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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".