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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

Jon Emont
December 05, 2013
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)
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)

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.

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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Jon Emont is a journalist based in Southeast Asia. His writing appears in Tablet, The New York Times, New Yorker, Slate, New Republic, and other publications. His Twitter feed is @jonathanemont.

Jon Emont is a journalist based in Southeast Asia. His writing appears in Tablet, The New York Times, New Yorker, Slate, New Republic, and other publications. His Twitter feed is @jonathanemont.

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