The Negev. An enchanting, spectacular desert, where visitors find reminders of bygone civilisations, encounter nomadic tribes and sleep under the stars. This, at any rate, is how the Israeli tourism industry likes to promote the Negev. But there is a darker reality to be found, one that undermines not just glossy adverts, but Israel’s very claim to be a “democracy”.
Until 1948, the Negev — or Naqab — was a region of Palestine, and home to tens of thousands of Bedouin Palestinians who constituted more than 90 per cent of the area’s population. During the Nakba – when the State of Israel was established on the ruins of hundreds of Palestinian villages – the vast majority of the Negev’s Bedouin community fled or were expelled, and prevented from returning by the Israeli authorities. The 11,000 who remained, a mere fraction of the Negev’s pre-Nakba Arab population, were forcibly moved to, and confined within, an area known as “the Fence”, and subjected to military rule until 1966. Meanwhile, Israeli planning laws designated much of the land where the Bedouin had been concentrated as agricultural land, making construction illegal. Even homes that existed prior to the law were deemed unlawful, and subject to demolition.
Between the late 1960s and 1990s, the Israeli state established seven towns for Bedouin Palestinian citizens, as part of a goal to concentrate the region’s non-Jews in these specific areas. These towns are consistently ranked amongst the poorest of all Israeli communities: in Rahaṭ, for example, which has 60,000 residents, the average salary is about 50 per cent of the Israeli national average.
For some 28 per cent of Bedouin Palestinians, however, conditions are even worse; they are the residents of villages unrecognised by the state. Such communities face demolitions and a chronic lack of basic infrastructure. Over the four-year period 2013-2016, some 3,910 structures were demolished in the Negev (and note, by the way, that demolitions also occur even in the “recognised” villages). Two-thirds of these structures were demolished by their owners, under duress from the state authorities. The number of demolitions by the Israeli authorities in 2016 was 28 per cent higher than the 2013 figure. One village, Al-Araqib, has now been demolished 119 times since 2010.
The Israeli government says it is unfeasible for small Bedouin communities to receive basic state services. Yet at the same time, there are some 60 family farms across the Negev, belonging only to Jews, which enjoy the full support of the Israeli authorities. Overall, while Bedouin Palestinians constitute more than one-third of the Negev’s population, only 14.2 per cent of the region’s total towns and villages are designated for them. Ninety-one per cent of the Negev’s Jewish communities filter out potential residents through acceptance or admission committees. This all part of what Israeli leaders from Benjamin Netanyahu to Shimon Peres have seen as the imperative of “Judaising” the Negev.
The plight of the village of Umm Al-Hiran embodies the discrimination, demolitions and displacement experienced by Bedouin Palestinian citizens of Israel. Home to families expelled from their lands by the Israeli military first in 1948, only to be forcibly displaced again in the 1950s, Umm Al-Hiran is set to be demolished in its entirety, so that a new Jewish town can be built in its place. It would be hard to find a starker illustration of what it means for Israel to be a “Jewish state”.
What Bedouin Palestinians experience in the Negev is replicated in East Jerusalem and across the West Bank. But what is happening in the Negev is all the more remarkable — and instructive — because those being displaced and discriminated against are Israeli citizens.