At last, the order has been given: the illegal settlements must come down. In just a few months time, Israel\’s mighty army will be deployed against its own citizens: olive-clad soldiers in full combat gear dragging weeping mothers and children away from their homes, before reducing them to rubble. At long last, the land will revert to its rightful owners.
However, the illegal settlements in question aren\’t the Jewish colonies scarring the occupied West Bank, condemned by the world for making a Palestinian state all but unachievable. Furthermore, the land\’s self-proclaimed owners have no apparent use for it, nor have they ever even lived on it.
The West Bank settlements have seemingly become as permanent as the biblical hills on which they stand. Meanwhile the towns slated for destruction are the dust-caked encampments of the Negev desert in the south of Israel, home to some 90,000 Bedouin Arabs. Their forced removal amounts to an act of state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. As the crime is planned and executed, the international community looks the other way.
Traditionally a nomadic tribes people, the Bedouin eke out a living from livestock and whatever food they can coax out of the desert sands. Though they have survived uninterrupted in this hostile climate for at least 4000 years, a government report approved by the Israeli cabinet last month looks set to forever bring an end to this ancient way of life.
Seemingly impervious to Israel\’s westernised, high-tech economy, the Bedouin have been viewed by successive administrations as a nuisance, an embarrassment or a security threat – suffering neglect or harassment according to the prevailing whim. Just a short drive from the city of Beersheba, with its shopping malls and high-rise apartments, they have settled, in modern times, in forty-five makeshift villages of cinder block, wood and corrugated tin.
A minority within Israel’s Arab minority, the Bedouin are the most marginalised and under-represented group in Israeli society. Unconscious of modern state bureaucracies, few ever claimed formal ownership of their ancestral lands under the Ottomans or the British. This provided the young state of Israel, eyeing the Negev for Jewish development, with a pretext to confiscate the land and corral the natives into the desert\’s least fertile corner. Ever since then, the authorities have been engaged in a battle with the Bedouin to evict them from even that small fraction of wilderness.
The unrecognised, \’illegal\’ status of the forty-five towns means they inhabit an administrative twilight zone in which, as far as the state is concerned, they do not technically exist. As a result they live under constant threat of demolition, receive no electricity, water, sewage or other services, and have no real local government. Search for the settlements on official maps and you will find only desert, even though many of them pre-date the state of Israel itself.
Since the 1970s the government has attempted to solve the Bedouin \’problem\’ by inducing them to give up their claim to the land in return for housing in a number of purpose-built towns. But though around half accepted the offer at first, many later chose to return to the desert, finding their new homes no more than cramped, unsanitary ghettos with few jobs or services.
Those who remained have shown remarkable resilience in the face of the state\’s attempt to remove all trace of them.
In a well-publicised case, the village of Al-Araqeeb has, by some counts, been demolished nearly thirty times over the last decade, only for occupants to rebuild it each time. Residents joined forces to create the ‘Council of Unrecognised Villages’, aimed at protecting their homes and pushing for legal recognition.
Two government commissions in recent years have illustrated the intractable contradiction in Israel\’s self-definition as both Jewish and democratic. Advocacy groups welcomed the 2008 Goldberg Report for its acknowledgement of Bedouin suffering and proposing the recognition of most of the villages: the democratic state in action. Then the so-called ‘ethnocratic’ side of the state reared its head: the Netanyahu government appointed the Prawer committee to implement Goldberg\’s recommendations, but when it submitted its report to the cabinet this month, advocates of the Bedouin were aghast.
Goldberg\’s recommendations were almost entirely overturned, and the Prawer committee recommended a programme of demolitions that would make some 30,000-40,000 Bedouin homeless. It hardly takes a conspiracy theorist to imagine that the rest of the Bedouin will be made homeless sooner or later.
At a time when hundreds of thousands of Israelis are protesting the unaffordable cost of housing, the logic of spending an estimated 6.8 billion shekels (£1.1 billion) to make a large number of people homeless seems more than a little perverse. The government claims that delivering services to such sparsely populated and remote settlements is environmentally wasteful but while the bulldozers are destroying Al-Araqeeb, houses are springing up in the nearby settlement of Haruv – with full access to municipal government and amenities. No prizes for guessing the crucial difference between them: Haruv is Jewish; Al-Araqeeb is Arab.
It is hardly surprising, in view of Israel\’s inhumane disregard for the rights of the Bedouin, that some observers have concluded that their policies are motivated by nothing but malice. In reality ministers fear that a region dominated by Arabs may one day demand self-rule, forming a state-within-a-state and destroying Israel\’s unitary Jewish nature. Its solution has barely changed since the days of the pre-state ‘Yishuv’ (the Jewish community in Palestine): to acquire, by fair means or foul, as much Arab land as possible. It is a strategy that has proved enormously successful: Arab land ownership has fallen from 98 per cent in 1947 to just 2.5 per cent today. Former Israeli foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami said in 2001: \’we have created a state, yet we still continue to behave as if we are a Yishuv.\’ It\’s about time Israel decided whether it wants to be a Yishuv or a state.
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This post was written by Matt Hill