Israel’s Bedouin Losing Ground

JERUSALEM – Going south deep into the heart of Israel’s Negev desert, small Bedouin villages sprout in the distance. They seem peaceful and majestic in the desert heat, cut into the landscape dotted with shacks for living quarters and tents constructed with burlap and wooden sticks not far from the 52 active military zones in the Negev.

The old men among the Bedouin, an indigenous group of people of Arab origin, sit stone-faced, drinking Arabic coffee. The women are nowhere to be seen.

The Bedouin village of Wadi al-Na’am sits under the shadow of a chemical industrial zone. Following the dusty road off the highway, it emerges from the left, dark and oppressive, an architectural catastrophe.

About 4,000 people live in the vicinity of Ramat Hovav, Israel’s toxic waste dump – one of 17 chemical plants in the area. Opened in 1975, it has left a trail of wreckage adding to the dire situation: high infant mortality rates, cancer and numerous other health effects from the effluent. Electricity lines run past the village yards away but connecting nobody to the grid.

Orly Almi, project coordinator for the Unrecognized Negev Villages for Physicians for Human Rights reports a high proportion of abortions, heart disease at a young age, high levels of cancer and high rates of congenital defects. Added to this, the government’s own epidemiological survey released after years of pressure shows that there is a high rate of birth defects and subnatal births amongst the Bedouin population.

The Ministry of Health, unwilling to expose their doctors to the health hazards from the plant, does not provide health services in the village. Others disagree with that assessment and claim that the Bedouin Authority is using the denial of health services to push the villagers to move to Segev Shalom, a nearby settlement.

Many now say that exhausting all the legal options will not bring back the dead or alleviate the suffering.

This battle over land, power, government resources, culture and history is being fought through planning authorities, government ministries, the court rooms, the community leadership, security forces and at the political level.

The unrecognized villages do not appear on the official maps of the state of Israel and are not included in the figures for the central bureau of statistics. Since the villages are not recognized, there is no legal responsibility to provide even basic services. The lands are classified as agricultural, rendering all buildings erected as illegal.

These land disputes originated in the forties and fifties. With the establishment of Israel in 1948 came a new regime and new priorities over land use. And everyone has a different interpretation of what happened.

Here in the desert, the Bedouin talk about time in generations and their connection to the land. They have grown old on different mythologies; their narratives are still being shaped. The world is moving faster than they have the capacity to respond.

They suffer from the same discrimination as the other Arabs in Israel, but their issues are more acute, more immediate and will certainly require international attention. The are doing what they can to maintain what they have despite the numerous pressures within the culture and the influences from outside.

Judging by the treadmill of bureaucrats, non-governmental organizations, members of the Knesset and international journalists making the rounds, there could be something like a genuine Bedouin revival happening, one which is being characterized in the context of indigenous rights, access to basic services like water, electricity, housing, health care, proper sewage facilities, refuse disposal, education, and recognition of cultural rights.

Some believe these are the symptoms of tensions about to burst.

For everyone who says that the situation is headed in a better direction, there are others who are predicting a coming Bedouin Intifada, as Israel’s liberal Ha’aretz newspaper characterized it recently.

Asked if this is possible, Muhammad Zeidan, head of the Arab Human Rights Association said, “The Bedouin are peaceful, but they are human beings. I don’t think they have a choice, they are being pushed to do this.”

What adds to the complication is the Sharon government’s plan for the Gaza withdrawal, a plan that if implemented will surely mean new settlements in the Negev adding to development pressures in the region.

Some of the Bedouin community are opposing these moves outright as this will inevitably mean encroachment on their traditional lands. Many are asking how the government can take away their land, deny water, electricity, education and health care and continue to poison their lands with chemicals.

The 1981 Removal of Intruders Law detailed the legal process for the removal of the inhabitants of “illegal” homes in Israel. The proposed amendment to this law will consolidate the body that issues demolition orders and the body that implements them, a process which will target the existing 45 unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, and streamline efforts to build Jewish settlements in their place.

Many legal experts claim that the Removal of Intruders Law could affect 70,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel who continue to live with substandard services from government. The remaining Bedouin live in seven state established towns which were given recognition.

“We want the government of Israel stop this hypocritical and outrageous policy of the systematic removal of the Bedouin community from their traditional lands while they aid in the construction of new Jewish settlements in the Negev,” says Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center, one of the 29 organizations that form the Together Forum which supports Bedouin rights.

“We call on the international community and the Jewish leadership to express their outrage to Israel,” Farah added. Farah has already raised the issue with the U.S. government.

Under Sharon’s Negev Development Plan, the government intends to turn the six largest unrecognized villages into official recognized towns to place all the remaining Bedouin. This is unacceptable to the Bedouin since in their view it does not give full consideration to their historical claims to the land.

There is even talk of constructing a hippodrome here following the removal of the Bedouin; some are already joking that the characters at the horse racing track will have more rights than the Bedouin.

“Our true identity is the land,” says Abu Afash Labad, one of the village council members addressing a group. He says he is not relying on his citizenship to gain his rights because the state does not treat him as a citizen.

Labad says the state is using the denial of basic services as an instrument of power to evacuate the Bedouin from their lands. Just last month 23 people of the Abu Elkian tribe, including a 90-year-old, were injured when security forces arrived to demolish seven homes.

According to Ariel Dloomy of the Negev Coexistence Forum, he has the right as a Jewish citizen to live wherever he wants. But Bedouin citizens do not have a choice: they can either stay illegally where they are or move to settlement towns that have among the lowest socio-economic indicators of any village in Israel.

The Negev Coexistence Forum was initiated by Jewish and Bedouin citizens to promote issues of coexistence and mutual understanding and to raise Bedouin issues to the Jewish population. “We are calling on the government to start negotiating with the Bedouin and to treat them as equal citizens, not second class citizens,” says Dloomy.