More than 10,000 Beduin citizens living on and near land slated to become a phosphate mine in the Negev will be compelled to relocate, with most of them being concentrated in a new town nearby, the senior government policy-maker for Beduin affairs has told The Jerusalem Post.
Yair Maayan, the head of the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Beduin in the Negev, said the relocation plan was not motivated by the mine. But his disclosure of it comes just two weeks after plans including a mine at Sde Barir, near Arad, were approved by the Interministerial Cabinet for Planning, Building, Land and Housing (the housing cabinet). The approval came despite the objections of the Health Ministry, which says mining at Sde Barir would pose a “health danger” to nearby communities.
Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman on Tuesday told the Knesset Economics Committee that mining at Sde Barir “will harm people and kill people. It is my job to sound the alarm and prevent this.”
In the vicinity of al-Poraa, a village that planners thought had been earmarked for recognition a decade ago, some 8,000 Beduin are to be moved into homes that will be constructed on one-tenth of the area they currently inhabit. In addition, according to Maayan, 2,000-3,000 Beduin will be relocated to the nearby town of Kuseifa and elsewhere. He said that these people will have to move from the al-Poraa area to other places where they have land and that housing lots will be developed for them.
If carried out, It will be one of the largest relocations of citizens in the country’s recent history, exceeding the Gaza Strip withdrawal of 2005, when some 8,000 citizens were forced to move. The new town will also be called al-Poraa, Maayan said, adding that the precise location of the town has yet to be decided.
“We intend to concentrate the settlement, to place it into a given area,” Maayan said. The area of the mine and a one-kilometer perimeter around it will be clear of inhabitants; the authority has already met with families to persuade them to move, he said. “I can’t say that they 100% agree, but in general there are agreements.”
Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, the spokesman for the Beduin authority, said that “where they are living now is unrecognized. They will have to move to a place that is legal.”
AL-PORAA, which consists of clusters of drab, gray, one-story concrete homes with corrugated-metal roofs spread out over a large area, will be hardest hit by the massive mine plan. But the nearby unrecognized Beduin communities of al-Zarura, al-Azeh and Katamat also stand to be severely impacted, according to a position paper by the planning-rights group Bimkom and Adalah, a legal advocacy group for the Arab minority.
Most public discussion surrounding the mine has focused on its possible health implications for Arad, three kilometers east of al-Poraa, while less attention thus far has been given to the Beduin who live closest to and on the land slated to become a mine.
The plan calls for the mine and its accompanying area to encompass 1,300 hectares (3,212 acres), said a spokeswoman for the National Council for Planning and Building.
“All the people are afraid, asking what will happen, what will we do?” says al-Zarura resident Mohammed Abu Judeh, age 70.
In al-Poraa, the head of the local residents committee, Yossef Kabouh, said of the government: “They haven’t asked the opinion of the residents. They don’t take us into account. You can’t come and decide there will be a mine without talking to people. They are presenting us with a fait accompli that means the end of al-Poraa.”
While Kabouh and other Beduin residents say their families have been on their land since Turkish rule, Israel does not recognize their ownership. Throughout the Negev, Israeli policy is to use tactics including the threat and practice of home demolitions to move the Beduin from their unrecognized villages into specific towns – with few exceptions. In 2009, the government took what al-Poraa residents and planning groups thought was a step that would make them an exception: it announced that a town to be named al-Poraa would be constituted. A planner subsequently met with residents to discuss details.
But Kabouh said the talks were halted in 2011 with government officials saying they could not set the borders of al-Poraa until they know the borders of the phosphate mine. So no plan was drawn up for the village, making it impossible to build legally, he said. In 2017 alone, dozens of homes were demolished in al-Poraa, Kabouh said.
He and other residents are very worried about health problems and possibly even death resulting from the mine.
A 2014 study by Jonathan Samet – an independent American specialist, and physician and epidemiologist at the University of Southern California who was commissioned by the Health Ministry – found that phosphate mining would increase the level of particulate matter in the surrounding air and could cause higher rates of respiratory and heart diseases.
Rotem Amfert, the subsidiary of Israel Chemicals Ltd. that would carry out the work, disputes that there is a health problem. In response to questions from the Post
it said a study was made in the past in which no dangers were found. The mining will “uphold the stringent criteria of the Clean Air Law and take place under the supervision of the relevant authorities,” the company said.
THE PROPOSED MINE for phosphate – used in fertilizers, laundry detergent, pesticides and drugs – is the only “realistic phosphate reserve in the State of Israel,” according to Rotem Amfert. It says that its phosphate mining in the Negev indirectly and directly supports about 6,000 families, making it an “important employment anchor in the eastern Negev.” The viability of operations depends in part on Sde Barir being mined, the company says.
Mor-Yosef says the Beduin will not be moved to a dangerous place. But Kabouh thinks otherwise. “They will say it’s not dangerous and someone will get sick. Who will be responsible then? We don’t want to be guinea pigs. Our lives are at stake.”
Kabouh and other residents interviewed ruled out leaving their land even if it’s just a few kilometers to the new al-Poraa. “We won’t agree to it. This is our land,” said Omar Kashchara, 23, who works as a cement mixer. “My grandfather who is about 90 lived here when he was a child before the State of Israel was established. This is our land, we are tied to it and we won’t leave. Even if they demolish our home, we won’t leave. We’ll build again.”
“People won’t agree. There are other places to mine phosphates. Why do it in the middle of people?” said Burhan Muhammad, 60, who had come to pray in a small mosque located in al-Poraa’s elementary school. He said he is pinning his hopes on the fact that people in Arad also oppose the plan. A joint protest of Beduin and Arad residents is planned for Thursday.
Abu Judeh, the al-Zarura resident, said: “They should leave us in peace on our land so we can live in peace like any other person.” He warned that such a movement of people would cause internecine warfare if the land for the new town was considered already owned by Beduin. “Everyone has to stay on their own property and this is not our property,” he said.
“The Health Ministry checked and found it dangerous but the government doesn’t want to listen to us,” Abu Judeh said.
MK Dov Henin (Joint List) says that the government is acting on behalf of the powerful business interests of Israel Chemicals Ltd. magnate Idan Ofer instead of looking after its citizens.
“What is human life worth when there are profits at stake and money to be made?” he asked sarcastically. “In terms of the plan they approved, they don’t see that there are any villages and citizens. They make out as if it’s an empty area. But it’s not an empty area. Humans and especially Beduin Arab citizens don’t interest the government. Phosphates and the profits of Idan Ofer do.”
Spokespersons for Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment.
The National Council for Planning and Building said in response to questions from the Post
that quarries are of “strategic” importance to the economy and added that the progress of the plan depends on the undertaking of a study of mining effects on the surroundings, to be carried out with participation of the Health Ministry. It said, “All the environmental implications would be assessed with adherence to guidelines and the clean air law.”
“In any event, the beginning of mining will not take place before arrangement of the residence of the inhabitants currently in the field by the authority for settlement of the Beduin,” the council said.