Israel Harel's Racist Diatribe Against Bedouins Reveals the Depths of Apartheid

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A demonstrator being restrained by law enforcement officials during a protest against forestation in the Bedouin village of Sawa.
A demonstrator being restrained by law enforcement officials during a protest against forestation in the Bedouin village of Sawa.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

Sometimes, a single uninhibited comment suddenly reveals something’s true nature. That was what happened with Israel Harel’s arrogant op-ed, “With its electricity law, Israel is recognizing Bedouin conquests” (Haaretz, January 12), as well as a follow-up op-ed published in Haaretz in Hebrew last Friday.

In these opinion pieces, he claimed that a newly enacted law to provide electricity to some illegally built homes would “rip” large swaths of the central Negev away from the state in favor of a quasi-state of crimes, drugs and lawlessness that he termed “Bedouiland,” no less.

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What is Harel so angry about? About connecting Israeli citizens’ homes to the electrical grid? We would argue that his anger reveals a troubling underlying reality of apartheid that goes far beyond the electricity law.

The intolerable ease with which such an article was published, without even minimal editing to correct the facts (where were Haaretz’s editors?), when its sole purpose was to incite against one of the weakest segments of Israeli society – a group far from receiving justice – raises serious questions about the blindness and denial that afflict much of Israeli society. This blindness is what makes it possible to publish an article that incites against an entire community whose only crime is existing in a country that refuses to recognize it.

This hysterical, inflammatory piece resembled the deceptive propaganda of right-wing extremist groups like Regavim and Im Tirtzu. It revealed the depth of Harel’s ignorance and followed the time-honored colonialist tradition of victim blaming. Moreover, the fact that this piece was published in a respected newspaper shows this historical blindness to the Bedouin issue in particular and Israeli apartheid in general has penetrated deep into the public’s consciousness, and must again be rebutted.

Let’s start by correcting the facts. First, the lands where the Bedouin live encompass three percent of the Negev. Moreover, they are in its northeast corner, far from “the heart of the central Negev” as Harel claims.

Second, contrary to his despairing cry, the electricity law is expected to have a negligible impact on the Negev, as only a few hundred homes are likely to be recognized as being likely to be covered by future master plans. In contrast, more than 100,000 Israeli citizens are crying for recognition and basic services.

Third, even if all were connected to the electrical grid – a basic right that shouldn’t depend on the state’s generosity – why would that “rip away” the area from Israel? After all, the Bedouin are citizens, aren’t they?

Here, doubt creeps in. Did Harel, a veteran journalist, check his facts before poisoning the discourse?

But on second thought, maybe it’s better Harel didn’t check and instead spoke from the heart. His unadulterated racist generalizations reveal the deeper problem – the apartheid in all the areas under Israel’s control, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s worth rereading his articles to understand the deep undercurrents of the forces that have run the country for decades.

Only under an apartheid regime could a settler like Harel, who lives on stolen Palestinian land in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, accuse an indigenous community that has been living on its lands for hundreds of years of “occupation.” Only in an apartheid regime could Harel, a former chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements, ignore the real occupation, under whose auspices those illegal settlements for Jews only were built in the West Bank. In other words, his own status as an occupier disqualifies him.

Obviously, Harel isn’t alone. He has merely joined the ugly flood of inflammatory, racist discourse against the Bedouin coming from large swathes of Jewish society. This is an outstanding example of blaming the victim, behavior so beloved of colonialist regimes.

Actual crimes committed in the south must be condemned, but it’s important not to forget the facts. The Bedouin have been living in the Negev for hundreds of years. And as all studies of this issue have proven, they owned much of it until they were dispossessed by the State of Israel. They are also the most neglected, impoverished and dispossessed community in Israel today.

Therefore, it’s vital to remember that the Bedouin didn’t take over this land; they were in the Negev long before Jewish settlement began. We’d also like to take this opportunity to remind Harel that his ridiculous accusations can’t erase the fact that he is an illegal occupier, part of the machinery of occupation that commits war crimes on a daily basis.

Where do we go from here? Harel’s vitriolic statements reveal the apartheid regime between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The obvious and necessary step now is for all true supporters of democracy, in the Negev and throughout Israel, to join the battle against this racist regime. This begins with condemning Harel’s articles and other similar remarks. It continues with fighting for both individual and collective equality for all inhabitants of this land.

Prof. Oren Yiftachel teaches political and legal geography at Ben-Gurion University. Dr. Rawia Aburabia is on the faculty of Sapir College’s law school. Both live in the Negev. Their views don’t necessarily reflect those of their institutions.

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