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The End of the Bedouin

by JILLIAN KESTLER-D'AMOURS

“I was born in Al-Sira,” said Khalil al-Amur, 46. “My parents were born here, and we have been living for many, many generations in Al-Sira. It’s my roots, my family, my tradition, my values, my everything.” Al-Sira is “unrecognised” — one of many such Bedouin village in Israel’s southern Negev desert — and according to the Israeli authorities, has no right to exist. A few years ago, al-Amur, a teacher, law student and father of seven, woke up to find demolition orders posted on every door in the community.

A local court froze the orders late last year. Al-Amur said the court ruled in favour of the villagers because it was clear the state hadn’t worked out where the 500 residents would move once their homes were destroyed. The Israeli government is currently appealing the decision. “They don’t know where exactly they want to move the people,” said al-Amur. “They don’t have a resettling plan, not just for Al-Sira but for all the Bedouin.”

All the Negev Bedouin — 180,000-190,000 people — are Israeli citizens. About half of them live in some 35 unrecognised villages like Al-Sira. These communities, of a few hundred to several thousand people each, are deemed illegal — even though many existed before Israel’s foundation in 1948. They aren’t on any official maps, and they lack electricity, water, schools, sewage systems and other state services.

Israel is now pushing a plan to uproot 40,000 Israeli Bedouins living in unrecognised villages, and resettle them in seven existing, government-planned Bedouin townships. The Prawer Plan has been widely criticised as an attack on their basic rights. The Bedouins reject it for ignoring their historic connection to the land and attempting to ghettoise them in the poorest towns in Israel. “It is the worst option; the towns have the highest rates of violence, the highest rates of poverty, the highest rates of unemployment, and are marginalised by the government,” said al-Amur. “What is attractive in these cities? Nothing.”

Ismail Abu Saad, a Bedouin academic and professor at Ben-Gurion University, who lives in the recognised town of Lakiya, says Israel’s policy of Bedouin urbanisation has created “third-world enclaves in the middle of an affluent society. The government planned this urbanisation process to fail. It is interested in controlling the people and keeping people poor, with a lot of social problems so that you’re busy all the time for survival; you don’t have time to think about anything else.”

The Israeli government says urbanisation will provide services and opportunities for the Bedouin of the unrecognised villages, but the townships are crippled by lack of services and socio-economic problems. “There are no incentives [to move],” said Abu Saad. “If the government really meant to … build a better place for people to live, people would come.”

Who are the Bedouin?

Before 1948, 65,000-90,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev desert; nearly 90% of these semi-nomads subsisted on traditional agriculture; the other 10% raised livestock. During the 1948-49 war, some 85% of the Negev Bedouin were expelled from their lands and went to the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Egypt. By the early 1950s, only 19 of the original 95 Bedouin tribes remained.

As the Palestinian population that remained within Israel’s Green Line were subject to military rule, the Bedouin there could no longer travel with their herds or cultivate their lands. Twelve of the 19 remaining tribes were forcibly displaced from their lands and confined to a restricted area in the northeastern Negev, which they could only leave with a special permit. This area, the Siyag, covered only 10% of the land the Bedouins controlled before 1948, and was known for its low fertility.

Israel also passed laws to facilitate taking control of the land, including the Absentee Property Law (1950) and the Land Acquisition Law (1953), which allowed the expropriation of 93% of land in the Negev. According to legal researcher Tawfiq Rangwala, Israel has perpetuated a myth of rootless nomads with no connection to the land to legitimise this land grab and ensure no Bedouin land claims would later be accepted.

“The Bedouin are viewed as an unsettled population, and their settlements labelled as ‘spontaneous’ rather than ‘planned’. This cultural dichotomy can be extended into the legal realm, where such conceptualisations obscure Bedouin claims to historic land ownership and only recognise formal land registrations, making the Bedouin worldview appear incompatible with any modern conception of land ownership. Such thinking has by extension fostered a view of Bedouin as trespassers and intruders in their own homes” (1).

Yet many Bedouin tribes hold deeds to their land dating back to British and Ottoman rule, and families are now in Israeli courts attempting to prove ownership of the land. Israel has not recognised a single Bedouin land claim in the Negev. Although Israel’s Bedouin citizens are 30% of the population in the Negev, they only occupy 2% of its land. The entirety of their land claims amount to only 5% of the land.

‘A permanent cheap motel’

In 1963 Moshe Dayan said: “We should transform the Bedouins into an urban proletariat… Indeed, this will be a radical move which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person… His children would be accustomed to a father who wears trousers, does not carry a shabaria [the traditional Bedouin knife] and does not search for vermin in public. This would be a revolution, but it may be fixed within two generations. Without coercion but with governmental direction… this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear” (2).

