By Salena Tramel
Down south in Israel’s Negev Desert, the sounds of jets fill wide-open spaces. At least 80 percent of the land is used for military training purposes, including developing and testing weapons. The Negev also contains the largest petrochemical processing center in the Middle East and Israel’s nuclear facilities. Bedouin communities who call the remaining land home are routinely displaced by force. For the Bedouins, the sound of homes collapsing under bulldozers often drowns out the sounds of jets.
For some, the notion of Bedouins conjures up orientalist images of the Arabian Nights: cloaked men on camels with several veiled wives in tow, elaborate tent cities in wastelands and tribal warfare. But this couldn’t be farther from reality. One of the most marginalized ethnic groups in the Middle East, modern Bedouin communities battle governments for the right to remain on their lands, where a rich agrarian and pastoralist tradition has sustained them for generations. In Israel’s Negev, both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli state’s development agenda for the region pose a challenge to the political and economic rights of the Bedouin.
The Bedouin appeared in what is now Israel seven thousand years ago, making them the longest continuous residents of the region. An ethnic mix of descendents of Arab nomads, peasants from cultivated areas and sub-Saharan African slaves, the Negev Bedouin are constantly targeted for displacement by Israeli policies.
Before Israel achieved statehood in 1948, approximately 90,000 Bedouins lived in the Negev’s rocky desert terrain. The vast majority of them were evicted when their lands were expropriated by the new state. Tens of thousands of Bedouins were forced to flee to neighboring Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and what are now the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza—reducing the Negev population to 11,000. Now, more than sixty years later, the Bedouin in the Negev number 200,000, 25 percent of the mostly Jewish southern desert.
Many Bedouin struggle with their identities and their place in Israeli society. As if it’s not complicated enough to be a Palestinian, an Israeli or a Bedouin—try being all three at the same time. “We are Palestinian somehow because we were here with our Palestinian brothers and sisters before the state,” noted Khalil Alamour, a Bedouin leader. Alamour further added that his tribe, his Muslim faith and his Israeli citizenship are also integral to his identity. “We identify with justice,” he concluded.
Today, Israeli Bedouins are in a Kafkaesque legal limbo, living in villages that do not appear on maps because mapping them would require providing public infrastructure such as water and garbage collection. Building schools is discouraged because of the “legitimacy” that schools provide in terms of establishing residency.
Approximately 70,000 Bedouins inhabit forty-five unmapped villages across the Negev (the rest live in designated townships). These Bedouin villagers have self-organized to form the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, a vehicle for joining together to fight for recognition by the state and for the provision of equal services.
Israel’s destructive policies toward the Bedouin are based on demographic planning through land use control and appropriation. The state works to consistently increase Jewish settlement in the Negev at the expense of its other inhabitants. Public services and rights, like those to water and electricity, are often used as bargaining chips, rewarded to the Bedouin in exchange for the relinquishing of their rights to the land.
In 2005, the Jewish National Fund announced “Blueprint Negev,” a $600 million development initiative aimed at bringing at least 250,000 new Jewish immigrants—mostly from English-speaking countries—to the desert where they could live in isolated suburban neighborhoods. The project, which is to be completed by 2013, disproportionally provides services and infrastructure to the new immigrants, ignoring the needs of people already living there.
The Jewish National Fund’s “Ambassador Forest,” a key component of Blueprint Negev, will cover large swaths of land that the Bedouin have inhabited for generations. Part of that land includes the village of Al Arakib, a 100-year-old Bedouin village that is already surrounded by the Ambassador Forest’s first trees intended for Jewish suburbs.
Al Arakib, population 300, is one of the unrecognized villages. On the eve of Ramadan this August, the village made headlines when Israeli forces stormed it and demolished about forty homes—for the third time in less than a month. When the authorities had finished their job, families were left homeless under the blazing sun. With no other option than to begin from scratch, residents started rebuilding immediately, even while abstaining from food and water during the month-long Muslim daytime fast. To make matters worse, the village has been razed two times since.
