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The Nakba Continues: Israel’s Bedouin Face Mass Displacement

By Nadia Ben-Youssef | New Left Project | July 15, 2013

I met Aziz Al-Touri nearly three years ago in a well-constructed tent of 2x4s and brightly-coloured tarp, erected next to the concrete remains of his family home and the exposed roots of hundreds of his olive trees.  With the sound of crushing bulldozers and the sight of thousands of Israeli security forces still haunting the dreams of his five children, he spoke of his life in terms of before and after. Before and after 27 July 2010.  Before and after the demolition of his entire village, Al-Araqib, one of 35 so-called “unrecognized villages” in the Negev desert in southern Israel. Today, when Aziz tells the story of his village, in an English that was completely foreign to his tongue three years ago, he corrects me when I say Al-Araqib has been demolished 52 times since July 2010. “That wasn’t the first demolition,” he says. “The first demolition was in 1948.”

Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 (known as the Nakba or catastrophe in Arabic) some 92,000 Palestinian Bedouin lived in distinct and fixed villages and controlled 99% of the land in the Negev (Naqab).  Land ownership and transactions were regulated within a sophisticated traditional system, and recognized by both the Ottoman Government and the British Mandate.  Following the Nakba, and the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland, the majority of the Bedouin community was forced to flee to neighbouring States; only 11,000 Bedouin remained, including a few families in the village of Al-Araqib. The remaining community was concentrated into a restricted military zone called the Siyag (Arabic for “fence”) by the Israeli Military Authority, with the internally displaced communities being told that they would be able to return to their own land within 6 months.

65 years later, none of the internally displaced Bedouin have been allowed to return, nor have they been given any proprietary rights to the land onto which they were moved. Similarly, the State did not recognize the land rights of the Bedouin communities that lived within the Siyag prior to the concentration.  According to Israeli law, none of the Bedouin have any legal right to their ancestral land; the 1953 Land Acquisition Law (Actions and Compensation) declared all of the land of the Negev to be “state land.”  With the passage of the law, the Bedouin were deemed “trespassers” and all of the Bedouin villages (both historic, and those created by the military government) were declared “illegal” and to this day have been denied recognition.

Successive Israeli governments have been faced with what the state regards as the “Bedouin problem.”  This classification is all the more troubling when one considers that the Bedouin, like all Palestinians who remained in Israeli territory after the Nakba, were granted Israeli citizenship by 1954.  The “problem” for the Jewish state is primarily one of demography.  The Bedouin, who now number some 200,000 people, comprise around 32% of the population in the Negev; next to the Galilee, the Negev is the region in Israel with the highest percentage of non-Jewish citizens. Israel’s solutions, which are developed without community consultation, are often disguised as general regional development or described in patronising terms as benevolent attempts to “modernise” the Bedouin.  However, all reflect the state’s acute anxiety about the “demographic threat” as well as the normalised discrimination against its Palestinian citizens.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the Israeli state’s first imposed solution was to urbanise its rural, pastoral citizens, creating seven urban townships over the next two decades.  These urban townships are annually featured in the lowest socioeconomic bracket in Israel, and suffer from the highest rate of poverty, crime and unemployment.  The forced urbanisation of traditional farmers and shepherds looks exactly as one would expect: bails of hay line the major roads, and herds of sheep, goats and camels are kept in pens attached to homes.  Half of the Bedouin community, or roughly 100,000 people, live in these seven townships, though 85% of the residents are those who were internally displaced into the Siyag by the Israeli military government after the Nakba.  Most of the Bedouin who were never moved from their ancestral land have remained in their historic villages, despite the fact that these villages are “unrecognized” by the State of Israel.

Unrecognized villages do not appear on any official maps, and their residents are denied access to all basic services including water, electricity, roads, sewage, schools and health clinics, in order to “encourage” them to abandon their homes.  All of the structures in the villages are “illegal”, in that they were built without permits from the State, and are thus subject to frequent demolition (around 1,000 Bedouin homes were demolished in 2011).  Beginning in 2003, after intensive efforts by an elected group of Bedouin leaders who formed the Regional Council of the Unrecognized Villages, 11 unrecognized villages were recognized.  Though these villages do not face a future of mass demolition and displacement, ten years later they remain disconnected from all state infrastructure, and as there is no elected authority from which to request building permits, new or renovated buildings are also regularly demolished.

