It is quite unusual for the Arab Bedouins of Israel to vocally express their outrage and sense of injustice regarding the discriminatory way they are treated by the Israeli government. However, last Saturday was declared an international ‘Day of Rage’ in protest of the adoption and implementation of a piece of legislation, which would result in the demolition of 35 Bedouin villages that are not recognised by the Israeli authorities.
Demonstrations were held not only in Israel but also in London, Berlin, Rome, Istanbul, Cairo and in the United States in an effort to halt the dire consequence of removing up to 40,000 people in pre-existing Bedouin townships.
The Prawer Law, named after the person chairing the commission appointed to implement previous recommendations to end land disputes between the Bedouin community in the Negev and the state of Israel, evoked deep anger among the Bedouin community in Israel due to the lack of consultation and also insensitivity for their way of life, history and culture.
This land dispute originated in the war of 1948, when the majority of the 92,000 Bedouins who lived in the area were forced to flee, and the remaining 11,000 were confined by the Israeli Military authorities to the Northern Negev with almost no recognition of any land ownership rights. The proposed law passed in its first reading back in June this year in an extremely heated debate in the Israeli Knesset. If passed in its last reading, it would become law before the end of this year, and with it a looming clash with the Arab Bedouins and most likely other segments of the Arab society in Israel.
The only inhabitants
The history of Bedouins in the Negev dates back to the 7th century, and until the establishment of the state of Israel they were almost the only inhabitants of the this region. Israeli attempts to urbanise the nomadic Bedouin tribes in the Negev dates back to the late 1960s. Back then the government planned and built seven townships, in which more than half of the 200,000 of the Negev’s Bedouin live.
Already in the 1950s Israeli legislation exploited the fact that the Bedouins never registered their land during the Ottoman Empire or the time of the British in Palestine, and thus deprived them of the rights to their lands outside their living areaYossi Mekelberg
The remaining live either in 10 villages in the process of recognition or in the 35 unrecognised ones, which are included in the Prawer plan. Bill Van Esveld, the Israel/Palestine Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch, pinpoints the main cause of contention between the government and the Bedouin as the “…government’s failure to seriously consult and respect the view of Bedouin representatives in formulating plans to address the dire insecurity of Bedouin land rights in the Negev”. The demonstrations are an expression of the frustration among the protestors for a plan which is imposed by legislation instead of an end product of a genuine dialogue.
Even the official Knesset website admits that many of the Bedouin became refugees as a result of the war of 1948, and in the aftermath of the war they suffered limitations of movement and ‘…their living grounds were reduced’. This forced many of them to move to the north of the country and those who stayed in the Negev were confined to a very small part of the region imposed by the introduction of military rule.
Already in the 1950s Israeli legislation exploited the fact that the Bedouins never registered their land during the Ottoman Empire or the time of the British in Palestine, and thus deprived them of the rights to their lands outside their living area. In addition, many years of neglect resulted, according to the independent human rights organization Adalah, in 67 per cent of families suffering from extreme poverty, five times more infant mortality than the Jewish population and a massive drop-out rate for Arab Bedouin children.
Righting the wrongs
Israeli authorities would claim that the current legislation attempts to rectify exactly these wrongs of the past and move the unrecognised villages to new places with modern infrastructure, while compensating the population either by money or land. Even if one were to give the government the benefit of the doubt, and assume that their plan to transform the Arab Bedouin people in Israel into equal rights citizens and to generally modernise the Bedouin population (very problematic notion by itself) was created with good intentions, it doesn’t explain their callous approach.
The lack of genuine consultation, the alleged threats by the police and security forces against activists who oppose the displacement and forcible relocation of tens thousands of people, smacks more of land grabbing than sincere concern for the wellbeing of these communities.
The Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in his usual blunt language, revealed in a Facebook post the main reason for the government’s wish to implement this plan: “Nothing has changed since the Tower and Stockade days. We are fighting for the lands of the Jewish people and there are those who intentionally try to rob and seize them.”
This unacceptable jingoistic language in relation to Israeli citizens, whose only ‘crime’ is not being Jewish, provides us with an insight into the government’s rigidity and insensitivity to the traumatic implications of forcible displacement. Instead of working with local communities to allow them to stay in their place and invest in their development, they try to impose a solution on them.
Arguments that ‘the communities are too small and spread out to be connected to infrastructure’ are laughable, considering the number of the small remote Jewish communities in the occupied West Bank or the Galilee which have been recognised retroactively and have enjoyed massive investment in infrastructure. Furthermore, an alternative programme to that of displacement was put forward by the Bimkom NGO, which worked with the local Bedouin communities and other NGOs suggesting a plan that would allow the unrecognised villages to remain where they are, while abiding by Israeli planning standards.
Not less worrying is that the new law makes a mockery of any due process in a democratic state by restricting access of Bedouin citizens to the courts in order to contest demolition orders.
This mistreatment and displacement of loyal citizens, many of whom serve in the Israeli Defence Force, can only further alienate a section within the Israeli society, which has been systematically discriminated against for many decades. The use of excessive force against the demonstrators this week, and the concerted efforts by the Israeli establishment to curb any opposition to the Prawer Plan, should worry not only the Bedouin people, but also any Israeli citizen who believes in human rights for all and a democratic society.
The attempt to portray this week’s protestors as a violent trouble causing minority among the Bedouin community, reflects insincerity in dealing with the genuine concerns, pain and anxiety of many thousands of people who are threatened with being uprooted into an unknown future. To be sure, out of 100 people arrested and detained by Israeli police in the three protests this year against the plan, only one protestor was indicted.
This begs the question whether the security forces are resorting to intimidation tactics and not just enforcing law and order as they claim. Once again the Israeli government and society are failing to engage in a positive, constructive and sensitive approach in remedying wrongs against a minority which previously suffered from the aftershocks of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the more recent Prawer Law add insults to injury.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.