From the late 1960s, the state promoted a clear policy of Bedouin urbanisation. There are now seven recognised Bedouin towns: Rahat, the largest, has a population of over 50,000. The towns lack basics like sidewalks, fully paved roads, banks, libraries and job opportunities. Seen largely as dormitory towns, they fail to acknowledge Bedouin culture, and have had an irreversible impact on family and community structures. “The planning didn’t take into account … that extended families want to live next to each other. What about the new generation? There is no space for them,” said Khaled Alsana, the mayor of (recognised) Lakiya. “It’s like a motel. People sleep here and go to work [outside]. It’s a permanent, cheap motel. There is nothing that keeps you attached to the place. That’s the policy, to bring more people to the towns; that means more land for the state and less for the people.”

Drug abuse, crime, unemployment and school dropout rates are disproportionately high in Bedouin towns, compared with nearby Jewish cities, and the land allocated to the towns is insufficient for natural growth and development. The towns also fail to provide adequate health, educational and recreational services to young people, and lack a solid economic base. Each year the Bedouin townships receive the lowest socio-economic rankings in the country.

An apparent threat

In 2000, before becoming prime minister, Ariel Sharon outlined what he called  “a serious problem”. “About 900,000 dunums of government land are not in our hands, but in the hands of the Bedouin population. As a resident of the Negev, I see this problem every day. It is, essentially, a demographic phenomenon” (3). Last July Israeli media reported that the current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said the state’s ability to maintain a Jewish majority in the Negev was under threat: “Different elements will demand national rights within Israel, for example, in the Negev, if we allow for a region without a Jewish majority. It has happened in the Balkans, and it is a palpable threat” (4).

To combat this, the government publicly affirmed its goal to strengthen Jewish settlement in the Negev and increase its population by 70% by 2015. Jewish development projects in the Negev are immediately given basic services and infrastructure and encouraged to grow. Resources remain insufficient in Bedouin communities, recognised or not.

Jewish citizens can live in different Negev communities — cities, kibbutzim, moshavim (agricultural villages) or individual farms. Bedouin citizens have no option but to move into urbanised centres. This continuing policy means the largest possible number of Bedouin citizens will be restricted to smaller, more-easily controlled plots of land.

“Bedouin [would] like to live in kibbutzim and moshavim. Why not? This is our traditional life. Why is it OK for Jewish people to live as farmers in all of Israel, and not the Bedouin?” said Khadra Elsaneh, director of Sidreh, an organisation established in Lakiya in 1998 to improve the lives of Bedouin women through economic empowerment and education. “We have a group of women that started with nothing and we empowered ourselves. We have the support of our community and we don’t have any support from the government. Why? The government doesn’t give the Bedouin any hope. It must come to a solution with the community, not come to impose a solution, or the people here will explode.”

No incentive to leave

The Prawer plan wants to relocate 40% of the Bedouin now living in unrecognised villages into expanded areas of the government-planned townships; the plan says the government would offer compensation for only 50% of the land the Bedouin currently control. According to a Haaretz report on 2 June 2011, the cost of displacement would be between $1.7 and $2.4bn, including $356m for economic development in recognised Bedouin townships.

On 5 July the European parliament condemned Israel’s treatment of its Bedouin citizens, which it described as an “indigenous people leading a sedentary and traditionally agricultural life on their ancestral lands”, and urging Israel to withdraw the Prawer Plan.

But despite international condemnations, the Israeli government seems prepared to carry out its plans. A special Israeli police unit has been formed to safeguard and enforce demolitions and evictions in Bedouin communities throughout the Negev, and it is expected to begin work at the start of August.

In protest, the Bedouin have held strikes and rallies, thousands-strong, in front of the prime minister’s office and Knesset, lobbied the government to negotiate with them directly, and presented an alternative master plan for the unrecognised villages. To no avail.

The Prawer plan will be “a disaster for me, my family, my community and all the Bedouin of the Negev,” says al-Amur. “[Urbanisation] has killed our desert agriculture, the sources of our life. And now they are killing our morale, our being; they’re eliminating our population. If you visit us in 10 or 20 years, you won’t see any Bedouin anymore.”

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a Canadian journalist based in Jerusalem. Her documentary Sumoud: the Struggle for Al-Araqib can be found on her website.

Notes.

(1) Tawfiq Rangwala, “Inadequate housing, Israel and the Bedouin of the Negev”, Habitat International Coalition — Housing and Land Rights Network Middle East and North Africa (HIC-MENA), 2004.

(2) Elana Boteach et al, “The Indigenous Bedouins of the Naqab-Negev Desert in Israel”, Negev Co-Existence Forum for Civil Equality, April 2008.

(3) Thabet Abu-Ras, “Land Disputes in Israel: the Case of the Bedouin of the Naqab” (PDF), Adalah (legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel) newsletter, vol 24, April 2006.

(4) Human Rights Watch, “Israel: Halt Demolitions of Bedouin Homes in Negev,” 1 August 2010.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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