“I came back from a tour of the Negev conducted by the Regavim organization. I’m appalled by what I’ve seen. There’s no more Negev. The Bedouin have taken it over completely. By force, by shameless criminal activity, with insolence met only by fear and submission, the Bedouin have taken over the entire Negev.” This past weekend, Israeli media personality Avri Gilad began a post on his new Facebook page with these words. Within a short time, the post got thousands of comments, many of them supportive, some opposed.
"Why didn’t you respond to him?" asked a Jewish friend who is sensitive to racism and who knows I’m an expert on the subject. "What should I be responding to?" I asked her. For years, the seedlings of racism and hatred have sprouted unhindered in Israeli society. For years, the state’s institutions have carried out a policy of discrimination and neglect against the Arab population inside Israel, while calling it “a demographic and security threat.” For years, incidents of incitement and racism have been going on in the Knesset, in rabbinical courts that call on Jews not to rent apartments to Arabs, and with humiliating security inspections that have become the lot of all Arab citizens simply because of their ethnic origin. What is unique about Avri Gilad’s racism that I’m supposed to respond to?
Well, for the sake of this friend of mine and people like her, who condemn racism and want to know the facts, here, briefly stated, are some of them:
What is known as “the Bedouin diaspora” is 35 unrecognized villages in the northern Negev in an area between Be’er Sheva, Yeruham, Arad and Dimona, which amount to roughly three percent of the Negev. The term “diaspora” serves well the image of the Bedouin as nomads, but the truth is that they stopped being nomadic as far back as the 18th century and most of the unrecognized villages have existed in their locations since before the establishment of the state. The other villages were created when the military administration transferred entire communities from their original dwelling place. Both populations are citizens of the state who live unconnected to the water system, get their electricity from generators instead of from the grid, and earn a subsistence living from basic farming.
An unrecognized village in the Negev doesn’t look like a kibbutz. You won’t see any signs on the road leading to it, it has no infrastructure, no gate and not even tiled roofs. The fields are watered by rain in the wintertime, and in summer they turn yellow and blend in with the desert landscape. To Jewish eyes it looks like a sprawling, unorganized settlement. But the fact is that the communities that live in the unrecognized villages are not leaving them. The fact is that among themselves, the Bedouin know what land belongs to whom. Another fact is that the residents of the unrecognized villages have submitted master plans to the authorities that they prepared together with the planners of the Bamakom non-profit organization — plans that include clear boundaries for all 35 unrecognized villages.
It’s not only shepherds or farmers who live in the unrecognized villages. Doctors, lawyers and teachers live there too. They also want quality of life. They also want to feel they are citizens with equal rights. And they know very well what is happening around them. They see how many communities the Jews have established around them, with admissions committees to make sure that no Arab will ever be able to live there. They know that the few farms that prosper, with their cheese and wine and eco-tourism, exist only because the Israel Lands Administration prefers to give out land for free as long as the recipients are Jews. They know that the unrecognized Bedouin villages are several times more crowded than the Jewish communities, and yet the government prefers to establish new Jewish communities rather than recognize the existing Bedouin ones.
After decades of discrimination and neglect, the Bedouin community is ready for change. It is better educated, and it is much more willing to participate in civil discourse and constructive dialogue with the authorities and with Israeli society as a whole. A government policy whose entire purpose is to reduce the Bedouin community’s living space while cutting off its livelihood will result only in poverty, frustration and alienation. The Negev cannot be developed on the ruins of the villages. It can happen only when the Bedouins are full partners in it.
The writer, an attorney, is the director of the Rights of the Negev Bedouin Project at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.