As a Beduin Israeli temporarily studying in Washington, DC, I helplessly watched from afar as mass rallies in my home country ended with violence and dozens of arrests in November. Opposition to the proposed forced relocation of tens of thousands of Israeli citizens under the “Regularization of Beduin Communities in the Negev” plan, commonly known as the Prawer- Begin Plan, united Beduin from all tribes, men and women, young and old, those from the villages and those from the townships.
I rejoiced when Benny Begin, one of the principal architects of the government’s plan, announced on December 12 that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had accepted his recommendation to suspend a linchpin bill under discussion in the Knesset that is part of the plan. My celebration was short-lived as only a few days later, other officials contradicted Begin and continued to advance the legislation and operational aspects of the plans.
Regardless of which politician you want to believe, one thing is now clear – the Israeli government intends to find a way to uproot tens of thousands of its citizens and raze entire villages.
Like many of my friends, I grew up in an “unrecognized” village. We received virtually no government services. There was no running water. We were not connected to the electrical grid. Our village had no health clinics, high schools, paved roads, or public transportation.
To the state, we were invisible. The villages did not appear on official state maps. Our citizens were excluded from the state’s official statistics.
Life was difficult, but people were happy. Everyone in our community worked, both men and women. Like so many other Beduin households, my family relied on agriculture and livestock, and the land sustained us.
Life may have been difficult in the village, but life in the townships hardly seemed any better. Beginning in the 1960s, the state started to concentrate the Beduin in new urban centers which lacked agricultural opportunities. With less than one dunam (0.25 acres) of land allocated per household, relocated Beduin discovered that they could no longer raise cattle and had to find new means of employment in Israeli cities. This quickly led to high unemployment and poverty.
Former farmers and herders found their traditional skill sets incompatible with urban life, and encountered language and cultural barriers, as well as discrimination.
When my family and our community saw the negative impacts that township living had on its residents, we tried our best to hold onto our land and agrarian life. Like many Beduin who refused to leave their land, my family’s tribe faced retaliation. First, the state stopped offering us the very limited services it previously provided. For example, the state shut down the only middle school in our village. So in order to receive more than a basic education, children had to go to Tel Sheva, the nearest township.
Then, the house demolitions began. I was only seven when it started, but I remember vividly how this government tactic devastated my family. Government officials ordered the demolition of my uncle’s new house and arrested him.
My elderly grandfather pleaded with the court, trying to explain that homes had to be built without authorization because the state refused to provide building permits in any of the Beduin villages. It was to no avail. My uncle’s home was demolished, he was steeply fined, and he spent six months in jail.
If that wasn’t enough, the state then prevented us from cultivating our land by destroying our crops and prohibiting us from grazing our cattle.
The final straw came when a man appeared one day and began uprooting our olive trees and plowing our field. He told my father that they had bought our land from the state. My father could not bear what was happening. He had a heart attack and died there in his field.
With virtually no other options left, my family and the rest of our tribe left our village life for the urban slums of the townships. Unemployment was not the only new social problem; there was crime, drugs and a breakdown of the fabric of traditional Beduin society.
The Prawer-Begin Plan is the Israeli government’s latest attempt at permanently erasing Beduin villages. It will dispossess Beduin of land, require the relocation of tens of thousands of people and concentrate them in urban centers against their wills.
Israeli citizens in unrecognized Beduin villages want better lives for themselves and for future generations, but they know all too well the problems that forced urbanization brings. The solution is to honor their land claims, end the government’s discrimination against Beduin villages, recognize them where they stand, sanction existing structures, begin granting building permits, and provide infrastructure and services that are on par with the Jewish communities of the Negev.
The writer is a legal scholar in Beduin land rights in Israel. As a Fulbright Fellow, he earned his S.J.D. degree from American University Washington College of Law.