Meeting Bedouin Entrepreneurs in the Negev

The more time I spend in Israel, the more people I meet, and the more personal stories I hear, the more I appreciate the complexity of the social problems that plague this country.  I continue to see the centers of both the Jewish and Arab populations locked in their own internal struggles to avoid abdicating power to the intolerance advocated by extremists of the left and the right. I don’t pretend to be an expert on any of these issues; I am just an observer trying to develop an educated opinion.

Beer Sheva, Israel
June 16, 2005

Hussein Al-Rafaya is a 43 year old businessman and entrepreneur.  He is an Israeli citizen who owns a building materials company that he asserts is one of the largest importers of cement in the south of Israel.  He plans to open a new supermarket and “sell clothing for the whole family”. Hussein is a Muslim Bedouin Palestinian with a fourth grade education.  He is fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, has two wives and seven children, and lives in Bir El Hamam, a village of 2,000 people that is one of 37 “unrecognized” Bedouin villages that dot the Negev desert in the Beer Sheva region.

Hussein is also a leader of the Bedouin people in the Negev.  In May, 2004 the 27 heads of local Bedouin village committees representing 80,000 people voted and Hussein was elected to a four year term as the Chairperson of the Regional Council for the Arab Unrecognized Villages in the Negev.  This organization was started in 1997 as a political body “to protect the indigenous Bedouin Palestinian minority in Israel from land confiscation, house demolition and uprooting, through strengthening the community.”

Khadra Al Sana looks to be in her early thirties and is a member of Sidreh, a unique Bedouin women’s weaving cooperative located in Lakiya, one of  8 Bedouin villages of the Negev that have been legally “recognized” as existing by the Israeli government since 1999 .  She speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and a little English.  The women weavers of Lakiya produce—and ship internationally—high-quality traditional handmade rugs, wall hangings, cushions, and bags.  The Lakiya cooperative is unique in many respects: it is not controversial, it appears to be thriving, it allows over 600 women to work from their homes, and it contributes to the revival and preservation of a craft central to Bedouin social and cultural heritage.

Anat Hoffman and I traveled ninety minutes and a world away from Jerusalem to meet Hussein and Khadra and get a brief glimpse into their world.  Anat, a Jerusalem native and former member of the Jerusalem City Council , is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).  IRAC is the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel (known as the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism).  IRAC supports advancing pluralism in Israeli society and protecting and defending the human rights of all Israeli citizens, emphasizing rights having to do with freedoms of conscience, faith, and religion.



Pascal, Hussein Al-Rafaya, and Anat Hoffman at the entrance to the village of Esser, population 2,000

Pascal and Khadra al Sana at the Lakiya women’s weaving cooperative

The Difference Between Recognized and Unrecognized Bedouin Villages

From the Israeli government bureaucracy perspective, Khadra’s Lakiya exists and Hussein’s Bir El Hamam does not.  This official recognition separates whether a village will be eligible to receive basic public works infrastructure (including electricity, running water, public sewage, access to welfare services, and schools) or be declared illegal and ordered to be demolished.  According to Faisal Sawalha, who manages Resource Development and Public Relations for the Regional Council for the Arab Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, the reality of living in a “recognized” village does not live up to the promise:

“They [the government] recognize a village and prepare a map for it leaving some people outside the village.  Moreover, recognition has not been translated into services. . . . there is no difference between the recognized and the unrecognized villages in terms of services.”

With support from the New Israel Fund, the British Oxfam Foundation, the Moria Fund, the Goldman fund, and others, the Regional Council labors to obtain legal recognition of Bedouin villages, many of which have existed for over forty years, in order to obtain basic public works infrastructure—roads, electricity, running water, kindergartens, local medical care, and welfare services. The Council works through existing government institutions to move its agenda forward and has achieved a small measure of success through the recognition of eight villages.

Follow up from the current Israeli government on prior commitments from the Barak government’s 2002 “Ministerial Committee for Bedouin Affairs” and the “Comprehensive Program for the Solution of the Problems Facing the Bedouins” has been below even modest expectations, despite an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in support of the Bedouins’ requests for recognition of their villages. Out of an estimated 150,000 Bedouins living in the Negev, over 80,000 live in these unrecognized villages, each containing between 600 and 4000 people.  Some of these villages have existed for over 40 years. Another 10,000 to 15,000 people live in the eight recently recognized Bedouin villages. Bedouin adult male unemployment is estimated at over 60%– for women it is over 90%.  Sadly, even the recognized villages remain very poor.

In Lakiya, Muslim women entrepreneurs have cell phones, fax machines, and access to the Internet.

Rose Willey Al Sana (left) and a weaver at the Lakiya women’s weaving cooperative

Lakiya Negev Bedouin Weaving was founded in 1991 with the assistance of Rose Willey Al Sana, pictured above, a remarkable woman from the UK who first came to the Negev as a nurse in 1981.  She married a Bedouin man, has raised her family in Lakiya and become a part of the local community. The example of Lakiya provides women with the opportunity to develop the traditional skills of spinning and weaving and to translate these skills into an empowered enterprise that generates income and cultural pride. In contrast, the unrecognized Bedouin villages that I visited, such as Esser, which hosts 2,000 people, camels, and other livestock cohabiting in corrugated tin sheds, are festering with sewage and disease.


