Be’er-Sheva (بئر السبع), the Capital of the Negev Desert Region, continues to serve the surrounding semi-nomadic and sedentary Negev Bedouin populations (ca. 220,000) as their administrative and commercial center. Currently, about 60% of the Negev Bedouins reside in Rahat (only 25 km from Be’er-Sheva) and in the six Bedouin ‘satelite’ townships, while the rest dwell in ca.39 “unrecognized villages” (informal shanty towns) in an attempt to retain their traditional semi-nomadic traditions and ancestral lands.
Bedouin history in Be’er-Sheva
Under the British Empire, Be’er-Sheva had many Bedouin mayors, such as–Ali al-Atawnah, Hamad al-Sufi, Friah Abu Maddain, Hussain Abu Kaf, Taj a-Din Sha’ath and Shafiq Mustafa; and two Bedouin regional governors: Aref el-Aref and Isak al-Nashashibi. The great-grandson of Be’er-Sheva‘s first Bedouin Mayor, Ali al-Atawnah (who served from 1900-1922), is Sharif al-Atawnah (b.1979-), who currently runs the “Sharif Car-Wash” in Be’er-Sheva (18 ha-Melakhah St.).
Be’er-Sheva’s Great Mosque (Jama’), financed by the local Bedouin population and built by the Ottoman Empire from 1897-1906, but was never actually consecrated or used as a place of worhip. Until 1953, it served as the city’s courthouse, when it was re-purposed to function as the Negev Museum of Archaeology. In the 1990s, it underwent a long process of restoration, followed by series of court cases to determine the appropriate future use of the edifice. Finally, in 2011, the Be’er-Sheva Mosque finally reopened, after further restoration, as the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures and, in 2016, it was granted the prestigious Restoration Medal by the national Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites.
Aref el-Aref (1892-1973), also known by the Bedouin as “Abu Tsufian,” was the District Governor of the Be’er-Sheva District on behalf of the British Empire from 1929-1939; he also led Bedouin uprisings against Jewish settlers. As an historian, he published several Arabic books on the history of the Bedouin tribes and on Bedouin law and justice. The distinctive building that had served as his home, built in 1938 in the Old City, was made of specially-brought pink Jerusalem stone
In 1930, the British Empire established the first Interterritorial Tribunal in Be’er-Sheva, consisting of Bedouin judges (qadis) and tribal leaders from the Negev, Jordan, and Sinai, along with British police representatives, who met every six months to rule on various criminal and other cases.
The largest and most impressive Ottoman-Turkish edifice in the Old City was originally built in 1933 to be the Agricultural School for the Sons of the Bedouin Sheikhs. During the wars that followed, it came to serve as a military headquarters, a field hospital, and a regional veterans’ center. Since 2013, after being restored, it now serves as the Carasso Science Park.
Also in 1933, the British Empire established and financed the first-ever, camel-mounted, Negev regional Bedouin Desert Patrol, with its headquarters in Be’er-Sheva, who worked in conjunction with the British Police. It was briefly disbanded from 1938-1939 (during the Bedouin anti-British rebellion) and then reinstated, lasting until 1948.
Throughout the 1930s, Be’er-Sheva had flourishing industries, plentiful crops of wheat, barley and sugar, and served as a central regional marketplace. The local archaeological remains attest to the presence of those and other crops.
Since nearby Rahat was recognized in 1994 as the first Bedouin city in Israel and in the world, the traditional Bedouin market, previously associated with Be’er-Sheva, gradually relocated to Rahat, where the real sheep and camel trading is done at the crack of dawn. However, Be’er-Sheva has a daily standing municipal fresh-produce and commodities market closed only on Saturdays and holidays (for which massive renovations are forthcoming) and folk-fairs and flea markets in the Old City along the central KKL pedestrian promenade most Mondays and Fridays mornings and during the Passover (Pesah) and Tabernacles (Sukkot) festivals.
The Be’er-Sheva Muslim Cemetery is located at the edge of the Old City (across the highway from the Negev Mall) and has a number of graves of significant local Bedouin figures.
Bedouins in the city
Many Bedouin professionals and non-professionals work in Be’er-Sheva: judges, lawyers, physicians, pharmacists, academicians, researchers, insurance agents, cooks, drivers, construction workers, etc. There are about 100 Bedouin families that reside permanently in the city. As of 2020, there are ca.490 women Bedouin students studying at BGU (70% of the ca.700 Bedouin students currently enrolled).
The Bedouin population is the youngest population in Israel, with ca.54% under the age of 14, and they have the highest birth-rate in Israel (ca.5.5%). As such, most Bedouin women come to the Soroka Medical Center to deliver their babies, so that they can receive child welfare benefits. As the number of settled Negev Bedouins increases, and more receive a higher education in Be’er-Sheva, and their economic status improves–their birth-rate has begun to decrease.
