Updated: April 2 2008

On March 31, Human Rights Watch released a 130-page report headlined “Off the Map: Land and Housing Rights Violations in Israel’s Unrecognized Bedouin Villages”. A preliminary analysis of this report demonstrates a number of fundamental flaws:

  • In contrast to the complexity of the issues related to the massive growth of the Bedouin population in Israel, and the very damaging impact on the desert ecology resulting from illegal construction, this report presents a highly simplistic and misleading image designed to demonize Israel. The absence of any discussion of the Bedouin in Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia highlights the primacy of HRW’s political goals.
  • Many of the claims in this report are copied from highly politicized NGOs, such as Alternative Information Center, and lack credibility. In contrast, detailed Israeli government responses to HRW’s request for information are distorted or erased.
  • Important factors that do not support the political message are omitted, such as the core issue of Bedouin polygamy and the huge social welfare budget necessary to support the children in these families.
  • The use of terms such as “indigenous people” and “land rights” with reference to the nomadic Bedouin population is misleading.
  • This 130 page report, and HRW’s large scale public relations campaign that accompanied it is another expression of this NGOs highly distorted and obsessive emphasis on demonizing Israel.


1) Simplistic presentation of a highly complex issue

The Bedouin come from nomadic tribes which have moved across the political boundaries of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and other countries in the area, and most choose not to live in urban frameworks.1 In this context, the use of pejorative terms such as "informal shanty towns," communities without electricity and water supply, "ramshackle villages," and villages "comprising no more than tents or shacks" constitutes a major distortion of a highly complex situation. The report paints a false image focused on ostensible denial of housing rights, patronizing the Bedouin and ignoring the unique challenge that Israel faces in providing housing to a population which traditionally prefers to lead a nomadic lifestyle. While the authors of the report note that most Bedouin wish to continue their "traditional means of livelihood such as herding and grazing", they fail to consider the implications of the huge population growth and the environmental impact of such demands.

The Israel policy response, as addressed by the Israeli Ministry of Justice of July 23, 2007 in a memo addressed to HRW, is based on the effort to move members of this population to government planned towns.  The memo notes that "The Government offers the residents of the Bedouin diaspora permanent housing solutions in permanent towns which include all the necessary facilities and infrastructures, according to the present policy." The authors of the HRW report also choose to remove the following details of assistance provided to the Bedouin who agree to move to these authorized communities:

  • Financial compensation for demolition of illegal buildings and relocation to permanent towns.
  • Option to purchase a developed building plot for a low price (or at no cost).
  • Single residents over age of 24 who do not receive compensation for illegal buildings receive a building plot without cost.
  • Special benefits to Bedouin members of the security forces.
  • Optional extra building plots purchase – every Bedouin citizen is eligible to purchase another two building plots per family at reduced prices.


2) Lack of credibility

As is often the case with Human Rights Watch reports on Israel, many of the sources for their claims lack credibility. This is clearly the case for many allegations which quote “eye witnesses” whose truthfulness can never be verified, or are simply copied from other highly politicized and unreliable NGOs. Ignoring many of the detailed and credible academic studies, many of which include informed criticism of Israeli policy2, the authors of the HRW report selected a few biased sources such as "Ethnic Cleansing in the Negev," written by Jeni Dixon and Leena Dallasheh (July 31, 2005) and copied from the website of The Alternative Information Center. As NGO Monitor analysis has shown, the AIC is a particularly radical organization, heavily involved in the Durban strategy of demonization, applying labels such as “apartheid” and racism to Israel. Other sources include pro-Palestinian NGOs such as Adalah (pages 11, 25, 28, etc.), Habitat International Coalition (p. 28), and Badil (p. 21).

Furthermore, the "facts" that HRW chose to omit from this report are at least as problematic as the ones that are included. For example, there is no mention of the widespread polygamy in the Bedouin community, the very high birth rate and resulting rapid rise in the population, or the inherent social problems that this creates and the clear impact of this on Israeli government concerns and policy. According to studies by Professor Elian al-Karinawi, head of the Social Work Department at Ben-Gurion University, children in polygamous families often suffer more psychological problems than those in monogamous households and among the dominant manifestations of such problems are higher rates of criminal activity and dropouts. These concerns add yet another complex layer to the issue, which is ignored by Human Rights Watch.

3) Misleading terminology

The authors of the HRW report refer to "tens of thousands of Palestinian Arab Bedouin, the indigenous inhabitants of the Negev region." While small groups of Bedouin have traversed this region, as well as neighboring Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the use of the term “indigenous” is misleading. Similarly, the condemnation of "Israel’s systematic violation of Bedouin land and housing rights", which is the main theme of this document, is deceptive, simplistic and patronizing, particularly given the complex context and nature of land use issues and property rights.

4) HRW’s continued anti-Israel obsession

In the first three months of 2008, HRW has already issued two reports exceeding one hundred pages focusing on condemnation of Israel using the rhetoric of human rights, in addition to the two such reports published in 2007. This is twice the number of HRW reports on Egypt, Iraq and Hezbollah. (In the coming weeks, NGO Monitor will be releasing a detailed analysis of HRW’s activities and distribution of resources in the Middle East and North Africa during 2007.) Each such report is accompanied by press releases, conferences, and other publicity, amplifying the excessive focus on allegations against Israel. In addition, the absence of any discussion of the Bedouin in Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia in this or in any other report published by HRW highlights the political goals of this report.3

Furthermore, in this report, HRW joins (and quotes from) the wider campaign by the biased human rights organization within the UN and the NGO network, in using the complex Bedouin issue primarily as a political weapon to condemn Israel.4

Thus, while the rapidly increasing Bedouin population for Israel, as well as for Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, poses difficult and important challenges, HRW’s highly politicized and patronizing report based on unreliable sources is counterproductive, and does not contribute to constructive responses.

Additional sources:

Krakover S., “Urban settlement program and land dispute resolution: The State of Israel versus the Negev Bedouin” GeoJournal, Volume 47, Number 4, 1999 , pp. 551-561(11)

Yahel, Havatzelet. “Land Disputes Between the Negev Bedouin and Israel” Israel Studies, Volume 11, Number 2, Summer 2006

Dr. Yosef Ben-David “The Bedouin in Israel


1 See, for example, Avinoam Meir , As Nomadism Ends: The Israeli Bedouin of the Negev , Westview Press, 1997

2 In addition to Avinoam Meir, cited above, see short list of additional sources at the end of this document.

3 See, for example, “Dozens hurt as Bedouin clash with Egyptian police over evacuation” Associated Press, 31 July 2007, However, HRW has chosen to focus exclusively on Israel for condemnation.

4 See, for example, NGO submissions to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (“CERD”) February 2007; and Oxfam and European Commission sponsor politicized Bimkom and ACRI conference on "Unrecognised Bedouin villages in Israel" NGO Monitor Digest (Vol. 5 No. 7), March 20, 2007.