“Go to the West Bank!” yelled the soldier

The first hint Fares Abu Mohamed and his wife had of the catastrophe about to befall them was the sudden roar of the massive bulldozer. That was at 9 o’clock this morning and their baby was still asleep in his cot. They were given 10 minutes to collect a few items and told to vacate the black tent and corrugated zinc shack that served as their make-shift home.

Fifteen minutes later Fares stood with his pregnant wife, his young son, his two sisters and his mother looking at the rubble of their home. Many of the family’s possessions had been destroyed. There was no time to save the baby food and the police and soldiers even refused Fares a few extra minutes to salvage his wife’s jewellery - her only personal possession. Instead the soldiers yelled at him “Go to the West Bank!”

Of course the irony is that were Fares and his family already in the West Bank there would have been nothing unusual about the dawn demolition of their house. It happens there all the time. But Fares does not live in the West Bank. He lives in Wadi al Naam in Israel’s northern Negev and, like all Negev Bedouin, Fares and his family are Israeli citizens. They pay taxes and vote in national elections. Many Bedouins even serve in the Israeli Army.

So how can it be that Israeli citizens can have their home demolished by the authorities? Is such a thing possible? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. What makes it worse is that house demolitions are a regular occurrence. The explanation for them is simple. Fares and his fellow Bedouin are not Jews. They are Arabs and thus, as Shmuel Rifman, chairperson of the Ramat HaNegev Regional Council said on the occasion of Israel’s 55th Independence Day: “We came to this country to establish a Jewish state in the land of Israel. Ben Gurion did not intend to establish a Bedouin state.” He was echoing Moshe Dayan’s well-known statement of July 1963 that “We [Israelis] must turn Bedouin into urban labourers. The Bedouin will no longer live on a land with his flocks, but will become an urbanite who comes home in the evening and puts on his slippers. The reality that is known as the Bedouin will disappear.” Dayan’s intention was to hand over Bedouin lands to Jewish settlers.

In 1965, two years after Moshe Dayan’s comments, the Building and Planning Law was passed in the Israeli Knesset, rendering Bedouin villages in the Negev, extant since Ottoman times, suddenly nonexistent — or, to use the official jargon — “unrecognised.” As a result, the 70,000 Bedouins like Fares and his family living on their traditional lands around Beer Sheva — and not yet herded into custom-built ghettos — are today seen as “illegal.” And they are likely to remain illegal. In spite of the brutal tactics employed by the police, the army and the so-called Green Patrol, which now include spraying crops with toxic chemicals — often dangerously close to schools and villages — the Bedouins remain steadfast. Fares’ house will be rebuilt by the community. He will not be becoming an “urbanite.” Not yet, anyway.

What does this say about Israeli democracy? Democracy is more than simply paying taxes and having the vote. It requires the state to ensure that every citizen enjoys equal rights and access to justice — something Arab citizens of Israel clearly do not enjoy. Until early 2002, out of 3,000 Bedouin cases brought before Israeli courts, not one had been decided in favour of the Bedouins. Not one! For the Bedouin of Israel, democracy is a myth, as it is for the rest of the 20+ percent of Israel’s population that is not Jewish.

Nick Pretzlik is a British peace activist currently traveling in Israel and Occupied Palestine. He can be reached through his wife, Dr. Ursula Pretzlik, at upretzlik@yahoo.co.uk