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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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Resistance to the Prawer Plan thus ultimately comes down to an issue of trust. It includes a section titled “The Time Gap Between Legislating and Planning” that acknowledges that there is a problem “in coordination between two timetables.” It says that the legislation determining the legality of Bedouin villages will be completed before “detailed” plans for future Bedouin settlements will be finalized. Thus the plan offers only best guesses for the fates of individual families, even as it sets out to resolve once and for all the final legal status of the unrecognized villages. Michal Rotem, a Jewish Israeli activist who works for the Negev Coexistence Forum, told me, “There is no map and we don’t know which villages will be demolished.” So, it’s not surprising that Bedouin who do not feel that they are being treated as full citizens of the Israeli state assume the worst.

The Bedouin concern that the plan is intended to Judaize the Negev has only been exacerbated by recent events. Haaretz recently reported that the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, an executive arm of the Israeli government, is preparing a plan to introduce 100,000 new settlements into the Galilee, where many of the roughly a third of the Bedouin who live in northern Israel reside. The explicit purpose of the plan is to “give expression to Israeli sovereignty through settlement activity” and achieve a “meaningful demographic balance.” This week, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said, “We are fighting over the national land of the Jewish people and there are those that intentionally try to steal that land and control it by force.” He then compared the current moment to the years leading up to Israel’s founding, when Jews established outposts throughout the Palestinian Mandate to claim land for the future Israeli state.

So, it’s hardly surprising that the Bedouin see the plans for relocation under the Prawer Plan through the prism of ethnic struggle—especially since the ties between Bedouins and Palestinians were never really cut. After the 1967 war, the Bedouin who found themselves living within the Green Line—like most of Israel’s Arabs—nevertheless maintained their relationships with relatives living in Gaza and the West Bank. As Thabet Abu, director of Adalah, Israel’s leading center for minority rights, put it, Israel’s Bedouin “got married to women from Gaza and West Bank, and reconnected with relatives under occupation.” Until the First Intifada, when borders between Israel and the occupied territories were closed, young Bedouin men would study in Gazan and West Bank universities, and Bedouin would tune in to PLA radio programs.

Huda Abu Obaid, a young Bedouin activist and law student, recently told me she identifies as Palestinian, as do most of her peers, despite her Israeli citizenship. When I asked her why, she told me, “Our story is the same. Today it’s much easier to read about your identity and to have relations with Palestinians, to make the connection between what happened before 1948 and after 1948 with all the issues that are happening now.” Her family owned land in the West Negev that was claimed by the state in 1952, and her family’s legal challenges have brought them nothing. For her the Prawer Plan represents the final severance of her family from their land. “Why does the state behave this way towards us?” Obaid asked. “Why does it send soldiers to force us to leave our land? What message is it sending its citizens?” She sees the conflict over the Negev as being fundamentally related to the conflict in the West Bank—the same old story of Jews and Palestinians competing for land. Even the props are the same. The Jews have their helicopters and their tear gas and their stun grenades. The Palestinians have their flags, burning tires, and stones—and as of last weekend, now the Bedouin do, too.

Yet, though it may not have seemed like it on Friday, there is reason to think the situation could still be resolved. Despite the heated rhetoric of politicians and activists on both sides, there is an opportunity for peace. What would it look like? The young activists I spoke to had ideas. Prominent among them was having the Israeli government make a good-faith effort toward consulting with Bedouin elders and youth leaders. Sana Ibn Bari, a young Bedouin woman active with the feminist organization, suggested that when the Israeli government had to demolish an unrecognized village it could offer the Bedouin family farmland elsewhere in the Negev so that it could continue to live an agricultural way of life, just this time backed by the resources of the state.

The Prawer Plan passed the Knesset by only a small margin, 43-40, and it could always be revisited. More protests are planned. There will be one today and another one next Thursday, and Michal Rotem, the Jewish Israeli activist, hopes that they, like those that came before the most recent one, will be nonviolent. Bimkom, an organization of Israeli planners, has drafted an alternative plan, which Adalah supports, that they think will accommodate the master plan for the Negev while preserving Bedouin land. Certainly, as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, the relationship between the Israeli state and Arabs within the state will be strained. But this represents a historic opportunity for Israel to prove that it is committed to the rights of its non-Jewish minority—and demonstrate to the world that you don’t have to be Jewish to prosper in the Jewish state.

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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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