A new Israeli proposal that would forcibly transfer more than 40,000 Bedouin citizens into government-planned townships in the Negev (Naqab) desert has raised the ire of Bedouin communities and their supporters, who say that the plan is both discriminatory and ignores the Bedouins’ historic connection to the land.
“[The Israeli government thinks] that the Bedouin are now like enemies, not like citizens or humans. We feel really like criminals,” said Dr. Awad Abu Freih, the spokesperson and resident of al-Araqib, one of approximately 45 so-called unrecognized villages in the Negev.
“Now we are very angry and we reject this plan. We will not accept it. We are working all the time to explain to our communities that this plan is very dangerous, it’s not good for us and not good for the Jews, not good for the state, not good for anybody. It’s very, very stupid; [it’s] a stupid plan,” Abu Freih told The Electronic Intifada.
Prawer Report a continuation of previous displacement schemes
The Prawer Report — named after Ehud Prawer, the Director of Planning Policy in Israeli Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, who headed the committee that wrote it — is an implementation plan of the findings of another Israeli governmental report released in 2008.
Known as the Goldberg Commission, the 2008 report examined the issue of so-called “Bedouin settlement” issues in the Negev. It found that “there is no justification for the state to treat the Bedouin residents in these communities differently from the way it treats the rest of the citizens of the state” and suggested legalizing most the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev so long as the location of these villages didn’t overlap with existing land settlement plans for the benefit of the Jewish population.
Unrecognized Bedouin villages don’t receive basic services from the state, including access to water, electricity, paved roads, education and health care. It is estimated that 90,000 persons — nearly half of the total Bedouin population of the Negev — currently live in unrecognized villages.
Despite its mandate, the Prawer Report veers away from the recommendations of the Goldberg Commission. Instead of promoting recognition, it suggests relocating 40 percent of the Bedouin population presently living in unrecognized villages and moving them into expanded areas of the seven Israeli government-planned Bedouin townships.
These townships, built by the Israeli government in an attempt to concentrate the Bedouin population into specific areas of the Negev, suffer from a serious lack of services and employment opportunities. They are largely viewed as dormitory towns: residents only sleep there and are forced to go outside of the town for nearly everything else they need.
The report states that the Israeli government would offer compensation for only 50 percent of the land the Bedouin currently control and have settled on. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on 2 June that the cost of their displacement is estimated at between six to eight billion Israeli shekels ($1.7 to $2.4 billion USD), including 1.2 billion shekels ($356 million) for economic development in “recognized” Bedouin communities (“Netanyahu’s office promoting plan to relocate 30,000 Bedouin,” 2 June 2011).
“I think that they will go with all their force to implement it. We [will] have to accept it by power. It will be a lot of demolitions and very violent. [There will be] policemen and a lot of actions that the government will do against us. They will attack us,” Abu Freih said.
According to the same report in Haaretz, the amount of compensation Bedouin citizens will receive in exchange for their lands will be reduced as time passes, and “after a five-year period, land which has not been the subject of the claim process will be registered as belonging to the state.”
While Bedouin citizens make up 30 percent of the population in the Negev, they only take up 2 percent of the area’s total land. Further, should all the Bedouins’ land claims be accepted by the state — including the legalization of the currently unrecognized villages and counting the government-planned townships — the Bedouins would control only 5.4 percent of the total land.
An Israeli government vote on the Prawer Report was scheduled for early June yet was postponed due to political pressure from right-wing parties, who argued that the plan gives too much land to the Bedouin. If approved, Israel hopes to implement the Prawer Report within a five-year period.
No consultation with Bedouin citizens
Dr. Thabet Abu Ras is a Professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Director of the Naqab Project for Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. He explained that the Prawer Report cannot be implemented for a variety of reasons, including most notably the fact that Bedouin citizens were never consulted.
“Nobody asked the Bedouin what they want, and really the whole Prawer Report is against the desires of the Bedouins. It treats the Bedouins as unequal citizens,” Abu Ras told The Electronic Intifada. “I think the Bedouins have been invisible people in the last sixty years. Unfortunately, they continue to be invisible citizens of the State of Israel after 63 years.”
