Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Middle East & North Africa

ISRAEL: Not When Desert Is Home

Pierre Klochendler

AS-SRA, Negev desert, Nov 26 2011 (IPS) - “Anyone who lives sees, but he who moves sees more,” a local Bedouin proverb has it. Caught in a web of roads and fences, electric cables and pylons, closed military training grounds and trails of Air Force jets, Bedouin Israelis have long been reduced to a half-hearted life of immobility.

Wide solar panels are affixed to cement shacks. Fluttering plastic sheets vainly offer to protect from the biting cold. Seated in a dim, austere, room, Muhammad Al-Amour Nassasrah stares at his cup, as if the black thick coffee mirrored his bitterness.

“Desert life is bitter like coffee; it’ll be bitterer if the government pushes us from here,” murmurs the village chief, the Mukhtar.

In September, Israel approved a plan that proposes to move some 30,000 Bedouin to state-planned townships.

A-Sra is one of 45 Bedouin “unrecognised” villages of the Siyaq belt (‘enclosure’, in Arabic). During the period of the military administration (1948-1966) of its Arab citizens, the state forced the resettlement of the people of the desert on 2 percent of the land.

Since no legal document can prove their entitlement on, and to, the land, “unrecognised” villages don’t figure on any official map, and thus don’t benefit from basic municipal services, such as access to roads, electricity, water, sewage, clinics or schools.

Half of the 200,000 Bedouin (roughly 30 percent of the Negev population) lives in such disenfranchised villages. The other half sustains itself in seven destitute townships where no proper economic structure is in place. Unemployment is rife, the country’s highest.

“Netanyahu wants to throw us from our lands, destroy our homes, put us all together in a tiny place, the hell knows where – how’s that possible?” the distrustful Mukhtar exclaims. “Why doesn’t the Prime Minister talk to us? Hasn’t my father’s father, me and my children lived here longer than the state?”

Three years ago, the Israeli government commissioned Justice Eliezer Goldberg to issue recommendations for alleviating the Bedouin’s plight. The retired Supreme Court judge advised the recognition of many of the villages, acknowledging their “historic ties” to the land.

Judging that the judge was too liberal, the right-wing Netanyahu government appointed a committee chaired by the planning policy chief, Ehud Prawer.

Prawer proposed the immediate transfer to the state of 50 percent of the land claimed by the Bedouin, leaving them with land just over 1 percent of the Negev, insufficient compensation to acquire new homes, and the eradication of 35 unrecognised villages.

The plan will allocate 1.2 billion shekels (330 million dollars) for the economic development and the resettlement of two-thirds of the rural Bedouin in designated townships. No groundwork has started.

Correlatively, the cabinet has allowed the construction of ten new Jewish communities in the area “to attract a new population to the Negev.”

The Prawer plan was approved by the cabinet without prior consultation with, nor representation by, the Bedouin. Netanyahu met the Bedouin townships’ mayors only a fortnight ago.

Government spokesman Marc Regev says a law will soon be enacted to demonstrate that the government is keen to implement the plan within two years: “The idea is to narrow the unacceptable gaps in our society and, through financial investment, bring the Bedouin into the mainstream.

“This is a historical, workable, compromise that balances the traditional Bedouin land ownership with legal modern procedures,” Regev adds.

“The plan simply denies our rights and ignores us,” retorts Fares Abu-‘Abayied from the Israeli NGO Bimkom (Planners for Planning Rights). “‘Take 50 percent of the land you live on,’ is the government’s motto – ‘if you can prove you own it’. That’s the catch! They’ve been moving us from place to place since Israel’s establishment. How can we prove that the land is ours?

“We don’t have deeds because we’ve lived all our lives in the tribe. Tribes know the borders delineating their respective domain. Our word of honour is worth a thousand signatures.”

Both Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate rulers hardly ventured in the desert, stresses Israeli ethnographer Clinton Bailey, an expert on Bedouin law. “Bedouin did pretty much what they wanted. They didn’t register their land, didn’t write down land transactions, for fear of being taxed.”

Since Israel’s creation in 1948, Israeli Jews have tried to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘Make the desert bloom’, with forestation and agriculture: “There’s little understanding of the Bedouin’s way of life. Had we taken their grievances into account, we could’ve solved the problem.”

Here’s a struggle between eternity and modernity, between loose ancestral traditions and centralised state laws. Locked in transition between old and new worlds, the Bedouin long their long-lost nomadic way of life.

“I hug my lamb. I’ll never let a Jew take it away from me, then hire me as his shepherd like in the past,” pledges Abu-‘Abayied angrily.

The Prawer plan is only but one facet of a grand scheme designed to develop the Negev, two-thirds of Israel’s land reserves. Military bases in the centre of the country will be relocated there. The hope is the move will bring to the area the much-awaited economic boom.

“Development is only part of the problem. Then, there’s the politics vis-à-vis the Arabs. How such a small country tackles the land issue? But when you relocate 30,000 people, you’d better have alternative housing, an economic infrastructure. There’s neither this nor that.” Bailey notes. Once developed, the desert might well become the recess of the Bedouin soul coiled up in its impoverished heart. Says Nassasrah: “We don’t reject progress. But we don’t want to be squeezed next to one another, like strangers in a cemetery.”

Apropos family, clan, tribe loyalty and cohesion, a Bedouin saying goes like this: “I and my brothers against my cousin; I and my cousins against the stranger.”

With all best intentions, and pretence, of wanting to change people’s life from above, this development plan has only managed to trigger an already existing feeling of estrangement towards the state amongst Bedouin Israelis. The ‘we-are-all-equal-citizens’ dream projected by the plan seems as elusive as ever.

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