We are back on the highway with Thabet from Adalah and I am puzzled why Israeli authorities are putting so much energy into displacing the Bedouins. He explains that the Naqab (Negev) is half of Mandatory Palestine, 60% of Israeli territory and contains 8% of the total Israeli population. Currently 1/3 of the population of the Naqab is on 2% of the land and if all the Bedouin land claims were honored, that amount would be approximately 3.5% of the Naqab which is really not a big deal. What this means is that land is a matter of identity, (the same love and passion for land is expressed in Hebrew as in Arabic songs), as well as colonization. I note that the Ottomans and the British accepted the Bedouin, but Israeli policy involves the claiming of land for Jews and the de-Arabization of that land.
In 1948 some Bedouins were evicted from the Naqab and in the 1950s the state gathered the Bedouin into the “Sayig,” a designated area which was declared a closed military zone, and then the Israeli State declared much of the area as agricultural which meant they were not allowed to do any construction. In the 1960s, the state become more aggressive and gathered Bedouin into a number of townships, punishing those who refused by declaring their homes as unrecognized villages. It should be remembered that the city of Be’er Sheva was founded in 1900 with the purchase of 200 dunans (approximately 50 acres) from the Hazazin tribe.
We are about to visit Wadi Aliam, the largest unrecognized village in Israel, some 10-15,000, all under threat of displacement. The Israeli authorities have announced the closure of the schools starting August 23rd, transferring the children to pressure their parents to move. The students are on a general strike. We are meeting with the traditional leader of the local committee which is the political organization of unrecognized villages.
Such villages are not on any maps, some existed before 1948, some are the results of previous dispossessions and now they are under threat again. Thabet explains that since 1948, Israeli policy has included:
1. Concentrating Bedouins into small reservation areas and restricting their movement, think Native Americans
2. Urbanizing the Bedouin in the name of modernization without any respect for their identity and culture and destroying a traditional way of living
3. Finalizing land claims. Of the 90,000 pre-1948 Bedouins, 10,000 remained after the war and the population has grown to 200,000 people who claim 3.5% of the Naqab. Since the 1948 dispossessions and transfer to the different reservations, the Israelis have created seven planned towns for those who lost land or live in unrecognized villages; this will involve the destruction of 20-25 villages, uprooting 35-75,000 people, and the loss of land claims. The Bedouin look at these townships as refugee camps and strongly prefer agricultural villages with livestock and herds.
He notes sadly that the Bedouin are not being given any options, while Jewish Israelis are welcome to live in cities, towns, kibbutzim, moshavs, or individual farms and get full support. Some Jews from Tel Aviv are attracted to the rustic rural life and are setting up individual farms in the Naqab with full governmental services provided.
As we drive down Route 40, a modern highway, on our left are clusters of shanty towns and on our right is sandy, rocky, uninhabited desert. We are 30 kilometers from Gaza and that side of the road has been totally “cleansed” of Bedouin towns and is now a firing area for the military. I see a sign that says: “Beware of camels near the road.”
Tahbet explains that villages are made up of a tribe with clusters of clans subdivided into families. The Bedouin want to keep these relationships intact and will never violate tribal law, even if it conflicts with Israeli law. I am horrified to learn that many of the unrecognized villages are located adjacent to the most poisonous chemical/industrial parks in Israel. We turn onto a rocky, bumpy pot holed (I can’t really call it a road) path towards Wadi Aliam which is built adjacent to a gigantic electrical plant. Massive high voltage electric towers and wires crisscross over and in between patches of houses as far as we can see. (Isn’t that supposed to be a major health hazard?) Again the painful irony is that none of these houses are actually connected to the electrical grid. There is a certain cruelty to this whole mess.
We learn that the 50 year old tribal leader we are meeting, Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Hafash, like many Bedouin, used to serve in the IDF under the belief that serving his country would result in a better future, (just look at the benefits for Jewish soldiers) but post army Bedouins returned to their poverty and villages without water and electricity and nothing changed. This man was wounded in the service of his country and is now one of the leaders of the Islamic movement of the Naqab. (Connections anyone?)
We are soon seated in a square of long red rugs and pillows on the ground in a large tent on hard packed dirt, with the same arrangement of plastic sheeting supported by wooden planks, the cooking pit, but also a sink and what appears to be a gas burner in the back. A refreshing breeze cools us a bit and the meeting with the Sheikh begins with the rituals of coffee and tea. His face is sun brown, he is wearing a long grey robe, and tells us the village includes 50,000 dunams and 20,000 people and the state provides no services except a school which is under threat. In 1953, Bedouin in the surrounding areas were gathered up and put in an area called The Fence where they stayed from 1953 to 1988 without interference. Then the Israeli Land Authority announced that the Bedouin were illegally occupying the land where they had been transferred by the government. This was followed by a long and tortured court fight, deceptive legal maneuvers, multiple judicial decisions which ended with the decision in 2002 that the Bedouin could stay until a new agreement was reached. The government has shown no interest in agreements and lots of interest in removing them. He says that a few days ago, a few Jews came and asked the Bedouin, “to be loyal.” He replied, “We are as loyal as we are treated. The state treats us as a knife in the back, so how do they expect to be treated?” He states that the Israeli media also joins in the lies and distortions.
