Mass demolition as Israel ethnically cleanses Naqab desert

Activists and local residents rebuild a house in Atir-Umm al-Hieran in the Naqab, after Israeli forces demolished the village in mid-May. 

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This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

Rush transcript: Jillian Kestler-D’Amours on forced displacement of Bedouin communities by Israeli government

The Electronic Intifada: So, if you could talk about the latest demolition that took place in the Naqab that you based your most recent report on.

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours: So about two weeks ago, an Israeli police force of about 600 officers — these are border police, soldiers, special riot police — came to the village of Atir-Umm al-Hieran, which is an unrecognized Bedouin village located about 30 minutes from Bir al-Saba, Beersheva, near the recognized town of Hura.

The police officers destroyed 18 structures in the village, including 10 homes, they uprooted about 600 trees, these are olive and fruit trees, and they even took about 30 flatbed trucks with them to haul away most of the rubble. So these were metal and cement homes in the village, and the police also set up about a dozen roadblocks in both directions along the main road leading to and from the village to block access for residents.

So this was a large, large scale demolition in the Naqab. Some people have said that it was the largest since al-Araqib. Al-Araqib is another unrecognized village that was demolished for the first time in July 2010, and at that time there were over 1,000 police officers. So people are saying that what happened in Atir is the biggest since that first demolition there.

The demolitions occur in the Naqab almost every day, but this again was a very large-scale demolition. This week, just yesterday on Thursday, two houses were demolished in Bir al-Meshash, and during this demolition, police fired rubber bullets and two residents were arrested. And all-Araqib, again, was demolished yesterday, for the 51st time since July 2010, and again, yesterday, all in the same day, another house was demolished in Atir — so the same village that had these 18 homes demolished two weeks ago.

Again, demolitions are happening almost every day in the Naqab, it’s part of a concerted effort to displace the Bedouin citizens.

EI: And Jillian, you mentioned that al-Araqib was demolished for the 51st time since July 2010. Talk about the context of these home demolitions, and the Israeli government’s plan, ultimately, for the Palestinian Bedouin communities, and what this Prawer plan is all about.

JKD: To understand what’s happening today in the Naqab, you have to look to history of Israeli policy toward Bedouin citizens of the state. Pre-1948, pre- the foundation of Israel, there were almost 100,000 Palestinian Bedouin living in the Naqab area. Following the Nakba, following the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, there were only about 11,000 Bedouin citizens that remained after 1948 in the area.

Not only that, but for the 11,000 that remained, the Israeli government forcibly relocated them to an area called the sayyaj, which literally means “the fenced area” in the Northwestern Naqab, and the tribes were not allowed to move freely and they were under military rule like the rest of the Palestinian citizens of the newly-founded state, until 1966.

In addition to this, Israel in the late 1960s developed a plan to urbanize the Bedouin community of the Naqab. So the government basically created urban townships in which to concentrate the Bedouin on as little land as possible. Really, you have to see what’s happening today as a continuation of this policy of limiting the areas that Bedouin can live in the Naqab to small urban townships. So this means that the Bedouin do not have land to graze animals or sheep, they don’t have access to agricultural land, and these urban townships don’t take into account the cultural norms of the Bedouin community — by that I mean housing structures; Bedouin traditionally live with their extended family close by. But this is impossible in the townships, because when they were planned, they didn’t take this into account.

In the case of al-Araqib and Atir, Israel is using the tactic of forestation to displace these two Bedouin communities, specifically. As I said before, these are “unrecognized” Bedouin villages, so what that means is that the Israeli government doesn’t recognize land claims of these Bedouin residents, and not only that, the Israeli government doesn’t provide these villages with water, electricity, paved roads, health care, schools, sewage systems — there’s virtually nothing there.

Right now in Israel’s continuation of this policy to forcibly evict Bedouin populations and move them into urban townships, the government developed a plan to “deal with the Bedouin settlement issue” — so this is seen by the government and by Israeli politicians as the Bedouin “problem,” and they’re trying to formulate this “solution.”

So the latest plan really started in 2008, there was the Goldberg commission — a former Israeli [high court] judge, Eliezer Goldberg, made a report about the suggestion, the recommendations to deal with Bedouin villages in the Naqab. Then, the prime minister’s office got involved, and was supposed to create an implementation plan. And what happened instead, and this was under the direction of Ehud Prawer from the prime minister’s office, was to suggest displacing 30,000 - 40,000 Bedouin citizens. And some estimates are that up to 70,000 Bedouin who will actually be displaced. So this is about at least 40 percent of the Bedouin community who will be moved under this plan, which became known as the Prawer plan.

After a lot of international and local condemnation of the plan, a Likud Knesset member Benny Begin was asked to start a consultation process with the Bedouin community. This came after the plan had already been approved in 2011 — so it was really to kind of stem criticism. The Bedouin were not fully consulted in this process.

