Over the past 15 months the dusty plains of the northern Negev desert in Israel have been witness to a ritual of destruction, part of a police operation known as Hot Wind. On 29 occasions since June 2010, hundreds of Israeli paramilitary officers have made the pilgrimage over a dirt track near the city of Beersheva to the zinc sheds and hemp tents of al-‘Araqib. Within hours of their arrival, the 45 ramshackle structures — home to some 300 Bedouin villagers — are pulled down and al-‘Araqib is wiped off the map once again. All that remains to mark the area’s inhabitation by generations of the al-Turi tribe are the stone graves in the cemetery.
The al-Turis are determined to stay on their ancestral lands to maintain their traditional pastoral way of life; Israel wants the land for a forestation program, to beautify the Negev and attract more Jews to settle there.
The struggle over al-‘Araqib has played out many times before in other Negev locations since Israel’s founding in 1948. Then, and in the early years of state building, all but 11,000 of the Negev’s population of 90,000 Bedouin were expelled to Egypt, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank. Today, with the highest birth rate of any ethnic group in Israel, the Bedouin number about 190,000, nearly a third of the Negev’s population. Half of them continue to live in rural communities, all of which Israel has refused to accord normal legal standing.
But in September the Israeli government announced a plan to complete the unfinished business of 1948. Over the coming months and years, Israel intends to implement a scheme to evict some 40,000 Bedouin from their homes in the Negev in a program of forced urbanization. It will be an act of wholesale removal unseen in this desert region for more than a generation.
The exact number of Bedouin to be affected is unclear, as Israel has made little effort to assess the true population of the “unrecognized villages,” as the rural dwelling places are known. Officials estimate, however, that 40 percent of the villagers will be relocated to a handful of overcrowded and under-resourced government-built townships for the Bedouin, languishing at the very bottom of Israel’s social and economic tables.
Thabet Abu Ras, a professor of geography at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, calls the plan a “declaration of war” on the Bedouin way of life. He is supported in this view by the Steering Committee of the Negev Arabs, a coalition of community groups, NGOs and political parties in southern Israel, which has accused the government of formulating a policy of “ethnic cleansing.” Meanwhile, Talib al-Sana, a Bedouin member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, warns of a “Bedouin intifada.”
In a last-ditch effort to stop the scheme, a four-person team including Abu Ras headed to the United States in October to lobby American Jewish leaders and publicize the Bedouin’s case in the media. Their hope, probably forlorn, is that the Israeli government can be embarrassed into reversing its policy if the American Jewish community brings enough pressure to bear. Abu Ras told the Jerusalem Post newspaper: “Being a minority in the US has made this community very sensitive, and the Jewish community is very involved in politics. If they care about Israel, they should stand for democratic Israel more than anything else.”
The evacuation plan is the personal project of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has rapidly intensified official efforts to impose a solution to a decades-long legal struggle between the state and the Bedouin over the title deeds to nearly 800,000 dunams — or 200,000 acres — of the Negev. A statement from Netanyahu’s office, published on September 11, the day the cabinet endorsed the plan, said it would “bring about a better integration of Bedouin in Israeli society.”
Few Bedouin share the official optimism. On October 6, thousands converged on the Negev’s main city of Beersheva in the largest protest ever held in the city. A huge banner, in three languages, expressed their verdict: “Israel has stolen the lands of its Arab citizens of the Negev.”
The Prawer plan, named for Ehud Prawer, the head of planning policy in Netanyahu’s office, is intended as the coup de grace of the Israeli government’s efforts to strip the Bedouin of most of their ancestral lands. Abu Ras notes that the Bedouin’s outstanding claim on hundreds of thousands of dunams in the Negev is one of the major territorial issues left unresolved since Israel’s founders sought to implement the Zionist goal of concentrating Palestinian Arabs in the smallest possible area while allowing Jews to take control of the maximum amount of land.
This policy has applied equally to the 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel as it has to Palestinians under occupation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. According to estimates by groups like Adalah, an Arab legal center in Israel, since Israel’s founding the Palestinian minority has lost at least three quarters of its lands in areas outside the Negev, under the pretext of land nationalization programs. Much of this land transfer was achieved by means of legislation such as the notorious Absentee Property Law of 1950, which passed on to the state all lands belonging to refugees from the 1948 war, including those internally displaced in Israel, and the Land Acquisition Law of 1953.
