Uprooting 30,000 Bedouin in Israel
“It is not every day that a government decides to relocate almost half a per cent of its population in a programme of forced urbanisation,” Rawia Aburabia asserted, adding that “this is precisely what Prawer wants to do”.
The meeting, which was attempting to coordinate various actions against the Prawer Plan, had just ended, and Rawia, an outspoken Bedouin leader who works for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, was clearly upset. She realised that the possibility of changing the course of events was extremely unlikely and that, at the end of the day, the government would uproot 30,000 Negev Bedouin and put them in townships. This would result in an end to their rural way of life and would ultimately deprive them of their livelihood and land rights.
Rawia’s wrath was directed at Ehud Prawer, the Director of the Planning Policy Division in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office. Prawer took on this role after serving as the deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council. His mandate is to implement the decisions of the Goldberg Committee for the Arrangement of Arab Settlement in the Negev, by offering a “concrete solution” to the problem of the 45 unrecognised Bedouin villages in the region.
An estimated 70,000 people are currently living in these villages, which are prohibited by law from connecting any of their houses to electricity grids, running water or sewage systems. Construction regulations are also harshly enforced and in this past year alone, about 1,000 Bedouin homes and animal pens – usually referred to by the government simple as “structures” – were demolished. There are no paved roads in these villages and it is illegal to place signposts near the highways designating the village’s location. Opening a map will not help either, since none of these villages are marked. Geographically, at least, these citizens of Israel do not exist.
The State’s relationship with the Bedouin has been thorny from the beginning. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, about 70,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev. Following the 1948 war, however, only 12,000 or so remained, while the rest fled or were expelled to Jordan and Egypt.
Under the directives of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, many of the remaining Bedouin were uprooted from the lands they had inhabited for generations and were concentrated in the mostly barren area in the north-eastern part of the Negev known as the Siyag (enclosure) zone. This area comprises one million dunams [one dunam = 1,000m2], or slightly less than ten per cent of the Negev’s territory. Through this process of forced relocation, the Negev’s most arable lands were cleared of Arab residents and were given to new kibbutzim and moshavim, Jewish agriculture communities, which took full advantage of the fertile soil.
After their relocation and up until 1966, the Bedouin citizens of Israel were subjected to a harsh military rule; their movement was restricted and they were denied basic political, social and economic rights. But even in the post-military rule of the late 1960s, many Israeli decision makers still considered the Bedouin living within the Siyag threatening and occupying too much land, so, despite the relocation that had been carried out in the 1950s, the state decided to find a better solution to the “Bedouin problem”.
The plan was to concentrate the Bedouin population within semi-urban spaces that would ultimately comprise only a minute percentage of their original tribal lands. Over the course of several years, government officials met with Bedouin sheikhs and reached agreements with many of them. In a gradual process, spanning about 20 years, seven towns were created – Tel-Sheva, Rahat, Segev Shalom, Kusaife, Lqya, Hura and Ar’ara.
In some cases, Bedouin were already living where the town was built, but the large majority of the Bedouin were relocated once again and moved into these Bedouin-only towns. Some did it of their own volition, while others were forced. The price that most families had to pay for their own displacement was hefty: renouncing the right to large portions of their land and giving up their rural way of life.
For many years following the establishment of each town, the Bedouin residents were not allowed to hold democratic elections and their municipalities were run by Jewish officials from the Ministry of Interior. The towns also rapidly turned into over-crowded townships, with dilapidated infrastructure and hardly any employment opportunities. Currently, all seven townships, which are home to about 135,000 people, are ranked one on the Israeli socio-economic scale of one (lowest) to ten (highest), and are characterised by a high unemployment, high birth rates and third-rate education institutions.
After years of indecision, the government appointed Prawer to try, yet again, to solve the “Bedouin problem” once and for all. His mandate is to relocate the Bedouin who had been unwilling to sign over their property rights and remained in unrecognised villages. The government’s justification for not recognising these villages is that they are relatively small (ranging from a couple of hundred to several thousand people) and are scattered across a large area, all of which makes it difficult, in the government’s view, to provide them with satisfactory infrastructure. In the name of modernism, then, the government wants to concentrate the Bedouin in a small number of towns.
Wadi al Na’am
After meeting Rawia, I drove to Wadi al Na’am, an unrecognised Bedouin village located about 20 minutes south of my house in Beer-Sheva. I wanted to ask some of the people there what they think of Prawer’s Plan.