Much of the battles are around water for which the Bedouin pay the highest amount and then are responsible for building the infrastructure to carry that water. International solidarity groups have helped install solar panels, so they are generating their own clean electricity. In addition, the IDF has designated their land for training, a military area with no shooting. He claims that the Israelis want Bedouin in the IDF so they can be the human shields in the front lines, but now less that 1% serve and they are looked down upon by their communities.
Suddenly, it is time for the Muslim prayers and the Sheikh leaves us. Four Muslim women in our group ask if they can go to the mosque and the answer comes back in the negative, this culture is not known for its progressive approach to women. Shortly thereafter, our Muslim sisters are praying at the back of the tent. Thabet explains that Bedouin society is very traditional and patriarchal; women are totally separate from men but derive their influence through their relationship with their husbands. The community can meet at the communal tent where we are sitting, but not in people’s homes. One third of Bedouin are polygamous with up to four wives, each with a separate household, and the number of wives is a mark of prestige. There are usually 10 to 15 children per family, (each a blessing), but families up to 40 are not unheard of. Nonetheless, society is changing and the majority of Bedouin in the universities are female. The women have associations involved with weaving, embroidery, and other traditional crafts. In Be’er Sheba, all the demonstrations are led by women. Israeli policy has forced women into the streets. As we leave the tent, he points out a huge gas storage facility in the middle of the town, again another major health hazard.
We are back in the van and I am marveling how people can survive under such harsh conditions, what kind of toughness emerges living in the desert, what will happen as they struggle to survive in such a racist and unsympathetic country. As Thabet continues the discussion, some pertinent pieces of information strike me:
There is already a bill in the Knesset to make the road we are on a military road and this will effectively criminalize all the Bedouins who refuse to leave; they are known for their resilience and stubbornness. Every Sunday, the Sheikh, his wives and many children demonstrate in Be’er Sheba reminding people they are here to stay.
In the town of Alssir, part of the southern district of Be’er Sheba, the Bedouin inhabitants have already been displaced a number of times, many have served in the IDF and although they are technically part of Be’er Sheba, they receive no services and live under the dangerous high voltage wires.
When rockets from Gaza were landing in this area, which has no shelters, the Sheikh laughed and said, “He’s asking about rockets? I am looking for water. I was a soldier in the Israeli army, I served my country.” When it is time for Allah to take him, he is ready.
When reviewing the volume of health risks to this society, let’s not forget the Dimona nuclear reactor which is 30 miles away. Thabet remembers a time when they were told the reactors were “textile factories,” but no one was allowed to investigate due to massive security.
Adalah takes many petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court and often wins, but implementation is always a problem. It took the state six years to build a Bedouin school which consisted of a row of caravans. He predicts that in five years all these villages will be cleared and Jewish towns will be built as part of “developing the Negev,” but there is obviously enough room for everyone, this is the same process going on in the West Bank in Area C. These areas are the ancestral lands and villages of the Dirat tribe that existed long before 1948. Bedouin are people of the desert, they have had their own villages for 300 years, they wander with their herds, but then return to their homes. Maps from 1945 show fertile cultivated Bedouin villages. Now not only are they being asked to prove their ownership, but if they do, they are offered 17% of that land. The Bedouin are not interested in compromise.
We stop and drive up a small hill that in another perverse irony has several huge water storage tanks that do not feed the surrounding villages of course. Sand storms dance across the vista below. In the distance we see another important piece of this puzzle, the Nevatim military air base that has plans for expansion. The location of this area is critical to prevent any demographic contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank. (Take a big “Ah ha” moment).
Shortly thereafter, the only Bedouin MK in the Israeli Knesset, a lawyer and former mayor active in the Islamic movement, Ibu Arar, pulls up in his car wearing western dress, short hair and a beard, neatly pressed shirt. Standing in the wind with the highway below and the water tanks above, more sand storms, like mini tornados, dance across the clusters of villages. He talks about all the expected issues regarding the racism in Israeli society, the treatment of Bedouin, the discriminatory laws in the Knesset, and notes ironically that the state is spending twice as much money to expel the Bedouin as it would to recognize them. He asks, “If Israel can’t make peace with its own citizens, how can it make peace with Palestinians outside?” His family was displaced in the 1980s to build the military airport, the villagers were promised 10,000 dunams to move and they received 7,000. His allies in the Knesset include Meretz, a few MKs from Labor and the Arab parties, 20 out of 120 parliament members. His is a lonely battle.
We pass the town of Nevatim, population 2,500, a (segregated I might add) Jewish settlement from India. Thabet gets agitated when he points out there are three signs along the road to a small Jewish cemetery and not one sign to any of the many villages for the living. He talks about the politics of fear, fear of the other, of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Abu Mazin, there is always a new target. “Fear is the centripetal force that binds Jews together.”
Thabet reminds us that the Bedouin are stubborn and strong and will continue to fight. He states the Arabs are part of the Israeli landscape and have learned to, “Play the game.” They are very encouraged by solidarity groups and they are also not split by borders. For instance, half his family lives in the Jabalya Refugee Camp in Gaza. He has an 85 year old aunt and he has not seen her in 15 years. He was once arrested for sending her 200 shekels a month, “supporting the enemy.” His family are refugees from Ashkelon. I am so inspired by his final insights: “We perceive the homeland as one place and we are willing to share. I am a minority in terms of numbers, but I have a majority mentality, all Palestinians, all Arabs. But the Jewish majority has a minority, siege mentality. They can militarily win, but they still have no sense of security.” The new post-Nakba generation is not afraid; they have nothing left to lose.