The authority to plan and order physical space is among the most significant powers a government possesses. Spatial planning can be a force for reform and emancipation or a mechanism of control and subordination. In Israel, national planning goals are rooted in Zionism’s agenda of nation building and “Judaization” of territory. In the southern desert, known in Arabic as the Naqab and in Hebrew as the Negev, those priorities have led to the expropriation of more than 90 percent of the historical lands of the Palestinian Bedouin for the establishment of Jewish towns. The result is one of the clearest examples of apartheid in Israel.

Expropriation of Bedouin Land

The approximately 150,000 Palestinian Bedouin who reside in the Naqab today are descendants of the pastoral nomads who have migrated throughout the region from time immemorial. Historically, the Bedouin moved freely in search of water and grazing land. The end of the Ottoman era coincided with their gradual sedentarization, however, and by 1948 the Bedouin in the Naqab were settled pastoralists and farmers. Most lived in distinct villages and had well-defined traditional systems of communal and individual land ownership. Collectively, Bedouin tribes owned approximately two million dunams, or 500,000 acres, of land.

During the nakba (or catastrophe, as Palestinians call the 1948 war), up to 84,000 Bedouin were expelled from their villages or fled in fear of the ongoing violence; by 1953 only 11,000 remained. In 1951, 11 of the 19 tribes remaining in the Naqab were forcibly removed from their traditional lands and transferred into a reservation in the northeast of the Naqab called the “Enclosed Zone” or “Siyag.” (The other eight tribes already lived within the Siyag area.) The Siyag is 386 square miles in size and comprises about 10 percent of the Bedouins’ ancestral lands. [1] Restrictions on Bedouin movement both within and outside the Siyag during the period of Israeli military rule from 1948-1966 prevented them from migrating seasonally with their herds and cultivating their lands, forcing them into a new form of sedentarization that virtually ended their traditional way of life. Moreover, almost all the land outside the Siyag and more than half the land inside it was declared “state land” and thus effectively reserved for the exclusive use of Jews.

The Israeli legal system facilitated and legitimized this expropriation of Bedouin land to the Jewish state. Pursuant to the Law of the Acquisition of Absentees’ Property (1950), for example, the property of all “absentees,” a classification that could be applied to any Palestinians who had left their towns or villages for any reason, was confiscated and transferred to a “Custodian.” The Custodian was then permitted to “sell” absentee properties to a “Development Authority” that was forbidden from transferring the property to any party other than the state, the Jewish National Fund, an institution authorized by the government to settle “landless Arabs,” or a local authority. The Jewish National Fund was granted first option on the purchase of any lands the Development Authority offered for sale. [2] The Land Acquisition Law (1953) went further, giving the state the right to take the land of any property owner who did not meet certain conditions, including the condition that the owner was in possession of the land on April 1, 1952. The vast majority of Bedouin had already been expelled to Jordan or Egypt or enclosed in the Siyag by this date. They therefore lost the legal rights to their lands, even when they had documented proof of ownership. The result was that pre-1948 Palestinian Bedouin lost more than 90 percent of their landed property. Judicial challenges to these laws proved futile. Consequently, not one of the more than 3,000 land claims brought by Bedouin citizens of Israel in Israeli courts has resulted in an award of full ownership rights. [3]

Having forcibly settled the Bedouin in the Siyag and expropriated their ancestral lands, the Israeli government began discussing options for the future. Proposals varied, but shared the objective of reducing the area of Bedouin settlement in the Siyag to a minimum. Then-Minister of Agriculture Moshe Dayan proposed transferring the Bedouin from the Siyag to the center of the country where they could become laborers in mixed Arab-Jewish cities. Yigal Alon, the military governor of the Naqab, suggested concentrating the Bedouin in a handful of townships inside the Siyag to free up land for Jewish settlement and army bases and to remove the Bedouin from key Naqab routes.

Alon’s proposal ultimately prevailed and, in March 1962, the government established an inter-ministerial committee to “examine possible sites for residential construction in the Negev, including housing for the Bedouin population.” The committee’s report, which remained secret for many years, recommended establishing seven Bedouin townships at set locations in the Siyag; the remaining lands would be transferred to the state. [4] These recommendations became the basis for government planning in the Naqab from that point onward.