Along the highway, I passed literally hundreds of Bedouin dwellings made from tin panels, scrap wood and canvas. Chicken, sheep, goats and donkeys adorned the terraces. I was again struck by Bedouin wheat pastures because they are not irrigated, and the height of the stalk depends on the amount of rain that falls during a given year; it is easy to identify a Bedouin pasture because the stalk is miniscule when compared with “Jewish” wheat, which receives plenty of water.
Although I had been to Wadi al Na’am a few times before, I suddenly felt unsure about where I was supposed to turn off the highway and called Ibrahim Abu Afash to ask for directions. “Don’t you remember,” he said, “at the road sign pointing towards the electricity plant take a left and I will wait for you on top of the hill.”
I followed Ibrahim’s Subaru on dirt roads for about ten minutes until we reached his shieg, a large tent towering over a concrete floor covered with rugs, a row of mattresses and pillows scattered along the perimeter. In the middle of the tent, there was a hole in the concrete, with an iron pot of tea simmering over burning coals. Ibrahim sat on a mattress next to his brother Labad and right behind them were a few young men smoking Israeli cigarettes and drinking tea.
Ibrahim is the sheikh of Wadi al Na’am. When he was young he served as a scout for the Israeli military, which may explain why his Hebrew is better than mine. After a few niceties, he cut to the point.
“I met Prawer and he is a good man,” he said, and then added that “often good men, do bad things.”
“The fact that Wadi al Na’am, like many other unrecognised villages, is located right under electricity grids and next to central water pipes and that we were never allowed to connect our homes to these basic services is no doubt a criminal act of discrimination.”
“You know,” he continued, “in the past two decades, several dozen single-family Jewish farms have been established throughout the Negev and more recently, ten new Jewish satellite settlements have been approved and will be constructed on Bedouin land near the Jewish town Arad. Incidentally, at least two unrecognised Bedouin villages, al-Tir and neighbouring Umm al-Hiran, are due to be emptied of their combined 1,000 residents to make way for these new Jewish communities.”
Ibrahim did not mention that in the northern Negev there are already 100 Jewish settlements scattered about, each one home to an average 300 people, but he nonetheless managed to underscore that Prawer’s scheme is biased at its very core. And even though he never came out and said that the true motivation behind the plan is the desire to Judaise the land, it is obvious that this is indeed the objective. There is no other feasible explanation for why the state does not relent and legalise the unrecognised villages.
The Bedouin as a threat
As he was formulating the plan, Ehud Prawer met many Bedouin in order to understand the complex issues involved in trying to provide a solution to the unrecognised villages. Years of service within Israel’s security establishment have led him, however, to relate to Bedouin less as individual bearers of rights and more as a national risk that needs to be contained.
Working closely with Prawer are a few people who, like him, were for many years part of one of Israel’s security arms. His right hand man, Doron Almog, is a retired military general, while Yehuda Bachar, chairman of the Directorate for the Coordination of Government and Bedouin Activities in the Negev, was a senior officer in Israel’s police force. Not coincidentally, before submitting the plan to the government, Prawer asked Yaakov Amidror, the Director of the National Security Council, to provide his stamp of approval.
The fact that the life experiences of almost all of the people responsible for providing a solution for the unrecognised Bedouin orbited around issues of security is not a minor matter, since for them the Bedouin are first and foremost an internal threat. The “Bedouin problem”, accordingly, has little to do with rights and much more to do with managing risks.
Algorithm of expropriation
Ironically, the plan Prawer drafted and the proposed law based on the plan do not really address the problems of these villages.
“If the state is so adamant about not recognising the villages in their existing locations, I would have at least expected Prawer to state clearly that the government will build a specific number of villages and towns for the Bedouin, to specify exactly where they will be located, and to promise that they will be planned so as to take into account the Bedouin’s rural form of life,” Hia Noach, the Director of the Negev Co-existence Forum, explained in an interview.
“Instead, the plan, which will soon become law, focuses on creating an algorithm for dividing private property among the Bedouin, while discussing in a few ambiguous sentences the actual solution for the unrecognised villages. Isn’t it mysterious that the plan dealing with the relocation of the Bedouin does not include a map indicating where the Bedouin will be moved to?”
Prawer’s algorithm is an extremely complex mechanism of expropriation informed by the basic assumption that the Bedouin have no land rights. He is aware that, in the 1970s, as Israel was relocating Bedouin to townships, about 3,200 Bedouin filed petitions to the Justice Ministry, claiming rights over property that had belonged to their family for generations.
