The Israeli government plans to clear hundreds of Bedouin villages in the Negev desert, to make way for new settlements and industry. The area is home to over 30,000 Bedouin, who have lived here since before the foundation of the state of Israel. But the government calls them ‘squatters’, and plans to relocate families over the next six years to purpose-built townships. These indigenous communities have access to just three per cent of the land, despite representing a quarter of the Negev population. Around half the population lives in 46 villages, which Israel has dubbed illegal. The unauthorized villages have no running water or electricity, making them unbearable in the arid desert. Many children have no schooling, and access to healthcare is sporadic.
Villages are being demolished without reprieve. Israel issued 1,000 demolition orders between 2004 and 2006, despite the fact that the Bedouin should be offered protection under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Bulldozers have destroyed one village, al-Araqib, more than 20 times. ‘One way Israel gets away with the demolitions is by classifying the Bedouin homes as garbage,’ says Jeff Halper, co-founder of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions. He describes the eradication of these villages as ‘cultural warfare’.
While the Bedouin are denied permits to build homes or shelters, the government has granted planning permission for the construction of vast Israeli settlements, a nuclear reactor, a toxic-waste incinerator, 22 agro- and petrochemical factories, an oil terminal and a prison. Mansour Nsasra, who was born in one of the unrecognized villages and now lectures at Exeter University, says generations have repeatedly seen their cultural and territorial integrity compromised: ‘The policy is to destroy the indigenous way of life by forcing them to live in urban areas. Even the children know that they have land elsewhere: they are taken to gaze at it on public holidays.’
The assault on the Bedouin way of life is not confined to the Negev. The policy of forced migration affects Bedouin tribes living across Israel and the West Bank. Israel has recently issued eviction orders to some 2,300 Bedouin from the Jahalin ethnic group in the hills east of Jerusalem – where they settled after being driven from the Negev in the 1950s.
Now they face displacement to the impoverished township of al- Azariya, which lies just 300 metres from Jerusalem’s municipal rubbish dump and has the highest crime and unemployment rates in Israel. A 2004 study by Ben Gurion University reported alarming rates of cancer, birth defects and respiratory disease among those living around the dump.
The relocation of the Jahalin Bedouin would constitute a grave breach of international law, which strictly prohibits the forced transfer of members of an occupied population.
But Jeff Halper says there is no legal remedy. ‘There is nothing they can argue in the courts that hasn’t already been struck down. There is nowhere left for the Bedouin to go now – except, of course, to the court of public opinion.’