Dwelling in Conflict
Negev Landscapes and the Boundaries of Belonging
Emily McKee



The problem of land conflict in the Naqab is bigger than in the West Bank, Sliman told me. We stood together one spring day in 2009 on a rooftop looking north across the hills of the northern Naqab/Negev, the arid southern half of Israel.1 The West Bank Separation Barrier, a complex of concrete wall, barbed wire, and patrol roads, was on the horizon. Soon, Sliman continued, the Palestinian Authority will take real governmental control throughout the West Bank, and there will not be a problem of land conflict there. But here, he said, directing my gaze to the land below us and to the south, he saw no hope for resolution. There are Bedouin in almost every place, he said, but these lands are also “designated as something else” now.

Sliman’s pronouncement about the West Bank may have been unrealistically optimistic. But his pessimistic view of the Naqab compared with the West Bank, widely known for its virulent conflict, conveys the pernicious tensions he sensed in Naqab land relations. And this Naqab–West Bank pronouncement was not naïvely made. The building we looked from was part of Kibbutz Lahav, a community for Jewish Israelis, but Sliman knew these lands as al-Huwaylga, home to his Bedouin tribe before 1948. His family was displaced, and he returned to this place only as a worker. Sliman had Israeli citizenship, but many extended family members, who fled in 1948 across what became the armistice line between Israel and the West Bank, or “the Green Line,” did not. Sliman identified himself as a Bedouin, and also felt ties, like many Naqab Bedouins, to a wider Palestinian community. He frequently crossed back and forth over the Green Line and worked as a guide in the Bedouin cultural museum in Kibbutz Lahav. He knew the region well and was voicing concerns I heard during many other conversations since first arriving in the Negev two years earlier.

Sliman and I were overlooking just a portion of the Negev’s disputed lands that day. The areas where we saw clusters of Bedouin Arabs’ homes were designated in Israeli state records as national forest lands, sites for building Jewish communities, or agricultural zones. Similarly overlapping landscapes spread across much of the northern Negev. State officials declare these Bedouin hamlets and villages to be illegal settlements on state-owned lands and order residents—between 65,000 and 100,000 by widely varying estimates—to move to one of several government-planned townships.2 However, Bedouin Arab residents, who are also Israeli citizens, complain of poor conditions in the townships and view these state declarations of ownership as illegitimate because they ignore families’ historical residence in villages, many of which predate the establishment of Israel. An impasse festers, forming layers of resentment and sometimes erupting into violence. Some Bedouin residents continue to inhabit and expand the villages labeled as “illegal,” and government demolition crews continue to destroy houses and crops in these villages.

This impasse has life-changing consequences for all the Negev’s residents, with reverberating economic and emotional effects well beyond the region. Land tied up in legal disputes cannot be protected or developed with long-term plans. This uncertain status makes ecological sustainability difficult to achieve (Orenstein, Tal, and Miller 2013). Economic opportunities in the Negev lag behind other areas of Israel. Unemployment rates are higher for the Negev’s residents than Israel’s national average, and Bedouin Arabs’ jobless rates are typically two to three times the rates of Jews in the region (Swirski and Hasson 2006). Many Jewish residents and municipalities complain of their inability to implement urban development plans because Bedouins live “illegally” in areas designated for expansion (Yahel 2006). Meanwhile, the families living on these disputed lands face house demolitions and the denial of social services available to other Israeli citizens.3 Because they do not exist on official maps and development plans, Bedouin Arab communities often find waste sites, highways, and military facilities built nearby or within their midst. Their unofficial status, on the other hand, means that power grids, running water, and bomb shelters are not provided by the state (Amara, Abu-Saad, and Yiftachel 2013).4 Such disparities fuel the frustration and alienation of a generation of Palestinian citizens throughout Israel (Rabinowitz and Abu Baker 2005), and events in the Negev now feature in the grievances and publicity materials of human and civil rights groups working throughout the region, on both sides of the Green Line.5

Amid the cacophony of opinions circulating about Negev land conflict, no single perspective exists among Bedouin residents. Some seek greater integration within Israeli society, while others push for distinctive cultural rights and more autonomy. Some live in unrecognized villages and demand full recognition of land tenure rights, while others seek better government-planned townships. Bedouin Arabs may express fond affinity for Israeli society, as did one former farmer in his sixties who told me about being homesick when he heard Hebrew while traveling in Turkey. Similarly, there is no single Jewish Israeli perspective. Some Jewish Israelis value Bedouin Arabs’ connection to Negev lands, support their claims to land rights, and even dedicate themselves to full-time nonprofit work toward this goal; while others criticize these individuals as traitors to the Jewish people. Further, Jews of some ethnic backgrounds have experienced discrimination at the hands of other Jews.