Bedouin education in Be’er-Sheva
In 1913, the Ottoman-appointed governor of Jerusalem, Jawdat Pasha, began to encourage the Negev Bedouin sheikhs to send their sons to Be’er-Sheva to receive an agricultural education. In 1933, the Agricultural School for the Sons of the Bedouin Sheikhs was completed and dedicated. Then, in 1934, under British Imperial rule, for the first time, the Negev Bedouin tribes sent 134 young Bedouin women, daughters of the sheikhs, to receive a formal education in Be’er-Sheva as well. Now, in the 21st century, several hundred young Bedouin women get their teachers’ certificates at the Kaye Regional Teachers’ College and receive academic degrees at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and other local colleges each year. Kaye Regional Teachers’ College offers some courses in Arabic. BGU accepts Bedouin students who meet the basic requirements; it also houses the Robert H. Arnow Center for Bedouin Studies and Development – 08-6472859, http://w3new.bgu.ac.il/bedouin.
The Hagar Kindergarten (founded 2008), opened in Be’er-Sheva by two organizations–“Hagar” and “Hand-in-Hand,” aims to prove that coexistence and peace can begin in the sandbox. About 60 children, 50% Bedouin/50% Jewish are taught by a mixed staff not only the standard curriculum, but also about social equality and pluralism in a bilingual/multi-ethnic environment. It boasts kosher food and a long day of education (to 16:00). Location: Hey neighborhood on Mintz St. – Anwar al-Hajuj 050-7250191 and Yifat Hillel, 052-3335298 or http://Site.2all.co.il/ganhagar.
Shatil – the Forum for Arab Education in the Negev is located in the Old City – call Iyliyl at 08-6282008, email@example.com.
Key Bedouin figures
Dr. Sarah Abu-Kaf (b.1976-, Be’er-Sheva) got her Ph.D. at BGU in 2010 and became a faculty member of the BGU Dept. of Psychology in 2012, where she teaches in the Conflict Management & Resolution Program. She was the first Bedouin clinical psychologist and was placed in the U.S. Embassy’s Women in Science Hall of Fame in 2014. She was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to do her post-doctoral research at Harvard University on mental health services for Bedouin women. She serves as a role-model for other Negev Bedouin women.
Prof. Aref Abu Rabia is a lecturer in the BGU Middle East Studies Dept. He has authored 4 books and many articles on Bedouin anthropology and folk-medicine.
Iz’at Abu Rabia was Israeli’s first Bedouin tour guide, with the ability to speak 5 languages
Dr. Khalil Abu Rabia served for many years as an advocate in the Be’er-Sheva Shari’a Court and still lectures at BGU, at “Adalah” – Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, and elsewhere, and has published articles on the Bedouin legal system and traditions.
Dr. Yunis Abu Rabia (b.1943-) became the first Bedouin physician (M.D.) in Israel in 1971, setting an example for other Bedouins to follow. He was also active in the Negev Labor Party. He was a senior physician at the Soroka Medical Center until his retirement in 2010.
Dr. Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder (daughter of Dr. Yunis Abu Rabia) got her Ph.D. at BGU in 2006 and is a faculty member of the BGU Dept. of Education. She was among the first Negev Bedouin women to get a higher education. Thus far, she has authored 1 book, edited 2 books, written many articles and received numerous awards. In 2019, the journal of the World Sociological Association, Current Sociology, featured her as their “Sociologist of the Month.” In 2020, she heads the BGU Program for Conflict Management & Mediation.
Prof. Ismael Abu Saad has been a member of the academic faculty of the BGU Dept. of Education since 1990 and also founded the Robert H. Arnow Center for Bedouin Studies and Development. He has published 6 books and tens of articles to date.
Other organizations for Bedouins located in Be’er-Sheva
The Directorate for the Promotion of the Bedouin in the Negev is located in the “Big” Commercial Area – 08-6232293/5, http://www.mmi.gov.il.
The “Fruits of Peace” Association, was founded in 1997 by Georgina Meyer-Duellmann (b.1943-) and Connie Edell Reisner (b.1925-) to bring together local Jewish and Bedouin artists, so they might enrich each other and exhibit their works together in various public venues – 050-4157425.
The Negev Forum for Co-Existence, Be’er-Sheva Center – Multaka/Mifgash meets in the Yud-Aleph neighborhood and hosts Jewish/Bedouin/Arab social activities regularly -firstname.lastname@example.org, 08-6483804.
The recognized, regional Islamic Shari’ah Courts are situated in the Be’er-Sheva Hall of Justice.
There is also a Center for the Fortitude of Bedouin Society in the Negev – 072-2212788.
Bedouin culture in Be’er-Sheva
Coexistence and peace can begin in the sandbox… The unique 50% Jewish/50% Bedouin bilingual, pluralistic kindergarten, Hagar Kindergarten (founded 2008) – 077-2708307, 08-6375345, http://www.hajar.org.il.
A new Bedouin coffee shop has opened in the restored section of Smilansky St. in the Old City, called “Jiran”مقهى جيران (lit., neighborliness), run by Ibrahim Azbargah, to encourage good relations between Jews and Arabs, while experiencing genuine bitter Bedouin coffee with cardamum prepared over hot coals, the scent and sound of the gurgling nargilah (Bedouin water-pipe), good music, and a friendly atmosphere.
Since “Our future is inspired by our past” – join the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites – www.shimur.org.il.
For example, we’re currently trying to save the house of the first Jewish Mayor of Be’er-Sheva, David Tuviyahu (located in the Old City) from destruction for historic preservation.