Esser, population 2000


Tough place for a camel to live…

Why the Negev Desert Matters

The Negev is Israel’s land bank for future population growth.  It covers 13 million dunam (1 dunam is 1,000 square meters, 4 dunams make 1 acre), or approximately 60% of Israel’s total uncontested land mass.  It also contains only 6% of the total population of Israel.  25% of the population of the Negev consists of indigenous Bedouin Arabs.  While they have lived in the region for centuries, the actual historic documented ownership of specific Bedouin lands is not satisfactory to the Israeli government.  As a result of laws passed in 1965, the question of historical Bedouin land ownership and title was thrown into a tense controversy that remains unresolved.

In more recent history, several large private ranches have been established by Jewish settlers in the Negev, following in the footsteps of David Ben-Gurion, who moved to the Negev and was among the first Jews to settle in the southern desert as a pioneer late in his own life.  From the properties that I saw, these ranches are well irrigated and grow large cash crops of cactus and other desert plants.  The most notable among these ranches is the 5,000 dunam Chavat Shikmim, which is owned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his family (this ranch was originally purchased by Los Angeles-based businessman Meshulam Riklis in 1972 and gifted to the Sharon family).

Officially, the Bedouins seek 700,000 dunam, or roughly 5% of the land in the region, for their communities to occupy and farm as their own. It is easy to say that the history of the Bedouins is defined by their choice to live in rough, nomadic conditions, as they have survived in the desert without electricity and running water for thousands of years. That may be true, but the simple fact is that, like everyone else, they would like a better standard of living than their ancestors.

With the prosperity and growth of the private ranches and the Beer Sheva regional city center as constant reminders of this continuing asymmetry, it is easy to understand their frustration—a familiar frustration incarnated as rage and violence between the haves and have nots in West and East Jerusalem, Ramallah, and the Gaza strip.

Getting a Piece of the Economic Pie, or Not?

Hussein’s current building materials venture is about to close its doors.  Like most Bedouin enterprises, it is un-licensed and therefore runs afoul of the Israeli bureaucracy.  Hussein, unlike most Arabs faced with the inscrutable tangle of red tape that defines municipal government in Israel, has retained a lawyer to obtain legal business permits. But he concedes that he will finally lose this battle, which he has fought in court for several years, by December of this year.

Hussein has decided to personally demolish the property—which he showed us today—instead of standing by, watching the government do it.  He has witnessed far more devastating demolitions and asserts that 700 demolition orders are currently outstanding for completion in various unrecognized Bedouin villages over the next thirty days.  These are demolitions of illegal residential structures that house families such as Hussein’s. (Hussein estimates there are 1,500 illegal structures in Jewish Kibbutzim and Moshavim in the Negev, and that not one of them will ever be demolished by the government. He notes that those structures are for business and commerce and not residential dwellings as in the case of the Bedouins).


Hussein Al-Rafaya, Chairperson of the Regional Council of the Arab Unrecognized Vilages of the Negev

Hussein enjoys a good smoke.  As he exhales, he tells me:

“I am a skilled metalworker, I can lay Jerusalem stone and stone flooring, I know how to pave a road, and I can build a roof.  As a boy, I would travel 12 kilometers on a donkey to get to school.  I was always late—the donkey didn’t want to go, so I would feed it and it would always shit along the way.  I have been a social activist for the Bedouin people for over 20 years and am a self made leader.”

Hussein views the impact of the women’s cooperative positively, noting that

“in all the Bedouin history there has never been a woman leader until the Lakiya women’s cooperative”.

Looking forward, Hussein is very matter of fact in summing up his view of the future:

“The Bedouins are invisible to Israeli society.  Since I am not able to access the Israeli mainstream, I have incentives to become the enemy that I am treated like. Violence may be the only way to get noticed.  What kind of leader will succeed me?”

It’s hard for me to see how this environment can breed a new generation of entrepreneurial businessmen with the good humor of Hussein.

Anat Hoffman agrees and  notes the implications for future harmony inside Israel:

“The real threat to society in Israel comes from frustrated Israeli Arabs and the Bedouin communities.”

As a relatively ignorant person about the challenges in the relationship between the State of Israel and the Bedouins, I have a very simple view on this subject:

The Bedouins are already inside the Israeli tent, so to speak.  They are expected to grow in population to number over 200,000 in the next fifteen years.  Documented or not, the fact is that these families have been in the Negev for generations.  These people want to work. I have seen first-hand both Bedouin men and women who are running businesses using their own culture and talents to be productive.

What kind of Bedouins will there be in Israel’s future?  The kind that owns supermarkets and artisan cooperatives, or the kind that burns them down?

In my view, someone of authority in the Israeli government ought to sit down and have a smoke and a cup of coffee with Hussein, soon.

To learn more about the Regional Council and to contact Hussein Al-Rafaya, you can reach Faisal Sawalha by telephone at 972-8-6283043 or by email at

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