Planning in Israel

Israeli planning is highly centralized in the national government and the Palestinian citizens of Israel have been systematically marginalized in the planning process. The 1965 Planning and Building Law governs all aspects of land planning. Land use is nearly always conditioned on obtaining permission from planning authorities and permission is only granted when the intended use of the property conforms to government plans drawn up in accordance with the statute. The law allows expropriation of land for public purposes and provides that unlicensed buildings cannot be connected to utilities such as water, electricity or telephone networks. It also permits the demolition of homes built without planning permission and provides no protection, such as alternative shelter or compensation, to those made homeless by the state’s destruction of their house.

Pursuant to the Planning and Building Law, the minister of the interior is responsible for appointing many of the members of the national and district planning boards, including the National Council for Planning and Building that prepares both planning legislation and national Master Plans covering land use, transportation infrastructure, electricity grids, water networks and industrial development planning. The public has no right to preview or submit objections to national Master Plans because of the state’s view that the “the public interest should override local or private opposition.” [5] The obvious problem from the perspective of the Bedouin, and other Palestinians in Israel, is that the “public interest” is defined by a Zionist ideology that privileges the needs of the Jewish majority. With respect to planning, the “public interest” has manifested itself in plans to “Judaize” space through the dispersal of Jews into areas of strategic importance while minimizing the amount of land available to Palestinians.

Implementing the national Master Plans are District and Local Planning and Building Commissions. The interior minister decides which communities will be granted local planning commissions and the resulting ability to influence policy locally, which, particularly in the absence of mechanisms for community participation, is tremendously important. Only 6 percent of Arab localities in Israel, compared with 55 percent of Jewish ones, have a local planning commission. Moreover, while affected parties can raise objections to local land plans if they have standing, this standing is limited. The first, and only, Arab organization to obtain standing was granted this status in 2004 and all other organizations with standing are Jewish-Zionist entities. [6]

Although Palestinians make up 20 percent of the population of Israel, only three of the 32 members of the National Board are Arab. Attempts by Bedouin and other Palestinian planners to ensure proportional representation of Palestinians in local and national planning bodies have failed. In 2001, the Israeli High Court rejected a petition seeking the appointment of more than two Palestinians to the 17-member Planning and Building Commission in the Northern District, a region in which more than 50 percent of the citizens are Palestinian. [7]

Discriminatory Planning

In 1966, almost two decades after the Bedouin in the Naqab were forced into the Siyag, the Israeli government issued its first Master Plan for the region. The Plan’s goals included the exploitation of natural resources, expansion of cultivated land, development of transportation, increase of Jewish population density and establishment of planned Bedouin settlements. Significantly, the plan denied recognition to dozens of existing Bedouin villages rendering them invisible for planning purposes. A 1976 Master Plan added specificity to the 1966 Plan, consolidating Israeli efforts to confine the Bedouin to seven townships and open the Naqab for Jewish settlement. In particular, the 1976 Plan authorized one hundred new Jewish agricultural settlements in the Naqab, the establishment of a national industrial area around Dimona, and the building of an airport between Arad and Beersheva in an area heavily populated by Bedouin tribes.
The most recently promulgated national Master Plan, TAMA 35, was approved in 2005. Hailed as the first comprehensive statutory national plan, TAMA 35 encompassed the entire state and addressed the purposes and uses of land, industrial zones, the demarcation of primary road networks, the location of railway lines, national supply lines, ports, power plants and facilities of the electrical grid. It includes directives pertaining to recreation areas, forestry and land preservation; directives on preserving antiquities, holy places, landscape and natural areas; sites for factories and public use at the national level; a projection of changes in the state’s population distribution, the stages of development and desired timing of each stage; and includes plans for six new Jewish settlements in the Naqab. It completely ignores the presence of the unrecognized villages, however, and the needs of the tens of thousands of Palestinian Bedouin citizens of Israel who live in them.

