The demolition of 45 houses in the Bedouin village of Araqib in the Negev desert on Tuesday is seen as a trial run for further demolitions and expulsions
The demolition of more than 40 houses in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Araqib in the Negev desert on Tuesday has triggered fears for the future of other Bedouin communities, who see Araqib as a test case in the long-standing struggle against Israeli government attempts to ‘judaise’ the Negev.
The inhabitants of Araqib are in the midst of a legal struggle for the recognition of their ownership of their land, which they claim they held for generations until the state redefined it as a military zone in 1951.
Their struggle was prompted by works begun by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to plant forests on the land and on this issue they won a temporary victory, when the Israeli High Court of Justice conceded that government plans for the region did not officially allocate these lands to forestation.
But the chances of long-term success in their ownership claim look slim.
Bedouin hopes generally were raised when a government-appointed Commission headed by Justice Eliezer Goldberg was appointed in 2007 to look into their case.
In 2008 the Goldberg Commission recommended mechanisms for the recognition of a majority of Bedouin villages – not including Araqib – by the state. The Commission submitted its recommendations to Ehud Prawer, head of the Policy Planning Division of the Prime Minister’s Office, and the latter has reportedly written an operative plan of action based partly on a watered-down version of these recommendations, and submitted it to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu for approval.
According to sources in the Israeli government who wish to remain anonymous, Prawer’s plan involves partial recognition of some of the 45 villages defined as ‘unrecognized’ – and mass eviction of the remainder to government-designated townships in the north of the Negev desert.
Hints of this plan emerged following an official appeal submitted by the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages (RCUV), a Bedouin NGO, and several other rights groups, to the Beersheba Planning Authority, in response to a new development plan proposed for the Beersheba region, including the Bedouin villages within it. The appeal resulted in recommendations being adopted last Tuesday (20 Jul 2010) according to which up to 25 of the unrecognized villages would be partly or fully recognized by the state.
These recommendations represent a landmark decision, despite the fact that in some cases they propose inappropriate removal and transfer of populations among the villages in order to align them with other state development plans, such as roads. The recommendations ignore the historical bond between the local inhabitants and their specific plots of land, and rights groups have responded by saying that many of the recommendations may be doomed to failure if the local population is not fully included in the planning process.
More significantly, activists speaking to government authorities have concluded that any villages not included in the definitive plan for the future of the Bedouin – about 20 villages – will be evacuated, destroyed and their lands transferred to state hands for development of Jewish towns, roads and farms.
Their residents will be required by law enforcement authorities to move to government-designated townships in the northern Negev, such as Laqiya or Hura, despite severe housing shortage and long waiting- lists in both townships. If such a plan were put into practice it could affect tens of thousands of Bedouin currently living in unrecognized villages.
The same activists claim that the recent demolition actions at Araqib and in another community, Tawil Abu Jarwal – both of which are excluded from recognition under the new development plan – are trial runs in which Israeli special police forces [YASAM] and other officials are attempting to gauge expected responses by Bedouin communities to mass evictions, and the likelihood of resistance.
Bedouin inhabitants at Araqib and other community leaders have made clear that they will insist on their right to remain on their lands and have already announced plans to rebuild any demolished structures.
Israeli press items in recent weeks, notably in the right-wing daily ‘Maariv,’ as well as in the liberal daily ‘Ha’aretz’ have focused on the Bedouin community as law-breakers and described their claims to the land as fraudulent. Activists see this negative coverage as initiated by the Israeli government in preparation for the displacement plan.
The Unrecognized Villages
About 150,000 Bedouin live in the Negev Desert.
The Bedouin have lived and travelled in the region since long before the establishment of the State of Israel, engaging in grazing, cattle breeding and land husbandry throughout the the Negev and the Sinai deserts.
In 1948 the majority of Bedouin were expelled from the Negev Desert to the Egyptian Sinai. Those who remained within Israel were granted full Israeli citizenship.
However, in the years following the establishment of the State, the Bedouin were limited to a certain part of the northern Negev region [termed ‘Syag’], and some of their lands were redefined as military zones or as state lands for future development or for non-rural uses.
Some of their villages were recognized by the state, but about half, defined by the state as a ‘diaspora,’ were neither recognized nor marked on the map, and their residents were required to move away from their lands to townships built for them. Most residents refused, saying that there were no employment opportunities in the designated townships, and that their own traditional way of life would be lost.
As a form of pressure, the government and courts have consistently refused to connect the ‘unrecognized’ villages to drinkable water, sewage treatment and disposal services, electricity, roads and other essential public services such as adequate primary healthcare.
More than 80,000 Bedouin live in unrecognized villages today, and the dire circumstances of their lives are demonstrated by the fact that infant mortality rates among the Bedouin are five times as high as that of the average Jewish rates – a gap only partly explained by congenital defects as a result of consanguinity, and clearly connected to degraded sanitary conditions and an environment hazardous to health.
Since the 1990s an array of Bedouin and human-rights groups have waged a determined battle in the courts and in the parliament for recognition of their rights, with partial success. At the same time, Jewish farmers were granted rights by the state to purchase and control lands that overlapped with those of the Bedouin.
Authorities charged with government policies regarding the Bedouin include the Negev Department of the Ministry of Interior, the ‘Green Brigade’ of the Israel Lands Authority (ILA), and a new authority for Bedouin affairs within the Ministry of Construction and Housing.
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Photo by Active Stills