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In Protests Against Prawer Plan, Signs of ‘Palestinization’ in Israel’s Bedouin Minority

Long seen as allies of the Jewish state, Bedouins may be embracing their neighbors’ identity—as a way of expressing their own

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Bedouin demonstrators stand next to placards erected during a protest against the Prawer Plan in the southern village of Hura on Nov. 30, 2013. The so-called Prawer-Begin Bill calls for the relocation of 30,000 to 40,000 Bedouin, the demolition of about 40 villages, and the confiscation of more than 700,000 dunums (70,000 hectares) of land in the Negev. (David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)
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Last week, activists in Israel declared a “Day of Rage” against the Prawer Plan, a government initiative that would relocate more than 30,000 Bedouin from the unrecognized villages where they live into urban zones. Protests were launched in the Negev near the village of Hura, near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, and in Jaffa, Haifa, and the West Bank. It was the third such protest against the Prawer Plan this year, and it was the first to receive significant international news coverage, largely because the protest in the Negev became violent, with protesters hurling stones and Israeli police responding with stun grenades and tear gas. More than two dozen people were arrested, and 15 police officers were injured in the clashes.

Like so many other issues in Israel, what on the surface seems like a straightforward matter of land zoning and redevelopment ultimately hinges on questions of identity. Palestinian flags were sighted at the rallies, prompting government representatives to decry the involvement of non-Bedouin agitators in a Bedouin protest. The government’s office of Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin cited “alien interests” behind the protest and warned that opposition to the Prawer Plan has become “falsely linked to the Palestinian issue,” and called upon the Bedouin to “take a stand for their own future and not let anyone else abuse and manipulate this process for alien causes.” Southern District Commander Yoram Halevy likened the conditions in Hurato an intifada, and said, “There is an attempt to start a war here but we won’t let it happen.”

The problem with the government’s response is that it seems to want to wish away the very real identification that many Bedouin have developed with the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian flags that have been flying consistently at Bedouin rallies are not examples of how Israel’s Palestinian minority has succeeded in hijacking the Bedouin issue; they are an example of how the younger generation of Bedouin, who are far more politicized than their parents and grandparents, have come to feel alienated by the state and increasingly find common cause with Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

For starters, many of them point out that the Prawer Plan isn’t really about the welfare of the Bedouin at all. Rather, it’s intended as a comprehensive solution to the problems that Bedouin villages pose for the development of the Negev: Currently, the Israeli government is in the process of implementing a master plan for metropolitan Beersheva—the center of the Bedouin economy—and anticipates “development momentum” in the northern Negev as it relocates IDF camps to the Beersheva region. Included in the government’s development plan is land on which Bedouin have built villages without authorization from the government—hence “unrecognized”—to house an estimated 70,000 to 90,000 people, a figure that represents more than a third of the total Bedouin population in the Negev. The Prawer Plan intends to develop the Negev by consolidating the Bedouin into settlements that do not interfere with the Beersheva master plan. While some still imagine the Bedouin as nomadic wanderers, Israel’s Bedouin have adopted sedentary lifestyles and live in their houses year-round—but because their homes are not sanctioned, they do not receive basic government services like electricity, running water, and guaranteed access to local schools.

The Israeli government periodically demolishes these villages to encourage residents to move to urban Bedouin townships and clear the land for development. But many Bedouin resist the move because of the high unemployment and crime rates in these new cities. The Prawer Plan’s supporters, who like its authors come from the center right of Israeli politics, argue that it promises to invest billions of shekels into Bedouin communities, primarily in the form of funding for education and employment—money intended to allow tens of thousands of Bedouin to “leap in time to the 21st century” and take full advantage of the opportunities afforded to citizens of the Israeli state.

But the law does not make clear which unrecognized villages will be destroyed and which will eventually be recognized, so the Bedouin have little sense of how it will actually affect their communities. The majority of Bedouin in unrecognized villages are farmers and herders and do not have the requisite skills to prosper as urbanites. Those I have spoken with are frustrated that the plan was drawn up without Bedouin consultation. They see the plan as an attempt to Judaize the Negev according to David Ben Gurion’s vision for the desert and view the development money as a sop to Bedouin communities to accept relocation without struggle. Sana Ibn Bari, a young Bedouin woman active with Itach Maaki, a legal-aid and feminist organization, told me, “The state claims the role of savior and wants to save us and bring us to the 21st century. But first policies have to change. The government has to stop viewing us as a hazard and an obstacle to progress.”

***

Tensions over Bedouin land can be traced back, like most controversies in contemporary Israel, to 1948. In the war that followed Israel’s establishment, the overwhelming majority of the 90,000 Bedouin living in Israel left, or fled, to Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. The roughly 11,000 who remained were moved to Siyag, a small area east of Highway 14, near Dimona and Beersheva. They lived under the authority of a military governor until 1966, when they, like the rest of Israel’s Arab minority, were emancipated and granted full citizenship. Bedouin then began processing claims for the land they had lived on prior to 1948 in large numbers.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government grouped Israel’s Arab citizens into three categories: Druze, a small religious minority; Bedouin, who were primarily herders and often seminomadic; and the blanket designation “Arab” for the Arabic-speaking, non-Jewish population that was neither Druze or Bedouin. Because the Druze are a religious minority that has faced prejudice from mainstream adherents of Islam, the Israeli government thought they would have the most to gain from integration and negotiated an agreement with Druze elders to make conscription into the IDF mandatory. For the Bedouin, conscription was not mandatory, but Bedouin were thought to be less connected to the rest of the Arab-speaking world, and thus more likely to identify with the Israeli state—and, indeed, many young Bedouin did wind up serving in the Israeli army, including elite units like the Palmach.

In the early 1970s Israeli courts decided that the vexing issue of Bedouin land claims would ultimately have to be solved by the Israeli Knesset. Since then, in lieu of a final status agreement, the government has tried to settle suits out of court, offering smaller chunks of land or, more usually, modest cash grants, in exchange for formal relinquishment of land claims. So far, as the text of the Prawer legislation acknowledges, not a single Bedouin has succeeded in winning land claimed by the state, though thousands have settled with the state and moved to one of the seven permanent Bedouin municipalities set up in the Negev. The Prawer Plan is intended as the belated final settlement for these decades-old legal battles and offers unspecified cash grants, new homes in primarily urban municipalities, and aid in return for Bedouin giving up their claims to the land they were forced to leave after 1948.

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In Protests Against Prawer Plan, Signs of ‘Palestinization’ in Israel’s Bedouin Minority

Long seen as allies of the Jewish state, Bedouins may be embracing their neighbors’ identity—as a way of expressing their own