Nearly 30,000 illegal Bedouin immigrants from the Palestinian Authority and neighboring Arab countries are currently residing in the Negev in southern Israel, including both women involved in polygamous marriages to local Bedouin men and the children born in such relationships.
While technically illegal in most cases, polygamy is both widespread in the Bedouin Arab community and largely overlooked by authorities.
According to a 2013 Knesset report, some 30% of families in the Bedouin sector are polygamous, while other estimates place the figure as high as 35%.
Even some prominent public figures, like Taleb Abu Arar, a sitting Knesset Member (Joint List) remain married to multiple wives.
The phenomenon has often been cited as a women’s rights issue, and a challenge to the rule of law in Israel, as nearly all polygamous marriages are not sanctioned by law.
But according to a study by the Lavi organization, the blind-eye turned to Bedouin polygamy also has serious demographic repercussions for southern Israel.
With a natural growth rate of 5.5%, the Bedouin community in the Negev doubles roughly every 13 years, surging from just 11,000 after the establishment of the state in 1948 to roughly 100,000 in 1999 to over 200,000 by 2013. Today, the Bedouin make up approximately 30% of the Negev’s total population.
This growth comes in part from the large number of women who immigrate illegally to Israel to marry Bedouin men, often as the second, third, or even fourth wife.
While a security provision in Israel’s family reunification law bars most spouses from the Palestinian Authority and Arab states from being granted legal residency, thousands of women currently reside illegally in Israel as the wives of Israeli Bedouin men.
According to the Physicians for Human Rights Israel, 20,000 women from the Palestinian Authority alone currently reside illegally in Israel and are married to Israeli Arab men.
In addition, some 8,000 children born to foreign mothers without legal status reside in Israel illegally, the State Comptroller has reported.
That may just be the tip of the iceberg, say Lavi activists, who note that Israeli state Sharia courts, administered by the Ministry of Religion, often enable polygamists by giving tacit acceptance of fake divorces when validating what are in practice polygamous marriages.
More importantly, state Sharia courts are often used to grant recognition to children from marriages which were officially nullified or are otherwise not registered with the state – including marriages with women illegally residing in Israel. In such cases, the court aids children from these relationships to gain citizenship in Israel, despite the mother’s lack of legal residency.
Even the National Insurance Institute (Bituah Leumi) gives de facto recognition of polygamous marriages in the Bedouin sector, allowing women applying for benefits to list their family status as members of “enlarged families”.
Despite a 2013 Knesset investigation into polygamy in Israel, law enforcement authorities and government agencies refuse to face the issue head-on.
“Polygamous marriages are a violation of Israeli law,” a Lavi spokesperson told Arutz Sheva.
“Beyond that, polygamy in the Bedouin sector contributes directly to the trafficking of women and the smuggling of women from Gaza and Jordan to Israel. Polygamy in the Bedouin sector is growing, and both directly and indirectly harms the general population of Israel, and the time has come for authorities and government ministries to confront [the phenomenon of] polygamy in Israel.”