Bedouin in the Negev Face New “Transfer”

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The White House’s hoped-for restructuring of the Middle East has begun: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been ousted from power by US and British troops who now patrol the streets of Baghdad, while a few hundred miles away Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been shunted aside in favor of the more Washington-friendly Mahmoud Abbas. With these tectonic shifts dominating Middle East coverage, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been preparing a smaller-scale reordering of the region which he hopes will escape attention. He has devised a plan to rid the huge semi-desert area of the Negev, located in the south of Israel, of its Bedouin farmers.

The Bedouin, who comprise some 15 percent of the one million Arab citizens of Israel, are divided into two main groups. A few tens of thousands living in the Galilee in the north are descended from tribes that arrived from Syria. A southern group, the majority, reached the Negev from Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula. Before 1948, when the state of Israel was created, the Negev was almost exclusively inhabited by Bedouin tribes, whose historic claims to the land had been recognized by the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate authorities. Under the 1947 UN partition plan, which sought to establish two separate states in mandatory Palestine — one Palestinian Arab and the other Jewish — the Negev region was allocated to Palestinian control.

Israeli governments have tried consistently to foster divisions within the country’s Arab population to prevent it from mobilizing against discriminatory state policies. The Negev Bedouin in particular have found themselves separated both geographically and socially from other Arab citizens. One successful way of isolating the Bedouin from the main Christian and Muslim communities has been to pressure them to serve in the army, mainly as low-ranking desert trackers (only the small Druze community is conscripted).

Bedouin “Transfer”

During the 1948 war, and afterward, it was considered a priority by the fledgling Israeli state to clear the Negev of its Bedouin population. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, wrote to his son 11 years before the birth of the Jewish state: “Negev land is reserved for Jewish citizens whenever and wherever they want. We must expel the Arabs and take their place.” By 1951, fewer than 13,000 inhabitants remained of a community that numbered somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 in the late 1940s. As late as 1953, the United Nations reported the expulsion of some 7,000 Negev Bedouin into adjacent areas of Jordan, Egyptian-occupied Gaza and the Sinai, though many later slipped back over the borders undetected.

Moshe Dayan, commander of Israeli forces in the 1967 war and the country’s most renowned military hero, gave voice to a common wish when he predicted in 1963 that “this phenomenon of the Bedouin will disappear.” The reasons for the antagonism shared by Israeli leaders were manifold: Israeli governments, aiming for control of the land and its demographics, were concerned by the Bedouins’ fertility rate — one of the highest in the world. Their semi-nomadic lifestyle made it all but impossible to contain their movement across territory and to monitor their political activities as the state kept watch over the sedentary Arab communities. Farming, the economic lifeblood of the Bedouin, was regarded as labor suitable only for Jews. According to the pioneer ethic within Zionism, working the land was synonymous with redeeming it. The Negev, some two thirds of the new state’s land mass, was viewed as a huge tract that could absorb future Jewish immigration. Finally, the desert’s barren expanses, difficult to infiltrate or traverse unseen, were considered the ideal setting for military bases and sensitive operations. Israel’s nuclear reactor, for instance, is located near the Negev town of Dimona, as is its implicitly acknowledged nuclear arsenal.

In the decades following the 1948 war, Israeli governments worked relentlessly to make the Bedouin “disappear.” The Bedouin who had not fled or been terrorized from their tribal lands during the war were “transferred” in the 1950s, either to the center of the country, to ghettoes attached to towns like Ramle and Lod, where many work as low-wage manual laborers, or to a small area close to the town of Beersheva, in the northern Negev. The rest of the Negev, some 85 percent of the total land mass, was declared off limits, designated as blocs of military zones and conservation parks.

The Negev area in which the Bedouin were concentrated came to be known as the “siege zone”: a ring of Jewish settlements was established to contain the Bedouin, while their lands were further whittled away through the construction of industrial areas, more military zones and conservation parks, and an airport. Each village was encircled and separated from its neighbors by new Jewish farms, settlements or development towns. Today the Bedouin, a quarter of the Negev’s population, occupy just 2 percent of its land.

“Unrecognized” Villages

Since the mid-1960s, Israel has classified these Bedouin communities in the Negev as “scattered” and put great pressure on the inhabitants to give up their traditional lifestyles as farmers. The state has offered only to move these Bedouin into one of seven deprived urban reservations created in the 1970s. Half of the 130,000 Bedouin in the Negev now live in these townships, all of which languish at the bottom of every socio-economic index.

