In December 2000, the first Herzliya Conference took place, a now annual event and regular fixture in the diaries of politicians, military officials and defense industry figures from Israel and around the world. The report produced after that first gathering included a section on Israel's "geodemographic aspect", and noted the following:
"The encouragement of Jewish settlement in demographically problematic regions, especially in the Galilee, the Jezreel Valley, and the Negev, among others, is necessary in order to prevent a contiguous Arab majority that would bisect Israel."
This need to 'Judaize' the Galilee and the Negev in light of the perceived demographic 'threat' posed by Palestinian citizens of Israel is a consistent feature of Israeli policies since 1948. From the political-security elite of Herzliya to municipal mayors and land planners, "the Judaization project", in the words of Israeli academic Haim Yacobi, "is driven by the Zionist premise that Israel is a territory and a state that 'belongs' to, and only to, the Jewish people".
This is the context in which we should understand recent events in the Negev, and the state's Prawer-Begin 'development' plan that will mean the removal of tens of thousands of Bedouin Palestinians from villages earmarked for destruction to government approved shanty towns. The applicability of the colonial framework was amply illustrated following the internationally-observed 'Day of Rage' on November 30, which saw significant demonstrations by the Bedouin Palestinian community and their allies.
In light of a significant display of opposition and the international headlines it attracted, Israeli politicians and pundits have since taken to defending the plan with a simple formula: it is in the best interests of the Bedouin who are being betrayed by political provocateurs and a small minority of trouble-makers.
This message, a classic trope of colonial discourse regarding indigenous people's resistance to schemes of dispossession and disenfranchisement, was embodied by the response of Doron Almog, who, in the words of Ha'aretz, "heads the implementation team for resettling the Bedouin".
Following the 'Day of Rage', Almog insisted that "80 percent" of residents supported the plan, a majority that remained "silent because of internal social pressures". Arab MKs were described as agents of "agitation and incitement", with Almog calling the Bedouin "victims of Arab manipulation" who "demonstrate against the plan because they are afraid of how their society will respond".
Almog also made the extraordinary claim that "Bedouin opponents" were aiming to "create territorial contiguity between Hebron and the Gaza Strip" – extraordinary because the goal of breaking Arab territorial contiguity is explicitly the goal of Israeli authorities and planners in the Negev (and elsewhere).
Other Israeli responses picked up where Almog left off, throwing in a good deal of colonial frontier discourse for good measure. The editorial of The Jerusalem Post spoke of the Negev's "state of lawlessness and anarchy", with "squatters…exist[ing] in a sort of state within a state'" – and, of course, appealing for a solution to the "plight of the Bedouin".
One Israeli analyst described the Negev as a "giant desert…waiting to bloom", while The Times of Israel ran a piece slamming the "populist rabble-rousing" of "Israeli Arab leaders" and praising Prawer as a "carefully crafted development scheme". That the state knows what's best for the Bedouin was a claim also made by President Shimon Peres – who has previously said that steps must be taken to "relieve" the threat posed by the number of non-Jewish citizens in the Negev.
Former MK Einat Wilf seemed to be playing colonial bingo in her piece on the dynamic of a "modern" Israeli state versus the "patriarchal traditional" and "nomadic tribal" Bedouin whose society is characterised by "oral traditions", "blood feud[s]" and "polygamy." The 'civilising' mission remained a common theme, and even those highlighting problems such as "the socio-economic gap between Jews and Bedouin" in the Negev ended up promoting a "carrot" and "stick" solution (of development and demolitions).
Yet away from the focus on the battle against Prawer, reports emerged in the last week of further Judaization initiatives, this time in the Galilee – a story which serves as the perfect companion for illuminating Israeli strategy in the Negev and elsewhere.
According to Ha'aretz, the World Zionist Organization's Settlement Division – a body which works with and on behalf of the Israeli government – is working on "a plan to settle more Jews in the Galilee to achieve a demographic balance with the Arab population". The aim is to bring "100,000 new residents" to the central Galilee, while the same Settlement Division "is already advancing government-sponsored plans to erect a number of new communities in the Negev."
Ha'aretz quoted from the plans to demonstrate how 'development' is really about 'demographics'.
The current reality in the rural region of the central Galilee is a lack of settlement options that will attract a stable Jewish population and create a meaningful demographic balance. Sustaining the area and preserving our hold on it requires the continued development of a rural-settlement array alongside urban development…
The article quoted the chair of the Lower Galilee Regional Council Moti Dotan responding to the plans by observing that "settlement and Zionism are not dirty words", while Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso said "establishing new communities…preserves parts of our homeland".
The flipside of encouraging Jewish settlement in the Negev and Galilee has been the frustration and denial of Palestinian communities' ability to naturally grow and use natural resources. So, for example:
"the territory of Upper Nazareth is 30.2 square kilometers, compared with 14.1 square kilometers for Arab Nazareth. The population of Upper Nazareth is about 40,500, compared with 72,500 in Arab Nazareth…[while] the population of Be'er Sheva is 3.7 times that of Rahat, whereas its territory is six times that of Rahat."
The planning system in Israel is a key component of the ethnocracy – "only four of the 91 local planning and building committees that serve specific communities are in Arab communities". The conclusion is clear: "A state that encourages members of one people to settle in any region, while at the same time imposing harsh restrictions on the growth of the other, is acting in a racist manner."
While the Israeli government tries to deflect criticism about Prawer with talk of 'development', disingenuous hand-wringing about the Bedouin "plight", and condemnation of political 'radicals', considering the bigger picture of past and present Judaisation strategies in both the Negev and Galilee helps us see what is going on with greater clarity.
In 2010, speaking about the Negev and Galilee, the chair of the Knesset's "Lobby for Housing Solutions for Young Couples" stated "it is a national interest to encourage Jews to move to" places where "the Arab population is on the rise". Earlier this year, the Jewish National Fund CEO Russell Robinson was reported as seeking to bring "300,000 Jews" to the Galilee by 2030 due to the fact it is "heavily populated by Israeli Arabs".
Now pause for a moment, and ask yourself what the reaction would be if another country's government openly sought to change the demographics in areas deemed to have too many Jews (or any other ethnic or religious group). Many would call for sanctions – and that's precisely what Palestinians are urging.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.