Thousands protest plan for relocation of Negev Beduin

Local leaders optimistic Knesset will accept their demands; “This is the first step in our struggle – it’s only the beginning," organizer says.

Negev Beduin Protest_311 (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Negev Beduin Protest_311
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
A couple thousand Beduin Negev residents and their Jewish and northern Arab- Israeli supporters gathered around a makeshift podium in a jam-packed square across the street from Beersheba’s Soroka University Medical Center on Thursday, waving flags and chanting in protest against a September cabinet decision to resettle and provide economic development assistance to tens of thousands of villagers.
“Israel has stolen the lands of its Arab Negev citizens,” read a huge white banner draped across some of the men, in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
According to the cabinet’s plan, approximately two-thirds of the current rural Beduin population would be relocated to new homes in already recognized towns within the Abu Basma Regional Council as well as in communities within the Beersheba District.
In addition to shifting people’s residences, the government would also be funneling NIS 1.2 billion toward economic growth in the Beduin community, with particular goals of improving employment prospects of women and young people, as well as developing infrastructure such as transportation.
The program stems from two years of planning on the part of Ehud Prawer, director of planning policy in the Prime Minister’s Office, who was charged with turning previous recommendations about Beduin development of retired Supreme Court justice Eliezer Goldberg into an executable platform.
“The plan is part of the government’s overall activities in developing the Negev. Its goal is to bring about a better integration of Beduin in Israeli society,” the Prime Minister’s Office had said in a statement following the September 11 cabinet decision.
“The plan is also designed to significantly reduce the economic and social gaps between the Beduin population in the Negev and Israeli society as a whole.”
But for so many of the Beduin people and their supporters, the plan is unacceptable – not only because they would be forced to leave their homes, but also because they were not consulted first, they say.
“The biggest problem with the Prawer plan was that there was no negotiation, no talking. They want to cooperate, but the government ignored them,” Oren Pasternack, one of the organizers of the Rothschild Boulevard tent protests in Tel Aviv, who was attending the Beduin demonstration with several of his friends, told The Jerusalem Post.
“We came here in support because we see the fight for social justice as a fight for social justice for all. We believe that all Israelis, including Beduin, should join in the fight,” Pasternack added, noting that he met 10 days ago with a group of Beduin leaders in order to express solidarity. “The power of the Beduin population is non-violence – it’s the power we had in Tel Aviv – men, women, young people trying to change the priorities in Israel’s government.”
While exact estimates as to the number of protesters varied, the square and surrounding lawn was filled to capacity – some partaking in the chanting and others rehydrating under the trees.
Alma Elsana, one of the main coordinators of the demonstration, told the Post that “this is the first step in our struggle – it’s only the beginning.”
This Friday, she explained, a steering committee made up of all the Beduin community leaders will meet to determine how to move forward with building a strategic plan to combat this “struggle.”
“Our struggle in four tracks – one is lobbying, the other is the media issue, the third is the field and raising awareness among the people and the fourth is an alternative plan for our villages, and it [will be] presented in the Knesset,” said Elsana, who is also the co-executive director of The Arab Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation at the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, and a resident of the recognized town of Lakiya.
Elsana expressed confidence the new Beduin strategic plan will be received positively by the Knesset.
“They have to, they must,” she said. “We are working very hard to make it happen, and today the Beduin in the Negev are aware of the situation and they are going to be very, very active in this issue.”
Khalil Alamour, a teacher from the unrecognized village of al-Sira, agreed, calling the demonstration an “exciting moment.”
“I am very proud, very happy for the large number of protesters who arrived here to support us – Jews and Arabs – we are brothers here, supporting the same idea, the same principle, to stop the Prawer plan from being implemented,” Alamour told the Post. “I am more optimistic now when I see this huge crowd, this huge people that arrived from all the cities and towns and the unrecognized townships.”
One such supporter, Wafaa Zriek Srour, came from her northern Arab-Israeli community of Eilaboun, located near Haifa, to join the cause.
“I see that today the last stitches of the tapestry of the Arabs in Israel,” said Srour, who works for the Haifa-based Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel. “For many years the Israeli policy was to try to divide and rule and they tried to separate the Beduin and to take them into the army and to disconnect them from the other Arabs.”
Even though she is not part of the Beduin community, Srour said she identifies with the Negev residents.
“I think that it is my problem too. This day reminds me of the days in 1976 when the land in the north was confiscated from us in the Galilee,” she said. “This is the first time I see so many people here and they’re all here for the same reason – before it was in the North and then it was in the center but it’s the same issue for all the Arabs – the issue of the land and the home.”
Like Srour and Alamour, Elsana was extremely pleased with the outcome of the demonstration, and expressed hope that the Beduin voice would be heard in the government.
“I am very excited,” Elsana said. “I feel I want to cry because to see this amount of people, and after working in the field for two weeks recruiting the people, I am very proud of my people.”