Despite this heterogeneity and these crosscutting affiliations, land disputes in the Negev are most commonly spoken of—in media coverage, personal accounts, and scholarship—as a standoff between well-defined and naturally distinct groups of Bedouin Arabs and Jews. Many Jewish Israelis express anxiety about the loyalties of Bedouin Arabs, wondering whether ties of religion, ethnicity, or nationality across state borders will override their shared Israeli citizenship. Bedouin Arabs are well aware of these suspicions and struggle to negotiate ambivalent affiliations with Israeli society and Palestinian or pan-Arab identities. Like other Palestinian citizens of Israel, they are not fully incorporated members of the nation-state because of its definition as Jewish (Rabinowitz and Abu Baker 2005). Worries periodically circulate in public discussions and newspaper articles about a looming “Bedouin Intifada” driven by mounting frustration over structural violence and second-class citizenship status (Barzilai 2004; Kabha 2007). Intifada, meaning “awakening” or “popular uprising” in Arabic, more commonly refers to uprisings in the Occupied Palestinian Territories during 1987–1993 (First Intifada) and 2000–2005 (Second Intifada), and applying this word to Bedouin citizens highlights anxieties about their loyalty to Israel.

During my research, I asked many people, both Jewish and Bedouin Arab, how this problem should be solved. It’s not possible, many replied. In another ten years, a resident named Sarah, of a Bedouin township, told me as we sat together in the shade of her courtyard, “there will be more people with less land. . . . The same situation, but worse.” Similarly, Ofra, a resident of a Jewish village, stated as we sat in her living room, “It’s a very complicated problem, more like hatred. . . . And it’s only getting worse.” As they spoke of hatred and land competition, Sarah and Ofra sat in two of the segregated communities that result from and feed into this conflict. Four years later, a government plan to settle claims and relocate residents raised debate and street demonstrations as a government initiative called the Prawer Plan was debated and subsequently tabled. The uneasy détente remains.

To understand how this segregation has become so pervasive in the Negev’s socioenvironmental landscapes and how land conflict has come to seem so inevitable, this book addresses three central questions. What kinds of attachment to land are people fighting over? How are particular lines of opposition entrenched as “natural,” such that conflict is taken for granted? Do avenues of conflict resolution being explored move beyond these naturalized oppositions?

These land struggles in the Negev have developed within the larger context of Palestinian-Israeli battles over sovereignty and security, as well as the shifting political sensibilities and personal identities that make Israel a deeply and multiply divided society (Ben-Porat and Turner 2011; Rabinowitz and Abu Baker 2005). Conflicts over “the Land” of Palestine-Israel are often expressed in historical and political terms, and a large body of scholarship provides intricate analysis in these terms. A brief historical summary, below, demonstrates how the leadership strategies, economic demands, and ethnic tensions buffeting the region over the past 120 years are directly relevant to contemporary land struggles. The book then builds on this history by examining environmental factors at the heart of this conflict. Through detailed analysis of the Negev case, I offer a political dwelling perspective as an alternative lens for viewing land conflict.

Creating a Conflict

Scholarship on the history of the Zionist movement and Israeli state-building before the 1980s was largely celebratory, avoiding criticism of Zionist leaders or military bodies, and neglecting violence and discrimination directed against Arabs. However, critical scholars of more recent decades, such as Avi Shlaim (2000) and Benny Morris (1999), have pointed out these limitations and developed lively debates about the causes and course of nationalist struggle between Israelis, Palestinians, and a wider Arab populace.6 These accounts often begin in nineteenth-century Europe, where, amid a number of movements advocating different approaches to alleviating the anti-Semitism and exclusion of Jews from civil and political society, Zionists gathered around a shared belief in the need for a Jewish state. Though the World Zionist Organization (WZO), founded in 1897, initially considered several possible locations, including Cyprus, Argentina, Uganda, and other parts of the Ottoman Empire, by 1905 the leadership had ruled out these other possibilities, for both practical and ideological reasons (Laqueur 1989). Thereafter, the WZO focused its efforts on building the small-scale Jewish settlements already underway in Palestine into a strong yishuv (“settlement,” or Jewish society) that could lead to a Jewish state.7

