I drove down to the Negev two weeks ago. Passing Beersheba we made a detour on Highway 25 that heads toward Dimona.
The Beduin town of Segev Shalom was on the right. Then as the dry desert opened up there were the numerous houses, caravans, animal paddocks and sheds rusted and new that make up the hundreds of small hamlets and villages unrecognized by the government.
Thousands and thousands of people’s homes, stretching off into the distance.
On Google Earth these communities have names like Abu-Sulb, Jarbiye, Abu Queider, El-A’Sam. But on the highway they often have no names, no exits, no stop lights, no paved roads, nothing that would indicate they exist. Except that you can see them.
When we drove back to Beersheba we took Route 40 that bifurcates another group of Beduin communities, also stretching into the distance on both sides of the road.
Here is one of Israel’s greatest failures, on multiple levels. A failure of planning, infrastructure, education and law enforcement.
A failure to think about the future or the past. More than anything the neglect and abandonment of Beduin residents, around 25 percent of the population of the Negev, is a failure of Israel’s Left and Right and a window into the lies that underpin a broken political system that is blind to the reality of the country’s citizens.
There is a wealth of information on the Beduin of the Negev, but almost all of it is colored by an agenda ostensibly supporting the rights of the Beduin or speaking on their behalf. A 2012 Negev Alternative Master Plan for the Unrecognized Villages of the Negev spoke about 46 “Beduin villages in the Negev, varying widely in population size from 500-6,000 individuals.” It argued for recognizing the villages, and planning for a population that would reach 235,000 people by 2030. The plan was formulated by the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages, Bimkom (Planners for Planning Rights), in cooperation with Sidreh, a Beduin women’s organization and credits the EU with funding.
Of the 100,000 residents of the unrecognized communities, the AJEEC-NISPED (Arab Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation – Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development) estimates that “children under 14 years old represent 50% of this population.” With the exception of some Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities in Israel, this community has the highest birthrate and youngest demographic in the country. Adalah (Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) notes on its website that in December of 2013 the government authorities canceled the “Prawer plan” that was supposed to remove some Beduin and recognize other communities.
“The state must recognize the Arab Beduin citizen’s historical ownership of their lands, grant legal recognition to the unrecognized villages and provide full services,” an article posted by Adalah argued at the time.
Another article bemoaned the demolition of hundreds of homes and structures a year by the authorities.
The issue appears on the surface to involve two narratives. Ariel Sharon wrote in 2000 that in the Negev “about 900,000 dunams of government land are not in our hands, but in the hands of the Beduin population.”
He asserted that the Beduin were “grabbing new territory.” The Israel Democracy Institute, in an article in 2013 by Ronit Levine- Schnur, argued that plans such as the Prawer Plan to resettle Beduin communities are “motivated by fear of a Beduin takeover of the Negev.” But the fear was exaggerated.
“The lands in dispute constitute less than 2% of the territory of Israel and less than 3% of the Negev.”
The reality is they are both right and both wrong. The Beduin were in the Negev before the State of Israel was founded. In 1949 there were around 11,000-14,000 Beduin remaining after the war. The military government that Israel established to rule over Arab citizens concentrated the Beduin in a kind of reservation called the Sayig.
Those were the days of Labor Israel, when Soviet-style planning commissars were in charge of the Negev. It took until 1968 for the state to build a planned Beduin town called Tel Sheva, based on the failed planning schemes of the development towns where Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries had been placed. The state’s view of the Beduin citizens, as toward poor and marginal Jewish groups, was that they couldn’t be trusted to plan their own community – only people educated with regard to European “modern” methods knew what was best. Six more Beduin planned towns were built by the 1980s. Unsurprisingly they are among the poorest nationwide.
Rahat had the lowest life expectancy in the country in 2012.
The problem has always been one of perception.
“Israel seeks to bring the Beduin in from the desert,” wrote Matt Rees at Tablet in 2015. A long history of failed projects such as France’s mission civilsatrice and America’s “manifest destiny” should tell us that, as an outsider, one cannot “bring people in,” certainly not by force. However, for much of Israel’s history the Beduin have been related to either as unwanted foreigners in their own land, squatters or exotic “natives.” We hear stories about how they “embraced a modern way of life,” but that’s almost as silly as saying the Jews of the shtetl have embraced a modern way of life. Our modern life is only a few generations from a rural life akin to that of the Beduin. The same people who often justify the settling of the land by Jews in the West Bank, in caravans and outposts, mock the Beduin as illegal squatters. The same people who tell romantic tales of the kibbutz pioneers in the field, “facts on the ground,” don’t notice the “facts on the ground” in the Negev.
Ismael Abu-Saad and Cosette Creamer in an article in Indigenous Injustice noted “if the goals of the government [of Israel] were in actuality to modernize and provide Beduin with services more efficiently, both aims could have been achieved by planning small agricultural villages or cooperates with a land base (such as Jewish moshavim and kibbutzim) for Beduin.” Instead the policy of the government has been to see the 12 million dunams of land in the Negev as state land and direct that land use primarily to Jewish communities. When courts hear arguments about the unrecognized villages they invariably find that the houses are illegally built based on land laws dating to the Ottoman period. In these cases the state is always “correct,” but its policy is wrong.
The problem with resolving the issue of the Beduin communities in the Negev is that the pro-Beduin lobby has been outsourced to numerous Jewish activists who don’t have the Beduin’s interests at heart. One plan for the Beduin which was supposed to help them was authored by four Jews and one Arab. If someone told you that they wanted to solve the housing problems of Jews in New York City and they had planned the solutions with four non-Jews and one Jew, you’d wonder “why didn’t they have more people from the local community?” In a neo-colonialist narrative dripping with Orientalism a group of experts have pushed for the Beduin to be recognized as the indigenous people of the Negev, akin to Aboriginals in Australia. Yet indigenous people in Australia, Canada, the US and elsewhere suffer extreme discrimination, and have among the highest poverty, substance abuse and incarceration rates. So why do some people in Israel who “support” the Beduin want an Australian-style solution? Because they want Beduin to be kept in a permanently subordinate status, poor and relying on government handouts, needing to be “saved” by outsiders who determine what is best for them.
In contrast to that solution is the one that seeks to simply ignore or remove 100,000 people from lands they have lived on for decades. “It’s state land,” say those who want them moved. But state land exists precisely to be disposed of. The Israeli state agglomerated 93% of the country, the state can relinquish the land. Those who pretend that the state land must be “defended” ignore the fact that more than a million dunams was already taken from the state via informal “illegal” settlement by the Beduin. The state is capable of legalizing hundreds of Jewish communities in the West Bank, but somehow can’t legalize 40-60 communities in the Negev? The Right and the Left have conspired against the Beduin of the Negev. Each side predicates its views on the idea that an outsider knows what is best for other people. It’s not a question of indigenous, it’s a question of having 100,000 people living somewhere who deserve the bare minimum. Denying them roads and basic amenities doesn’t cause them to despair, it causes greater steadfastness. I grew up in rural Maine, and if someone had come and told us “you’re squatters on state land” we wouldn’t have left the land either. Any attempt to relocate villages will result in mass protests like those at Bir Hadaj in October 2016.
The best course of action in the Negev is to legalize a mass of public land for Beduin and to stop asking non-Beduin researchers and experts to create plans for them. This isn’t 1955, it’s 2016. It would be best to increase education opportunities as well, and try to provide affirmative action for them in university and local schools. If the concern on the Right is supposedly that Beduin are “taking over,” then the government can open up more land for Jewish communities. The current policy has done generations of harm to people and has long-term consequences for the state.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman