First published by Ynet, January 2008, under the title: Israel's Quiet War
While Ehud Olmert and Abu Mazen were wheeling and dealing at Annapolis, several Israeli government ministries and security agencies were deploying their combined resources in a massive operation aimed at Israel’s southern Negev Desert. While the eyes of the world are on the West Bank and Gaza, Israel is in the middle of a campaign to complete the displacement of Palestinian Arabs who also are Israeli citizens.
The indigenous Bedouin are the target, and their lands are required by the state in order to complete the implementation a master plan for the Negev. The plan relegates the Bedouin to ghetto enclaves while allocating huge swathes of territory for Jewish suburban development and agricultural communities. The Negev is the final frontier inside Israel, the last tract of largely undeveloped land in the state. Israel has virtually completed the dismemberment of Palestinian lands in the center and north of the country, and now is consolidating the ‘Jewish redemption’ of the southern desert.
These Bedouin lands are coveted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) which has published plans to move large numbers of Jews to the Negev. To make way for new JNF communities, the ‘unrecognized’ villages of A-Tir, Um Al-Hiran, and Twail Abu Jarwal were destroyed during 2007 in military-style operations involving large forces of police and soldiers, displacing hundreds of families. The Interior ministry has also sent airborne crop dusters to poison the Bedouin fields with broad-spectrum herbicides. The feared Green Patrol, a paramilitary unit of the Ministry of Agriculture, conducts these operations.
There are over 150,000 Bedouin in the Negev desert, with well-established territorial rights dating back to the Ottoman Era. However immediately after the founding of the state in 1948, the government began to confiscate land and move the Bedouin to ever decreasing areas, while allocating state resources for the development of new Jewish-only towns and agricultural settlements. Although the Bedouin were eventually granted citizenship of Israel, they were under military rule until 1966. Through legislation and various legal mechanisms the state has decreed the Bedouin to be squatters on their own land and thus the courts support the demolition of homes and expulsion of the inhabitants. The JNF, through its ‘Blueprint Negev’ plan, intends to create 25 new towns in the Negev over the coming years, bringing 250,000 new Jewish residents to the region according to its web site. The JNF is also planting forests on Bedouin land, such as the Ambassador Forest on the lands of the Elokbi Tribe north of Be’er Sheva.
Such measures would never be taken against Jewish citizens of Israel, who enjoy the right to live almost anywhere in the country in relative luxury, while the Bedouin are relegated to a pitiful remnant of their patrimony. This institutional racism, supported by the JNF, belies the so-called democracy in Israel and is supported by tax-deductible donations from the USA. Perhaps the Annapolis conference might also have considered the plight of the Bedouin citizens of Israel at a time when they are under siege as acute as the situation of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The parallels between them are self-evident. Jewish settlements in the West Bank have almost foreclosed the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian State. Israel continues to consolidate its grip though settlement expansion, land confiscations, ‘Jewish-only’ roads, the construction of the Separation Barrier, and the denial of equal access to water for Palestinians. Is it so different in the Negev? Bedouin in ‘unrecognized’ villages receive no government services, are subject to a separate body of law and regulation, have their land confiscated for Jewish settlement, and are generally relegated to the margins of existence.
The Bedouin have a long and proud tradition as a people. During the first decades of the state, they gave allegiance to Israel, sent their sons to the army and expected the respect they deserve. They received none. Instead the state as continued its mission to serve only the interests of Jewish citizens, and as a result few Bedouin serve in the IDF today. The cost might be high. Bedouin leaders have warned that the anger simmering under the surface may erupt, and Israel may face a Bedouin uprising, an Intifada within the state that could destroy what little is left of Jewish democracy. Perhaps it’s time for the State of Israel to become a democracy for the benefit of all its citizens, before it’s too late.
Fred Schlomka is the Administrator of Green Olive Tours and a member of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). He is a 2003 Fellow of the Echoing Green Foundation in recognition of his work in developing equitable and just relationships between Arabs and Jews in Israel.
To learn more about the plight of the Bedouin consider taking the Bedouin Reality Tour.