Whether analyzing the unique ideological origins of Zionism or engaging a more materialist approach that views Zionism as a case of settler colonialism best understood through comparison with other cases, scholars explaining the origins of Arab-Israeli conflict often focus on the First Aliya and Second Aliya. Historians typically distinguish several waves of aliya, or Jewish immigration (literally meaning “ascent”), to Eretz Israel between 1882 and 1948.8 These waves trace international events, such as the shift from Ottoman to British Mandate rule over Palestine (1923–1948), and changing ideologies and economic organizations of immigrant groups (Tessler 1994). Though early settlers initiated plantations of grapevines and orchards with aid from wealthy Jewish philanthropists, the rising influence of a faction known as Labor Zionists marked the Second Aliya. Labor Zionists, a political subset of the Zionist movement who called for self-sufficiency through labor in the land, established the agricultural settlements, kibbutzim and moshavim, which became emblematic of Zionism. Kibbutzim were founded beginning in the early 1900s, and moshavim from the 1920s. Both types of settlement were cooperative but to different degrees, as kibbutz members pooled resources and labor in fields and homes, and moshav members pledged financial support to each other, but also established and managed fields and homes individually.9 As exclusively Jewish communities, both types of settlement contributed to the segregation of Jews and Arabs, which was a cornerstone of the Zionist movement (Piterberg 2008).

Zionism was not a singular effort but rather a diverse movement that included wealthy land purchasers and unskilled laborers, groups aiming for politically negotiated sovereignty and those seeking immediate safe havens for Eastern European Jews being persecuted in pogroms.10 However, these groups held a common goal of territorial gain (Shafir 1996). The Holocaust in Europe fueled the urgency of this territorialism, as it seemed to prove the need for a Jewish state as a safe haven (Zertal 2005). As Jewish immigration increased, as Jewish individuals and organizations bought more lands, and as the territorial and sovereignty goals of the movement became clearer, Palestinian resistance to the movement grew. Arab leaders reacted with more violence, and Zionist leaders rallied around a security focus, deprioritizing cordial relations (Caplan 1978). Particularly influential in building this security concern were events like the attacks against Jews in Jaffa in 1921 and the more widespread violence of the 1936–39 Arab revolts.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Zionist groups initially settled most intensively along the coasts of Palestine and in the Jezreel Valley (Kimmerling 1983). In the arid, less fertile Negev, little Jewish settlement occurred before the 1940s. This began to change when in 1939 Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion called in earnest for Negev settlement. Several observation outposts and agricultural research stations led the way for a handful of settlements by 1946. Then in 1947, as part of a bid to include this large and strategic area in a future Jewish state that was being debated in the United Nations (UN), several Zionist organizations cooperatively undertook a tower and stockade campaign to rapidly establish small, fortress-like outposts in carefully selected, dispersed Negev sites (Kellerman 1993, 1996).

In 1947, Zionist expansion and Palestinian (now also wider Arab) resistance came to a head. After the United Nations voted to partition Palestine and Arab leaders rejected this partition, Great Britain withdrew its Mandate government, and the war that later became known by most Jews as Milkhemet ha-Atzmaut, the “War of Independence,” and by most Arabs as al-Nakba, the “Catastrophe,” broke out.11 Fighters on both sides killed Jewish and Arab combatants and civilians, and in the end Zionists gained the most, while Palestinians suffered the greatest losses. The war drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians permanently away from their homes and gutted Palestinian communities of their educated and wealthy residents (as these groups were most able to flee during fighting).12 The war led in 1948 to the declaration of Israeli statehood and the formation of a government, and it gained considerably more territory for Israel than would have been assigned under the UN Partition Plan.13 Those Palestinians remaining within the new state’s territory (about 150,000) were granted Israeli citizenship (Tessler 1994).

Following the war, Ben-Gurion, who had become Israel’s first prime minister, championed the Negev as the country’s prime frontier for development. The region made up approximately 60 percent of Israel’s territory at the time of statehood and contained 2 percent of its population (Lithwick, Gradus, and Lithwick 1996), making it a vast area of potential for absorbing Jewish immigrants. The Negev was also a critical buffer zone between the Arab states of Egypt and Jordan. Without protecting their military conquest of the region by settling Jews there, Ben-Gurion maintained, Tel Aviv and the more densely settled narrow coastal strip would be merely a vulnerable city-state (Kellerman 1993).