Regional planning initiatives have mirrored these national plans. Ex-premier Ariel Sharon approved the most recent — and most ambitious — plan for the Naqab in 2003. The Sharon Plan, as it is known, is a five-year plan that involves the establishment of seven new Bedouin townships and 14 new Jewish towns. The plan allocates approximately $265 million to the Naqab — close to 40 percent of it to home demolitions and the transfer of Bedouin out of the unrecognized villages. Although the Israel Land Administration (ILA) has claimed that Bedouin representatives on the Abu Basma Regional Council, the regional council established by the Interior Ministry to administer the townships, “will be democratically elected” at some undefined future point, current members of the Council were selected by the Ministry of the Interior or other state agencies and not by the Bedouin communities affected by the Council’s planning decisions. An Israeli official explained that Bedouin community organizations “do not represent the residents,” whereas the state agents “make recommendations based on their knowledge of the structure of the tribe, the family, the influential persons of the community, and they know them all very well.” [8] Alternative reasoning was implied by Ehud Olmert, then Minister of Industry and Trade, who was quoted as saying, “We are talking about evacuating [the Bedouin] to the new seven towns…. I assume they will absolutely oppose [the plan]…. If [this issue] was up to an agreement, it will never be given.” [9] A Ministry-appointed Jewish mayor who works out of an office in Jerusalem heads the Council.

Other plans have consolidated national efforts to “Judaize” the Naqab. In 2003, for example, the government announced plans to construct 30 new Jewish villages on state land in the Galilee and Naqab. Several of the planned new towns are situated very close to existing Palestinian towns and villages, apparently to restrict the latter’s growth. In radio interviews, representatives of the prime minister’s office explicitly emphasized that the new settlements were intended solely for Jewish citizens. Similarly, the 2004 “Wine Route” plans, presented as a means of drawing tourists to the Naqab, involved the further allocations of state land for exclusive Jewish use. In this case, the land involved was allocated to individual Jewish farmers who, in the late 1990s, began establishing private farms on parcels of state land given to them by the ILA and regional councils. In a stunning display of its discriminatory approach to planning, rather than ejecting these settlers, the National Council for Planning and Building retroactively approved these farms despite the fact that they were built in contravention of the 1965 Building and Planning Law. In all, some 80,000 dunams of land was allocated to the individual Jewish farms in this process. [10]

Finally, the absence of official attention to the needs of the Bedouin extends beyond macro-level planning to include the interior planning of the townships. The township planners did not consult with the Bedouin communities when planning the townships and they did not take the cultural specificity of the Bedouin into account. Consequently, planning inside the townships ignored the Bedouin need for visual privacy and separate spaces for men and women, as well as the high birth rates among the Bedouin. Initially, planners also made no provision for traditional residential patterns, which involve clusters of extended families. [11]

Desert Apartheid

Israel has created shockingly different worlds for Bedouins and Jews in the Naqab and the physical separation achieved by land expropriation and planning is codified by laws, upheld by the Israeli High Court in 1988, that prohibit Bedouin from leasing land in Jewish towns and Jews from leasing land in Bedouin townships.

Shocking disparities exist between Bedouin and Jewish localities in the Naqab today. Although they represent almost 30 percent of the population in the area, Bedouin occupy only 3 percent of the region’s land. Bedouin townships place at the bottom of Israel’s rankings for nearly all socio-economic indices. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the five poorest localities in Israel are all Bedouin townships. Tax revenues in these localities are paltry and assistance from the national government is insufficient to fill the gap between them and neighboring Jewish towns. In 2004, the total regular budget of local authorities in Bedouin localities was $838 per capita, compared with $1,315 in the local Jewish towns Omer, Lehavim and Meitar. [12] Exacerbating the situation is the high level of unemployment in Bedouin townships: Unemployment rates for Bedouin men in the townships topped 34 percent in 2003 (compared to 11.6 percent for local Jewish men). [13] Moreover, aside from the provision of basic services, planning for the townships omitted essential characteristics of a modern urban area. Townships lack intra- and inter-city public transportation services, banks, public libraries, public parking lots, recreation and cultural centers; as recently as 2002, not one of the townships had a completed sewage system. [14] Unlike the local Jewish towns, Bedouin townships are not classified as “development towns,” and so are not entitled to entice investors with tax and other incentives. Additionally, the territorial jurisdiction of townships gave no land reserve to the municipalities, meaning that they were not able to plan land use so as to encourage economic development. This dismal picture contrasts starkly with that of the more than 100 planned Jewish towns built in the Naqab since 1948. While the Bedouin rank among the poorest localities in Israel, with the exception of Dimona, Jewish towns are all in the top half of the table and three, Metar, Lehavim and Omer, rank among the top five localities for socioeconomic indicators in Israel.

Considering the characteristics of the Jewish town of Omer and the Bedouin township of Tel Sheva side by side reveals two completely different realities separated by less than a mile.

Ranked second in Israel for socio-economic indicators, Omer is a development town founded in 1975. It has a population of 6,000 and is built on 17,000 dunams of land, 2.8 dunams per capita. More than 90 percent of its students graduate from high school. The town abuts a high-tech industrial zone and its municipal website boasts of its “spectacular landscape of forest green vegetation and blooming flowers against the background of the deserts’ dunes, the mild and dry climate and the pure fresh air. All of these contribute to turn Omer into a green oasis in which living is both pleasant and healthy.” Unlike most municipalities of its size, Omer has its own Local Planning Commission. When Omer decided it wanted to expand, the commission simply annexed an area of 7,000 dunams of land from the neighboring unrecognized Bedouin village of Tarabin al-Sana’. Rather than permit the 5,000 Bedouin residents of Tarabin al-Sana’ to move into Omer, the Omer authorities are trying to force them into a specially created township. In 2007, Omer planning officials issued 75 demolition orders to all the remaining Bedouin homes in the Tarabin al-Sana’. [15]

Tel Sheva, by contrast, has 10,000 residents and is built on 4,000 dunams, 0.4 dunams per capita. It has been accorded no territorial expansion despite its considerably higher population density. It is the poorest locality in Israel and has little in the way of a “spectacular landscape.” Less than 5 percent of students graduate from high school and Tel Sheva has no industrial zone to provide jobs and no economic infrastructure. It has no sewage system or paved roads, substandard municipal services and has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Israel.

The situation is even more dire in the unrecognized villages that are home to almost 100,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel. Excluded from the maps that accompanied the 1966 Master Plan, the unrecognized villages have not appeared on any official map since. For the past 40 years, they have been excluded from all government planning and denied virtually all government services; they therefore lack basic infrastructure such as paved roads and sewage facilities and are not connected to national electricity, water or telephone networks. All structures in them, including homes, are considered illegal and are therefore candidates for demolition under the Building and Planning Law. There are currently up to 46 “unrecognized” villages in the Naqab, including both historical Bedouin villages and villages built after 1948 by Bedouins forced into the Siyag, with around 45,000 structures that are potentially subject to destruction at the hands of the state. [16] Areas within six additional “unrecognized” villages were formally acknowledged in 2000 but still lack detailed plans.

Since the 1970s, Israeli authorities have demolished thousands of Bedouin homes in the Naqab. Human Rights Watch reports that at least 759 Bedouin homes were demolished pursuant to the 1965 Planning and Building Law from 2004-2007. Demolitions have been carried out against individual dwellings and even whole villages. In June 2007, for example, the ILA, accompanied by police and soldiers, demolished dozens of homes in the unrecognized Bedouin villages Umm al-Hiran and al-Tir, both of which were created in the early 1950s by Bedouin forced into the Siyag. According to Ha’aretz, the ILA destroyed the village and evacuated its inhabitants so that a Jewish community named ‘Hiran’ could be established in the area; at least fourteen shacks, housing some 100 people, were demolished.” _17_

Other coercive measures designed to drive Bedouin citizens out of the unrecognized villages have included passing regulations to prevent the Bedouin from maintaining their traditional lifestyles, placing polluting industries and power lines adjacent to the villages, destroying crops and uprooting fruit and olive trees, shooting camels to death, seizing thousands of sheep and goats, harnessing Bedouin tents to jeeps and dragging them away, shooting into the air to scare people and physically attacking Bedouin villagers. Much of this intimidation comes from the so-called Green Patrol, a paramilitary police force established in 1976 as an armed branch of the Nature Conservation Agency and directed almost exclusively at the Bedouin. [18] Additionally, on a number of occasions documented by Adalah from 2002 to 2004, the ILA sprayed 24,000 dunams of land cultivated by Bedouin farmers from the air with toxic chemicals. The warnings attached to the chemicals used cautioned against spraying from the air and specified that the area affected should be closed for seven days. The Bedouin were given no warning about the spraying, however, and a number of children were covered with the chemicals; at least 17 Bedouin were treated in a local health clinic for exposure to the chemicals. The spraying only stopped after Adalah and other organizations convinced the High Court to issue an injunction prohibiting the practice.

