Who really ‘made the desert bloom’: The demographic war underway in Palestine

Ramzy Baroud

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While many Middle East analysts are busy decrying the defunct “peace process”, a much more conse-quential, yet overlooked issue is taking form across the West Bank and among Palestinian Arab com-munities in Israel. Throughout Palestine there is a decided campaign of ethnic cleansing underway, one house at a time, one village at a time.

Palestinian communities living in so-called Area C – nearly 60 percent of the West Bank that has re-mained under total Israeli control after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 – are denied permission to expand their communities and their homes are thus routinely demolished for violating military rules. Meanwhile, illegal Jewish settlements in these areas are in constant expansion.

Palestinian communities in and around occupied East Jerusalem are being choked off by the tightening ring of Jewish settlements aimed at annexing all of Jerusalem for Israel. While their land is coveted by Israel, they are rejected as outsiders within their own homeland.

One such community is Al-Walajeh, a Palestinian village situated between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. As many as 14 structures in the village have been given notice of impending demolition.

The military orders cite the lack of “necessary permits”. However, acquiring such permits is almost an impossible feat simply because the Israeli government has comprehensive plans for the expansion of Jewish communities and illegal Jewish settlements, which exclude any plans for Palestinians.

The Israeli plan to ethnically cleanse the Bedouins of the Negev is no different from the plan to colonize the West Bank, Judaize the Galilee and Palestinian East Jerusalem

Ramzy Baroud

Jerusalem 2020

The residents of Al-Walajeh are being pushed out of their homes as part of an expansionist project known as the “Jerusalem 2020”, under which the borders of the Jerusalem municipality keep growing to include illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank – thus normalizing the occupation while reducing the number of Palestinians in the city.

As a further result, the natural expansion of Palestinian communities is not only halted, but these com-munities are, in many instances, also shrinking.

It is a demographic war par excellence. Israel’s 972Magazine reports that while Israel has built over 1,000 Jewish communities throughout the country, Arab towns like Sakhnin has actually shriveled into a much smaller version of its original boundaries. That “vacated” space was readily, in fact, purposely, occupied by Jewish communities.

This war is most pronounced in the Naqab (Negev) desert, where Palestinian Bedouin communities are fighting for their very survival and way of life. The last homes to be destroyed this year were in the small town of Wadi al-Naam, on August 22. Every attempt at halting the destruction has failed, as is often the case.

Israeli army bulldozers make no distinction between Area C in the West Bank, the Negev or Palestinian communities inside Israel, or what Israel refers to as the ‘Green Line’.

These demarcations are in fact, of little relevance in everyday reality. They are largely imaginary lines, for Israel perceives its fight with Palestinians as an existential one. Thus, the mere demographic or phys-ical expansion of Palestinian communities anywhere is considered by Israel, a threat to its very exist-ence.

It is reported that last year alone more than 1,000 Palestinian homes were demolished in the Negev un-der various pretenses. Currently, the Negev is the focal point of Israel’s colonial war on Palestinian communities, and the cen-ter of that particular fight is taking place in the village of Al-Araqeeb.


After the 1947-48 emptying of Palestine from most of its original inhabitants, Israel turned its focus to the Negev desert, initiating a brutal campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestinian Bedouins from their an-cestral homeland, and replacing them with newly-arriving Jewish immigrants.

By 1953, nearly 90 percent of all Palestinians from the northern Negev area were expelled – some placed in reservations with limited economic opportunities and others sent to live in crowded refugee camps in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jordan.

Their story is the story of all Palestinian refugees who, despite their harsh conditions, remained resolute in their determination to return home. Yet, no other refugee community symbolizes the journey of exile and return as much as the residents of Al-Araqeeb, an “unrecognized village” inhabited mostly by the Al-Turi Palestinian Arab tribe.

On August 1, the Palestinian Bedouin village of Al-Araqeeb was destroyed for the 116th time. As soon as Israeli bulldozers had finished their job, and hundreds of soldiers and police officers began evacuat-ing the premises, the village residents immediately began rebuilding their destroyed homes.

