The forgotten plight of the Bedouin in Israel

As the media focus on the release of the alleged Israeli-US spy Ilan Grapel, Israel's treatment of t

Israel's discriminatory policies based on race and religious affiliation are well documented. In 2008, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, then president of the UN general assembly, said that the state's actions on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip resembled "the apartheid of an earlier era". Aware that he was risking censure, he added: "We must not be afraid to call something what it is." Others, from the South African international law scholar John Dugard to Desmond Tutu, have echoed his sentiment.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's unease at the prospect of "different elements . . . demand[ing] national rights" within the country was made explicit in a government meeting regarding amendments to citizenship laws on 25 July 2010. His solution seems to have been to attempt to ensure "a Jewish majority" in all regions possible -- forcefully, if need be, and regardless of the protections supposedly guaranteed by the state to its people.

Two days after the meeting, Israeli security forces stormed the Bedouin village of al-Araqib in the southern desert of Negev, under cover of night, destroying all the houses and animal pens built there. The demolition of these homes displaced more than 300 people, half of whom were children under the age of 16. Since then, the villagers, who claim to possess deeds to the land proving ownership since 1906, have rebuilt their community at least 17 times; and the Israeli army, working in all but name for the controversial Jewish National Fund, has responded repeatedly with demolition. The plight of the families of al-Araqib is far from unique.

The Bedouin have lived in the Negev for thousands of years. They are its oldest inhabitants. Though some 90 per cent of Palestinians were deported from the region during the mass expulsions of 1948 -- Israel claimed falsely at the time that it was unoccupied -- approximately 200,000 Bedouin still live there today. Few of their villages are recognised by the state, which consistently ignores Arthur James Balfour's promise in 1917 to enshrine "the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" -- a promise that helped pave the way for the foundation of the Israeli state.

Citing the unofficial status of most Bedouin villages, the government refuses to connect them to basic infrastructure, such as water, electricity and sewage treatment. It is instructive to contrast this with Israel's willingness to supply such essentials to settlers' farms that lack proper planning permits. The High Steering Committee of the Arabs of the Negev views the state's current strategy of relocating 30,000 Bedouin against their will to approved townships as a form of ethnic cleansing; trees have been prioritised over the land's historical owners as its rightful occupants, as a part of some Israeli extremists' bid to rebrand themselves as "green Zionists".

The casually racist treatment of the Bedouin as a people undeserving of basic human rights should not be forgotten in the excitement surrounding Egypt's exchange of the alleged Israeli-US spy Ilan Grapel for 25 Bedouins imprisoned by Israel. These prisoners, of Egyptian origin, are believed to be smugglers, asylum-seekers and those who entered Israel looking for work. Three of them are children, who reportedly crossed the border merely to sell cigarettes. Little more is known about them and, as in the coverage of Gilad Shalit's release, the focus of the media seems squarely on the Israeli captive. Netanyahu's government denies the charges facing Grapel and has accused Egypt of "bizarre behaviour". Equally bizarre, if not more so, is Israel's own careless attitude to the Middle East's "different elements".

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.