Initially, Zionists’ “conquest” of the Negev, like other European colonial projects, involved extensive projects of infrastructure building and landscape transformation (Lines 1991; Scott 1998). Labor Zionism dominated politics in Israel’s early years, and because these leaders strove to modernize the desert with large-scale agriculture, water provision was critical. Ben-Gurion’s government began work in 1953 on the National Water Carrier to pump water out of Lake Kinneret in the north and carry hundreds of millions of cubic meters to the arid southern region (Tal 2002). The project entailed great costs. It required significant investment from a young and cash-strapped state; its implementation escalated border disputes with neighboring countries, which threatened war; and the long-term ecological impacts of rerouted streams, depleted aquifers, and a shrinking Dead Sea are still being realized (Orenstein, Tal, and Miller 2013; Tal 2002).14 Yet bringing water to the desert was worth these costs for the Labor Zionist government because it enabled agriculture and Jewish settlement throughout the country. Twenty-six new moshavim and eight development towns were established in the region during the 1950s.

In addition to building infrastructure, Israel’s new government used legislative and policy tools to “Judaize” various frontier regions, settling more Jews there and curbing Palestinian populations (Rabinowitz 1997). The Negev was a particular frontier of focus during the state’s first decade. Bedouin tribes had been practicing extensive farming and seminomadic pastoralism, primarily raising fat-tailed sheep and goats, rather than intensively farming or building large, permanent communities (Hillel 1982; Abu-Rabia 1994). In the 1950s, the Israeli government designated a restricted area known as the siyag (“fence”), which covered about 10 percent of the lands formerly inhabited by the Bedouin tribes (Marx 1967:14), and compelled Bedouins in the Negev, who were also Israeli citizens, to move into this area. Until 1966, the siyag existed under military administration, and Bedouin residents needed permission to move about within the restricted area, as well as for any trips outside (Meir 1998; Abu-Saad 2005). In addition, the Israeli High Court ruled in the 1950s that most areas of the Negev were mawat (“dead”) lands because they had not been “improved” according to specific agricultural criteria (Kedar 2001). The government claimed these as state lands and then, with the 1965 Planning and Building Law, outlawed Bedouin residence on them by establishing a scheme for zoning lands (as agricultural, residential, and so on) and declaring all building outside of this scheme as illegal (Abu Hussein and McKay 2003).

As Jewish-Arab tensions mounted, an additional social cleavage grew in Israel. Ashkenazi Jews (those with European ancestry) had led early Zionist settlement efforts, and their cultural expectations had set the norms of progress and civility among Jews. Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, once called Oriental Jews and now Mizrahim, were pushed to assimilate to Ashkenazi norms when they began immigrating to Israel in large numbers in the 1950s. Government officials, social workers, and teachers in the Zionist movement treated Mizrahi immigrants as dirty, disordered, and in need of training to become “modern” members of Israeli society. Fearing an “engulfment by the East” that would threaten the separation of Jewish and Arab societies, Zionist leaders invited Mizrahi Jews into Israeli society on the condition that they excise any signs of Arabness from their language, dress, religious rituals, and so on (Shohat 1999:8). They also directed large numbers of these newcomers to Israel’s frontier regions, exacerbating tensions over land and ethnic identity. This included the Negev, where government planners aimed for a tenfold increase in the Jewish population through immigration (Tzfadia 2000).

After the 1950s, Israel’s frontier of focus shifted again, and the Negev slowly fell into neglect. It became a remote periphery, due in part to geopolitical changes. During the mid-1960s, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol championed the Galilee, in the north, as Israel’s most crucial frontier and redirected governmental resources accordingly (Kellerman 1993). When Israel occupied Gaza, the West Bank, and the Sinai Peninsula during the 1967 War, these territories became the most critical frontiers. Though investment in new Jewish communities in the Negev slackened during this period, efforts to protect “state lands” from settlement by Arabs continued. The government constructed townships for Bedouin Arabs from 1969 onward and combined threats and incentives to remove Bedouin Arabs from their more dispersed patches of land and concentrate them in urban settlements (Dinero 2010; Yiftachel and Meir 1998).

The Negev’s peripheral status deepened in the 1980s–1990s when the national trends of economic liberalization and the concomitant reordering of national priorities reduced government funding for remote settlements. Low socioeconomic indicators and high unemployment figures further indicate the region’s peripheral status (Kellerman 1993; Teschner, Garb, and Tal 2010). Successive national governments proposed ambitious development plans to raise living standards, increase Jewish residence in the region, protect larger areas from Arab settlement, and more recently, ameliorate pollution problems.15 But there has been little implementation of recent development plans (Teschner 2007). The few governmental initiatives aimed at the south in recent decades, such as quarries, waste facilities, and military bases, have tended to respond to and perpetuate the Negev’s image as a wasteland and wild space.16 As a result, Israelis refer to the contemporary Negev as a periphery, and residents often complain of disregard from politicians and fellow Israelis living in “the center” (the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas).


1. The region, “Naqab” in Arabic and “Negev” in Hebrew, is most often referred to in English as Negev.

2. See Swirski and Hasson (2006). In addition to seven existing townships, nine other communities gained statutory recognition under the Abu Basma Regional Council (formed in 2005), but little integration through municipal services, infrastructure, or local elections has occurred.

3. A growing literature addresses unrecognized villages in terms of historical land use (Falah 1985; Abu-Saad 2008; Swirski and Hasson 2006); citizenship, nationalism, and human rights (Gottlieb 2008; Kressel 2003; Schechla 2001; Yiftachel 2009a); and practical and legal effects of these unrecognized settlements on Israeli society (Abu-Bader and Gottlieb 2008; Shamir 1996; Yiftachel 2009b).

4. Legal suits have pressured the government to provide some services in unrecognized villages—several primary schools, wellness clinics, and “minimum water”—by asserting basic rights to education and health care that Israel acknowledges for all citizens (HC 4671/98, Abu-Frech, et al. v. The Education Authority for the Bedouin in the Negev, et al. [1998]; HC 7116/97, Adalah v. The Health Ministry [1999]; CA 9535/06, Abdullah Abu Musa’ed, et al. v. The Water Commissioner and the Israel Lands Administration [2011]).

5. For example, one of the first two Israeli civilians killed during the 2014 battles between Hamas and Israel was a Bedouin Arab man from an unrecognized Negev village. None of these villages are protected by the sirens, bomb shelters, or Iron Dome missile defense system that protect Jewish municipalities, and news reports and NGO campaigns took up this man’s death as a symbol of the unequal treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel, including a lawsuit by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel against the state to provide protective shelters (Aljazeera 2014; Maan 2014).

6. Other influential “new historians” include Tom Segev (2000), Ilan Pappé (2004), and Hillel Cohen (2010).

7. The term yishuv describes the society of Jews living in Palestine between the initiation of Zionist immigration to Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel, as well as this time period itself.

8. Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, is a biblical name for a geographical area broader than, but including present-day Israel.

9. Mainstream histories of Zionism focus on these agricultural settlements, bolstering Zionism’s image as an agricultural movement greening the desert. But as other scholars have shown, urban immigrants have been more numerous (Kellerman 1993), and labor competition in factory and construction work, as well as on farms, significantly shaped the yishuv society and Jewish-Arab relations (Shafir 1996).

10. Debates were strongest between “practical” Zionists, who sought immediate settlement on whatever portions of Palestine were available, and “political” Zionists, who advocated careful diplomacy to secure a charter from the Ottomans for larger-scale settlement (Kornberg 1993; Laqueur 1989).

11. During the decades immediately following 1948, the newly dispersed Palestinian communities in Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere used different terms for the war (Allan 2007). The term “al-Nakba” became more widespread following the 1967 War (Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007).

12. Estimates of the number of Palestinians who left or were driven from their homes range widely, from approximately 500,000 by an “observer sympathetic to Israel” to 940,000 by UN figures, and higher according to a number of Arab sources (Tessler 1994:279). Reasonable estimates for the number of Palestinians remaining resident after hostilities ended range from 125,000 to 150,000 (Tessler 1994).

13. While historians, other scholars, and public leaders aligned with either side initially explained the war through starkly contradictory analyses as the result of either Zionist aggression or the refusal of Arab leaders to accept reasonable compromise, scholars began offering more nuanced, evidence-based analyses by the 1990s. These accounts recognize the importance of interwoven class and ethnic conflicts that had been created and exacerbated during the decades prior to 1948 (Shlaim 1995).

14. By 2013, desalinated seawater was beginning to replace the Negev’s Kinneretdrawn water.

15. These plans include the “Southern Project” (1975), the “National Industrial-Zone in the Negev” (1972), the “Southern District Outline Plan” (1981), “The Negev in 2000” (1986), “Negev Progress” (1991) (Teschner 2007), and most recently, “Negev 2015.”

16. Military bases and training zones now occupy more than 60% of the region’s territory (Teschner, Garb, and Tal 2010). Mining facilities, a nuclear reactor, and the country’s only hazardous-waste processing facility were also built in the Negev, extracting the region’s natural resources and taking advantage of areas with few Jewish residents.