Emptied Lands
A Legal Geography of Bedouin Rights in the Negev
Alexandre Kedar, Ahmad Amara, and Oren Yiftachel






Four events that occurred during the violent summer of 2014 provide an appropriate starting point to this book. During what was known as Operation Protective Edge or the War on Gaza, Israel bombed large parts of the Gaza Strip and Hamas launched rockets on Israeli cities and towns.1 The first event occurred in July 2014, when journalist Elisheva Goldberg visited the unrecognized Bedouin village she named Tel al-Barad, home to approximately 300 people:2

When I visited one recent afternoon, a rocket had just landed in the village’s livestock pen. According to government sources, the rocket had fallen in one of the country’s “open areas”—a term Israeli officials frequently use when describing rocket attacks, and one implying that the rockets dropped harmlessly in empty fields. But “open areas” are not always empty. They also encompass many of the Bedouin villages of southern Israel.3

The second event occurred on July 18, 2014, the eleventh day of fighting. In the early evening a rocket launched from Gaza fell on another Bedouin unrecognized village, Qasr al-Sir, near the city of Dimona, killing an Israeli Bedouin citizen, Auda al-Wajj, and wounding two of his daughters. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that

the family . . . lived in an unnamed patch of tin houses some three kilometers from Dimona [or 30 kilometers east of Beersheba]. The rocket exploded in the yard outside their house, and showered it with shrapnel. . . . No sirens sounded . . . and there’s nowhere to hide,” Sheikh Juma’a Akshahar told Haaretz. . . . “The state isn’t intercepting these rockets and isn’t protecting the citizens in the shacks. We are transparent.”4

Internal security minister Yitzhak Aharonovich arrived at the scene and told Sheikh Juma‘a that Iron Dome cannot cover 100% of the area and does not protect open areas.5 Aharonovich was referring to the effective Iron Dome missile-defense system, which is credited with the small number of Israeli casualties. The low number is also attributed to people taking shelter within seconds of hearing a siren. However,

none of these [protective] mechanisms operate in “open areas.” . . . For the Bedouins of southern Israel—who are Arab, Palestinian, and Israeli all at once—there is nowhere to run. They find themselves both outside the protection of the Israeli state and targeted by Hamas. They are a population that has fallen through the cracks—a population protected by no one.6

A petition by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel to the High Court of Justice on behalf of local Bedouins soon followed, requesting that the state supply Bedouin villages with defensive facilities similar to those provided to nearby Jewish settlements. The Court rejected the petition, upholding the government’s position that the lack of shelters and mobile safe rooms (mamad) is not the result of discrimination against the Bedouins but rather their illegal settlement and unauthorized building. According to the Court, “While the state is obliged to its residents’ security in general, it has no specific obligation to provide protection to all residents.” The panel of three justices added that the state policy on this matter “does not contain any flaw that would justify this court’s intervention.”7

Figure 1. Bedouin unrecognized village near Beersheba.

The perception and treatment of a Bedouin Arab village that has existed for at least six decades and accommodates several hundred residents merely as an “open space” or “open area,” an Israeli version of the terra nullius doctrine, is a telling entry point to this book, in which we analyze the legal geography of the contested Negev (in Arabic, Naqab) region.8 Most Bedouin localities in this region are officially classified as “unrecognized” and “illegal,” and their populations are considered “trespassers” on state land. The lack of recognition of dozens of villages, though their inhabitants commonly live on their ancestors’ land, derives from state denial of the indigenous land regime that existed in the Negev before the establishment of Israel in 1948 and from Bedouin indigeneity.

Since its establishment, the Jewish State has dedicated major efforts to securing its control over the land. In this framework Israel and its indigenous Bedouin citizens have been entangled in a protracted legal and territorial battle over traditional tribal land in the Negev region. This is the most intense and extensive land dispute currently taking place within Israel proper (i.e., excluding the post-1967 occupied territories). The heart of this land dispute lies in opposing conceptualizations of ownership, possession, and land use. On the one hand, the Bedouins claim land rights based on customary and official laws, possession and cultivation of the land for generations, and tax payments to previous regimes, which, in their view, should provide proof of ownership and be integrated into contemporary land laws. On the other hand, Israel, drawing on highly formalist and, in our eyes, distorted legal interpretations of Ottoman and British statutes, views all Bedouins residing in their villages as illegal trespassers invading state land. The Bedouins are often portrayed by the state as intrinsically nomadic invaders from other regions who survived well into the twentieth century as pastoralists and plunderers. As such, they did not acquire any rights to Negev lands. Their “illegality” is implicated in a number of situations, including criminalization, house demolition, and the treatment of their habitation areas as empty, thus deserving no state protection in times of war.

