The Israeli government has adopted a new plan to “resettle” the Bedouin residents of unrecognised villages in the Negev Desert into larger recognised settlements. This plan will affect tens of thousands of Bedouins in the Negev. Dressed up as a solution to the problem of unrecognised Bedouin villages, this plan in fact is a blueprint for ethnic cleansing and the destruction of the Bedouin way of life.
As soon as Israel was established in 1948, it began a ruthless campaign of displacement and expulsion against the Bedouins, the indigenous community of the Negev (Al-Naqab in Arabic) Desert, which had been living there for thousand years before the establishment of Israel. Most of the community were expelled or forced to flee during the 1948 war. The remainder were forcibly relocated to a small area in the northeast of the Negev known as the siyag. However, Israel continued with its expulsion campaign well into the 1950s. At that time, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper described how the army would drive the Bedouin off their land:
“The army’s desert patrols would turn up in the midst of a Bedouin encampment day after day, dispersing it with a sudden burst of machine-gun fire until the sons of the desert were broken and, gathering what little was left of their belongings, led their camels in long silent strings into the heart of the Sinai desert”
The Israeli government was determined to destroy the indigenous people of the Negev and turn it into an area for Jews only. On official Israeli maps all the Arabic locality names were replaced by invented Hebrew ones. About 85% of the Negev was designated as “state land”. All Bedouin villages there were declared illegal and unrecognized. Being confined to a small, marginal area, the Bedouin were forced to give up their nomadic way of life, ceasing to move around with their herds. The Israeli government passed a law which made it effectively illegal for the Bedouin to graze their black goats, their most preferred and useful animal, and today the black goat is nearly extinct.
In the 1970s, the Israeli government created seven towns for the Bedouins, promising them access to basic services such as water, electricity, education, and healthcare. The largest of these was Rahat. Israel’s true goal was to put an end to the unrecognised villages and gain more land in the Negev for Jewish settlement. About half of the Bedouin moved to these towns while the other half refused to abandon their unrecognised villages, clinging to what was left of their traditional way of life. The towns are widely regarded as a failure, lacking essential services and infrastructure. The Bedouin today are the poorest and most disadvantaged community in Israel. Many lead a squalid existence, calling tin shacks home. 66% of them live below the poverty line and in the unrecognised villages that figure reaches 80%.
Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government has stepped up the campaign against the Bedouin, as part of the wider campaign against the Arab community within Israel’s 1948 borders which has seen the targeting of leading Arab politicians such as Knesset member Hanin al-Zoabi and the passage of laws specifically aimed against the Arab minority. The new plan that has been adopted, known as the Prawer Report, is being sold by the government as a way of “absorbing” the Bedouins into wider society and improving their lives. Those resettled are to receive financial compensation and the plan will cost the Israeli government 6.8 billion shekels (£1.15 billion) However, on closer examination, the report’s true intentions become clear. The Bedouin claim 600,000 dunums of land in the Negev – only 5% of the total area of their ancestral lands. They have continuously had this claim rejected by the Israeli courts. The original report of the Prawer Commission estimated that the Bedouin were entitled to 187,000 dunums. That figure was reduced by the National Security Commission to whom the report was presented to 100,000 dunums, under pressure from right-wing ministers in the government. Today, on average a Bedouin farmer in the Negev possesses 3 dunums of land while his Jewish counterpart possesses 30. The Prawer Commission, which includes no representatives from the Bedouin community, was itself a replacement for the earlier Goldberg Commission which included Bedouins and was seen by Netanyahu as too lenient.
All this points to the ideological motivation behind the Netanyahu government’s new policy towards the Bedouin. Informed by extreme right wing Zionism, the government sees the Bedouin, the original inhabitants of the Negev, and the most powerless and disadvantaged community in Israel today, as an enemy and an existential threat. The “development” of the Negev – code for changing the demographic identity of the area has become a preoccupation for the government, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund. At the “Negev 2010” conference in Beersheba, held in March of that year, senior ministers put forward a plan to attract 300,000 settlers to the area. One of them was the housing minister, Ariel Atias, who previously said that it was “a national duty to prevent the spread” of Israel’s Arab citizens. For his part, the chief executive of the Jewish National Fund in the United States said, “if we don’t get 500,000 people to move to the Negev in the next five years, we’re going to lose it”, clearly referring to the Bedouin.
In order to see the extent of the Israeli government’s hostility to the Bedouin, one need look no further than the unrecognised village of Al-Araqib. This community, which has existed since the nineteenth century, has been demolished 29 times by the Netanyahu government, each time being rebuilt by its inhabitants immediately afterwards. These bloody-minded demolitions, aimed at forcing the inhabitants to flee in order to give their land to neighbouring Jewish farmers, illustrate the true agenda of the Israeli government.
If the Prawer Plan were to be implemented, all their villages will be destroyed. The Bedouin will not only lose their land but also their livestock and what is left of their way of life. They towns they will be forced into, which lack essential services and infrastructure, and are ridden with poverty and crime resemble ghettos more than actual cities. The identity of the Bedouin would be destroyed and they would become outcasts in their own land. This plan brings to mind the forced relocations of the Native Americans in the United States and the resulting destruction of their communities. The Israeli government is trying to disguise its racism and rapacity behind a plan presented as being in the interests of a community while its real intent is to destroy it and take over its land.
See Press Release: Recognition of the Bedouin villages in the Negevis by BIMKOM
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.