The Bedouin Intifada: It's Not If, but When

Security officials and demographers agree that a Bedouin uprising is practically inevitable in the northern Negev, where decades of bitter conflict over land and lifestyle have reached the boiling point. Why isn't more being done to avert this catastrophic scenario?

Amnon Barzilai
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Amnon Barzilai

The writing is on the wall - and in very large letters. A Bedouin intifada in the northern Negev is on the way. This conclusion is shared by the Prime Minister's Office, the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the National Security Council, among others. Some of these bodies have already prepared position papers outlining the danger of an expected violent outburst on the part of the Bedouin.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert heads a ministerial committee that was appointed about a year ago to address the Bedouin population in an effort to block this process. But everyone knows this is not enough. In Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's office, the Bedouin problem is referred to as a "ticking bomb" or a "keg of dynamite."

A Knesset committee is also following these developments. MK Haim Oron, a member of Kibbutz Lahav in the Negev, which borders the Bedouin village of Laqiya, sits on the committee. Oron says, "The bomb is not just ticking - it's making a very loud noise."

Every plan to develop the Negev - the Trans-Israel Highway, the railroad to Dimona and Yeruham, the IDF training complex and the new Givot Bar settlement - is likely to face violent opposition because of the Bedouin who live in the area. The diagnosis is known, but it remains unclear how long the fuse is. Nor is it clear which factor will eventually ignite the flames: a popular uprising over oppression of Bedouin, or a Palestinian-style religious-nationalist insurrection, in a nod of identification with the Palestinians' cause.

In March of this year, demographer Arnon Soffer warned a seminar at the University of Haifa that a Bedouin intifada would erupt in the very near future. Alean al-Krenawi, head of Ben-Gurion University's Center for Bedouin Studies and Development, agrees: "The Bedouin are a ticking bomb that could explode very powerfully."

In April, authorities seized a gang of Bedouin that had smuggled arms intended for use by terror organizations in the Palestinian Authority. This was the third such gang caught smuggling weapons. The defense establishment believes these gangs represent the tip of the iceberg.

A few days later, dozens of road signs mysteriously disappeared from Negev roadways. The perpetrators were not caught. Investigators attributed the unique crime to Bedouin elements, but vacillated between two possible motives: 1) The signs were removed in order to cause traffic accidents; or 2) The signs were smuggled to terror organizations in the Palestinian Authority, so they could use the metal to produce Qassam rockets.

A land dispute

The argument between the Bedouin and the government of Israel is part of an ongoing and worsening conflict over land in the Negev. The Bedouin claim that all 12 million dunams [three million acres] in the Negev are rightfully theirs. A total of 90,000 Bedouin were living in the Negev when Israel was established. During the War of Independence, most fled or were expelled to Egypt and Jordan, leaving 11,000 Bedouin within Israel's boundaries. In the `50s and the `60s, the Bedouin were forcibly moved to a "restricted area" in the northern Negev. One of the goals of concentrating the Bedouin population was to stop nomadic movement and create permanent settlements.

By the `90s, seven Bedouin townships were established, but with no employment infrastructure. These townships now have the highest unemployment rate in Israel. Al-Krenawi, a resident of the Bedouin city of Rahat, says that oppression, discrimination, neglect and inequality are the major causes of alienation in the Bedouin population in Israel.

Forum Hakara, a coalition of Israeli human rights and peace organizations that promotes Bedouin rights, published statistics in July 2003 listing the Bedouin population in the Negev as 140,000. Half of this population lives in the seven townships established by the Israeli government. The other half lives in 46 unrecognized villages called the p'zura [dispersion].

They now hold 300,000 dunams, and are struggling to retain lands still in dispute. The Bedouin are willing to settle for recognition of their ownership of an additional 1 million dunams. The argument involves the extent of compensation for lost land in the disputed area. The government is willing to come to a compromise with them and pay $85 per dunam for land of undetermined ownership. The Bedouin, who are currently demanding NIS 10 billion in compensation, consider this offer to be an insult.

MK Taleb a-Sana claims that the Israeli government is responsible for rising crime in certain segments of the Bedouin population. "I am telling you," he declares, "that the Bedouin intifada will begin because Bedouin citizens are systematically oppressed. Our situation is worse than that of Palestinian refugees in the camps. Remember what happened on the eve of the intifada in December 1987. Until then, everything was fine. Then there was a car accident and the whole thing blew up. Our silence is virtual. There is a limit to patience. People can take it, and take it, and then suddenly go crazy."

The demographic balance

The police department and security forces are busy discussing what they call a "loss of deterrence" in the Bedouin population. Most Bedouin live in the Be'er Sheva-Arad-Dimona triangle. They represent 25 percent of the population of the Negev.

But the problem as presented in internal deliberations in the Prime Minister's Office and in the defense establishment is more complex. A total of 220,000 Jews live in the same triangle, which includes Be'er Sheva and its suburbs. This puts the Bedouin population in this area at roughly 40 percent. The rate of natural increase in the Bedouin population is approximately twice that of the Jewish population.

According to Interior Ministry predictions, the Bedouin population is expected to reach 340,000 by 2020. They will then be the clear majority in the northern Negev.

A senior police officer observes, "When you wander around in the field, there are no signs of Israeli sovereignty in the vast Bedouin area." The main problem is that about 30,000 structures, including roadside stands, gas stations and commercial buildings, have been built without building permits. But, the worried officer admits, "I'm not sure the police can do the job."