Those who refuse the state’s offer of relocation live in “unrecognized” villages, meaning that provision of public services, such as water, electricity and sanitation, as well as medical clinics and schools, is illegal. In the Bedouin village of Abda, for example, the children must make a round trip of 87 miles each day to a “recognized” area with a school. All buildings are unlicensed (there are no municipalities to apply to for a permit) and are therefore subject to demolition orders. Some 30,000 Bedouin structures in the Negev are under constant threat of destruction. As a result, most villagers are forced to live in tents or metal shacks. (The problem of the unrecognized villages also afflicts the northern Bedouin population, although on a smaller scale.)

Sharon, who owns a large ranch in the Negev, has been one of the prime movers in the long-running, low-intensity war to transfer the Bedouin off their historic lands. In 1976, when he served as agriculture minister, he established a paramilitary police force for the Negev, misleadingly entitled the Green Patrol, to enforce the demolition of Bedouin homes and to confiscate farmers’ herds of cattle, sheep and goats. At the time, Sharon promised that the activities of the Green Patrol would generate a “revitalization” of the Negev. Now, as prime minister, he has the chance to finish the job he started.

Sharon’s Prized Real Estate

In April 2003, Sharon’s government approved a five-year plan, backed by a budget of more than $200 million, as “a real attempt to deal with problems faced by [the Bedouin] sector, as well as the land issue.” The government is due to begin implementing the program later in 2003. Although the plan was reportedly the work of a special ministerial committee, advised by the local councils of Jewish towns in the Negev, most of its inspiration came from Sharon himself.

The Hebrew media enthusiastically characterized the program as a way to provide mechanisms to settle land disputes and develop infrastructure for the Negev’s Bedouin, including proposals to establish new Bedouin communities. A local council leader, Shmuel Rifman, who represents 4,500 Jews in the Negev, mostly ranchers, told the daily Ha’aretz newspaper on January 7: “Anyone who talks about a powder keg in the Negev when relating to the region’s Bedouin must unhesitatingly adopt this plan.”

Bedouin leaders reacted differently, however. The Bedouins’ main lobbying group, the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages, stated in a press release: “We see this plan as a declaration of war on the Bedouin community of the unrecognized villages.” It added: “This plan was never discussed with any of the population or their representatives.” That may be because not one Bedouin or Arab representative has been appointed to the 17-member Southern Regional Planning Committee, which oversees planning issues in the Negev. The same Ha’aretz report hinted at the cause of the Bedouins’ alarm. The five-year plan’s secondary goal, it was revealed, was the “massive reinforcement of officials responsible for enforcing planning and construction ordinances in the Negev,” including an expanded Green Patrol and more staff for the Justice Ministry and the courts dealing with land claims.

In fact, while the five-year plan masquerades as an attempt at disinterested adjudication of land disputes between the Bedouin and the government, it is really a coordinated policy of using force to transfer all the Bedouin from their “scattered” villages into three new reservations, based on three former unrecognized villages and designed along the lines of the existing seven townships.

Negev land will then be freed for one of Sharon’s long-cherished dreams, to settle new Jewish immigrants in the arid region, either by offering large subsidies to encourage them to move from the densely populated center of the country or as part of a World Zionist Organization (WZO) scheme to bring 350,000 immigrants to the Galilee and Negev by the end of the decade. Land will also be made available to individual wealthy farmers for more “ranches” similar to Sharon’s, where crops such as grapes and dates can be grown intensively or sheep and cattle reared. Subsidized water and electrification for the farms have already been approved.

Work on 14 new Jewish settlements in the Negev is due to begin in early summer 2003, as originally conceived by Sharon when he was housing minister in the early 1990s. The new construction will mark the first time in 25 years that the WZO has financed settlement-building in Israel rather than the West Bank and Gaza. The first Jewish community, Givat Bar, is to be built on the land of Araqeeb village, south of the Bedouin township of Rahat, which was “temporarily” confiscated from the local Bedouin tribe in 1953.

“Trespassing” at Home

The reordering of the Negev will be achieved in two stages. First, most of the 70,000 Negev Bedouin who live in 45 unrecognized villages will gain a new legal designation under an amendment to the 1981 Law on Public Land being hurried through the Knesset. The “Eviction of Trespassers” amendment will give officials the power to classify anyone as a trespasser living on state lands without going through lengthy court procedures. The designation can be applied retroactively to encompass Bedouin who have “trespassed” in the past three years.

The trespass law will criminalize the Bedouin, as well as their villages. Offenders — anyone who tries to encamp or farm on his historic lands — will face six months in jail and a fine. Repeat offenders will get two years of imprisonment and a doubled fine. Bedouin villagers will be obliged to prove that they are not trespassing. It will not be possible for a defense lawyer to argue that the villages have existed since before the creation of the state, or in other cases that the land villagers now dwell where they were moved by the state when their original lands were confiscated. To avoid being designated as trespassers, the villagers will therefore have to register their lands individually. Given the extant court decisions that unrecognized villages are built on state land, the chances of winning this argument are virtually nil.

