21:53 GMT22 February 2020
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    Although banned in Israel, polygamy is still considered to be common among the country's Bedouins. Apart from being a social problem, the phenomenon also poses a security challenge that Tel Aviv doesn't know how to handle.

    It has been hard to communicate with Ikram (not her real name), a middle-aged Bedouin woman from Israel's south, who was supposed to share the horrors of her marriage after her husband took a second wife and started abusing Ikram and their children.

    After countless calls and text messages, she finally bailed out, saying she didn't want to talk to the press.

    Ikram is not the only one. Maaki, an Israeli NGO that aims to give a voice to women subject to any form of discrimination or injustice, has dealt with dozens of similar cases. In a closed Bedouin society that forbids any criticism of its norms and traditions, many are afraid to speak up.

    A growing trend

    But the magnitude of polygamy among Bedouins and the repercussions of the phenomenon have long been on the list of Israel's concerns.

    According to estimates, 18 percent of Bedouin men are married to more than one woman but unofficial numbers are much higher, standing at 30 percent, reports suggest.

    Although polygamy is banned by law in Israel and some Arab states, many Bedouins, like many other Muslims, consider it permissible to marry several women simply because they believe Islam has no objection to it.

    This may not be entirely true. During its first years, Islam may have encouraged men to marry more than one woman, but Dr. Nihaya Daoud, a researcher of public health at Israel's Ben Gurion University, says it was done for mainly humanitarian reasons. 

    "It was a time of war that resulted in many widows and orphans. To protect them men were encouraged to marry several women. Islam has also permitted it when a woman was sick and was unable to take care of her husband and kids."

    However, Islam also stipulated that a second wife was permissible only if the man could provide both of them with equal treatment, taking the option off the table for men of modest means.

    Lucrative business?

    When the State of Israel was established in 1948, says the expert, polygamy was almost non-existent among Bedouins. However, that has quickly changed. 

    "Some experts believe that Israel has ended up encouraging polygamy by turning a blind eye to the phenomenon as a compensation for the lands it confiscated from the Bedouins when the Jewish state was first established."

    Official data states that the Bedouin population in the Negev desert, where the community's base is, stood at 65 thousand people in 1948. In comparison, the three thousand Jews that resided in the area were spread out on a tiny area, with only 25 settlements. After the war of independence, Israel established borders that limited the area where Bedouins could live, giving them about 300 thousand acres of land in the desert's northeast.

    "It was a win-win situation for both Israel and the Bedouin men, who took money from the government for every child they produced," said Daoud.

    In early 2000s families with many children received financial assistance from the Jewish state. A family with seven kids, for example, got around $1,500 per month. For most Bedouin men, that was enough to enjoy a high standard of living, sometimes  without the need to look for a job.

    When Benjamin Netanyahu became the country's finance minister in 2003, the situation swiftly changed; he cut the financial assistance by more than half, making it unprofitable for Bedouin men to take more than one woman. But that didn't stop the spread of the phenomenon. Rather, men started looking for "cheaper" options, marrying poor women from the West Bank that had neither citizenship, nor status.

    Ticking time bombs

    That created another problem, explained Daoud. "When these kids are born and raised with the sense that they don't belong here, that they have no right to attend school or get medical treatment, you create a situation where people have nothing to lose, and as such they become a ticking time bomb." 

    In the past, the Israeli government made attempts to address the issue and integrate such people into Israeli society. Committees were set up and recommendations made to give them status, but those were never implemented. 

    "It is a million dollar question: why Israel has never followed the advice these committees have given, and I strongly believe you cannot solve this problem at the governmental level. Rather, you need to change it through education and through bolstering the rights, the value and the status of women. We still have a long way to go but there is hope that one day they will be able to break these chains."
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