The destruction of the homes of the Bedouin families at Umm al-Hiran this month was an inhuman act. They had been living there for years and overnight were left homeless with their children in the freezing Negev cold. It may have been legal but it certainly didn’t serve the cause of justice.
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At a meeting at Ben-Gurion University last week, the pain and anger of the Bedouin community in the Negev was apparent. Ra’ad Abu al-Kiyan, representing the Bedouin of Umm al-Hiran and a relative of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, the Bedouin teacher who was shot to death there, expressed the frustration and rage felt by many. No representatives of the government agencies dealing with the Negev Bedouin accepted the invitation to appear at the gathering.
That the forcible eviction of the Bedouin families from their homes would be a tragic event, an event that might even lead to physical injury and loss of life, should have been foreseen. With all due respect for the law and the decisions of the High Court of Justice, when enforcement of the law is bound to result in large-scale human suffering, compassion should be given precedence and consideration should be given to changes to the law that would prevent such suffering.
The forcible eviction was also stupid. The Negev Bedouin, although the most disadvantaged segment of Israeli society, have for many years been a community friendly to the state, many of its sons serving in the Israel Defense Forces. This friendship was maintained for years, even though the Bedouin have been mistreated and neglected by successive Israeli governments while undergoing a traumatic transition from an ancient and noble nomadic lifestyle to living in a modern industrialized economy.
Government attempts to introduce urbanization have been only partially successful. When applied by force they inevitably fail. There has been insufficient investment and development in an education system that would provide young Bedouin with the tools needed in a modern society. Years of neglect that can be rightly called criminal negligence let the Islamic Movement’s northern branch make inroads into the Negev Bedouin community, preaching radical Islam and hate for the State of Israel, telling the Bedouin they were Palestinians and shouldn’t serve in the IDF.
Despite all this the Abu al-Kiyan tribe has a long history of friendship with the State of Israel. Many of its young men have served in the IDF, some of them as officers. Whatever possessed the government to decide to use force to uproot the Bedouin families at Umm al-Hiran and risk turning friends into enemies? The representatives of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch of course made their appearances at Yakub Abu al-Kiyan’s funeral, trying to make political capital out of the tragedy that had befallen the families.
Hopefully the events at Umm al-Hiran will constitute a wake-up call for the government. Maybe, rather than passing the problem from minister to minister, the government will finally assemble a panel of experts to craft a coherent policy for the Negev Bedouin. Land ownership may not even be the most urgent problem.
What is needed first and foremost is a comprehensive plan for education from kindergarten to university, an education that will lead the next generation of Bedouin into the 21st century. It should include a system of incentives that will promote voluntary urbanization and encourage Bedouin youth to volunteer for service in the IDF. Many Bedouin by their own efforts have made that transition successfully in recent years – they should be invited to take part in this effort.
It may not be too late to achieve the gradual integration of the Bedouin community of the Negev into Israeli society and the economy.