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Occupation from within: the Arab Bedouin in Israel

At the beginning of this year the Israeli government announced a that will displace more than 70 000 Arab Bedouin from their ancestral lands.

A Bedouin carries wood on his back as he walks barefoot back to his tent
A Bedouin carries wood on his back as he walks barefoot back to his tent in the Negev desert. Photograph: Getty Images

The Negev desert is a good place to bury dogs. The dog cemetery of Tsan Yatir provides a final resting place for beloved canines. Arab Bedouin humans are not so lucky. Increasingly they are discovering that the Israeli state has no place for them - dead or alive.

Following the news this week that an Israeli court has ruled the death of ISM activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza, to be "a regrettable accident", we should remember it's not only Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories who have come to fear Israeli forces. Israeli citizens are being forced out of their homes by dint of their ethnicity. In September 2011, the Israeli government approved the Prawer Plan for mass expulsion of the Arab Bedouin community in the Naqab (Negev) desert. At the beginning of this year the government announced its plan to establish ten new exclusively Jewish settlements along the Green Line demolishing 35 "unrecognised" villages and displacing more than 70 000 Arab Bedouin from their ancestral lands.

Following a 5am start I made the journey from Ramallah in the West Bank to Be’er Sheva in southern Israel to meet with local Bedouin leaders and Arab Minority Rights group Nadalah who are fighting the Prawer Plan every step of the way. The steps are seldom simple and fraught with the challenges that are inevitable when the state is your enemy. My journey was no exception. To get from Ramallah to the Naqab you have to cross the Green Line. It’s a funny thing the Green Line. At times it is impenetrable: to the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories she is the Sphinx, devouring those who do not give the answer she requires. To Jewish Israeli citizens she is a sylph, dissolving in the wind whenever political expediency demands it.

Four hours, three buses, one train and a checkpoint later I arrived in the dusty heart of the Naqab to meet with Dr Thabet Abu Rass, the director of the Naqab Project at Adalah, who was keen to emphasise the parity between Arab Bedouin in Israel and Palestinian citizens in the West Bank and Gaza. “This is the occupation within”, he told me. “The state of Israel refuses to recognize them as a legitimate community and deliberately withholds basic services, such as water, electricity, sewage, schools and healthcare”.

Arab Bedouin have been inhabitants of the Naqab desert since the seventh century but have faced a state policy of displacement for over 60 years. Today, 70,000 Arab Bedouin citizens live in 35 villages that either predate the establishment of the State in 1948, or were created by Israeli military order in the early 1950s. The state of Israel considers the villages “unrecognized” and the inhabitants “trespassers on State land,” so denies access to state infrastructure to “encourage” the Bedouin to give up their land and establish new Jewish settlements in their place. 

Settlements are not only happening in the Occupied Territories, they are being built in the strategically important area of the Naqab to create a contiguous Jewish bloc south of the West Bank, the only difference being that these settlements are technically legal since they are built within the Green Line.

In an unprecedented move, in July the European Parliament called on Israel to put a hold on these policies of dispossession. According to Rawia Aburabia of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, "the attempt to enshrine the Prawer Plan into law is a farce… it is a step that takes us back to the military regime." It is hard to object when the Prawer Plan recalls the more absurdist aspects of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. You have to marvel at the evil genius of a system which demolishes people’s homes and then charges them for it. For the princely sum of 20,000-25,000 shekels (between £3,100 and £3,900) the Israeli government will reduce your house to rubble. This is leading to increasing numbers of “self-demolitions”, when people, threatened with demolition orders, are choosing to demolish their own homes at a personal cost of 15,000 (£2,350) shekels. Last year more than 1,000 houses were demolished and this year there have been over 120 official demolitions with many more self-demolitions.

Attiyah Alathamin, an Arab Bedouin from the "unrecognized" village of Khashem Zane, told me his story. “I built a home for my son and his wife when they got married. Shortly afterwards the Israeli government presented me with a demolition order and rather than pay the 25,000 shekels they were demanding I paid 15,000 to have it demolished myself.” Attiyah’s story is not unique.

Saleem Abu-el-Quian lives in the village of Umm el-Hieran which was established by military order in 1954. The state of Israel considers the some 500 residents to be trespassers and plans to destroy the village and transfer the population to the urban township of Hura in order to establish the exclusively Jewish town of "Hiran" on the ruins of Umm el-Hieran. He tells me that his son received notice of his reserve army duty on the same day that he was given a demolition order on his home. “Our children are fighting in the army and yet we are not getting anything in return. We have no school, no doctor’s clinic”.

The future for the Abu-el-Quian family and Umm el-Hieran is uncertain.

In November 2010, the prime minister’s office cancelled the planning authorities' partial recognition of the village. On 6 September  there will be a court hearing in Be’er Sheva to appeal against the demolition order. On 11 September there will be a meeting for the National Committee for Planning and Building to discuss the development of the Jewish settlement of Hiran. Twenty caravans of Israeli settlers are camped out in nearby Yatir Forest waiting to move in.

Dr Thabet Abu Rass is not giving up just yet. "We will challenge it in the courts. We will challenge it on the ground...There is a call for more co-resistance and less co-existence".  Nadia Ben-Youssef, a lawyer specializing in Arab minority rights tells me that the Bedouin are tackling the state head-on with the same methods of non-violent resistance used by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. “There is a growing belief that you can challenge the state on your feet. Arab Bedouin have told me ‘The government can demolish my home a hundred times, I will rebuild it 100 times. I will not be the one to lose my ancestors’ land’”.

Rebecca Greig is a feature writer for Palestine Business Focus Magazine and a freelance journalist based in the West Bank.