However, it is the remaining 35 unrecognized villages, home to some 70,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel, that are the target of the Prawer Plan, the government’s most recent “solution” for the Bedouin community.  Named after the architect of the plan and former deputy chair of the National Security Council, Ehud Prawer, the Prawer Plan aims within three years to destroy the remaining villages, displace up to 70,000 Bedouin into the existing townships and recently-recognized villages, and resolve all outstanding Bedouin land claims (of which there are over 3,200, amounting to 5% of the land of the Negev) in favour of the State of Israel.  If fully implemented, the Prawer Plan would result in the largest confiscation of Palestinian-owned land since the 1950s, and confine the Bedouin population to less than 1% of the Negev.  Not only does the Prawer Plan officially deny Bedouin the rights to their land and their agency as citizens to determine where and how to live, it proposes a new discriminatory legal reality that applies only to the Bedouin community.  According to the implementing legislation of the plan, the Prawer-Begin Bill, the process of judicial review is explicitly and severely restricted for Bedouin citizens of Israel by eliminating court-ordered and supervised demolitions and evictions in favour of speedy administrative orders.  The Prawer-Begin Bill does not apply to Jewish citizens of Israel, for whom all constitutional protections remain intact.

The devastating plan was developed, as usual, without consultation with the Bedouin community and approved by the government in September 2011.  Following considerable local and international pressure, the government conceded to holding a post-facto “public listening” process whereby Minister Benny Begin (a minister without portfolio in the Netanyahu administration) heard 1,000 Bedouin citizens and representatives.  When Minister Begin finally presented his recommendations to the government a year later, it was clear that neither the grievances, nor the comprehensive planning alternatives proposed by the community in partnership with professional planners (in the form of an Alternative Master Plan to recognize the villages) had been incorporated into the Prawer Plan.  Further, in the year that Minister Begin was writing his recommendations, the government silently approved the Regional Master Plan for the Be’er Sheva Metropolitan Area, which sets out the state’s “development” plans and outlines in concrete terms the state’s confiscation of Bedouin land and the eviction and destruction of most of the unrecognized villages.

The Regional Master Plan in some instances merely confirms already existing facts on the ground.  In Al-Araqib for instance, the Master Plan grants legitimacy to two Jewish National Fund forests that are zoned for the area of the village, and today are almost entirely planted.  In many other cases, however, the planting of new forests or park reserves, establishment of new Jewish settlements, and construction of new industrial parks, roads and military zones laid out in the Master Plan is hindered by the presence of the unrecognized villages.  The Prawer Plan and the Prawer-Begin Bill enables the state to swiftly remove the villages and villagers to proceed with “development” projects that privilege state interests at the expense of its Bedouin citizens.

The Bedouin community and the Arab political leadership in Israel, together with civil society, have spent the last two years opposing and challenging the Prawer Plan and the Prawer-Begin bill.  The community has organized mass protests in the Negev, and human rights organizations in Israel and around the world have mobilised thousands of people to speak out against the mass displacement.  Meanwhile, the international community has condemned the discriminatory plan and the legislation, including the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing and the European Parliament in 2012.  Yet, on 24 June 2013, the Prawer-Begin bill passed its first reading in the Israeli Knesset.

The Prawer-Begin bill joins a wave of discriminatory legislation directly targeting Palestinians living under Israeli control, both citizens of Israel and Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).  31 bills were proposed or passed during the 18th Knesset, and already in the first four months of the new 19th Knesset, 29 new discriminatory bills have been proposed that attack the rights of Palestinians.  Normalised discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, fueled by widespread ignorance and misinformation, lends popular support to these legislative initiatives.  In the case of the Prawer-Begin bill, it is likely that it will pass its second and third readings and be enacted into law before the closing of the Knesset session at the end of this month.

The approval of the Prawer-Begin bill only makes sense within this larger context, just as the 52 most recent demolitions of the village of Al-Araqib only make sense when one considers, as Aziz rightfully pointed out, the first demolition in 1948.  Beneath the Prawer-Begin bill, and the discriminatory legislation that marks this era in the history of the Jewish state, lies a national project that has always sought to control for the Jewish people as much land with as few Palestinians as possible.  The international community must intervene at the highest level to stop the Prawer-Begin bill. But the mass displacement of Israel’s Bedouin community is not just a problem; it is a symptom of the inherent contradiction between a state that defines itself in ethno-religious terms while also claiming to be a democracy. Where 1 in 5 Israeli citizens is excluded from full civic protection and participation simply for being Palestinian, and where a Palestinian Bedouin citizen of Israel and a Jewish citizen of Israel living in the Negev are treated according to different laws and policies, no democracy exists.

Nadia Ben-Youssef is a human rights lawyer living in the Naqab and serving as an international advocacy consultant for Adalah The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

July 23, 2013 Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment