Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Finding Ways to Make a Living: Employment among the Negev Bedouin

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Finding Ways to Make a Living: Employment among the Negev Bedouin

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Bedouin in Israel are people of multiple marginalities, both by an inclination derived from nomadic social and political structure, and by their positioning vis-a-vis the competing Jewish and Palestinian nationalities. This, in turn, is reflected in their marginal economic position.

In the 1940s, some 75,000 Bedouin inhabited the Negev (Marx 1967). When the region became pan of Israel in 1948, most of them became refugees in the neighbouring Arab countries. The Israeli army moved most of the remaining 11,000 Bedouin to a reservation the size of a fraction of the territory formerly utilised by them. The reservation was ruled by a military administration, which strictly controlled movements of Bedouin by a system of permits. Expropriation of land by the State, territorial displacement and restriction on movement eradicated the nomadic and semi-nomadic economy. With no assistance programmes offered by the State, most men were forced into short-term wage labour in the expanding Israeli economy of the 1960s. The gradual changes in the Bedouin's mode of livelihood helped the State argue for the necessity of settling them. The policy of sedentarisation it pursued was heavily dependent on the desire to control both the land and the population. By the 1960s, most Bedouin had abandoned herding and settled in numerous spontaneous settlements, shantytowns, constructed of corrugated iron and wooden planks. These encampments mushroomed all over the desert with daunting speed. The State claimed that they obstructed a rational use of land resources and strategic planning for the development of nature reserves, agriculture and military bases. Beginning in the 1970s, the government undertook a concerted initiative to settle the Bedouin. At present, there are seven urban conglomerates in the Negev, ranging in size from villages to towns. At first the State pursued a policy of concentrating the population in a few large settlements, which would minimise the use of land while at the same time providing better facilities to their inhabitants. The Bedouin, in turn, expressed preference for smaller centres, each occupied by a group of patrilineal kin. Their resistance to move to large towns eventually led to a change in the government's policy: settlements created since the 1980s look more like villages than urban centres.

The process of settlement radically altered the Bedouin's conditions of existence. They gradually became absorbed into a complex modern economy. Yet, Bedouin localities have a higher unemployment rate and lower income per household than their Jewish counterparts, and a significant percentage of the Bedouin population lives at or below poverty level. All these reflect the growing socio-economic polarisation along ethnic lines in the Negev. To a degree, the economic situation of the Bedouin is strongly affected by the state of the national and regional economy. As an underdeveloped region, the Negev is vulnerable to fluctuations in the national economy. It fared exceptionally well at the beginning of 1990s with the help of government grants issued to assist in the absorption of the massive influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Many of the immigrants were directed to this southern thinly populated region to reduce congestion in the already overcrowded central Israel. A law for Encouraging Investments intensified the construction boom that ensued. It generated economic growth, contracts and jobs. As government aid was primarily geared towards physical, rather than human, capital and the immigrant population was poorly educated and economically weak, it did not support sustainable growth. The economic slowdown in the national economy, which appeared in the mid-1990s, struck hardest in the economically underdeveloped regions, increasing the gap between the national average unemployment rate and that in the Negev to four per cent. The severe unemployment in the Negev drew national attention. …

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