So basically, Benny Begin made small recommendations, small changes to the plan, really nothing substantive, and his version of the plan was passed in January 2013, January of this year. The Prawer plan, again, is going to displace 30,000 - 40,000 people, it’s expected to be brought to the Knesset for a first reading in early June.

And the Bedouin community has completely rejected the plan as an attack on their basic rights. And an attack on their ancestral way of life in the Naqab. So really, 40,000 people are threatened right now by this plan.

EI: Finally, Jillian, talk a little bit more about the mobilizations that are happening within these Bedouin communities and by solidarity activists as well.

JKD: Yeah, so I mean people have had a few years, really, to get organized to combat this plan because it has been in the process for a few years. So right now we’re seeing demonstrations every week — the people of al-Araqib have held vigils and protests every Sunday for almost three years now, against the demolition of their village.

I’ve seen recently more solidarity between villages, which is really great to see, but it still is lacking in the Naqab just because of historical divisions within the community, but we do see — last week there was a march in Rahat, the biggest Bedouin township of 55,000 people, a few hundred came out for that against the Prawer plan. There’s been demonstrations in Wadi al-Naam, which is the largest unrecognized Bedouin village in the Naqab, there have been solidarity visits to Atir after the large demolition happened there, so there is some movement against what’s happening. There have been demonstrations in front of the Knesset, also against the plan.

What I think is important also to remember with the case of the Palestinian Bedouin of the Naqab is just the clear level of discrimination that exists today, and has always existed since the foundation of the state. Just to give an example, Jewish Israelis of the Naqab have the opportunity to live in any type of village, or town or city that they want. So it could be Beer Sheva, a large city, or it could be an agricultural village, it could be a kibbutz, even the government provides electricity, water, and all the services required for Jewish Israelis to maintain individual farms, which are thousands, hundreds of dunams of land for one Jewish Israeli family alone.

Whereas Palestinian Bedouin — where some of these villages are 10,000 people — have no access to water, no access to electricity, no roads, absolutely nothing. So it’s really a very clear and blatant discrimination.

The Prawer plan is really an extension of this overall policy.

A man reads a flier circulated by protesters in Amman calling attention to the World Economic Forum.

Belal Omar

Transcript: Gretchen King in Amman, Jordan, on protests of the World Economic Forum

Gretchen King: The unemployment rate in Jordan is upwards of 30 percent and by some measures youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa region is the worst in the world. On the eve of its national independence holiday, Jordan hosted the World Economic Forum or WEF for its seventh time. The WEF has been protested where ever it meets being faulted for a global economy that is only widening the gap between rich and poor. On the streets of Amman, I interviewed a Jordanian-Palestinian youth who was among those circulating hundreds of fliers and participating in a Twitter campaign calling attention to the forum and especially the attendance of Israel’s President Shimon Peres.

Belal Omar: My name is Belal Omar. I am a communication engineer, but I am working as a journalist photographer.

GK: Tonight is not only the national holiday of Jordan, but is also the night that the World Economic Forum starts in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea. The President of Israel is attending this forum and that seems to make me think that there is not an anti-normalization condition between Jordan and Israel. In fact, Jordan was one of the first Arabic countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Is that one of the reasons you are going out and protesting tonight is to draw attention to the President of Israel attending this conference?

BO: The government of Jordan has made too many agreements with Israel, but the Jordan public don’t believe in it. Like Wadi Araba, this is the first agreement signed between Jordan and Israel. Yeah, this is one thing of too many things. We are against them and Wadi Araba, this means Jordan is not our government, but that they defend and protect Israel.

GK: Tonight, you are going to go flier. What do you hope is going to happen by informing people? What kind of reaction do you hope for from the people?

BO: They have to know. This is not a small agreement and this makes us day and day go back, not go forward.

GK: Outside of the al-Hussein Mosque in downtown Amman, youth gathered to protest the WEF by passing out fliers saying no to the World Economic Forum in Jordan, demanding an end to the ongoing economic colonization of Jordan and Palestine, the over turning of the Wadi Araba agreement, and freedom for Jordanian prisoners who have been on hunger strike for over a month in Israeli jails.

GK: So what’s the reaction been like of some of the people who are taking fliers? What are they saying?

BO: We have two different reactions. Some people say, this is good what you are doing. But some people say, why are you angry, leave them alone and if they come to Jordan to give our government some money – this is good, why are you angry?

GK: So why are you angry?

BO: If they come to Jordan to give our government some money, They don’t give us money to make us happy. They give us money to steal our government and to make them do anything they want. But we have to make them know that and Insha’Allah, Insha’Allah. What we do now, we give people some fliers and we wrote in it some notes about Davos Economic Forum and about our Jordanian prisoners. I see the people catch the flier and reading. Some of them smile, some of them are angry. Insha’Allah, what we do is going to be okay.

GK: “Okay, well good luck to you.”

This report is filed from Amman, Jordan for CKUT Radio.



Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).