The cleared lands were then repopulated exclusively with Jews, often only a few dozen people controlling vast swathes of territory. Israel originally termed this policy “Judaization,” targeting in particular the two areas where Israel’s Palestinian citizens, then as now a fifth of the population, were seen as a potential strategic threat: the Galilee and the Negev. In both regions there was a fear, which has barely diminished over subsequent decades, that a rapidly growing and spreading non-Jewish population could forge alliances with neighboring Arab states and attempt to secede. Control of the Negev, which is filled with military sites, including a nuclear reactor at Dimona, and which constitutes 55 percent of Israel’s land mass, is regarded as especially important.
In recent years, the terminology of ethnic domination has been modified to reflect the need for greater opacity. Moving the Bedouin off their historic lands and bringing in Jews in their place is today more commonly described as “developing” the Negev or encouraging a “stronger population.”
Underscoring the real motivations behind the Prawer plan, however, Netanyahu’s office announced at the same time a separate scheme to create ten rural Jewish satellite communities around the Negev town of Arad. These settlements will house 1,500 military families as Israel relocates yet another army base from central Israel to the south. The Arad scheme was drawn up over the objections of both environmental groups concerned about delicate desert ecosystems and the Bedouin.
The prime minister’s office issued a statement describing the Arad project, without a trace of irony, as central to a “Zionist vision for making the Negev flourish, and in line with the government’s policies of development, progress, attracting the population to the periphery and increasing the availability of housing.” At least two unrecognized Bedouin villages, al-Tir and neighboring Umm al-Hiran, are due to be emptied of their combined 1,000 residents to make way for the new Jewish communities.
For the Bedouin, the prospect of such displacement is a painful echo of their experiences in Israel’s early years.
Shortly before Israel’s creation, the Bedouin tribes held claim to about 2 million dunams — 500,000 acres, or about a sixth of the total territory of the Negev — on which their herds had grazed for generations. But more than 85 percent of the Bedouin were expelled either during the 1948 war or in subsequent years by the Negev’s military government. The state quickly appropriated these lands.
In the early 1950s, 11 of the 19 tribes that remained were forcibly relocated to a small “security zone” in the northern corner of the Negev, near Beersheva, known as the Siyag, or “enclosure.” A few of the other eight tribes, already based inside the Siyag, were required to move to other sites in the enclosed zone. In many cases, the tribes were told by the army that they would soon be allowed to return to their original lands. This promise that was never kept.
Having severed the Bedouin’s physical connection to their ancestral lands, the Israeli authorities began a campaign of harassment to destroy their pastoral way of life. During the period of the military government, which lasted until 1966, the tribes’ movements were severely restricted, their herds were confiscated and their crops uprooted or burned. As the Bedouin slowly emerged from two decades of punitive military rule, many agreed to relocate to state-planned townships. Seven were established for this purpose from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, and half of the Negev Bedouin settled there, chiefly, though not exclusively, those lacking significant land holdings.
The rest of the Bedouin remained defiantly in their 45 villages, even though the state refused to recognize them. Over subsequent decades the state intensified its policy of harassment, denying water, electricity and all other public services to the unrecognized villages, and declaring the domiciles therein illegal and subject to demolition.
The inhabitants of the unrecognized villages, in particular, have continued to stake their claim to ownership either of their ancestral lands or of the areas they were given in lieu of them by the state. In some cases, Bedouin who relocated to a township later returned to their former villages, as they realized that the state had reneged on its side of the bargain by failing to develop the townships, offer agricultural opportunities to the inhabitants or expand the communities to deal with natural growth.
The unrecognized villages have been fighting a battle against the authorities on two related fronts. First, they have been demanding that their 45 villages be recognized by the state as agricultural communities and given access to public services. With this aim in mind, in 1997 they created an unofficial regional council — modeled on those with jurisdiction over Jewish communities — to draw up a master plan for each village, a precondition for legal building within the municipal boundaries.
And second, they have waged a struggle through the courts for recognition of ownership of their lands, making some 3,200 claims on nearly 800,000 dunams, or 6 percent of the Negev. Some Bedouin are believed not to have submitted claims for fear of opening themselves up to legal moves by the state to dispossess them.
Each of these parallel struggles has met with limited success.
