The Negev desert covers about 60% of the State’s territory. Nevertheless, only about 10% of the population live in this barren triangle between the Mediterranean in the west, from about Ashkelon in the north, to the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi in the in the east ,to Eilat in the south.
The biggest city is Beer-Sheva, which should be called the capital of the largest region of Israel. With over 200,000 inhabitants it is one of the country’s most important cities. In the course of the last decades, Beer-Sheva has succeeded in developing into a vibrant city. An industrial zone was established in the south. Ben Gurion University of the Negev is one of Israel’s most modern universities. The city’s goal is to attain 500,000 to 600,000 inhabitants. The size increase is no problem since there are practically no inhabited areas in the surrounding region, and only the south is to be reserved for industry.
Parts of the urban area go back to the 4th millennium BCE, as witnessed by excavations. The town was named Beer-Sheva after Abraham and Abimelech, King of Gerar, concluded an agreement:
Genesis 21:27 -31
27 And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and they two made a covenant. 28 And Abraham set seven ewe-lambs of the flock by themselves. 29 And Abimelech said unto Abraham: ‚What mean these seven ewe-lambs which thou hast set by themselves?‘ 30 And he said: ‚Verily, these seven ewe-lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that it may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well.‘ 31 Wherefore that place was called Beer-sheba; because there they swore both of them.
Judges 20.1 mentions Beer-Sheva as the Israelites‘ southern residential border: Then all the children of Israel went out, and the congregation was assembled as one man, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, with the land of Gilead, unto the LORD at Mizpah.
The northern part of the Negev desert can be considered as being quite fertile. A thin layer of loess, makes it possible to maintain permanent agriculture. By means of targeted and gentle drip irrigation, and the use of desalinated water, the dry desert is being pushed back ever further to the south. Beer-Sheva enjoys more than 200 mm annual precipitation.
It is at the edge of the dry desert, which becomes an extreme desert south of Sde Boker, the old age refuge of David Ben Gurion and his wife Paula. Eilat, Israel’s most southerly town, gets only 30 mm rain, if any. Flooding like last winter happens once in a century.
To the south of the city, Bedouin settlements are coming closer to the outskirts. The industrial zone and the desert natives are struggling for room to expand. 34% of the population in the southern district are Bedouins, who have been living here for centuries. The once nomadic people have gradually become only semi-nomads. Traditionally the tribes live from livestock breeding, though their own nutrition is mainly vegetarian. New additional occupations added are weaving and embroidery for women and jobs in tourism for men. In the 1960s, the State of Israel began attempts to have the Bedouins settle in towns that were built especially for them. This planning may have been well meant but did not suit their traditions. In the triangle between Arad, Dimona and Beer-Sheva, there are still 35 unauthorized Bedouin settlements. Regretfully there are often ugly scenes, when bulldozers come to demolish the sheet metal huts. During recent years the Bedouins‘ acceptance of the new towns slowly increased. When driving along the Bedouin triangle one can see how clean the new settlements look and how in the smaller settlements, as well, they make all efforts not to miss the connection to modern life. Solar collectors assure the electricity supply. Solar boilers guarantee warm water around the clock. Only water itself has to be brought by tanker to the unauthorized settlements, since Israel does not connect them to the communal infrastructure.
There are always NGO activists on location to document what is happening. Time and again loud complaints are made against Israel. Photographs posted on the Internet by the NGOs show an ugly picture of Israel. The fact that there is always another, pleasanter but untold, side, is due to the very nature of the anti-Israel NGOs.
But why did the Bedouins – even during the Ottoman rule – refuse to have their land registered? Although they could see what was happening during the Ottoman period and became first semi-nomadic and later sedentary, they never had documents for their claim to the land. Detractors say that they wanted to avoid paying land taxes. If that is indeed so, they were given bad advice.
Bedouins belong to Israel like any other citizens. They are fully integrated in the IDF, but as volunteers, because they are formally exempt from military service. Thanks to their life in the desert and their special semi-nomadic way of life, they usually serve as trackers. They are simply unbeatable in that field.
The extent of the Bedouin integration into Israeli life is described in a recently published newspaper article. A Bedouin couple and their three children have been accepted as full-fledged members of a traditional Kibbutz in the north of the country. That would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
But are the Bedouins the only desert inhabitants who may claim that they have been there „forever“?
„Forever“ is what UNESCO has notoriously been trying to use against Israel. No connection to Jerusalem, none to the Temple Mount, and the latest: none to Hebron. Though we read in Genesis, 23:15: 15 ‚My lord, hearken unto me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that betwixt me and thee? bury therefore thy dead.‘ 16 And Abraham hearkened unto Ephron; and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant. 17 So the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the border thereof round about, were made sure 18 unto Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of his city. 19 And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre–the same is Hebron–in the land of Canaan. 20 And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of a burying-place by the children of Heth.
Whose testimony that Hebron is the Jewish Heritage par excellence can be worth more than that of our patriarch Abraham? The Tora’s stories about Abraham point to its creation around 2000 BCE.
Around 1000 BCE, in King Solomon’s time, Israelite tribes were living in the Negev Desert. This was proven by the excavation of small settlements around Beer-Sheva.
Around the 6th century BCE, the Nabateans originating from Arabia conquered the region and expelled the Israelites. The Nabatean presence is certain from 312 BCE to 328 BCE. Where they came from is only surmised. What is certain is that around 500 BCE they also settled in what is now Petra and in Edom, to the south of the Dead Sea, in present-day Jordan.
The Sicilian historian Dioderus has described the two attempts to destroy the Nabateans in a battle near Gaza in 312 BCE or at least to expel them. In both battles the attackers were beaten and destroyed. Dioderus describes them as follows: „The Arabs have no fixed houses and have neither agricultural nor horticultural activity; they let their camels and muttons graze in the desert which also serves as their safe haven when enemy armies approach; as only the Nabateans know the few water sources and are able to survive in the desert; they also know how to build wells and covered cisterns; their income comes mainly from the sale of asphalt and the trade with incense, myrrh and rare spices that originate from „Arabia Eudaemon“; occasionally they undertake raids into neighboring regions“.
Elsewhere, he writes: „They lead a marauding life, robbing the neighboring countries on their raids. […] They plant neither corn nor other fruit bearing trees, nor do they drink wine or build any houses. If anyone breaches those rules, his punishment is death. […] Though there are many other Arab tribes using the desert as grazing fields, they are much richer than the others, despite being not many more than 10,000 people, since many of them are used to carry incense and myrrh as well as selected spices to the sea.“
Around 150 BCE the tribes united to become a kingdom with its capital in Petra in present-day Jordan. The reason why they were able to survive for such a long time in the inhospitable desert is due, among others ,to their pioneering invention: flash flood irrigation. In a sophisticated system of supply and draining ducts, walls and trenches, as well as adequate terraces, rain water (when it does rain) is collected in the channels. This system ensures that the water soaks the layer of loess or sand instead of simply flowing away. Once the soil is drenched the remaining water is conducted to the next lower terrace. In good years, this makes rich harvests possible. On flatter terrain, the „Limnic system“ was used. In this system small plots are carefully walled so as to create a kind of basin, which is deeper at the middle, thus collecting the overflow. Drinking water and water for other uses were pumped, sometimes from substantial depths, near the settlements.
In the 1950s, biologist Michael Evenari and his team discovered the remains of this antique irrigation system. At the suggestion of Michael’s wife Lieselotte, the team started the reconstruction of a Nabatean farm in 1959. In 1960 they were able to bring in their first good harvest. Clearly, it is true all over the globe: behind any successful man stands a smart wife.
With this security, the Nabateans were able to increase their wealth. The „incense road“ led from Yemen to Gaza in the west and Damascus in the east. Some of the highly coveted wares that were painstakingly listed by Plinius the elder were cardamom, myrrh, incense.
Over a 2,400 km road, traders wanted to be sure that their caravans would reach their destination safely. This security was assured by the Nabateans: in easy daily marches of 35 km, travelers could find either a camel station or a fortified town. Between the different stops there were observations posts, securing the caravans‘ route. But then as today, security had its price: fodder, water, sleeping places, food supply, custom duties, payments for guards and their assistants, everything influenced the final price at destination.
Nowadays the ruined towns of Avdat, Mamshit, Shivta, Nitzana, Chalutza and Rehovot tell us the story of the flourishing Nabatean period in the Negev desert. As was often the case in this region, earthquakes were what put an end to life in those historic places.
Whoever walks through the ruins on a hot summer day contemplating their history, can perhaps feel how life changed here when the caravans came and the lanes and squares filled with loud and colorful life. Perhaps they can even smell all those exotic foreign delicacies that were stored here securely overnight.
In the meantime Avdat has been wonderfully restored, and one can truly recognize history here. In Shivta, the second town we visited, there is still a lot to be done, but buildings can already be recognized which are worth reconstructing.
© esther scheiner, Israel
© translated by: Translation International, Herzliya