Forty thousand Bedouin citizens face imminent eviction from their ancestral homes in Israel, a situation described by the advocacy group Jewish Voice for Peace as a “massive violation of human rights.” First introduced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2011, the Prawer Plan calls for “the economic development of the Bedouin sector” in the Negev desert, requiring that semi-nomadic Arab communities that have lived in the area for centuries be moved into cities.
Even though the Bedouin citizens are part of the 1.5 million non-Jewish citizens of Israel, the Knesset has failed to extend them the same services — electricity, running water and health care — that are given to other Israelis.
Bedouin overshadowed by conflict
It’s a story that’s been lost in the shuffle of attention-grabbing headlines that still dominate international news and the overarching Israel-Palestine conflict. The proliferation of illegal settlements through the occupied West Bank, Hamas rocket-fire and the military blockade of the Gaza Strip remain the biggest obstacles to peace in the long-standing conflict between two main groups over the same piece of land.
During the 1948 war for independence, known as “al-nakbah” or the “catastrophe” in Palestinian communities, 500,000-750,000 Palestinians were forcefully displaced from their homes. Many Bedouin remained and became citizens of the new, majority Jewish state of Israel.
So who are the Bedouin and why is the Israeli government interested in forcibly removing them from their homes?
Bedouins are an Arab minority community who have lived in the Negev desert since the 7th century. Bedouin communities historically have been nomadic, living mostly in the Levant — modern-day Syria, Jordan, historic Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Bedouin tribal communities played an integral part in the cultural and economic formation of the Middle East, historically working mostly as herders, farmers and traders. Over the years, the majority of Bedouin communities have moved away from nomadic traditions into more sedentary lifestyles.
In Israel, the 11,000 Bedouin who remained in Israel after the 1948 war were later given citizenship. This key difference separates the 170,000 current-day Bedouin from the millions of Palestinians living in the occupied territories without citizenship.
Enter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who put forth the Prawer Plan as a means to relocate Bedouin citizens from their homes in the Negev to towns and cities. The plan could become a binding Israeli national law but it clearly violates the 1949 Geneva Convention, a cornerstone of international human rights law that stipulates, “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.”
Unequal economic development
The issue begins with the uneven economic development in Bedouin communities who have lived for decades in “unrecognized villages” that the Israeli government has refused to incorporate into the state. Despite being citizens, the refusal to recognize these villages has relegated thousands into conditions of poverty, cutting off Bedouin communities from basic social services. The Prawer Plan claims that by moving Bedouin from their native lands into cities, the economic plight of this marginalized group can be improved.
Jewish Voice for Peace and other advocacy organizations claim that if the government were genuinely concerned with the economic development of Bedouin communities, it could extend basic services to the existing villages at a fraction of the cost.
“If the Israeli government wanted to develop the Bedouin sector they could provide services to the unrecognized villages. They don’t have water, they don’t have electricity. Many of the villages have existed before the state of Israel. If we are interested in their well-being we should start with recognizing them,” said Sydney Levy, advocacy director for Jewish Voice for Peace, in an interview with Mint Press News.
Jewish Voice For Peace is an advocacy organization with 100,000 members calling for justice and full equality for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Israel is a highly developed country, a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development bloc of countries. Despite being roughly the size of the state of New Jersey and having few natural resources, Israel has blossomed into a strong economy — the 40th-strongest in the world based upon gross domestic product and the 8th-most developed on the Human Development Index.
The nation’s wealth and prosperity has not found its way into Bedouin communities, which have long been left behind when it comes to access to education and medical care.
“Try to imagine life in an unrecognized Bedouin village in Israel’s Negev. Imagine life with no electricity, running water, or sewage facilities. Imagine walking several kilometers in 100-degree heat to reach overcrowded schools or health clinics,” writes the New Israel Fund. “Assume that the land you have always considered the communal property of your nomadic tribe is now off-limits, and that your own village has never been recognized as legitimate by the national government.”
This point has been supported by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel reports, claiming, “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.’”
Bedouin communities overshadowed by conflict
This occurs as the Israeli Ministry of Tourism has made a concerted effort to put the Bedouin communities at the forefront of tourist outreach in recent years. After seeing the Old City of Jerusalem, hiking Masada, and touring a Kibbutz, many tourists stop and ride a camel in the Negev desert and spend a night in a traditional Bedouin village.
“It’s funny in some ways because Israeli in some ways enjoys the tourism benefits showing the romanticization of the camels, the actual indigenous population are being shoved out of the way to make way for more Jewish residents, to make way for another Jewish national fund in the Negev,” Levy said.
Demographically speaking, Israel remains a predominantly Jewish state. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, 6 million of the nation’s 8 million citizens are Jewish. The growing Arab minority of 1.5 million live in communities throughout Israel, constituting a majority in some areas.
“There is talk of ‘Judaizing the Galilee and Judaizing the Negev.’ In my view it is terrible to speak in these terms. It’s terrible that Israel talks in these terms but this is what is happening,” Levy said.
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