At the conclusion of a series of discussions in the Public Security Ministry, Minister Tzachi Hanegbi declared Bedouin crime to be one of the ministry's priority targets. This declaration took into account the looming threat of a Bedouin uprising. About 10 months ago, then Southern District police commander Moshe Karadi ordered the establishment of a special unit called "Emergency Brakes" to deal with the Bedouin population. Staffed by 120 police officers, the unit works with other government bodies to identify and destroy illegal structures; to prevent stoning of automobiles on southern roads (a common problem, according to police there); to prevent crimes against property, particularly theft by Bedouin in Be'er Sheva and surrounding Jewish settlements; and to stop extortion by Bedouin gangs.

As part of their course of study at Israel's National Defense College, cadets - who will someday fill senior positions in the Israel Defense Forces, the police, the Mossad and the Shin Bet Security Service - tour the northern Negev for three days. The goal of the program is to study and understand the Bedouin problem up close. On a recent tour, two experts on the Bedouin question accompanied the students on their final tour, the demographer Soffer and National Defense College instructor Pinchas Yehezkeli, a former Be'er Sheva police chief.

One of the thorniest problems is marriage between Bedouin men and Palestinian women. According to estimates, about 14,000 Palestinian women live in Bedouin settlements. All of them have families in Gaza and the Mount Hebron area in the West Bank. Their children have Israeli citizenship, but some of them identify with the Palestinians. on tour with National Defense College students and police officers, Yehezkeli noted that there was an effort among the Bedouin to create a contiguous territory from the northern Negev to the Mount Hebron area, under Palestinian Authority control. He believes that it's only a matter of time before the Bedouin demand to be annexed to the PA.

Soffer, who holds the chair in Geostrategic and Security Studies at Haifa University, said at the end of his tour in the northern Negev, "I returned disturbed and shocked after seeing how the Bedouin have taken over the area, and immediately wrote a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and all the commanders in the country." In the letter, entitled "Trends among the Bedouin in the northern Negev - A threat to the entire Negev," Soffer warns, "It is no longer possible to postpone addressing the Bedouin problem, unless Israeli leaders are prepared to throw up their hands and relinquish the entire Negev."

Soffer also writes, "In the Negev, there is a combination of the wildest demographics in modern history (and, perhaps, all time) with physical expansion over land to an extent and with audacity unwitnessed until now. Both of these phenomena have been accompanied by acts of crime and terror. The entire establishment responds to this development with a show of weakness and trembling knees, and does not know what to do. The Bedouin understand all too well, and the Negev has descended into anarchy."

If measured by a thermometer, continues Soffer, the situation of the Bedouin population would show high fever about to reach the boiling point, more severe than in the Israeli Arab population at large. Soffer spoke to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon two months ago, telling him, "There is going to be a catastrophe. There will be an intifada of major proportions, beyond imagining. If I were prime minister, I would focus on a comprehensive national effort to deal with the Bedouin."

Stones thrown on the highway

In a paper published last year, Melach, the government body that manages states of emergency, predicted a Bedouin uprising within the next 10 years. In an interview with Haaretz, Soffer said that the sand was running through the hourglass more quickly. "I say that within five years, the next intifada will break out in the northern Negev. Deterioration has already begun, with stone throwing, blocking of roads and Bedouin shooting at Israeli cars. It will grow to an extent where Jews will not be able to drive in the South. We must take note that all four main roads in the Negev - Tel Shoqet-Arad, Be'er Sheva-Dimona, Be'er Sheva-Ramat Hovav-Yeruham and the Gvulot Revivim road - are controlled by Bedouin. The South has been taken hostage by the Bedouin."

National Security Council deputy director Reuven Gal says, "The Bedouin intifada will not begin because of an isolated incident or because a house is destroyed. It will take the form of an escalation." Gal, former chief psychologist of the IDF, chairs the staff panel of Olmert's ministerial committee. The committee decided to allocate NIS 1.1 billion to a six-year program to care for the Bedouin population in the Negev. Shmuel Rifman, head of the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council, says that the Sharon government has, surprisingly, done more for the Bedouin than any previous government, except that of Yitzhak Rabin.

However, in light of the vast array of problems facing the Bedouin community, Dr. Gal makes a chilling prediction. "The confrontation and struggle with the Bedouin will become more difficult. The police can't handle this by themselves, so they'll need reinforcements, perhaps from the army. And that's how you get to the horrible scenario."

Gal stresses that "the danger of a Bedouin intifada erupting is neither because they are a militant body, nor because they are enemies of the state. They are not anti-Israeli, and do not lean toward the Hamas or Hezbollah. Despite this, and despite the fact that some of them serve in the IDF, they do represent a danger, because of three phenomena: the demographic problem, the land issues, and the transformation from a nomadic agricultural society to an urban society.

"We like to sit on rugs and stools in a Bedouin tent and drink kahwe [coffee]. But are we willing to recognize that to the Bedouin, their sense of honor is more precious than money?"

Gal is convinced that the Israeli government has to act in more creative ways to restore lost honor to the Bedouin.

Pini Badash, head of the Omer Regional Council, is convinced that a ministerial committee will not suffice. "With all due respect to Olmert, we must appoint a strong, senior minister with a big budget, and put the Bedouin portfolio firmly in his hands. That's the only thing that can stop a Bedouin intifada. In my opinion, within three to four years, we'll be afraid to drive on the roads at night because they are shooting at us. In fact, it's already happening. Buses from Be'er Sheva to Arad and Dimona are already armored against rocks."

Jaber Abu Kaf, head of the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages and a resident of Um Batin, represents Bedouin who refuse to move to the seven townships that the government has established for them. Abu Kaf says that claims of Bedouin militancy, whether made by Jews or by the Bedouin themselves, as well as warnings of an impending Bedouin intifada, are baseless and are intended to promote a political agenda.

The police high command, for its part, tends to believe a-Sana. A senior police officer says, "The fact that a public figure like a-Sana brazenly declares that there will be a Bedouin intifada is, in itself, an escalation. Until now, not a single member of the Bedouin population would have dared to speak that way publicly." n

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