Abu Ras said that the Prawer Report only is a continuation of existing Israeli policies of forcibly displacing the Bedouins from their lands and moving them into an urban setting. This plan to urbanize the Bedouins began in the early 1960s, and built on the previous transfer of Bedouin populations after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
“Let us remember that the Bedouins are citizens of the State of Israel and they are supposed to be equal citizens in the State of Israel. I am asking, who can [gain] anything from the frustration of the Bedouins? The Bedouins are very frustrated. There is an issue of mistrust and at the same time, they are saying, ‘We are willing to talk with you. There is enough room for everybody in the Naqab, for Jews as well as Bedouins. The development of the Naqab should not be at our expense,’” he said.
“The way I read Prawer Report,” Abu Ras added, “is that they [will] uproot people from 25 villages, 40,000 to 45,000 people, and push them to the townships.”
Bedouin communities forced into underserved townships
In his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe found that an Israeli ethnic cleansing operation against Bedouin tribes in the Naqab began in the summer of 1948 under then Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
“The Negev Bedouin had inhabited the region since the Byzantine period, and had been following their semi-nomadic way of life since at least 1500. There were 90,000 Bedouin in 1948, divided between 96 tribes, already in the process of establishing a land-ownership system, grazing rights and water access,” Pappe writes.
“Jewish troops immediately expelled eleven tribes, while they forced another nineteen into reservations that Israel defined as closed military areas, which meant they were allowed to leave only with a special permit.”
Known as the siyag — literally the “fenced area” — this largely barren, restricted area sat south and east of the town of Beir al-Sabe (now known as Be’er Sheva), and accounted for only 1.5 million dunams of the total area of the Negev region (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters). In the early 1960s, the Israeli government attempted to urbanize the Bedouin population in the Naqab by building three towns, Tel al-Sabe (Tel Sheva), Rahat and Kseife, in which to concentrate them.
Today, nearly half the Bedouin population in the Negev lives in seven government-planned townships in the northern Negev. These towns lack basic infrastructure, including transportation, schools and employment opportunities, and are the poorest towns in the country.
By comparison, the Israeli government allocated 17 billion shekels ($5 billion) into its “Negev 2015” development plan, which was launched in 2005 and primarily benefits the area’s Jewish residents. The ten-year project, among other things, aims to “strengthen [Jewish] settlement in the Negev” and increase the area’s population by 70 percent, up to 900,000 residents (“Government Launches Negev 2015 Plan Website,” Israeli Prime Minister’s Office website).
According to Dr. Awad Abu Freih, the fact that Bedouin citizens are only offered the option of urbanization — while Jewish citizens can live in many different types of communities — highlights the system of inequality and discrimination that exists in the Negev.
“We feel that this plan will make it very obvious that there [are] two peoples in the Negev. The Jews have recognized villages and they have agricultural villages and kibbutzim, [but the state wants to] take the Bedouin and concentrate them in very, very small cities, closed cities, very poor cities,” Abu Freih said.
“When they destroy our village, they will put Jews in the same place and they will have water, education and everything. This is apartheid. [It’s] very obvious it’s apartheid. It’s a new racism.”
Fighting the Prawer Report
A new umbrella organization called “Recognition Now” has been recently formed to fight for Bedouin land and civil rights in the Negev and coordinate between the various human rights groups and activists working on these issues.
Abu Freih, who acts as the coordinator of this new campaign, explained that Recognition Now’s first priority is educating the various Bedouin tribes and communities about what the Prawer Report really means, and convincing them not to accept it.
“We will be in all the tribes, all the villages and we will call all the world to help us. Maybe we will call the [United Nations] to defend us from the government actions,” said Abu Freih, adding that the international community must get involved to protect Bedouin citizens from the actions and future plans of the Israeli government.
“I want [people] to know that Israel is not a democratic state. It’s very far from that. It’s a very racist state and we know that there’s ethnic cleansing. It’s happening now, it’s not in the history only,” he said. “We want help to defend [ourselves] from the actions of the military and police.”
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jkdamours.com.