Peddling the Myth of the Bedouin 'Take-over’

The Knesset has one last chance to reject the decades-old, coercive vision pushed by Israeli leaders to 'modernize' its Bedouin minority by concentrating them into impoverished townships.

In 1963, Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan said, of the state’s Bedouin citizens: “We should transform the Bedouins into an urban proletariat... This would be a revolution, but it may be fixed within two generations. Without coercion but with governmental direction... this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear."

Several decades later, Israel’s policy towards its Bedouin citizens has changed very little.

And as the country pushes ahead with legislation that aims to rip the Bedouin from their rich ancestral traditions and way of life, Dayan’s vision of turning the Bedouin into a wholly urbanized and “modern” population finally seems to be materializing.

On June 24, the Knesset approved  the first reading (of three) of the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev. Known as the Prawer-Begin plan, the legislation involves displacing at least 30,000 Bedouin citizens living in so-called “unrecognized” villages in the southern Negev desert, and forcing them into already over-crowded and impoverished Bedouin townships.

All the Negev Bedouin – some 200,000 people – are Israeli citizens. Half the community lives in villages that the state deems illegal, and denies them access to water, electricity, paved roads, and other basic services. Contrary to the government’s claims, these “unrecognized” villages didn’t appear out of thin air; many existed before Israel’s foundation in 1948, or were created as a result of early Israeli government policies.

The picture isn’t rosier in the government-planned Bedouin townships. The towns annually fall into the lowest socioeconomic bracket  in Israel, suffer from high levels of unemployment and poverty, and are largely seen as “dormitory” towns, devoid of services.

Last year, Raquel Rolnik, United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, called Israeli government plans to relocate the Negev Bedouin “the new expressions of dispossession of traditional inhabitants and control of the territory.”

Once more left out from the decision-making process that will determine their fate, the Bedouin have rightly rejected the Prawer-Begin plan as an affront to their basic rights, and as the latest manifestation of decades of state neglect, oppression and dispossession.

The Bedouin were only consulted – in a flawed “community dialogue” process initiated by MK Benny Begin – when the government’s plan to displace them was nearly finalized. At the same time, an alternative plan, devised by Bedouin leaders themselves that details how full recognition can be achieved, has been almost entirely ignored by the state.

Indeed, the Israeli government falsely argues that the Bedouin have only grievances and demands, and are not prepared to find solutions. This is part of the state’s campaign of incitement and disinformation aimed to shift public opinion against the country’s most disadvantaged group.

The assertion that the Bedouin are “taking over” the Negev – and thus must be contained in urban townships, as prescribed under the Prawer-Begin plan – is one of the most destructive, government-peddled myths.

The Bedouin constitute 30 percent of the Negev population, and are seeking recognition on only 5.4 percent of the land. Recognizing Bedouin communities where they are now is not only just, but entirely feasible. Yet this is not what the Israeli government wants, or promotes.

Instead, state-sponsored discrimination in the Negev, of which the Prawer-Begin plan is emblematic, prevails. The Bedouin are presented with only one option of life – urbanization – while Jewish-Israeli residents of the Negev can choose from many different communities, including agricultural villages (moshavim), kibbutzim, cities, towns or individual farms.

The government provides incentives for Jewish residents to the move to the Negev, and hopes to dramatically increase the Jewish population there in the coming years, while at the same time restricting and threatening the region’s indigenous, Bedouin residents. Jewish towns are even being planned over the ruins of Bedouin villages.

In 2010, the government went so far as to retroactively recognize dozens of individual Jewish farms in the Negev – which provide Jewish families with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dunams of land for their exclusive use – that had been built illegally without proper approval.

Israel denies its Bedouin citizens this same recognition. And this is the crux of the problem.

The Prawer-Begin plan builds on decades of state-sponsored discrimination of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. The plan’s aim – along with the home demolitions, restrictions on planning and building, denial of water and electricity, and other Israeli controls that come along with it – is to concentrate the Bedouin on as little land as possible, while prioritizing the needs of the state’s Jewish population.

The Prawer-Begin plan strips 200,000 Israeli citizens of their agency, and the right to choose where to live. It ignores their historical connection to the land and threatens their indigenous way of life. It forces them into a failed model of urbanization that brings the entire community down in social, political and economic terms.

Israel’s Knesset has one last chance to reject the Prawer-Begin plan and negotiate a solution with the Bedouin based on the principle of civic equality. It must, above all else, recognize the Bedouin community’s historical ties and right to live on their ancestral lands.

Because in the end, no matter how many legislative bills are passed, no matter how many Bedouin homes are demolished, and no matter how many discriminatory policies the Israeli government pursues, Moshe Dayan’s vision will not be achieved.

The “phenomenon of the Bedouin” will never disappear.

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a Canadian journalist based in Jerusalem.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz