Negev Bedouins in a village in the West Bank. Photo published on the Facebook page Bédouins du Néguev.
Bedouins – a semi-nomadic Arab community – have for several centuries lived in the Negev desert region, which has been considered Israeli territory since 1948. Activists have condemned moves by Israel to relocate a dozen Bedouin villages and reclaim hundreds of thousands of hectares to build cities in the desert. We spoke to a Bedouin who is concerned about the fate of his people’s unique culture.
The protesters were mainly demonstrating against the Prawer-Begin plan, which is currently under consideration by the Israeli parliament. The plan involves taking around 40,000 Bedouins living in remote villages in the Negev desert, and resettling them. In exchange, they would receive financial compensation.
Since 1968, Israel has built seven small towns where more than half of the Bedouin community lives. But 45 Bedouin villages have resisted this urbanisation policy and are thus considered illegal by Israel, which also accuses these villagers of continuing to build homes without permission.
On Monday, protesters took to the streets to condemn the Pawer-Begin plan. Photo by Atta Jabr.
Under the Prawer-Begin plan, Israeli authorities expect to relocate the villagers to new buildings, but there are no details yet on where these buildings will be.
The total amount of compensation has been estimated at between 1.3 and 1.8 billion euros. The political right in Israel immediately criticised this amount as too generous. The Bedouin community, however, say this is a pittance. That’s also the view of a number Arab-Israeli activists, who believe the Bedouins will be left short-changed.
On Monday, hundreds of people gathered for protests in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and in several Israeli cities in support of Negev Bedouins. At Beersheva, the largest city in the Negev desert, 14 people were arrested as protesters tried to block a road. Three police officers were injured. In all, 28 people were arrested during Monday’s demonstrations.
Some stores in Beer Sheva closed their doors Monday in support of protesters.
Amichai Yogev, a southern district representative for the Zionist NGO Regavim, which works to “protect Israel’s lands”, claimed the protesters were mainly activists from Arab minorities in Israel, and that there were very few Bedouins among them. He accused the activists trying to “create chaos and make the problem unsolvable”.
The Prawer-Begin plan was part of a broad policy launched in the 2000s to deal with overpopulation along the Israeli coast. Programmes to develop infrastructure, notably transport, were designed to make the desert habitable.
The Bedouins, who number around four million, live in deserts in Sinai, the Arabian Peninsula and Syria. They speak Arabic dialects, have a unique culture, and live mainly from agriculture and from rearing livestock.
Bedouins are semi-nomadic. Many of them make a living by breeding livestock. Photo published on the Facebook page Bédouins du Néguev.
“It’s not just a question of space – our land has symbolic value”
Ibraheem al Wakeli is a Bedouin. He is a member of the regional council of Negev villages not recognised by Israel.
There are 203,000 Negev Bedouins in all, if you count those who have been displaced [the Israeli army has been conducting military operations in the desert since 1968]. Today, 97,000 Bedouins live in the Negev, and 40,000 of them will be directly affected by the Prawer-Begin plan. But we all know that, sooner or later, the rest will be affected by the plan as well.The Bedouin people are semi-nomadic. We move according to the seasons, and take our livestock to graze far away from the desert. But we also have homes, and we go back there every few months.In the eyes of Israeli law, some of our dwellings are illegal [officially, Israel will only recognise land ownership in the Negev if the owner can show a document provided by the British Mandate of Palestine administration in 1921. Very few Bedouins ever got hold of this document]. However, some of us have land deeds from the Ottoman Empire dating back some 300 years; others obtained deeds in the 1930s under the British mandate, but these are worth nothing to the Israelis.Bedouins usually cook outdoors.“We’re scared of losing our accent, our traditions…”Under the plan, every household will be granted a new home, but this doesn’t fit into our lifestyle at all. Our land has symbolic value; it’s not just a question of how much space we get. For example, in our homes, there’s this area called the Diwan, where we welcome strangers. We separate our private lives from what we show our guests. If the new homes are anything like those in the seven villages that exist already, there probably won’t be a Diwan.The Diwan is a specific room in Bedouins' houses used to entertain guests. Photo by Yoan Lerman.The Israeli state wants to stop us from being nomadic: we’ll find ourselves in villages built from scratch, surrounded by Hebrew-speaking people. However, most of us don’t speak Hebrew. It’ll be very hard for us to integrate. A quarter of Bedouins live from breeding livestock, and about 40 percent from agriculture. They want to take these practices away from us. We are scared of losing our accent, our traditions … We would feel like prisoners in these new buildings, both physically and psychologically.Buildings like this one, in Hura, were built to house Bedouins. However, many Bedouins say they're not adapted to their culture.“For us, it’s as if it’s becoming occupied territory”It’s true that there were Palestinian flags at Monday’s demonstration, and many of the protesters were not Bedouins. But this doesn’t change the problem. If other people join our protest, it’s because they have sympathy for our cause. They’re fighting for the same core issue of land grabbing and displacement that we’re experiencing. We feel like Israeli authorities want to kick us out. We feel that it’s our land, and we are losing it for the sake of territorial expansion. For us, it’s as if the Negev is becoming occupied territory. [Editor’s Note: The Negev desert has been under Israeli administration since the 1948 partition].