The Bedouin Threat That Never Was

The Bedouin aren't enemies of the state, no matter how broad the state's current interpretation of 'subversion' is.

Ilan Assayag

The Prawer Law, which is meant to regularize Bedouin communities in the Negev, has been revealed not only as a threat to the property and way of life of tens of thousands of Bedouin, but also as a security threat to the State of Israel, no less.

After all, had this law never existed, the Shin Bet security service wouldn’t have needed to summon Bedouin social activists who demonstrated against the law to come in for questioning, warn them not to undermine national security, make clear that it had detailed information about them, demand that they give information about their friends and relatives, and subject them to humiliating searches. This is precisely the kind of treatment given to wanted men or suspected terrorists. Fortunately for the demonstrators, the Shin Bet refrained from seeking to put them in administrative detention.

The demonstrations against the Prawer Law – unlike those of the ultra-Orthodox, the Ashdod Port workers, the victims of the Gindi construction company or any other group comprised of Jews – were defined by the state, in its response to a High Court of Justice petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, as “violent activity that borders on disturbing the peace, with a subversive, nationalist foundation.” Therefore, it continued, these demonstrations are “within the Shin Bet’s jurisdiction.”

Does the state have any proof of “subversion with a nationalist foundation”? Didn’t the ultra-Orthodox demonstrations against the draft subvert Israel’s security religion, which sees mandatory conscription as one of its national foundations? And in general, how is a citizen to know whether his protest is subversive, nationalist or damaging to national security when the state’s interpretation of these terms is so broad that no one is immune from being summoned to the Shin Bet’s offices? This interpretation is no less dangerous than the fact that the Bedouin activists were summoned to begin with.

In its response to the petition, the state ignores the reason for the Bedouin demonstrations, as well as the fact that the state itself backtracked on implementing the Prawer Law because it discovered that the law had problems. If there’s any threat of a clash between the Bedouin and state institutions, it lies in the law’s problematic provisions, and in the ongoing disregard of the Bedouin demand that their unrecognized villages be recognized, connected to water and electricity and given paved roads and health clinics.

This discriminatory policy rests on the assumption that an entire sector of the population can be treated as vassals at the mercy of their lord, and therefore any protest is by definition meant to undermine his rule and should be considered hostile activity.

The Bedouin aren’t enemies of the state, and their protest is legitimate. The state is entitled to indict people for violence, but it must not turn the Shin Bet into a political agent of the executive branch charged with “chilling” protests. This is a red line that must not be crossed.