Against the roar of Israeli military jets from a nearby airbase, Khalil Alamour considers what it means to be a Bedouin. “To be part of a family and tribe, to have open space, to have freedom to live in the traditional agricultural way that our forefathers lived in, to maintain our traditions and values, to be generous and offer good hospitality, to be patient, to help each other, to be human. The importance of the land is enormous, people are connected to the land, it is part of our dignity.”
But the Bedouin’s ancestral way of life in the Negev, a vast desert area in southern Israel, is facing a new threat from attempts to clear the arid hills and plains for property developments and swaths of forest.
In the coming days, a bill will be introduced in the Israeli parliament which proposes the resettlement of up to 40,000 inhabitants of dozens of “unrecognised” Bedouin villages in the Negev to specially designated townships. On Sunday the cabinet agreed to allow work to begin on 10 new Jewish settlements in the area “to attract a new population to the Negev”.
The government’s spokesman Mark Regev said the aim was “to narrow the unacceptable gaps that exist in Israeli society and to invest millions of shekels to bring the Bedouin into the mainstream”.
But Thabet Abu Rass, professor of geography at Ben Gurion University in the main Negev city of Be’er Sheva, described the plan as a “declaration of war” on the Bedouin, intended to squeeze them into a tiny geographical area, hamper demographic growth, deny them equal rights as Israeli citizens and eliminate their way of life. “If you take the land from the Bedouin, they cannot be Bedouin any more. You are denying their existence,” he said.
About 195,000 Bedouin Arabs live in the Negev, split between seven overcrowded and impoverished state-planned towns and 45 unrecognised villages. The latter lack basic services, such as running water, electricity, landline telephones, roads, high schools and health clinics. Ten villages are in the process of “recognition”; the rest will be demolished.
The Bedouin – about 30% of the region’s total population – live on 2.5% of the Negev, concentrated in an area called the Siyag, meaning enclosure in Arabic. Most were forcibly moved there following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948; thousands more were driven or fled to the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai and Jordan.
Before 1948, the Bedouin tribes lived and grazed their animals on much of the Negev, claiming ancestral rights to the land. In the following decades, the state of Israel took over almost all of the land; the Bedouin lost more than 3,200 land ownership cases in the Israeli courts in the early 1970s, rejected mainly on the grounds there was no proper documentation. Now the Bedouin are claiming ownership of about 5% of the Negev as traditional tribal lands.
Three years ago, the government commissioned a retired judge, Eliezer Goldberg, to make recommendations for dealing with the Bedouin. He advised that many of their villages should be recognised, acknowledging their “general historic ties” to the land.
A committee chaired by the planning policy chief, Ehud Prawer, was tasked with looking at how to implement Goldberg’s recommendations, and proposed the immediate transfer to the state of 50% of the land claimed by the Bedouin, minimal compensation for the remaining land with severe exclusions and the demolition of 35 unrecognised villages. The Bedouin were neither represented on nor consulted by the committee.
The villages, whose populations range from a few hundred to 2,000, are scattered on stony land criss-crossed by busy roads, electricity pylons and cables and water pipes. Some consist of a few shacks and animal pens made from corrugated iron; others include concrete houses and mosques built without necessary but unobtainable permission. Two-thirds of the land in the region has been declared military training grounds and firing ranges. In summer, the temperature soars above 40C (104F); on winter nights it is below freezing.
But the Bedouin say their visceral connection to the land outweighs the harsh environment.
Alamour, a teacher, law student and father of seven in the unrecognised village of Alsira, where every house has a demolition order against it, says the community of 70 families is “living under constant fear”. “The children ask, ‘Are they really coming to destroy our homes?’ I say, ‘Not this week. But one day they will come,'” he says.
The village is powered by solar panels, an expensive and risky investment in the face of an uncertain future. The international community wrongly views the Bedouin as primitive, says Alamour. “I have a washing machine. I have an iPhone. I have internet access, I am connected to the world. Is this civilisation?
“This is not the problem. We want to be part of our state here, we want to be equal citizens, partners – and this is what the state of Israel is denying to us for 60 years by marginalising and discriminating against us.”
Alamour is determined his extended family will not be relocated to a township, which he describes as “the antithesis of Bedouin being”. “They want us to leave our lands and be located in townships,” he says. “We want to maintain our traditions and values and way of life. We want to be Bedouin. But it’s a dream here.”
Sheikh Udeh Zanun, a Bedouin who served in the Israeli military for 33 years, says he has not seen the Prawer report and does not know “if it answers the needs of the Bedouin community”. But he says he would support the establishment of new Bedouin agricultural settlements “in the area where we live”. He does not want to move to an urban area.
According to Regev, there is a difference between “politically acceptable public dialogue by Bedouin leaders” and what is said on the ground. “We know there is grassroots support for modernising Bedouin communities,” he said. “We’re trying to reach a workable compromise.”
But Abu Rass, who works with Adalah, a legal organisation for Israeli Arabs, said the Bedouin would oppose the Prawer plan “by all possible means”. A protest strike was called in most of the Bedouin towns in the Negev last month and thousands joined a demonstration.
“They are already alienated and marginalised, without faith in their future,” said Abu Rass. “They are very stubborn people, and their land is crucially important. If you take their land, it threatens their very existence.”
About the Bedouin
• Bedouin means “people of the desert”. It describes a way of life, not an ethnicity.
• 195,000 Bedouin live in the Negev – 30% of the region’s population – on 2% of the land.
• 105,000 live in seven state-planned towns, with the highest unemployment and crime rates in the country.
• 90,000 live in 45 unrecognised villages without basic services such as running water, electricity, roads and high schools.
• 67% live in poverty, compared with 20% of all Israeli families.
• The infant mortality rate is 15 per 1,000 live births, compared with 2.9% of Israel’s Jewish population.
• 70% of Bedouin children drop out of school before the official leaving age.
• Bedouins became Israeli citizens in 1954.
• Under the Prawer plan, up to 40,000 Bedouin will be displaced from their villages.
General Moshe Dayan on the Bedouin in 1963:
“We should transform the Bedouins into an urban proletariat – in industry, services, construction and agriculture. Eighty-eight per cent of the Israeli population are not farmers, let the Bedouin be like them. Indeed, this will be a radical move which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children will get used to a father who wears pants, without a dagger, and who does not pick out their nits in public. They will go to school, their hair combed and parted. This will be a revolution, but it can be achieved in two generations.”
Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian