Who Will Defend the Defenseless?

PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 3 Feb 2020

Amos Gvirtz – TRANSCEND Media Service

28 Jan 2020 – Throughout Israel’s existence its various governments have regarded members of Israel’s Bedouin population as undesirable citizens: after initially expelling most of them from the country, the state concentrated those that remained in the Sayag area and after that in townships.

In 1948, most of the Bedouin who lived in the Negev were deported in the “heat of the battle” during the War of Independence. Deportations continued until 1959. After the establishment of the state, military rule was imposed on the Bedouin, as on all other Palestinian Israeli citizens. The military government gathered most of the Bedouin remaining in Israel into the Sayag area (south of the West Bank), confiscated their lands (of those who removed from their places) and restricted grazing areas for their sheep. Declaring firing zones was another way to close off large areas of grazing land.

The state did not recognize the Bedouin villages – neither those in the Sayag area that predated the founding of the state, nor those created by the government to house the Bedouin who were transferred there. The refusal of the Israeli authorities to grant recognition to these villages rendered all building within them illegal by definition, and turned the Bedouin themselves into reluctant criminals.  The lack of recognition and of any master plan precluded the possibility of building legally in the villages. An unrecognized village does not even receive water, electricity or municipal services from the government.

The state exploits the fact that most Bedouin did not register ownership of their land with the Tabu (Ottoman Land Registration), preferring instead to rely on traditional land ownership practice. It is important to remember that Jews, who purchased land from the Bedouin before the establishment of the state, did so in accordance with traditional customs.

At the end of the 1960s the government began implementing its policy of transferring the Bedouin of the Negev to the townships. Presently about 60 percent of the Negev’s Bedouin population lives in these townships. In order to “encourage” the remainder to move, their houses are demolished – after all, they have been illegally constructed; crops are destroyed – the state claims that the land is not theirs to cultivate; they are denied water and electricity (in some of the villages a connection to the water supply was installed but it was left to the residents themselves to connect it to their homes); and there are no municipal and health services. Under these conditions, Bedouin who are determined to continue living on their land in keeping with their traditions are criminals in the eyes of the law. This is criminalizing the victim. Only by capitulating and moving to a township can they acquire legal status.

Even the peace agreement with Egypt was used as a pretext for further expropriation of Bedouin land in the Negev, forcing thousands of Bedouin to move into the townships when 120,000 dunams of Bedouin land were confiscated in order to make way for military bases.

There are currently seven Bedouin townships in the Negev. They have the highest rates of unemployment, the most severe levels of poverty in the country and the highest crime rates, reflecting the abject failure of the government to fulfil its obligation towards its citizens. But have no fear; failure does not deter the government from pursuing its policy of concentrating the Bedouin in townships. After all, the townships are the smallest area into which these undesirable citizens can be crammed. On the other hand, under populated Jewish settlements are springing up and flourishing in the Negev (“solitary farms”) whose residents enjoy support from, among various other sources, the government, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund. Only the Bedouin farmers of the Negev have been targeted for removal to the townships which suffer from high rates of unemployment and crime.

Since the beginning of the 2000s efforts to forcibly remove the Bedouin from their villages and into the townships have escalated with many and various mechanisms being devised to achieve this objective: besides demolishing houses and destroying grain crops, the JNF plants forests in the Negev to prevent the Bedouin from returning to their land, and also as a means of demolishing villages. To date two villages have been completely flattened (Al-Araqeeb and Twail Abu Jarawal) and there are plans to demolish the village of Atir as well.

Another method used to forcibly displace populations is to plan a Jewish settlement on the site of a Bedouin village. For example, the Jewish town Hiran is being built on the ruins of Umm-al-Hiran (which is in the process of being evacuated). There are plans to establish Jewish settlements on the ruins of other villages which are marked for demolition as well.

Building new roads – without any consideration for existing villages, let alone for their benefit – are also used as justification for demolishing homes and expelling Bedouin from their villages. Highway 6 was planned so as to necessitate the demolition of hundreds of Bedouin homes and transferring their occupants to the townships. Similarly, this approach also guides the planning of factories and military industries: destruction, expulsion and devastation for hundreds of families. Plans to build a phosphate mine on the site of the Bedouin village al-Fur’ah will result in the forced displacement of its inhabitants.  Fortunately, Arad (the Jewish city) has raised objections to the projects because of potential air pollution in the city.

And to add insult to injury, the Kaminitz amendment to the Planning and Construction Law was passed by the Knesset. Now it only remains for the victims to be forced to demolish their own homes, or bear the costs incurred by the authorities in their demolition. And so, the number of demolitions of Bedouin houses in the Negev has risen dramatically since the amendment to the law was passed, to more than two thousand a year! On top of all this, refugee camps are being planned for the victims of this policy of expulsion, making caravans available as “temporary housing” for the evacuees.

The policy of the Israeli authorities towards the country’s Bedouin citizens seems to suggest that the War of Independence has never really ended in the Negev. The Israeli government is still trying to create internal refugees and is waging a unilateral war against defenseless citizens. The police have set up the Yoav Unit for the express purpose of ensuring that the government’s policy is enforced.

This begs the question: “Who will help the defenseless?” It is generally assumed that citizenship offers protection to citizens. But what happens when citizenship withholds protection? Where is the civil rights movement in Israel? Where are the civil rights movements in the rest of the world? And perhaps we have to appeal to the United Nations and ask for defense for the defenseless?

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Amos Gvirtz is founder of Israelis and Palestinians for Nonviolence, was chairperson of the Committee against House Demolitions, and a peace and human rights activist. He is a former Israeli representative to the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) and wrote the book, Don’t Say We Did Not Know (working on the translation to English).


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Feb 2020.

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