Of the 45 villages, ten were given partial recognition in 2003 and incorporated into a regional council, known as Abu Basma, overseen by Jewish officials. Special legislation was passed in 2009 to ensure that this council holds no elections for the foreseeable future. Abu Basma, with some 35,000 residents and controlling just 58 dunams, has the highest population density and smallest territorial jurisdiction of all the regional councils in the Negev. It is also the only one of 47 regional councils in Israel that lacks territorial continuity. By contrast, the ten other regional councils in Israel’s south — home to 45,000 Jews — have jurisdiction over an expanse of rural land, some 11 million dunams.
Abu Ras has observed of Abu Basma that its “jurisdiction is restricted to the built-up area of each village and does not include the lands between the villages or the surrounding land. Despite the Bedouin way of life, Abu Basma has not been allocated any agricultural areas.”
To resolve the question of the Bedouin’s land claims, the state began a registration program for the Negev in the early 1970s. The state sought to prejudge the outcome in 1976 by appointing a committee headed by Plia Albek, a senior legal adviser to the Justice Ministry. (A year later Albek would become the key official to provide legal cover for the new Likud government’s decision to declare much of the West Bank “state land.”) In the Negev, she determined that the territory was mawat (dead), or unsuitable for cultivation, a legal classification used by the Ottomans. Overnight this decision turned the Bedouin into “squatters” and “trespassers,” terms used by officials to this day. The committee, however, did approve partial compensation of 20 percent of the land for anyone with a claim to more than 400 dunams.
Despite its current claim that the Bedouin have no legal title to the areas in which they reside, Israel did in fact acknowledge in its early years their ownership of large tracts of the Negev. Officials appear to have accepted that the Bedouin’s failure to register their lands with the Ottoman rulers derived from a fear that, among other things, they might be conscripted into the Ottoman army as a consequence. And while the British mandatory authorities who followed did not carry out land classification in the Negev, they determined that the land “belongs to the Bedouin tribes because of their residence on the land from time immemorial.” Many of the Bedouin have documentation to prove that their families were paying taxes on their land for many years prior to Israel’s creation.
Confirming Israel’s earlier position toward Bedouin land claims, the Adalah legal center recently discovered in Israel’s military archives a “top secret” document from 1952. In it the Negev’s military governor, Michael Hanegbi, observed that the tribes’ transfer to the Siyag “was mainly achieved by persuasion and economic pressure, since we had no legal basis” for relocating the Bedouin.
The same year a government-appointed committee recommended recognition of the Bedouin’s legal claims. The panel members included high-level officials such as Yosef Weitz, the head of the Jewish National Fund, and Yehoshua Palmon, a senior adviser to Israel’s founding premier, David Ben Gurion. The committee suggested that the Knesset pass a law to nationalize the land and compensate the Bedouin financially or with alternative territory.
Another official document — this one from 1966, and written by Sasson Ben-Zvi, then the Negev’s military governor — referred both to the government’s recognition of Bedouin land ownership and to the purchase by the Jewish National Fund of areas of the Negev from the Bedouin before Israel’s establishment.
But following Albek’s reclassification of the Negev as mawat, and therefore as state land, officials have claimed in court cases that the Bedouin are not landowners, conceding as a “good will gesture” only that the Bedouin have a status as “guardians.” So far, of the 800,000 dunams under legal contestation, the state has reached an arrangement with 380 Bedouin claimants over 205,000 dunams. Much of that land is located within the master plan of the Abu Basma villages. The rest of the 2,750 claims have yet to be settled.
The pressure to deal with the Bedouin’s claims intensified following a Supreme Court hearing in 2000 in which the Israeli planning authorities promised to find new ways to incorporate the inhabitants of the unrecognized villages into the regional plan for the Beersheva district. They also agreed to come up with alternatives to settling the villagers in the seven townships, including by creating rural communities.
It was against this backdrop that the centrist government of Ehud Olmert set up a committee in 2007 under a retired Supreme Court justice, Eliezer Goldberg, to “recommend to the government a policy for regulating Bedouin settlement in the Negev.” The eight-person committee included two Bedouin representatives, though no one from the unrecognized villages. In December 2008 it issued its report to the Housing Ministry.