From Apartheid to Democracy

Palestinian Bedouin in the Naqab have been systematically excluded from Israeli planning decisions that, to date, have been motivated more by Zionism’s “Judaization” agenda than the needs of local citizens. This ideological approach to the organization of land and space results in a spatial segregation that excludes and marginalizes Bedouin citizens while reserving state resources for the exclusive use of Jewish citizens. Thus, land use planning in the Naqab tangibly reflects the broader political and cultural exclusion of Israel’s Palestinian citizens and the subjugation of Palestinian citizens’ rights and needs to those of Jewish citizens.

Remedying more than six decades of dispossession and exclusion in the Naqab requires a comprehensive shift in Israel’s approach to its Palestinian citizens. At a practical level, the government must engage in serious efforts to close the socio-economic gaps between Bedouins and Jews in the Naqab. It must also recognize the unrecognized villages. Indeed, formal recognition of some of the unrecognized villages was a key recommendation of a 2008 government report by a committee charged with considering their fate as such recognition would improve their “unbearable situation.” [19] The report, authored by retired High Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg, also recommended providing retroactive permits for some buildings built illegally because of the impossibility of obtaining permits. Significantly, however, civil rights and Bedouin community groups have criticized the report for failing to recognize the Bedouins’ historical land ownership rights and for proposing recognition only where such recognition would not contradict an existing regional plan. Given that regional planning over the past four decades has been geared toward minimizing Bedouin land use, this limitation is a serious one.

More fundamentally, however, consideration of the plight of the Bedouin in the Naqab draws attention to the serious need for a meaningful Palestinian role in Israeli decision-making on issues relating to land use and planning. To date, Palestinians have been treated as second-class citizens denied both their historical rights and adequate representation on the planning commissions and other bodies responsible for decision-making. Even the eight-member Goldberg Commission failed to include a representative of the unrecognized villages. Without the meaningful participation of Palestinian citizens in Israeli’s decision-making, much-needed improvements in socio-economic and quality of life indicators would provide inadequate protection of Bedouin rights and no guarantee of spatial or political equality in the future.

The very definition of citizenship in Israel is at stake and the time for democratic reforms is long overdue.


[1] Issachar Rosen-Zvi, Taking Space Seriously: Law, Space and Society in Contemporary Israel (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), p. 45.
[2] George Bisharat, “Land, Law and Legitimacy in Israel and the Occupied Territories,” American University Law Review 43 (1994), p. 518.
[3] Oren Yiftachel, “Bedouin Arabs and the Israeli Settler State” in Duane Champagne and Ismael Abu-Saad, eds., The Future of Indigenous Peoples: Strategies for Survival and Development (Los Angeles: UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 2003), p. 33.
[4] Shlomo Swirski and Yael Hasson, Invisible Citizens: Israeli Government Policy Toward Negev Bedouin (Beersheva: Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 2006), pp. 13-14.
[5] Rachelle Alterman, “National-Level Planning in Israel” in Rachelle Alterman, ed., National-Level Planning in Democratic Countries (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001), p. 277.
[6] Adalah, Land Rights and the Indigenous Palestinian Arab Citizens of Israel: Recent Cases in Law, Land and Planning (Shefa Amr, 2004), p. 2.
[7] Eyal Benvenisti and Dahlia Shaham, “Facially Neutral Discrimination and the Israeli Supreme Court,” New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 36 (2004), p. 714.
[8] Human Rights Watch, Off The Map: Land and Housing Rights Violations in Israel’s Unrecognized Bedouin Villages (New York, March 2008), p. 49.
[9] Adalah, p. 11.
[10] Ibid., p. 6.
[11] Ismael Abu-Saad, Report on the Negev Palestinian Bedouin Arabs: Historical Context and Future Prospects (unpublished paper, 2008), pp. 21-22.
[12] Shlomo Swirski, Current Plans for Developing the Negev (Beersheva: Adva Center, 2007), p. 5.
[13] Swirski and Hasson, p. 87.
[14] Abu-Saad, p. 24.
[15] Human Rights Watch, p. 61.
[16] Human Rights Watch, pp. 56-57.
[17] Ha’aretz, June 24, 2007.
[18] Swirski and Hasson, p. 37.
[19] Jerusalem Post, December 11, 2008.

How to cite this article:

Monica Tarazi "Planning Apartheid in the Naqab," Middle East Report 253 (Winter 2009).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This