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Palestinian Bedouin a Besieged Minority of the Minority

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 2 2011 (IPS) - Israeli policies are destroying the livelihoods of Bedouin communities in the occupied West Bank and the Negev in southern Israel, activists and aid workers warn.

They have done so for years, threatening to erase the traditional ways of these indigenous people, precipitating an acute and worrisome humanitarian situation, and, some experts believe, undermining the possibility of a future Palestinian state.

Though the difficulties facing Palestinian Bedouin vary by location, many agree that Israel’s policies have marginalised them, making them a slowly disappearing minority of the minority with little or no political voice to challenge their fate.

A report released Monday by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that the most effective solutions to this problem would not be the provision of short term relief but instead “substantive changes to policies and practices applied by the Israeli authorities” – in short, addressing the fundamental issues forcing the Bedouin to relocate and relinquish their traditional ways of life.

All the Palestinian Bedouin reached by IPS suggested that that the United Nations is doing some, but too little, to help, despite its knowledge and understanding of their plight, and acknowledged as well the critical absence of a unified voice representing the Bedouin community. The Palestinian Authority’s authority in Area C is also extremely limited, controlling only health and educational services.

The OCHA report, based on visits to 13 Bedouin villages in Area C of the West Bank, noted that “clear patterns of displacement are occurring in the Area C communities visited, with residents being forced to move in order to meet their basic needs”, and concluded that “the restrictive planning regime applied by the Israeli authorities in Area C” was the primary cause of relocation.

Bedouin are usually unable to obtain Israeli Land Administration (ILA) permits necessary to build houses and schools, and frequently face demolition orders for pre-existing structures. They also have difficulty accessing resources and services such as water, land crucial for livestock, and education, because Israeli settlements and other structures take up 70 percent of Area C.

Maxwell Gaylard, who is based in Jerusalem as U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the occupied Palestinian Territory, told IPS that he had seen one school knocked down and rebuilt four times.

“Residents report living in a state of pervasive insecurity and instability due to administrative practices implemented by the Israeli authorities,” the report found. It warned that ultimately, “some of these communities may disintegrate and disappear altogether over the course of the next generation”.

Bedouin in the West Bank

After the 1993 Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided in 1995 into three parts – Areas A, B and C. With the exception of health and educational services, Israel retains full control over Area C, which comprises roughly 60 percent of the occupied territory and whose Palestinian population is a diminishing 150,000. Some 27,000 of those are Bedouin or members of herding communities.

The 300,000 Israeli settlers living in Area C particularly complicate the matter, as Israel seeks to clear out Area C to make room to construct more of the settlements that are illegal under international law.

Mohammad Al Korshan, a representative of the Area C Bedouin, told IPS that Israel wanted to relocate Bedouin from Area C into Palestinian cities mainly in Areas A and B. Without the help of NGOs or the U.N., in a few years, one will no longer find Bedouin living in the desert, he believed. Many have already been forced to sell their animals – herding is a traditional livelihood for Bedouin – because they no longer have land to graze them on.

He said the U.N. was helpful in some ways, such as by providing food or temporary work, but overall, the world body was not helping enough.

According to Gaylard, Area C is “critical to the viability of the future Palestinian state”. Still, the report stated, Israel’s “highly restrictive and discriminatory planning regime… completely excludes their [Palestinian] participation and contributes to poor living conditions” and stymies opportunities for the development necessary to build a future state.

Meanwhile, problems of more immediate concern include “poverty and nutrition levels” which have rendered “the humanitarian fallout… for the Bedouin and the herders… particularly acute,” said Gaylard.

When asked who served as the voice of the Bedouin in the West Bank, Gaylard responded with a wry chuckle, “I think it’s us.” Some NGOs, both Arab and Israeli, are dedicated to defending Bedouin communities, he added.

Bedouin in the Negev

In the Negev, the desert region in southern Israel home to tens of thousands of Bedouin, many Bedouin villages go unrecognised by the Israeli government. Their residents face similar challenges to the Bedouin in the West Bank, but under different political circumstances. As Israeli citizens, they are not represented by the Palestinian Authority, yet they are not treated as equal citizens by the state of Israel.

Excluded from the state’s regional development plan, Bedouin face “forced evictions, home demolitions, and other punitive measures disproportionately against Bedouin” compared to Jewish residents, said a 2008 Human Rights Watch report.

Khalil Alamour, a resident of the unrecognised village As-Sira in the Negev and activist for Bedouin rights, said, “We are now all under the threat of demolition, which can happen anytime… The situation is deteriorating.”

No single entity represents Bedouin interests, he said in an interview with IPS, warning that Bedouins’ unique culture and ways of life “are going disappear very soon”.

Jihad el-Sana, a resident of the recognised town of Laqia who is fighting for Bedouin rights, pointed out the irony of living in the third world – the majority of Bedouin live below the poverty line, he said – in such a developed country as Israel.

He supported Alamour’s claim that the Bedouin did not have one unified voice because the community was too divided by needs and circumstances – some members owned land, some didn’t, while some Bedouin live in recognised villages and others in unrecognised ones. In addition to a lack of political cohesion among the Bedouin, the “United Nations is doing nothing,” el-Sana added.

In a recent twist, the BBC reported last week that Israel is suing a Bedouin community in the Negev for over half a million dollars in demolition costs. Each time Israel demolishes the village, the Bedouin rebuild it.

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