the requisite investments, be it in infrastructure, in education, or in industrial plants, in order to allow the indigenous groups to join the mainstream, even if this means their proletarization.

1948-1967: A general view

Throughout most of the twentieth century, the primary source of income for the Bedouin was farming. In the population census taken by the British Mandatory government in 1931, 89.3% of the Negev's Bedouin population reported that they made their living from farming (Falah, 1985: 36). However, because of the Negev's land and climate conditions, it was difficult for the Bedouin to live off farming alone, and so they sought employment outside their places of residence. Thus during World War II, they worked for the British army, which set up a whole series of camps, storehouses and airfields in the Negev (Shmueli, 1979: 676). In addition, Bedouin also went north in search of seasonal employment.

The establishment of the State of Israel opened a new chapter in the economy of the Negev. Unlike the Ottoman and British rulers, the Israeli government did a great deal in order to make the Negev an arena for economic development. However, for a number of reasons, this development passed the Bedouin by. First of all, under the military government that remained in force until 1966, the Bedouin were confined to the Siyag area, which they were only allowed to leave if they obtained a movement permit from the military governor. When the latter issued such movement permits, he took into account not only security considerations, but also the economic interests of the Jewish population. Secondly, although Israeli governments did more than their predecessors, the economic development of the Negev was fairly limited, initially involving only the exploitation of its natural resources. The new Jewish communities were frequently set up in haste, making it impossible to provide adequate economic and employment infrastructure. Not until the end of Israel's first decade was a start made on directing industrial plants, primarily in the textile sector, to the Negev, particularly to the Jewish development towns. The upshot was that throughout most of the fifties, the entire Negev--like many other parts of the new country--suffered from high unemployment rates. Against this background, the authorities feared that the Bedouin, who were prepared to work for low wages and did not enjoy the protection of the Histadrut labor federation (until 1959 Israeli Arabs were unable to join the Histadrut), would compete for jobs with the Jewish immigrants. An additional concern was that the Jewish immigrants--who had been shunted off to the Negev's new agricultural communities, and some of whom were made into farmers against their will--would be tempted to employ Bedouin at low wages, a development that would undermine efforts to make the former into farmers and agriculturists in accordance with the Zionist vision of that period (Marx, 1979: 639).

The outcome was that "during the period of military government [1949-1966], the Bedouin were forced to exist in the Siyag area without the extensive hinterland which they had used prior to the war for grazing and migration" (Porat, 1997: 395). At the same time, in practice the economy beyond the boundaries of the Siyag was closed to them, since the military government at that time severely restricted the number of movement permits issued to the Bedouin. Furthermore, the permits were issued for short periods only, so that even if they found work, it was difficult for them to hold down a job. In other words, for years the Bedouin have been at the very end of the employment line on Israel's Negev employment market. Only when Jewish employers had problems engaging Jewish laborers did they approach the military government, which in turn approached the sheikhs in order to recruit workers. In this way Bedouin found work paving roads in the Negev, in quarries, in phosphate mines and in agricultural work. Only a few of them were employed as semi-skilled laborers--as tractor drivers, carpenters and mechanics. According to estimates, up to 1958 fewer than 100 of the 2,850 able-bodied Bedouin actually found jobs outside the Siyag area (Marx, 1979: 639).

From 1960 to 1962, on average 400 Bedouin (some 13% of the male workforce) found jobs outside the Siyag area for most of the year. During the citrus and cotton harvests, this number swelled to some 600, and during peak times it would shoot up to over 1,000. But even during periods of high employment, the military government issued only a limited number of movement permits. It is also noteworthy that the men were not allowed to take their families with them to their places of work, in order to ensure that they...

To continue reading