In the Negev

Neve Gordon

At least seventy thousand Bedouin in the Negev live in villages currently classed as ‘unrecognised’ by the Israeli government. This means that it’s forbidden to connect the houses to the electricity grid or the water and sewage systems. Construction regulations are harshly enforced, and last year about a thousand Bedouin homes and animal pens – usually referred to by the government only as ‘structures’ – were demolished. There are no paved roads, and signposts to the villages from main roads are removed. The villages aren’t shown on maps. As a matter of official geography, the places lived in by these citizens of Israel do not exist, and Israel now plans to demolish most of the villages and move at least thirty thousand inhabitants to townships.

By the early 1950s most of the Bedouin who’d lived in the Negev before the establishment of the State of Israel had fled or had been expelled to Jordan and Egypt. Many of the 12,000 who remained were uprooted from the lands they had inhabited for generations and resettled in the mostly barren area of the north-east Negev known as the Siyag (‘enclosure’). Now cleared of Arabs, the Negev’s most fertile areas were given to new kibbutzim and moshavim.

The Bedouin were subject to military rule until 1966, their movement restricted and basic rights denied. When this ended, the Bedouin still occupied too much of the Negev for the state’s liking (the area, which constitutes around half Israel’s landmass, is filled with military sites) and it decided to concentrate the population in semi-urban townships. Over the next twenty years, seven were established: Tel Sheva, Rahat, Segev Shalom, Kusaife, Lqya, Hura and Arara. Most of the families who moved to the townships renounced their land rights. They also had to abandon their pastoral way of life. For many years Bedouin were not allowed to hold elections in their new municipalities, which were run instead by Jewish officials from the Interior Ministry. The townships rapidly became overcrowded and today are home to about 135,000 people; all have high unemployment rates, high birth rates, dilapidated infrastructure and third-rate schools.

In 2009 Binyamin Netanyahu appointed his planning policy chief, Ehud Prawer, to try, yet again, to solve the Bedouin problem. Prawer’s main task was to relocate those who had refused to sign over their property rights and stayed put in the unrecognised villages. The government argues that because these people live in small villages scattered across a large area, it isn’t possible to provide them with basic services. It claims this is the reason it wants them to move.

Recently I drove to Wadi al Na’am, an unrecognised village about twenty minutes south of my house in Beer-Sheva. Hundreds of dwellings made from tin panels, bits of wood and canvas sprawl across the yellow hills. There are chickens, sheep, goats and donkeys. Driving past the wheat fields here always makes me uneasy. The crops aren’t irrigated, so the height of the wheat depends on how much rain there is; the stalks this year are tiny compared to those on Jewish land.

I had been to Wadi al Na’am a few times before but I couldn’t remember where I was supposed to turn off the highway and called Ibrahim for directions. ‘Don’t you remember?’ he said. ‘At the sign pointing to the electricity plant take a left and drive up the hill.’ I met him at the top and followed his Subaru along dirt roads for about ten minutes until we reached his shieg, a large tent towering over a concrete floor covered with rugs. In the middle of the tent, there was a hole in the concrete, where an iron pot of tea simmered over burning coals. Ibrahim sat down on a mattress next to his brother Labad.

Ibrahim is the sheik of Wadi al Na’am. When he was young he was a scout for the Israeli military; his Hebrew is better than mine. ‘I met Prawer, and he is a good man,’ he said. ‘Often good men do bad things. The fact that Wadi al Na’am, like many other unrecognised villages, is located right under electricity pylons and next to water pipes, and that we were never allowed to connect our homes to these basic services is a criminal act of discrimination. You know, my friend, in the past two decades several dozen single-family Jewish farms have been established throughout the Negev, and ten new Jewish settlements are going to be constructed on Bedouin land near the Jewish town of Arad. At least two unrecognised Bedouin villages, al-Tir and Umm al-Hiran, are due to be emptied to make way for these new Jewish communities.’ In the northern Negev there are already a hundred Jewish settlements, each home to around three hundred people (these are much smaller than most unrecognised villages but do have access to basic utilities). Ibrahim didn’t say that the plan’s objective is to Judaise the land, but it’s hard to see another explanation for the state’s refusal to recognise the Bedouin villages.

Prawer’s plan assumes that the Bedouin have no land rights. In the 1970s, when Israel first began to relocate them, some 3200 petitions were filed with the Justice Ministry claiming a right to property that had belonged to Bedouin families for generations. Two-thirds of these claims were for property belonging to individuals and the rest for land used in common for pasture. The majority of the cases have been rejected; claims over about 550,000 dunams, or 4 per cent of the Negev, are still to be settled.

According to the government’s statement approving Prawer’s plan ‘the state’s basic assumption … is that at the very least the vast majority of the claimants do not have a recognised right according to Israeli property laws to the lands for which they have sued.’ Only land that is disputed (in other words, for which suits have been filed) and which a family has lived on and used (as opposed to common pasture) will be compensated with new land – but only half the original holdings will be granted and the new land can be wherever the state chooses. Cash compensation for land held by the state will be at a set rate, regardless of where it is and whether or not it’s fertile. The compensation will be about five thousand shekels per dunam, although in Rahat, one of the townships, half a dunam costs about 150,000 shekels. Apart from the unfairness, this means it will be hard for those who are moved to afford land in the townships. Bedouin who do not settle claims within five years will lose all rights.

‘Isn’t it mysterious that the plan dealing with the relocation of the Bedouin doesn’t include a map showing where they will be moved?’ Haia Noach, the director of the Negev Co-existence Forum, asked me. It seems likely that they will be moved to an area east of Highway 40, the Negev’s most arid region, close to the southern tip of the occupied West Bank. This part of Prawer’s plan is reminiscent of Ben-Gurion’s post-1948 strategy, but something more sinister might be afoot. If there are land swaps with the Palestinians in the West Bank, what could be more convenient for the Israeli government than handing over some parched Negev land with a lot of Bedouin on it?

The government has allocated about $2 billion for the relocation of the Bedouin: more or less the sum allocated for the eight thousand Jewish settlers removed from the Gaza Strip in 2005. It has also stated that about $300 million will be spent on the existing townships, a signal that at least some of the Bedouin will be moved there. The question of how people used to living off the land are supposed to adjust to life in the townships has not been addressed.

Before leaving Wadi al Na’am, I asked Ibrahim what he thinks will happen if the Bedouin don’t reach an agreement with the government. ‘They will not put us on buses and move us, they will simply shut down the schools and wait. When we see we cannot send our children to school we will “willingly” move.’ This is how forced relocation can be presented as voluntary.