A strange thing has happened in the Israeli South; the Beduin have stopped being Beduin and become Palestinians. The change wasn’t overnight.
Like the lifestyle of the Negev Beduin, it is a transition that has been steady rather than gentle, taking place over a number of years.
But it was very evident in the events last weekend, when rioting was accompanied by Palestinian flags and slogans.
The Beduin are definitely being exploited – by Left and Right. Only the Center has been ignoring them, which is clearly part of the problem.
Things came to a head on Saturday with violent protests against the so-called Prawer- Begin Plan.
This five-year development plan, drawn up in 2011 and named after its formulators Ehud Prawer and Bennie Begin, and based on the recommendations of the earlier Goldberg Committee, is a serious attempt to regulate Beduin settlements in the South, eliminating the severely impoverished encampments, not recognized by the state and not hooked up to the national infrastructure, boosting the legal towns and communities and offering compensation to those losing land they owned.
I witnessed a less violent battle for the Beduin as conflicting emails and stories landed in my inbox and Facebook feed. The struggle for the “narrative” is no less manipulative and exploitive than the fight for land and rights.
Last week, I was bombarded with press releases about planned “Day of Rage” events scheduled for Saturday, November 30. By Sunday, I was receiving sob stories of police brutality at peaceful solidarity rallies.
I was not surprised things turned ugly.
You don’t call for participation in a “Day of Rage” when you’re actually planning a peaceful picnic and happening for the whole family.
It was part of the deliberate distortion of events, in an area where, to begin with, it is not easy to get a clear picture.
Among the press releases I received were details of sympathy protests organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in London and a letter to the Guardian signed by various British celebrities, who think they understand the situation in the Middle East, as if it were as black and white as the newspaper it was printed on.
The rallies were given a police permit but officers on the ground seem to have been taken by surprise by the descent into violence, particularly at the main gathering near the Hura Junction, where policemen became the targets for rocks, Molotov cocktails and in at least one case, a stabbing assault.
The Palestinization of the Beduin was the most noteworthy aspect of the weekend’s events.
Not by chance was the Day of Rage called for November 30; it was a natural extension of the protests against the November 29, 1947, Partition Plan in which the UN essentially recognized the right to create the State of Israel.
Just over Israel’s borders, in Jordan for example, the distinctions between the tribal Beduin and Palestinians remain clear.
The fact that the protests were also planned in areas with large Israeli Arab populations, including Haifa, Jerusalem and Jaffa, also belies the fact that this was solely about Beduin rights.
It shows, too, that the conflict between Jews and Muslims was not born with the Jewish settlements created post-Six Day War.
I doubt any of the human rights activists who turned up at Saturday’s protests would consider rallying against the removal of illegal Jewish settlements, although there is not much difference between a hilltop “grabbed” by Jews in Judea or Samaria and encroachment of land in the Negev, where new Beduin camps are being established in places they didn’t exist before – often at a high price to the environment as well as a high social cost, by the way.
In fact, far from crying about the plight of Jews who would be uprooted from their homes and land (some for the second if not third time) in the event of a peace agreement, the leadership of certain left-wing NGOs are doing everything they can to bring this about.
Support for the more radical elements among the Beduin is part of the same agenda.
Among the misinformation – or disinformation – are the stories, such as a report in the Guardian, that portray the Beduin as nomads whose culture is being destroyed by the wicked Israelis: “Before the state of Israel was created in 1948 they roamed widely across the desert; now two-thirds of the region has been designated as military training grounds and firing ranges.”
Other stories, propagated by the Beduin themselves, say their communities have been around since the time of Turkish rule.
A road sign at Al-Sra, for example, gives the name of the community in Hebrew, English and Arabic along with the words “Established: In Ottoman times.” Beneath it is a hazard sign, showing a bulldozer threatening to destroy a shack.
Communities established in the Ottoman era often have the infrastructure suitable to a bygone age. There is dire poverty.
Many of the women are illiterate. Many of the men marry more than one wife (despite the Israeli law prohibiting bigamy) and have huge families in which the younger children of the younger mothers can suffer considerably.
Apparently, in the hierarchy of anti-Israel protests, it is considered proper to ignore the lack of rights for women and children.
But Beduin society also has a highly educated and successful class.
There are doctors, teachers, university staff, and yes, even IDF soldiers and officers.
Former Knesset member Taleb A-Sanaa, who hasn’t missed a chance to bash Israel even while drawing a very decent salary courtesy of the taxpayers, is one of those who can be seen radicalizing – and Palestinizing – the community. He is not a poor Beduin: He is an affluent lawyer from an influential clan who lives in a comfortable home in the town of Lakiya. Had he actually fought for Beduin rights rather than fighting against the existence of the state – protecting both his community and the country – their situation and ours might be different by now.
The Prawer-Begin bill, which passed its first reading in June and is now being discussed in the Knesset Interior Committee, would legalize some 60 percent of the land claimed by Beduins in the Negev but force some tens of thousands to move to government- established towns in the South. The Beduin, for their part, would have to recognize the existence of the state and its laws (and, though it is not politically correct to point this out, that would require not only refraining from building without permits, but also from marrying multiple wives, and ending an economy which in some places, far from being restricted to agriculture, is based on drug dealing, car thefts and smuggling).
The plan is not easy – but it is not racist.
In many ways, it resembles the controversial eviction-construction plans (now more sensitively called urban renewal projects) that have met with a mixed reception among the tenement buildings in my own Jerusalem neighborhood.
It is not perfect, but it is not ethnic cleansing.
The image of the Beduin, shifting with the sands, practicing a culture as old as time, is romantic – and misleading. Poverty doesn’t provide the same opportunities as good health and education. The Beduin themselves, particularly the younger generation, deserve more.
Ironically, it is those who profess to be protecting their cause who are holding them back.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.