Several maps illustrate some of this dispute. Map 1 illustrates the location of the Bedouin living area in relation to the entire Israel/Palestine region and marks the siyaj (sayag in Hebrew, literally “fenced”) region, into which all Bedouins were concentrated after the 1948 war. Map 2 zooms in on the Bedouin regions around Beersheba, including our main focus of the ‘Araqib area, which lies some 10 kilometers north of Beersheba. It shows the spatial pattern of Bedouin informal (mostly unrecognized) localities, where more than 100,000 Bedouins resided in 2016, and the seven planned towns into which the state attempted to urbanize the entire indigenous population of the region in the past. Map 2 zooms in on the land claims of the tribes in and around ‘Araqib. Map 3 provides further necessary background by showing the extent of Bedouin land claims and current “unrecognized” development in the Beersheba metropolitan region.

As will become clear in the following chapters, contrary to state claims, Bedouin Arabs have resided in the Negev/Naqab region of southern Israel/Palestine for centuries before the establishment of Israel, subsisting on a mixed economy that combined pastoralism and agriculture.

Map 1. Location of Bedouins and the siyaj region in Israel/Palestine. Source: adapted and updated from Avinoam Meir, As Nomadism Ends: The Israeli Bedouin of the Negev (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 114.

Map 2. Location and land claims of al-‘Uqbi in ‘Araqib and Zehilika. Source: al-‘Uqbi archives and the Israeli Land Authority.

Map 3. Bedouin land claims and the unrecognized Bedouin localities. Source: Regional Council of the Unrecognized Villages, aerial photograph 2015; and Israel Land Authority.

A short caveat on the term Negev is in order here. Although Negev is the standard geographic term used in the study of southern Israel/Palestine, it has not been constituted as a defined geographic unit or as a separate administrative unit under any of the last three regimes that exercised power over the area (Ottoman, British, and Israeli). Negev is a biblical term that refers to a smaller area of land than what is considered the Negev region today. Further, in its earlier English version, the “Negeb” (with a b) used to refer mainly to a climatic unit of a desert region and not to a geographic or politically defined territory. During Ottoman rule, part of the region was under the administration of the Gaza Subdistrict, which was in turn part of the Jerusalem Governorate. Later, in 1900, the Ottomans established the Bir al-Sabia’ kaza (Beersheba Subdistrict), which came to include large parts of the region’s territory. The British largely maintained the administrative division but stretched it all the way to the Dead Sea. This meant that the Beersheba Subdistrict came to constitute an area of 12.5 million dunums of British Palestine, constituting nearly half the land mass (a dunum is about one-fourth of an acre). The region was generally referred to by its Arab inhabitants as the Bir al-Sabia or Bilad Ghazza. However, today Palestinian Arabs refer to it as the Naqab. In this book we continue to refer to the region as the Negev/Naqab, as it is currently known to the locals and to others.9

Throughout the past several centuries, the Bedouins, like other indigenous peoples, developed a distinct land regime that regulates their settlement system and self-rule over property, including ownership, division, sale, and conflict resolution. Since the 1970s, despite their partial urbanization and incorporation into the Jewish state, the Bedouins have continued to hold to many aspects of their traditional culture, customary law, and social organizations. Their settlement system, based on traditional patterns of landownership, is still in place in the north, northeastern, and central Negev, where the unrecognized localities exist. In other parts of the Negev, Israel has evicted and destroyed most Bedouin settlements.


1. In Hebrew this operation was called mivtza’ tzuk eitan, literally “Operation Strong Cliff.”

2. As we explain later, in our context the term unrecognized localities refers to Bedouin settlements that, according to the official Israeli position, are located on public land and were built without permits. These localities do not appear in official maps or plans.

3. Elisheva Goldberg, “Israel’s Bedouin: Caught Between the Iron Dome and Hamas,” The Atlantic, August 1, 2014, tinyurl.com/kzkr3pp (accessed June 3, 2017).

4. Chaim Levinson, Ido Efrati, Jack Khoury, and Revital Hovel, “Man Killed in Rocket Strike on Negev Bedouin Community,” Haaretz, July 19, 2014, tinyurl.com/mjvjm6v (accessed June 6, 2017).

5. Levinson et al., “Man Killed.”

6. Goldberg, “Israel’s Bedouin.”

7. H.C.J. 5019/14 Abu Afash v. GOC, Home Front Command, Petition for Temporary Injunction (July 16, 2014), par. 7, 11 (Hebrew) (copy with authors), and Defendant’s Response (August 17, 2014), par. 17. See also Revital Hovel, “High Court Rejects Petition Seeking Rocket Shelters for Bedouin Villages Now,” Haaretz, July 21, 2014, tinyurl.com/zrzqa2u (accessed June 6, 2017).

8. On terra nullius, see Sections 1.2 and 1.5; on legal geography, see Section 1.1.

9. See Ahmad Amara, “The ‘Negev’ Redefined,” paper presented at the New Directions in Palestinian Studies Workshop, Brown University, March 2014 (copy with authors). For the historical geography of the region, see Chapter 5.