JERUSALEM - Going south deep into the heart of Israel's Negev desert, small
Bedouin villages sprout in the distance. They seem peaceful and majestic in the
desert heat, cut into the landscape dotted with shacks for living quarters and
tents constructed with burlap and wooden sticks not far from the 52 active
military zones in the Negev.
The old men among the Bedouin, an indigenous group of people of Arab origin,
sit stone-faced, drinking Arabic coffee. The women are nowhere to be seen.
The Bedouin village of Wadi al-Na'am sits under the shadow of a chemical
industrial zone. Following the dusty road off the highway, it emerges from the
left, dark and oppressive, an architectural catastrophe.
About 4,000 people live in the vicinity of Ramat Hovav, Israel's toxic waste
dump – one of 17 chemical plants in the area. Opened in 1975, it has left a
trail of wreckage adding to the dire situation: high infant mortality rates,
cancer and numerous other health effects from the effluent. Electricity lines
run past the village yards away but connecting nobody to the grid.
Orly Almi, project coordinator for the Unrecognized Negev Villages for
Physicians for Human Rights reports a high proportion of abortions, heart
disease at a young age, high levels of cancer and high rates of congenital
defects. Added to this, the government's own epidemiological survey released
after years of pressure shows that there is a high rate of birth defects and
subnatal births amongst the Bedouin population.
The Ministry of Health, unwilling to expose their doctors to the health
hazards from the plant, does not provide health services in the village. Others
disagree with that assessment and claim that the Bedouin Authority is using the
denial of health services to push the villagers to move to Segev Shalom, a
Many now say that exhausting all the legal options will not bring back the
dead or alleviate the suffering.
This battle over land, power, government resources, culture and history is
being fought through planning authorities, government ministries, the court
rooms, the community leadership, security forces and at the political level.
The unrecognized villages do not appear on the official maps of the state of
Israel and are not included in the figures for the central bureau of statistics.
Since the villages are not recognized, there is no legal responsibility to
provide even basic services. The lands are classified as agricultural, rendering
all buildings erected as illegal.
These land disputes originated in the forties and fifties. With the
establishment of Israel in 1948 came a new regime and new priorities over land
use. And everyone has a different interpretation of what happened.
Here in the desert, the Bedouin talk about time in generations and their
connection to the land. They have grown old on different mythologies; their
narratives are still being shaped. The world is moving faster than they have the
capacity to respond.
They suffer from the same discrimination as the other Arabs in Israel, but
their issues are more acute, more immediate and will certainly require
international attention. The are doing what they can to maintain what they have
despite the numerous pressures within the culture and the influences from
Judging by the treadmill of bureaucrats, non-governmental organizations,
members of the Knesset and international journalists making the rounds, there
could be something like a genuine Bedouin revival happening, one which is being
characterized in the context of indigenous rights, access to basic services like
water, electricity, housing, health care, proper sewage facilities, refuse
disposal, education, and recognition of cultural rights.
Some believe these are the symptoms of tensions about to burst.
For everyone who says that the situation is headed in a better direction,
there are others who are predicting a coming Bedouin Intifada, as Israel's
liberal Ha'aretz newspaper characterized it recently.
Asked if this is possible, Muhammad Zeidan, head of the Arab Human Rights
Association said, "The Bedouin are peaceful, but they are human beings. I don't
think they have a choice, they are being pushed to do this."
What adds to the complication is the Sharon government's plan for the Gaza
withdrawal, a plan that if implemented will surely mean new settlements in the
Negev adding to development pressures in the region.
Some of the Bedouin community are opposing these moves outright as this will
inevitably mean encroachment on their traditional lands. Many are asking how the
government can take away their land, deny water, electricity, education and
health care and continue to poison their lands with chemicals.
The 1981 Removal of Intruders Law detailed the legal process for the removal
of the inhabitants of "illegal" homes in Israel. The proposed amendment to this
law will consolidate the body that issues demolition orders and the body that
implements them, a process which will target the existing 45 unrecognized
Bedouin villages in the Negev, and streamline efforts to build Jewish
settlements in their place.
Many legal experts claim that the Removal of Intruders Law could affect
70,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel who continue to live with substandard services
from government. The remaining Bedouin live in seven state established towns
which were given recognition.
"We want the government of Israel stop this hypocritical and outrageous
policy of the systematic removal of the Bedouin community from their traditional
lands while they aid in the construction of new Jewish settlements in the
Negev," says Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center, one
of the 29 organizations that form the Together Forum which supports Bedouin
"We call on the international community and the Jewish leadership to express
their outrage to Israel," Farah added. Farah has already raised the issue with
the U.S. government.
Under Sharon's Negev Development Plan, the government intends to turn the six
largest unrecognized villages into official recognized towns to place all the
remaining Bedouin. This is unacceptable to the Bedouin since in their view it
does not give full consideration to their historical claims to the land.
There is even talk of constructing a hippodrome here following the removal of
the Bedouin; some are already joking that the characters at the horse racing
track will have more rights than the Bedouin.
"Our true identity is the land," says Abu Afash Labad, one of the village
council members addressing a group. He says he is not relying on his citizenship
to gain his rights because the state does not treat him as a citizen.
Labad says the state is using the denial of basic services as an instrument
of power to evacuate the Bedouin from their lands. Just last month 23 people of
the Abu Elkian tribe, including a 90-year-old, were injured when security forces
arrived to demolish seven homes.
According to Ariel Dloomy of the Negev Coexistence Forum, he has the right as
a Jewish citizen to live wherever he wants. But Bedouin citizens do not have a
choice: they can either stay illegally where they are or move to settlement
towns that have among the lowest socio-economic indicators of any village in
The Negev Coexistence Forum was initiated by Jewish and Bedouin citizens to
promote issues of coexistence and mutual understanding and to raise Bedouin
issues to the Jewish population. "We are calling on the government to start
negotiating with the Bedouin and to treat them as equal citizens, not second
class citizens," says Dloomy.
(Inter Press Service)