Last Monday, the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab citizens in Israel called Palestinians from the Arab sector of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to hold a general strike and demonstrations in an act of solidarity against what could be the largest mass eviction of Palestinian citizens of Israel in over 60 years.
Despite the clouds of tear gas and the stench of skunk water, despite injuries and arrests, and despite the outrage of the international community, throughout the day thousands of protesters continued to voice their anger at the probable fate of the Bedouin population.
The Israeli government is not listening.
The Prawer Plan calls for the expulsion of between 40,000 and 70,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel from 35 unrecognized villages, forcibly removing them from their ancestral homes, and depriving them of the right to retain any claim to their land. Implementation of the Plan will result in the destruction of the villages and confiscation of 210,040 acres.
The Negev makes up 60 per cent of Israel’s total land space. Eight per cent of Israel’s population resides there, and a third of the residents are from the Bedouin community.
Currently, the Bedouin population in the Negev numbers approximately 210,000. Just over half of them live in seven government-built Bedouin-only towns; the remaining 90,000 live in 46 villages – 35 of which are unrecognized and 11 of which were officially recognized 10 years ago, but still do not have any form of infrastructure.
In 2011, the Prawer Plan, named after Ehud Prawer, former Head of Department for Policy Planning, was first approved by the Israeli government. And just four weeks ago, in a 43-for and 40-against vote, the Plan passed its first reading in the Knesset (parliament). It will now go to the Committee of Interior and Environment for a second and third reading.
By the end of July 2013, prior to the closing of the current Knesset session, the Prawer Plan might be approved and enacted.
The passing of the Prawer Plan will lead to what the European Co-ordination Committee for Palestine (ECCP) believes is the government’s objective: ‘To encourage Jews to move south, especially to agricultural settlements, all the while aiming to destroy Arab villages that in some cases predate the creation of the state [while] planning 10 new settlements for Jews in the Negev in an attempt to Judaize the Negev.’
For centuries, the Bedouin community has been an integral part of the Negev Desert in historic Palestine. Prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948, 92,000 Bedouins lived on 99 per cent of the Negev land. But with its establishment, thousands were expelled or fled to neighbouring countries.
In 1950, the Israeli military government relocated the remaining 11,000 Bedouins to a restricted area called the Siyag (enclosure/fence). They not only lost rich agricultural land, but their traditional way of life was affected.
The Prawer Plan calls for the expulsion of between 40,000 and 70,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel from 35 unrecognized villages, depriving them of the right to retain any claim to their land
Even though Bedouin villages existed prior to Israel’s establishment or were built due to government military orders, the government regards the Bedouin people as squatters, trespassers and invaders of State land. Their villages were ultimately declared illegal and have thus remained unrecognized over the years.
These unrecognized villages are devoid of any form of infrastructure or municipal services. They are not hooked up to the water, sewer and electricity systems, nor do they have educational or health services, or even roads. The few elementary schools are overcrowded and unequipped, and there are no high schools.
In 1969, Tel Sheva, the first government-built town, was established. Although a large number of Bedouins were once again relocated, some went willingly, giving up the right to their lands.
The seven Bedouin towns, with a population of 120,000, are the most impoverished in Israel. Sixty-seven per cent of the families of these overcrowded towns live in poverty. They suffer from high drop-out rates from school (70 per cent in the unrecognized villages), high unemployment, high birth rates and high infant mortality rates, and high crime.
But all this must be put into context of the conditions under which they live. For 64 years the Bedouins’ lives have been defined by dispossession of land, home demolitions, displacement, and relocation.
Demolition of Bedouin homes in the Negev is a common occurrence. In 2011, approximately 1,000 homes and animal pens were demolished.
The ECCP stated: ‘Making more of the Bedouin population move into impoverished urban slums against their will where there are few economic opportunities will further entrench cycles of poverty.’
An alternative plan
Members of the Bedouin community were not consulted when the Prawer Plan was written, nor was what is best for them according to their traditional lifestyle taken into consideration.
Dr Thabet Abu Rass, the Director of Adalah (the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) Negev office, said, ‘The Bedouin are rejecting the plan and prefer to maintain and preserve their traditional way of life.’
The ECCP agrees: ‘The plan disregards Bedouin property rights and fails to recognize Bedouin land ownership and violates residents’ rights to due process and rights to appeal against eviction and demolition orders.’
And to add insult to injury, compensation is based on certain conditions. According to Adalah, ‘essentially, only those Bedouin whose villages were in the Siyag prior to the establishment of Israel and who still currently use their lands are eligible for partial compensation in the form of land. The internally displaced population, however, who claim land outside of the Siyag, can only receive monetary compensation.’ Furthermore, states Adalah, ‘compensation will amount to a maximum of 50 per cent of the land claimed, though reasonable estimates reveal that the Bedouin will receive only about 16 per cent.’
The Bedouin community have found their voices through the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages and Bikom – Planners for Planning Rights, who have joined them in their fight against the Prawer Plan.
In 2011, they created an alternative plan based on the existing villages remaining on their land, which, according to their joint statement, ‘would provide a basis for a viable development of the region, as a whole, while maintaining the principles of equality, recognition and justice.’
The alternative plan sets ‘protecting human rights, civil and gender equality, and distributive justice and affirmative action as the guiding principles for the planning of the Bedouin settlements.’
Other points concentrate on recognition of the villages in their current locations; involvement of the communities in determining their future and shaping their living space; consideration of the traditional Bedouin land system; maintenance of the Bedouin lifestyle, landscape and cultural heritage; creation of conditions to improve economic development and reduce economic gaps in the area; and protection of open areas and natural resources.
‘The Israeli government is moving in the dangerous direction of becoming an apartheid regime with a new way of dealing with Palestinian citizens of Israel,’ believes Abu Rass. ‘This is the first time since 1948 that certain areas are closed for Arab citizens. This is the first time since 1948 that Arab towns are being demolished and Jewish towns are being built on their ruins.’
He believes that the lands of the Negev are large enough to accommodate all government projects without destroying the Bedouin villages: ‘The criteria for creating a settlement is that it have a population of 40 people. The Negev’s Bedouins in the unrecognized villages amount to thousands of people, and they are asking for only five and one-half per cent of the land.’
The 35 unrecognized villages are not on any official map of Israel, creating a surreal lack of existence of the residents. If demolished, they will be just a memory of destroyed lives of people who refuse to remain invisible.