“Why aren’t the Bedouin treated like Jewish citizens?”

Bedouin residents of al-Araqib watch as Israeli police destroy the village for the fifth time. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)

The Palestinian Bedouin village of al-Araqib was destroyed for the fifth time in two months on 13 September. Villagers and their supporters watched as it took less than an hour for three bulldozers and at least a hundred police officers to raze the entire community, located just outside of Beersheba in the Negev desert. Jillian Kestler-D’Amours interviews Ismael Abu Saad, Associate Professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the founder of the university’s Center for Bedouin Studies and Development, about the history of Bedouin communities and Israeli policy in the region, and the strength of resistance in al-Araqib.

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours: Tell us about the Palestinian Bedouin community in the Negev.

Ismael Abu Saad: The Bedouin community is the poorest community among the Palestinian minority in Israel and even it’s the poorest community in the whole country. Historically they lived in the desert. They had their own land. They grazed sheep. They engaged in traditional agriculture and they practiced their life peacefully for thousands of years.

They were not interested in real interaction with the central governments throughout history because all they wanted was to practice their way of life without any disruptions and interference from the government. Traditionally, the Bedouin never registered their lands, not because they didn’t want to register their lands, but because it wasn’t part of their traditional way of life. They dealt with it in their own traditional law system. They buy and sell all other things without documentation. That wasn’t part of the culture.

JK: In the late 1960s, the Israeli state began moving Palestinian Bedouin into seven urban townships in the Negev. What impact has this plan had on Bedouin communities in the area?

IA: The seven planned towns are the poorest towns in the country. Unemployment is very high. Those towns are dormitory towns: people only sleep there. There are no jobs. There is no economic infrastructure. There are no facilities. I live in [the Bedouin town of] Lakiyeh; there are close to 10,000 people living there and there’s no bank. To cash a check, you have to drive to Beersheba. It’s crazy.

We see now that half of the Bedouin community doesn’t live in the townships that the state planned for the Bedouin because those towns really didn’t solve the problem. Urbanization failed. It was a very destructive way of life. You can’t bring people from a traditional way of life into urbanization. The experience, the seven towns that they built, I call them government land towns, they failed.

Why don’t we learn from our mistake, from the government’s mistake? Why do the Jews have the right to live in agricultural villages, in kibbutzim, in urban towns [and the Bedouin don’t]? Why don’t you open this option for the Bedouin? Why don’t you treat the Bedouin Arabs like the Jewish citizens? The Bedouin are in a catch-22 now. They can’t maintain their way of life and the government is offering them only one option and this option doesn’t suit their way of life.

JK: Is what’s happening in al-Araqib a test of Bedouin resistance?

IA: I think [the Israeli government is] trying to send a message. If they succeed there, they will scare the others. There’s another problem because the community in the south, the Bedouin community, is a very weak community. There is no unity and I can understand the lack of unity because people are afraid. People want to survive and find ways not to upset the government, but I don’t think that’s working well for the community itself. But I don’t think the lack of unity will help the government get rid of those unrecognized towns. Why? Because the people have the right to live in their own lands even though it’s not registered like Uncle Sam wants it to be.

JK: Could you suggest any solutions?

IA: The main thing is that the State of Israel used power and believed that power is going to solve the problem. I don’t think power is going to solve the problem. They have been practicing different methods of power and didn’t solve the problem. Why don’t you have a dialogue? Why don’t you recognize the way of life of the people? You can’t ignore it.

I know that they’re interested in the land but there is enough land in the Negev for both sides. The Bedouin are not claiming the whole Negev. And also, in the policies that really have been very clear through the last more than sixty years, we see that Jews have the right to live wherever they want in the Negev, even though the land doesn’t belong to them. They go and live and the government supports them: gives them water and electricity. While the indigenous people, the owners of the land, don’t even have that option.

Also, the suggestion that, why don’t you give us another way of living? Why just urbanization? Why don’t you offer Bedouin agricultural villages? Why is it given to a segment of people, to the Jewish people, but not for the Bedouin people? We live in a so-called democracy. Both are citizens. So if there is a way of trying to find solutions, I think the solutions are there. Solutions always come when two sides sit and talk and agree on something. It’s not one side. And the whole government policy from 1948 until now is always one-sided policy. It’s always enforcing the laws that are against the will of the people, against their way of life.

JK: Do you think the residents of al-Araqib and other unrecognized Bedouin communities will ever give up?

IA: I don’t think people will ever give up. I am saying it openly and I have said it so many times, about the stupidity of the government. If they improved the quality of life in the [planned] towns, at least it may motivate somebody to leave. But the problem is that the alternative is even worse than being in an unrecognized village. Here it’s hell and there it’s hell. You can’t trade hell by hell.

Today, people will resist and I’m quite sure they’re not giving it up, whatever it will cost them. I think people will stay. And I think people have learned how prejudiced the government is against them. I don’t think they will give it up because the alternative is even worse. They don’t have anything to lose.

You have to give people services and it’s time for [the Israeli state] to recognize the traditions of the others. It’s time for the state to change its way of trying to solve problems by power. It’s time to use their brains rather than their muscles. Having 3,000 policemen [demolish al-Araqib]: it’s a show. I think it’s stupidity also, you know. That costs a lot of money. By the money they wasted in those forces, they could build schools or other projects. We need social workers. We need counselors. We need educators. We don’t need policemen to come and solve the problem. Power doesn’t solve any problem.

Originally from Montreal, Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a human rights activist and multimedia journalist currently based in occupied East Jerusalem.