In many respects, Goldberg broke with previous state policy. He acknowledged that the Bedouin had endured an “intolerable situation,” that they were neither trespassers nor squatters, and that they had “general historic ties” to the land. He suggested that the Bedouin’s forced relocation to the Siyag in the 1950s qualified them as internal refugees. He recommended that the 45 villages be granted recognition wherever possible, and that most buildings designated as illegal be reclassified as “gray,” allowing for their later legalization. Unlike Albek, Goldberg set no minimum land holding for Bedouin owners to receive compensation from the government and he allowed for land as well as financial compensation. He also recommended establishing a new planning body to regulate Bedouin settlement in the Negev.
The report received a lukewarm reception from Bedouin groups, including the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages. They were impressed by the conciliatory tone, but wary of the dangers posed by various omissions and vague formulations that could be exploited by less sympathetic officials. The biggest concerns were that Goldberg failed explicitly to recognize the Bedouin’s historical right to the land and that he proposed legalizing the unrecognized villages subject to several conditions that did not apply to Jewish communities. These included having “a minimum mass of residents,” proving “municipal fitness” and ensuring that the village “accorded with a master plan.” Given that traditional planning policy in the Negev had not only overlooked the unrecognized villages but also pursued of a policy of severely restricting Bedouin development, this last condition was regarded as particularly onerous.
For many months Goldberg’s recommendations languished in the government’s bottom drawer.
After Netanyahu took office in 2009, however, he set up a new committee under Ehud Prawer to “implement” the report. The committee included no Bedouin members at all, and talked to no Bedouin representatives during its deliberations. Prawer was already known for his hardline views on the Bedouin. In 2006, as deputy head of the National Security Council, he had declared at the Herzliya conference, an annual security convention attended by Israel’s political, military and diplomatic elites, that the removal of settlers from Gaza the previous year provided a model for handling the Bedouin in the Negev.
In the end, the Prawer committee’s recommendations, leaked in early 2011, bore little resemblance to the Goldberg report.
Prawer’s proposals were roundly condemned by human rights organizations in Israel, including the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Bimkom, a planning rights group. These activists, along with the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, had earlier sponsored their own panel of experts to draft an alternative plan, which Prawer ignored. Oren Yiftachel, a geography professor at Ben Gurion University in the Negev and a member of the human rights-oriented committee, said its proposal was “better, cheaper and much more humane for both Jews and Arabs of the Negev.”
It proposed that the Bedouin villages be recognized and treated as a “distinct type of settlement” in the planning system, much like a moshav, kibbutz or Arab village in the Galilee, and that the inhabitants be allowed to continue an agricultural way of life. It noted that, contrary to official claims that the Bedouin villages were too “scattered” or small to be accommodated in the regional plan, there were more than 100 Jewish rural communities in the Beersheva area, with an average population of just 300 residents. The average unrecognized village had a population, even according to the minimal official figures, of 1,740 residents. There was also a precedent for recognition of previously unregistered communities: In 2010, the government retroactively legalized some 60 Jewish farms established illegally across the Negev by individual ranchers.
The Prawer report was considered a major step backwards for the Bedouin. It made no mention of the Bedouin’s historical connection to their lands, and did not name a single unrecognized village or suggest any be recognized. It also discriminated between those Bedouin who had been forced off their land by the state into the Siyag and those still on their ancestral lands. The latter were entitled to land compensation, though at a rate reduced to half of their holdings, whereas the former were entitled only to monetary compensation and an option to buy a plot in one of the government townships. Abu Ras, who also heads Adalah’s Negev project, estimated that under the Prawer plan the Bedouin would receive between 180,000 and 200,000 dunams of their outstanding claim of 600,000 dunams.
The Prawer report was put aside in June 2011 under pressure from the far-right coalition faction of Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Netanyahu agreed instead that it would be “revised” by the unlikely figure of Yaakov Amidror, the head of the National Security Council. Amidror, an icon of the national-religious community and a settler, is best known for his hardline positions against Palestinian statehood and his belief that Israel should reoccupy Gaza.
Bedouin leaders were appalled that a man responsible for the handling of Israel’s gravest security threats should be put in charge of deciding their fate. Netanyahu’s militarized approach to the Negev Bedouin was confirmed a short time later by news that he had apppointed Moshe Yaalon, a former chief of staff and the current minister of strategic affairs, to enforce the revised Prawer plan. Rawia Abu Rabia, a Bedouin lawyer with ACRI, spoke for many in noting that the government “sees us as enemies.”