The Negev program lays aside a budget for compensation of displaced Bedouin, although if the precedent of the former wave of registrations in the 1970s is followed, reparations will be meager or will take the form of offers of subsidized homes in the new townships. A clue to the government’s thinking was provided by the Israeli Arab lobbying group Mossawa, whose analysis shows that for the year 2003 the government has actually cut the land compensation budget for the Bedouin to $26 million from an average annual fund of $30 million. Only $65 million has been allocated for the remaining four years of the plan, nearly half what normal projections would suggest. That allows for less than $1,000 in compensation for every Bedouin in an unrecognized village — and less than the $80 million allocated for the destruction of their homes.

It will be possible to appeal disputes between individual Bedouin and the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), the government’s land-holding arm, over the status of land. But such appeals will be referred to a ministerial committee or to the “responsible minister” — that is, to the more powerful party in the dispute. Until recently, the “responsible minister” would have been the interior minister, but in the new coalition government that job has gone to the dovish Avraham Poraz of Shinui. Sharon therefore transferred planning responsibilities temporarily to his own prime minister’s office, before passing them on to his hawkish trade and industry minister, Likud member Ehud Olmert, who presided over numerous demolitions of Palestinian houses as mayor of Jerusalem. Olmert was quoted in Ha’aretz on April 11 saying that “we will conduct contacts with [the Bedouin]. However, I assume that they will absolutely oppose [the plan]. We will not be deterred from implementing the decision, because there is no other way that we can fulfill [our mandate]. If [this issue] was subject to an agreement, it would never be given. It is a question of the government’s determination in implementing its decisions.”

Perils of Recognition

The five-year plan’s second thrust is the creation of three new townships based on three Bedouin villages that have been recognized, Bir Hadaj, Dariyat and al-Madbah, which are respectively to be given the Hebrew names of Bir Heim, Mari’at and Beit Felet. The villages were chosen because they are home to three of the largest tribes, whose combined opposition might have posed the biggest threat to implementing the plan. Tens of thousands of other Bedouin will be left with no choice but to move into the three new or seven existing townships.

For varying tactical reasons, over the course of the 1990s another four of the 45 unrecognized villages were also recognized, though public services in those villages have not improved. The exclusively Jewish Southern Regional Planning Committee has refused to approve local master plans for the recognized villages, thereby condemning Bedouin residents to life without water and electricity supply indefinitely. The sham of recognition is illustrated by the case of Abda, which won a supposed change of status in 1992. The community, however, was not recognized in its entirety, only the homes of seven families who were to be incorporated into a planned national park to include the historic village of Abda and its Nabatean ruins.

The government’s likely intentions toward the partially recognized villages, as well as the unrecognized ones, emerged on March 4, 2003 when the Israel Lands Administration, without warning, sent helicopters loaded with herbicides to Abda and sprayed some 375 acres of crops being grown by the villagers. Children playing below were covered in the toxic mist, the pilots apparently undeterred by their presence in the fields. Although the government later advised residents that the herbicides were not harmful to humans, several children needed treatment for shock after they and their parents thought they had been the victims of a chemical attack from Iraq. The crop destruction was repeated on April 2, when some 1,300 acres were sprayed — more than 300 acres of which belonged to the family of Sheikh Jabar Abu Kaff, head of the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages.

Defining Fight

The spraying incidents follow on the heels of the demolition of dozens of Bedouin homes in the spring of 2003. There has been a marked increase in such destructions over the past year, suggesting that Sharon is determined to turn the screws ever tighter. A new precedent was set on February 5 with the razing of a mosque in Tel al-Milleh village, the first time a place of worship has been destroyed. The villagers had built the mosque illegally after being refused a permit and having been offered nowhere else to pray by the authorities. When the villagers and other Bedouin and Arab citizens joined together to rebuild the mosque within a few days, the Southern Regional Planning Committee issued another demolition order to the ILA, although the order has been frozen for the time being by the courts.

Adalah, a Israeli NGO which provides legal defense to the country’s Arab citizens, has threatened Sharon with court challenges if he proceeds with his five-year plan for the Negev, which they describe as both discriminatory and illegal. Sharon is unlikely to be intimidated, knowing that the courts have sided consistently with the state in its land disputes with the Bedouin. His scheme is a reminder to Israel’s Arab minority that its defining fight with the state — over access to and control of land — is far from finished. The crop spraying and new wave of demolitions indicate that Sharon is likely to show little mercy in his battle to clear the Negev. This time he appears determined to make sure the Bedouin disappear from this prized real estate for good.

Jonathan Cook is a journalist living in Israel. Above article first appeared in Middle East Report Online and republished here with permission.

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