All in all, they petitioned for a million and a half dunams, of which 971,000 were claims regarding property belonging to individuals, and the remaining half a million dunams were land that had been used by communities for pasture. Over the years, the Ministry of Justice has denied claims relating to two thirds of the land, which means that, currently, property claims amounting to about 550,000 dunams, or four per cent of the Negev’s land, are still waiting to be settled.
Prawer’s plan aims to settle all the remaining petitions in one fell swoop. Ironically, though, his underlying assumption is that all such claims are all spurious. At the very end of the government decision approving the Prawer Plan (Decision 3707, September 11, 2011), one reads:
“The state’s basic assumption over the years … is that at the very least the vast majority of the claimants do not have a recognised right according to Israeli property laws to the lands for which they have sued … By way of conclusion, neither the government decision nor the proposed law that will be brought forth in its aftermath recognise the legality of the property claims, but rather the opposite – a solution that its whole essence is ex gratia and is based on the assumption of the absence of property rights.”
The strategy is clear: Take everything away, forcing the Bedouin to be grateful for any morsel given back. And this, indeed, is how Prawer’s algorithm of expropriation works.
First, only land that is disputed (meaning land that families filed suit for 35 years ago) and that a family has lived on and used consecutively (as opposed to pasture areas that have been collective) will be compensated with land, but at a ratio of 50 per cent. So if a person has 100 dunams, lived on this land and planted wheat on it for the past three-and-a-half decades, this person will be given 50 dunams of agricultural land. Most of this newly “recognised land” will not be located on the ancestral lands, but at a location wherever the state decides.
Second, cash compensation for land that had been petitioned for, but held by the state and therefore not used by Bedouin will be uniform, regardless of the location of the land and whether or not it is fertile, remote or attractive.
Third, the rate of compensation will be about 5,000 shekels ($1,300) per dunam, a meagre sum considering that half a dunam in a township such as Rahat costs about 150,000 shekels ($40,300). The cost of a plot is important, since the families will have to buy plots in the towns. If a Bedouin landowner has five or six offspring, by the time he buys plots for the family, he will be left with little, if any, land for agricultural use. Finally, Bedouin who filed land claims and do not settle with the state within five years will lose all ownership rights.
Hia Noach estimates that of the existing 550,000 dunams of unsettled land claims, about 100,000, which is less than one per cent of the Negev’s land, will stay in Bedouin hands after the Prawer Plan is implemented. But this, she emphasises, is only part of the problem. Another central issue has to do with the actual relocation. Where will the Bedouin be moved to and to what kind of settlement? These are precisely the questions Ehud Prawer is yet to answer.
One detail that has become public knowledge is that the unrecognised Bedouin will be relocated east of route 40, which is the Negev’s more arid region situated close to the southern tip of the occupied West Bank. While this part of Prawer’s plan is reminiscent of Ben Gurion’s strategy of concentrating the Bedouin within certain parameters in order to vacate land for Jews, it may be the case that there is something more sinister at hand. If there are ever one for one land swaps with the Palestinians in the West Bank, what could be more convenient for the Jewish state than handing over some parched Negev land with a lot of Bedouin on it?
Regardless of what the Bedouin think about this scheme, the government is going ahead with the plan and has decided to allocate about $2bn for relocating 70,000 Bedouin. Incidentally, this is more or less the same sum that was allocated for relocating the 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The government has also stated that about $300m will be allotted to the existing townships, indicating that at least some of the Bedouin will be moved to these dilapidated municipalities.
It is unclear how people accustomed to living off agriculture and raising sheep will make ends meet once they are forcefully relocated. This is not merely a theoretical concern, considering that the majority of Bedouin who moved to the first seven towns never succeeded in socialising to more urban life. There are talks that three more towns will be created, but if history is any indication, it is unlikely that these will be any better suited for the Bedouin’s rural form of life.
Before leaving Wadi al Na’am, I asked Ibrahim what he thinks will happen if they do not reach an agreement with the government. He paused for a moment and then replied that he does not want to think about such an option, adding that “they will not put us on buses and move us, they will simply shut down the schools and wait. When we see we cannot send our children to school we will ‘willingly’ move”.
This is how forced relocation becomes voluntary and how Israel will likely represent it to the world.
This article first appeared in Al Jazeera. A shorter version of the article also appeared in the London Review of Books.