Many Bedouin leaders realize that it is necessary to address the status of other villages facing the same fate as Al Arakib. Khalil Alamour’s village, Al Sira, with a population of 450, has been tagged with demolition orders since 2006. Today, residents are doing everything in their power to save it. They have worked with the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah), met at the Israeli Court in Beersheba and appealed to a United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur. Alamour even traveled to Geneva, where he presented Al Sira’s case at a UN indigenous people’s session.
“Al Sira has been here at least seven generations,” explained Alamour. “We have the original deed to our land from 1921 that bears the British stamp.” The 45-year-old father of seven was born in the village and attended school there in a Bedouin tent made of goat wool before moving on to Ben Gurion University. Upon completion of his studies, Alamour returned to Al Sira to teach high school at a nearby recognized township. He has lived in the same concrete home for the past twenty-five years but worries that it could be gone overnight.
If Al Sira is indeed demolished, Alamour vows that his community will follow in the footsteps of Al Arakib and rebuild. “We will stay here,” he said. “We have no other choice.” But, Alamour continues to “dream of a better Negev.” “The Negev is huge,” he said, “and the Bedouin only make up about 25 percent of the population. There is more than enough space in the vast desert for Jewish and Bedouin Israelis to coexist peacefully.”
The Bedouins have few options in terms of rebuilding or relocation. Scattered throughout the desert are seven reservation-like towns sanctioned by the Israeli government. Since the towns are allotted the lowest municipal budgets in Israel, people living there have some of the lowest socio-economic indicators in the country. “This is not the proper way to develop a rural population,” said Ra`ed Al-Mickawi, the energetic young director of the Negev-based NGO, Bustan. “The towns are kind of like hostels,” he continued. “They are not good for much more than sleeping.”
Bustan promotes sustainable development for Bedouin and Jewish communities in the Negev. The word “bustan” means fruit-yielding orchard in both Arabic and Hebrew—and is symbolic of what the organization, focused on environmental justice, hopes to achieve. “We offer a model of development that is built on bottom-up solutions and works for economic empowerment and equality,” Al-Mickawi explained.
Bustan’s mission is to garner the best of traditional wisdom and merge that with the benefits of renewable technologies. One example of this work is the Children’s Power Project, which provides solar powered equipment to ill children in unrecognized villages without access to electricity. This equipment is used to refrigerate medications, power oxygen machines and heat the homes of premature babies. The project brings attention to and, hopefully, action around, the unequal provision of services and its health impact on Israel’s Bedouin citizens. At the same time, it also promotes renewable energy as an alternative to the more standard electricity grids and diesel generators.
Bustan is also in the process of building a “Green Center” in the desert. This space is both a showcase for sustainable rural development and a meeting place for Bedouin Israelis, Jewish Israelis and international volunteers to strategize and work together. Among other things, the center includes a rooftop garden, an outdoor grey water-fed nursery, wind turbines and space for the community to gather for events. Bustan hopes to replicate this model in other villages and provide ways for youth to be a main part of the planning of their villages.
“The state has been seeing Bedouin settlement as a problem,” said Al-Mickawi, “but we see this as an opportunity that can be a platform for sustainable development both in Israel and worldwide.” The idea, according to Al-Mickawi, is to challenge both Bedouins and the state by pushing them to think outside the box in terms of alternative solutions. “We can learn from each other by finding the balance between what a modern state has to offer and what can be learned from traditional rural development.” After sixty-two years of impasse, he stressed, it is now time to communicate.
“These recent demolitions in Al-Arakib underscore the urgency of rethinking development in the Negev for all its inhabitants, and, especially, of recognizing the resource rights and human rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel such as the Negev Bedouin,” said Nikhil Aziz, executive director of Grassroots International, a Boston-based organization that supports resource rights and sustainable development in the Middle East and around the world.
Meanwhile, the people of Al-Arakib continue rebuilding, and those of Al Sira and the other unrecognized communities of the Negev remain steadfast, harnessing their collective energy to oppose displacement.
Salena Tramel is the program coordinator for the Middle East and Haiti at Grassroots International and an independent writer. To learn more about the work of Grassroots International in the Middle East and other parts of the world, visitwww.grassrootsonline.org.