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.

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.

A Bedouin carries wood on his back as he walks barefoot back to his tent in the Negev desert. Photograph: Getty Images
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit