August 1, 2013: Thousands gathered throughout Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in protest of the Prawer Plan and the displacement of approximately 40,000 Bedouin in the Negev region of Israel. A “day of rage” was called and demonstrations were held in both northern and southern Israel as well as the Gaza strip, Ramallah, and East Jerusalem. Clashes broke out in the contested capital as protestors marched from Damascus gate through the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and back to the entrance of the Old City.
During the march Palestinian youth damaged an Israeli vehicle, smashing the windshield of a moving car on the road leading away from the central bus station. Police descended upon the crowed, arresting a young Palestinian boy. The demonstrators regrouped and marched back to Damascus gate where clashes with Israeli Defense forces (IDF) broke out as soldiers charged the crowd with mounted officer and bombarded the streets with flash bang grenade fired from the roofs above.
The Jerusalem streets were especially packed this day as thousands of Palestinians returned from the Al-Aqsa mosque and Iftar (break fast) dinner. The clashes were an unwelcome surprise for many in this last week of Ramadan. As Nadia a Palestinian mother of two told me. “If the police would leave there would be no problem. Instead my children are terrified, one bomb exploded right next to us, they shot it down by the gate where the families were. My girls, they wouldn’t stop crying.”
Earlier the same day a large demonstration composed of Israeli, Palestinian and International activists was held at Lehavim junction, 15 kilometers north of Beer Sheba in the heart of the Bedouin area of the Negev. Hundreds gathered on a hilltop overlooking the intersection of Route 31 and 40, waving Palestinian flags and chanting political slogans. As the demonstration progressed Palestinians broke down the police barricades and confronted the large contingent of Israeli security forces. The protest remained peaceful even as mounted Israeli cavalry impeded the demonstrator’s access to the road below.
Outside of Israel and Palestine more than a dozen international solidarity protests were held as people came out in protest of what has been called the Second Nakba (catastrophe), connecting the forced displacement of the Negev Bedouin to the expulsion of approximately 800,000 Palestinians during Israel’s war of independence in 1948. Amir who works for the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, and who helped organize the event told me that the protests were about “mobilizing people in response to the Prawer-Plan and the systematic displacement that has been taking place in the Negev for decades.”
The Prawer bill, initially approved in 2011, is a settlement plan for those Arab Bedouins living in unrecognized villages in the Negev. The plan passed first reading in the Israeli Knesset last month by a narrow margin. It will have to pass two further readings and if fully implemented could lead to the displacement of 40,000 or more Arab Bedouins, this according to Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Bedouin in the Negev
The Bedouin presence in the Negev dates back to the 7th century. It is estimated that prior to 1948 some 60,000-90,000 Bedouin lived in the region. During Israel’s war of Independence the majority of the Bedouin fled to neighboring states. Of the 11,000 that remained, 85% were forced off their ancestral land and into a restricted zone in the northern part of the Negev desert. These people were promised the right to return to their lands in 6 months, but to this day no Bedouin has been allowed to return nor have they been given any proprietary rights to the lands they were forced to settle.
Beginning in 1969 the Israeli government began its “comprehensive approach” to the Bedouin “problem.” The State established townships and offered the Bedouin land in these government planned towns, on the condition that they gave up all ancestral claims to their original land. Of the nearly 200,000 Bedouins that live in the Negev today, some 100,000 reside in one of the 7 urban townships, which have the highest rates of poverty in all the country. The remaining Bedouins population lives in one of the unrecognized villages considered illegal under Israeli law, and subject to demolition. The official Israeli policy is to deny these towns’ basic services such as water, sanitation, education and health care.
The Prawer plan is the extension of an Israeli policy, in place since the 1960s, to minimize the land inhabited by the Bedouins and concentrate the population in areas that would not be detrimental to the interest of New coming Israeli settlers. This policy is at work on both sides of the Green line, the same discriminatory land laws at work in the occupied territories are used to take land from the Arab Bedouin of the Naqab
Most important of all has been the Israeli courts manipulation of Ottoman law, whereby Israel has declared that all desert land belongs to the state by virtue of its “mawat” (dead) categorization. This tactic of declaring land Terra Nullis (land belonging to no one) has been the ideological underpinning of many settler states, from the U.S. to Australia to Israel. This categorization seeks to rationalize the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of natives by describing land as “uninhabited,” “unused” or in this case “dead”. This process is in full affect in the Negev where 65% of the land has been confiscated for public purposes.
Already this year 140 Bedouin homes have been destroyed by the Israeli government in the midst of widespread international condemnation of the practice. More protests will undoubtedly take place in Historic Palestine and around the globe as the solidarity campaign continues. At last 20 people were arrested throughout Israel and Palestine.
Sam Gilbert is a journalist based in Ramallah.