By now, the residents of the devastated village are all familiar with the painful routine, considering that the first round of destruction took place in July 2010.

Not only has Israel destroyed the resolute village numerous times, but in violation of international and humanitarian law, it actually delivers a bill to the homeless residents expecting them to cover the cost of the very destruction wrought by the Israeli state.

According to latest estimates, the families that live in makeshift huts and rely on rudimentary means to survive are expected to pay a bill of 2 million shekels, around $600,000.

Israel dubs Al-Araqeeb, along with dozens of villages in the Negev, as 'unrecognized' by the Israeli government’s master plan, hence they must be erased and their population driven into townships desig-nated and created for the Bedouins.

Bedouins ‘made the desert bloom’

The Israeli plan to ethnically cleanse the Bedouins of the Negev is no different from the plan to colo-nize the West Bank, Judaize the Galilee and Palestinian East Jerusalem. All such efforts always culmi-nate in the same routine – the removal of Arabs and their replacement with Israeli Jews.

In 1965, Israel passed the Planning and Building Law which recognized some Palestinian Arab villages in the Galilee and southern Negev, but excluded others. Nearly 100,000 Bedouin were forcibly re-moved to 'Planned Townships' to endure economic neglect and poverty.

Currently, according to the Institute of Palestine Studies (IPS), roughly 130,000 individuals live in the so-called unrecognized villages “under the constant threat of wholesale demolition.” The anomaly is that these Bedouin communities prove the fallacy of the Israeli claim that it was Jewish settlers – not Palestinians – that “made the desert bloom.”

A simple look at statistics demolishes that deceptive claim entirely. As of 1935 – 13 years prior to the existence of Israel – Bedouins “cultivated 2,109,234 dunums of land where they grew most of Pales-tine’s barley and much of the country’s wheat,” stated IPS. Moreover, Jewish settlers did not arrive in the Negev till 1940 and, by 1946, the total Jewish population there did not amount to more than 475.

Pioneering settlement

“The amount of land cultivated by the Bedouins in the Negev prior to 1948 came to three times that cultivated by the entire Jewish community in all of Palestine even after sixty years of “pioneering” Zi-onist settlement,” IPS concluded.

To reverse this indisputable historical reality, Israel has led a decided campaign aimed at vanquishing the Bedouins by severing their relationship with their land. Although this has been done with a great degree of success, the struggle is not yet over. To preclude any legal wrangling, the Israeli government has been actively pursuing wholesale, irreversi-ble actions to seal the fate of Bedouins once and for all.

In 2013, Israel announced the “Prawer Plan”, the goal of which was the destruction of all unrecognized villages in the Negev. However, massive mobilization involving the Bedouins and Palestinians through-out the Occupied Territories defeated this idea, which was officially rescinded in December of the same year.

War on Bedouins

But, now, the Prawer Plan is being revived under the name 'Prawer II.' A draft of the plan, which was leaked to local media, was introduced by Israel's Agricultural Minister, Uri Ariel. It, too, aims to “deny Bedouin citizens land ownership rights and violate their constitutional protections,” Patrick Strickland reported.

The war on the Bedouin is, of course, part of the larger war on all Palestinians, whether in Israel or un-der military occupation. While the latter are denied the most basic freedoms, the former are governed by at least 50 discriminatory laws, according to the Haifa-based Adalah Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights.

Many of these laws are aimed at depriving Palestinians of the right to own land or even to claim the very land upon which their homes and villages existed for tens and hundreds of years.

It should come as no shock, then, to learn that, while Palestinian citizens of Israel are estimated at 20 percent of the population, they live on merely 3 percent of the land, and many of them face the con-stant danger of being evicted and relocated elsewhere.

The story of Al-Araqeeb is witness to the never-ending Israeli desire for colonial expansion at the expense of the indigenous population of Palestine, but also of the courage and refusal to give in to fear and despair as demonstrated by the 22 families of this brave village.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the Univer-sity of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Stud-ies, University of California. Visit his website: www.ramzybaroud.net.

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