The Negev Bedouin village of Umm el-Hiran is where I first learned about what it means to be rooted, to be devoted to something with steadfastness. It is here that I learned the true impact of Jewish National Fund (JNF) afforestation on the Bedouin, which is far from JNF’s whitewashed and spit-shined-glossy version. Rayid Abu Alkeean, an Israeli Bedouin, partnered with Bustan, an environmental justice organization that I founded, to host delegations on dozens of our Negev Unplugged Tours in his village, where we learned about Bedouin traditional life unplugged from the nation’s electricity grid, and from Israel’s democracy.
Imagine serving in the Israel Defense Forces and having your home demolished by the government in front of your children. Next, imagine being billed for the demolition. Imagine watching religious Jews building a barbed wire fence to stake a claim to the hilltop just above your home. Hiran and Kasif, two Jewish-only religious towns slated to be built on the lands of Rayid’s village, were just approved.
Fortunately, the Knesset vote on the controversial Prawer-Begin Plan to resettle the Negev Bedouin has been postponed for the next one to two months. We must urge Israeli officials to take this discriminatory plan off the table and encourage them to adopt the Alternative Master Plan (AMP) developed by Bedouin leadership and Jewish planners of the human rights non-governmental organization Bimkom. The AMP will delimit territorial boundaries on historical village lands. It will enable formal village planning and access to the full basket of rights and services afforded Jewish villages and towns — housing, clinics, roads, waste removal and schools. We must make every effort to advance this alternative plan and promote sustainable economic development for all residents of the Negev.
[UPDATE: How to begin after Prawer-Begin]
Here’s why it is in the best interest of every Jew in the Negev and the Diaspora to stop the Prawer Plan.
• Because it is morally unconscionable to uproot this Negev Arab minority from their homes and against their will.
• Because token symbolic gestures aimed at recognition, such as granting formal ownership over less than 2 percent of historic Bedouin lands to some while denying the rest to the vast majority of others, simply won’t work. The Prawer Plan will dispossess some 40,000 Bedouin, requiring entire villages to be demolished wholesale.
• Because squeezing the remaining lands that have not yet been confiscated from the Bedouin population and urging them to live as neighbors with Jewish homesteaders and families that replace them will deepen already existing social cleavages.
• Because it will lead to violence. Today the youth in Bedouin villages act on behalf of a civilian population of 200,000 Negev Arabs that has been marginalized, criminalized and pauperized for decades. “Days of Rage” protests and vigils are surging to increasingly high levels of tension in what is now front and center stage of Israel’s ongoing land conflict. By declaring a civilian population a national security threat, the government further alienates and even catalyzes an already enraged and disenfranchised minority into the streets. Many believe that despite the intentions of community elders to organize nonviolently, there is no further incentive to do so.
• Because living off the grid is hard, but the unrecognized Bedouin prefer that to losing their lands. Most “unrecognized villagers” have consistently resisted running water and electricity to power their computers and washing machines, preferring to stay on their lands rather than be holed up in cities with different and sometimes clashing familial clans, and pushed into wage labor —– when it is even available — at the expense of their traditional cultural pursuits. Unrecognized Bedouin have organized however haphazardly and have used nonviolent but futile tactics to have their land rights recognized by the Israeli courts. More than 100,000 Bedouin continue to resist being transferred into impoverished townships that are drug-riddled pits of crime. They fight to keep their lands because even in recognized towns, Bedouin are denied building permits, basic infrastructure and services.
• Because we’ve learned from villages like Al-Arakib and Umm el-Hiran, among others, that coercion is not sustainable. To try to rip Negev Arabs from their lands will only make them, and more of us, more resolute.
• Because the northern Negev is already a toxic tinderbox. Most Negev Arabs and Bedouin have been relocated into a triangle of territory in the northern Negev between Beer-Sheva, Arad and Dimona that has been zoned to encircle them to prevent further construction.
The conflict between Bedouin and the State of Israel is about land, resources and control. Investment in developing Jewish towns and demolishing Arab villages happens most aggressively in Arab areas of the Negev and the Galilee, battlefields of Israel’s demographic war to create a Jewish majority in every region of Israel. One tactic is to break apart contiguous Bedouin villages and to concentrate the maximum number of Bedouin onto the minimum amount of territory.
Like Rayid, head of the village council of al-Sira, Khalil el Amor resists the Prawer Plan. His entire village is slated for demolition. I spoke with Khalil yesterday. He said, “I am a teacher, and finishing school to become a lawyer. As a child, I would return home from school to tend our flock and help my mother milk the animals until dark. I would light a lantern and start my homework. I want my granddaughter Siraj (meaning “lantern”) to have the choice to tend a flock. If I stay on my village lands, I dream of inviting tourists to learn about our traditions and our changing Bedouin culture.” Rather than give up the land, and give up the lantern, Khalil holds steadfast.
The AMP is a viable way for Negev Arabs like Khalil and Rayid to showcase their village culture to tourists and to earn livable incomes rather than masquerading as traditional Bedouin for Jewish-owned tourist companies that romanticize their culture if they’ll pretend to be shepherds for a photo-op on a camel. If Prawer passes, that is all our children will know about Bedouin culture.