The new version of Prawer is even more draconian than the original. It reduces the amount of Bedouin land to be recognized to 100,000 dunams, a sixth of the outstanding claims. The rest of the land is to be confiscated. Monetary compensation will range from 20 to 50 percent of the land’s value. Recognition of the existing villages is considered a last resort. Unlicensed new construction will be dealt with severely, while owners of existing illegal buildings will have a deadline for obtaining permits, after which demolition will be strictly enforced and its costs charged to the homeowner. A special court for dealing with Bedouin objections to land confiscation will be staffed with government appointees.
Harshest of all, the amended plan requires the forced removal of tens of thousands of Bedouin from their lands, destroying what is left of their traditional pastoral way of life. The villagers would be relocated either to one of the communities in Abu Basma or to one of the original seven townships. The government has set aside up to $2 billion to destroy the villages and relocate the inhabitants, including $320 million for economic development. The Negev’s Bedouin, however, have reasons to be skeptical about whether the latter money will materialize. An earlier Israeli government, that of Ariel Sharon, promised in 2003 to spend $200 million on building housing and improving infrastructure for the Bedouin. A year later, according to classified US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks, Israeli officials privately conceded that they did not have “even a quarter of the money needed for completion of the projects.”
For those Bedouin who may doubt the government’s determination to carry out its plan, officials have been making an example of two unrecognized villages, one them al-‘Araqib. The other is the joint village of al-Tir and Umm al-Hiran, northeast of the township of Hura. Its 1,000 inhabitants have received notification of the wholesale destruction of the village to make way for a new Jewish community, Hiran. The courts have accepted the state’s argument that the inhabitants have no attachment to the land, even though they were eventually moved there after eviction from their ancestral lands in Khirbat Zubala in 1948, which subsequently became a kibbutz called Shuval.
Bedouin leaders are now considering ways to halt the plan in its tracks. As well as their American tour, they are preparing to take their fight to the United Nations and other international bodies, according to Talib al-Sana. They hope for a sympathetic hearing at the UN after publication of a report in August by James Anaya, the special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. Anaya rejected Israel’s contention that the Negev Bedouin are not the region’s “indigenous people.” It is precisely such mounting international pressure that is creating a sense of urgency among Israeli officials to close the Bedouin file for good.
But the Netanyahu government’s position, like its forebears’, also derives in large part from a long-standing Zionist concern that an unrestrained Bedouin population might eventually forge dangerous alliances with enemy groups. Those fears, rarely articulated directly, explain the decision to entrust the Prawer plan to such safe pairs of military hands as Amidror’s and Yaalon’s.
Hints about the nature of such security concerns, however, do occasionally shine through. In 2004, for example, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli authorities were seeking to remove Bedouin families from an area around the Nevatim airbase in the Negev to “reduce any missile threat” to military aircraft taking off or landing. Intelligence sources quoted by the paper suggested that the villagers could receive anti-aircraft missiles smuggled from Gaza to shoot down the planes “since the smugglers were Bedouin from the Sinai with close links with their Negev tribesmen.”
Likewise, the amended Prawer plan stresses that the Bedouin must be prohibited from establishing any communities west of Road 40, the main highway through the Negev — a restriction that keeps them well away from the Gaza Strip. Containment of the Bedouin in the Siyag was always motivated in significant part by a fear that a dispersed Bedouin population might link up and make common cause with Palestinians in either Gaza or the West Bank. The Negev provides a bridge between the two.
It is unlikely to be coincidental that, as the Netanyahu government pressed ahead with the Prawer plan, the military authorities in the West Bank unveiled an almost identical scheme for restricting the settlement of the Bedouin there. The goal, as Amira Hass reported in Ha’aretz in September, is for the Civil Administration to uproot all the Bedouin from Area C — the 60 percent of the West Bank that, by the terms of the 1993 Oslo accords, remains under full Israeli control and that Israel hopes to annex in any future peace deal with the Palestinians. Most of the 27,000 Bedouin in the West Bank are the descendants of those expelled from the Negev in 1948. They will be moved well away from areas that are contiguous with Israel.
One Negev Bedouin leader, Amal al-Sana al-Hajouj, observed: “If we accept what they are offering, we will see a violent, overcrowded, poverty-ridden area. We want to restart the negotiating process so we, the Bedouin, can start to contribute to the area and not just be people living in poverty.” All indications are, however, that the Netanyahu government, like its predecessors, is incapable of seeing the Bedouin citizens of Israel through any prism other than that of security.
is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.