Earlier this year, I spent a day in the heart of the occupied West Bank with Israelis — some of them living in illegal settlements — who have made it their mission to destroy Palestinian homes and communities built without permits, all in the name of “equality under the law.”
The irony was hard to miss.
That day in the West Bank, when I asked about “equality under the law” as it applies to the Negev/Naqab region of southern Israel — another area of focus for these right-wing activists — I was told that the Negev could wait for another day.
Last week, that day finally came. The individuals I met in the West Bank belong to right-wing Israeli group Regavim, whose explicit mandate is to “promote a Jewish Zionist agenda for the State of Israel.” They hosted a public forum last Thursday titled “Which way for the Negev?”
Held in conjunction with the Zionist Organization of America and a group called Likud Anglos, English-speaking supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing party, organizers handed out pamphlets announcing that “time was running out” on the Negev.
The Negev region of southern Israel covers over half of the total territory of the state. About 200,000 Palestinian Bedouin citizens of Israel currently live in the area, making up some 30 percent of the total population.
For years, the government has promoted a policy whereby Jewish-Israelis are encouraged to move to the Negev — through generous benefits packages — while the Bedouin are increasingly restricted, and their villages are denied official recognition.
The latest Israeli government project, known as the Prawer Plan, would see at least 30,000 Bedouin forcibly evicted from their homes and communities and transferred to impoverished townships that lack basic services and are hotbeds of crime and unemployment.
Back at the Regavim event, Seth Franzman, editor of the opinion pages in The Jerusalem Post, was invited to speak. Among other points, including the claim that the Bedouin of the Negev aren’t truly indigenous, Franzman stated that to allow the Bedouin to live in distinct communities that reflect their cultural traditions and norms is reverse racism.
This is a perversion of the truth.
All the Bedouin are asking for, by fighting to remain in their lands and villages, is a right that is granted unequivocally to Jewish Israelis: to live in communities that suit their needs and desires.
In the Negev, Jewish residents have the opportunity to live in a wide variety of communities, including kibbutzim, moshavim (agricultural villages), cities, and individual farms. Individual farms are a phenomenon whereby a single Jewish family is given hundreds and sometimes thousands of dunams of land, which are immediately equipped with water and electricity, in an effort to safeguard the area for Jewish use.
By contrast, the Bedouin of the Negev have only two options: unrecognized villages, many of which pre-date the founding of the state itself and yet are denied basic services such as water, roads, schools and health care, or poverty-stricken and woefully inadequate townships.
“No one else has land rights in this country but [the Bedouin] have some special right that is above everyone else, mind you above even the other Arabs, who have less rights,” Franzman said, as he comically further turned reality on its head.
While the views promoted by speakers such as Franzman were not surprising, they did highlight the frightening reality that underscored the Regavim event: confident in the stranglehold they have achieved on lands and resources in the occupied West Bank, right-wing Israelis have begun to look inward and identify new “threats” to Jewish privilege and dominance.
As Israeli Minister of Information and Diaspora Affairs (otherwise known as the minister for hasbara — propaganda), Yuli Edelstein, who delivered the evening’s keynote address, succinctly stated: “If we want to really continue the Zionist dream, and if we want to continue what I call settlement activities, where is the next challenge? I’m glad that in so many places, young people see the next challenge in the Negev and the Galilee.”
Indeed, the non-Jewish populations in these areas pose the new, biggest threat to the Zionist narrative, insomuch as Bedouin and other Palestinian citizens are currently fighting for basic human rights. The fact that a struggle for equal rights causes Israelis to speak about the end of the state, of “time running out” and of other apocalyptic fears, highlights just how poisoned the whole system is.
Granting rights to the Negev Bedouin does not mean that Jewish-Israelis living in the Negev will lose some of theirs. It does perhaps mean, however, that Jews will have to cede some of the privileges that they have enjoyed since Israel was created and defined itself as a “Jewish state.”
While most Israelis — whether on the so-called “Israeli left” or extreme right — don’t even acknowledge that this system of privilege exists, virtually all (some openly, others unconsciously) fear its breakdown.
And nowhere is this more obvious than the Negev, where 200,000 citizens are demanding that their basic rights be realized after 60 years of living in inequality, and where the Israeli government is trying its utmost to stop them.
“I think that we all have to stay on message here, with the message being creating and innovating and developing the Negev according to the dreams of the founding fathers and [first Israeli Prime Minister, David] Ben Gurion in particular,” said Yuli Edelstein at the Regavim event, further highlighting the intransigence that defines his views. “We don’t have anything to hide and we don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”
Israel, it seems, is a country where politicians take pride in depriving the marginalized of basic rights.
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at jkdamours.com.