Climate change is increasingly considered a security problem by academics and politicians alike. Although research is challenging such neo-Malthusian views, it focuses on conflict, or lack thereof, paying limited attention, if any, to cooperation. This study examines the effect of a severe drought on a spectrum of both conflict and cooperation in a highly incendiary setting, between Muslim Bedouin herders and Jewish agricultural settlements in Israel’s semi-arid northern Negev region. This region, lying between the Mediterranean zone and the Negev Desert, has historically been a battle ground between farmers and pastoralists.
Using archival data, both conflictive and cooperative interactions between the two groups during the 1957–63 drought, the worst in the 20th century, were examined. The results indicate that although the entire range of responses occurred, violence was limited and occurred only when some of the Bedouins migrated to the more northern Mediterranean zone. In the semi-arid northern Negev the Bedouins and two settlements engaged in substantive cooperation and assistance. Grazing on damaged crops in return for payment was also practiced during the drought.
A number of factors that affected both conflict and cooperation are identified. The severity of conflicts increased when farmers and herders lacked previous familiarity, while the need to reduce the drought’s impacts and settlements’ left-wing political affiliation formed main incentives for cooperation. Measures taken by state institutions to directly reduce frictions and to provide relief assistance were central to the overall limited level of conflict, but also reinforced the power disparities between the groups.
On the foundation of the first Jewish settlements in the Negev, at the start of the 1940s, the Bedouins welcomed the Jewish settlers. The local personal connections and mutual acquaintance between them created a feeling of closeness. The symbiosis of daily life and mutual help in the fields of personal needs, from medicine to transport, replaced their mutual fears.
However, two factors quickly changed this attitude. The first was a severe drought, which struck the Negev in the winter of 1947, and brought with it a difficult economic situation, followed by several robberies and disputes, and damage to property. The second factor was the incessant encouragement given by the leaders of the Palestinian National Movement to the Bedouins to join the struggle against the Jewish population, especially after the UN decision in November 1947, that is, after the partition of Palestine and the inclusion of the Negev within the borders of the Jewish state.
Most of the Bedouins joined the Palestinian National Struggle. Friends of yesterday became today’s enemies. The years 1947–1949 were a period of anarchy, which continued well into the 1950s. In this period the State of Israel was established. Consequently, the Jewish population in the Negev was no longer the party responsible for the relationship with the Bedouins, as the Israeli government took its place. Also contact between neighbors was reduced after the Bedouins were evacuated toward the ‘fence’ region, in the Beer-Sheva Valley. The freedom the Bedouins enjoyed before the war did not exist anymore.