Saturday, May 25, 2013

Of malignant hatred and a law of theft

Last Monday afternoon there landed in my email box a message from somebody who is in the habit of corresponding with me every few days, expressing opinions in which moderation and tolerance are conspicuously absent. This time he wrote with glee "Look what your Bedouin friends did this time, already four deaths in the terrorist attack on the Be'er Sheba bank."

I quickly went into the news websites and found extensive reporting on the horrific events unfolding at the Bank Hapoalim branch in Be'er Sheba.

The body of the article had nothing about the ethnic identity of the perpetrators (at the time it was thought there were two). But the talkback windows below were full of dozens of responses by people who already knew as a fact that they were Bedouins, and who were indignantly protesting that the "leftist media" was "concealing" this fact. And thence the right-wing talk back artists proceeded to make various imaginative suggestions about what should be done to the perpetrators, to their families, to their entire tribes, and to all Negev Bedouins in general.

By evening it turned out, clearly and unequivocally, that the bank killings had been the result of a revenge spree by a completely kosher Jewish citizen of Israel (and a former IDF officer, to boot) and the vocal right wingers reluctantly let go the prey they thought they had. One of them wrote, "OK, you won this time, dirty leftists”. But they'll be back, no doubt.

The outpourings of hatred against the Negev Bedouins don’t stop even for a day. You find them not only in the talk backs but also in some of the commentaries on the opinion pages themselves, and in the slant of supposedly objective news items, and also in daily conversations one overhears on a bus or at street corners. The Bedouin are thieves, The Bedouins are violent, The Bedouins build new mosques all over the Negev, The Bedouins take over state lands, The Bedouins are a demographic threat, their camels cause road accidents, Hit the Bedouin and Save Israel!. How did such a malignant and vociferous hatred spring up in the Israeli society?

It was not always so. From my Tel Aviv childhood in the 1950s and 1960s I can’t  recall anyone expressing hatred towards Bedouins. We learned of them as exotic and interesting people, wandering the desert and riding camels. On one visit to Be'er Sheva I was delighted to have a few minutes’ ride on one of these camels, and the Bedouin who led it looked  just like the picture in the school textbook.

Of course, no one bothered to tell elementary school students in Tel Aviv (or  adults, for that matter) about what really happened in the Negev in those years. We were not told that although the Bedouins had hardly taken part in the war of 1948, the state of Israel nevertheless treated them as defeated enemies. They were placed under an oppressive military government and many of them expelled across the Jordanian or Egyptian border. Those who remained within Israel were concentrated by force in a single small part of the Negev which was called “The Sayag” (what would have been called “a reservation” had they been Indians in America). Bedouin villages in other parts of the Negev were razed to the ground and Jewish pioneers came to take up this land and build on it kibbutzim and moshavim and in short "make the desert bloom."

This was the time when a Bedouin youth named Nuri al-Ukbi, who would become the pioneer of the Bedouins’ Civil Rights struggle, got a firsthand experience of expulsion from his home village, Al- Arakib. The Sheikh, Nuri’s father, had expressed support for the young State of Israel as soon as its soldiers came to his village, and hoisted the Blue and White flag when the Tribal Court was in session at his residence. Even so, the soldiers came in 1951 and expelled him and his family and his entire tribe and forced them to move to another location designated for them by the army, many miles away.  The village lands were registered as “State Lands" as had happened to all Bedouin lands. Later, the authorities began denying that any such village had ever existed. Only in the yellowing records of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior were left references to a polling station being placed at  Al-Arakib Village during the first Knesset elections in 1949.

That was also a crucial time for a young kibbutznik  named Oded Pilavsky, who came to settle in the Negev as a pioneer and a believer in Zionism and Socialism and The Brotherhood of Nations. Pilavsky was sent by his Kibbutz to take part in harvesting the fields which had been planted by the neighboring Bedouins and which were left "abandoned" when the army removed these Bedouin and took them far away. It was this event which pushed Pilavsky to leave the kibbutz and altogether break off with Zionism and spend the rest of his life, until his death last year, in the ranks of the radical left in Israel.

All of that was known only to few in the general society. We grew up with the myth of the nomadic Bedouin wandering the vast desert on camel's back, here today and faraway tomorrow. And of course such a nomad could not own any land - and why would he need such ownership, anyway? Almost no one knew that already for centuries the Negev Bedouins were no nomads. Already for centuries they had been settled on well-defined plots, and cultivated them with boundless devotion to make the most of the scanty rainfall at the edge of the desert. Each tribe, and each family within the tribe, and each individual within the family, knew exactly where their plot of land was and what were its boundaries.

Successive rulers over the country, the Ottomans followed by the British, had recognized Bedouin ownership of their lands. In fact, usually there were not so many others interested in these lands – and if somebody did want to buy them, they paid the Bedouin owners the full price, under the tribal land laws. So did also the Jewish National Fund, when during the British Mandate it purchased Negev lands for the Zionist movement. But that was before the State of Israel was established, when at the stroke of a pen Bedouin land ownership was nullified and all their lands declared to be "state lands” – making all Bedouins living on them into “squatters”.

This constitutional coup had already been going on, out of sight, in the 1950s.
But hatred of Bedouins there was not at this time. Why should anyone hate a handful of camel-riding exotic nomads? But in the 1970s and 1980s the situation began to change. First of all, the Bedouins themselves were changing. They no longer lived under a military government, and more and more they began to organize and demand their rights. And an increasing number of young Bedouins were able to get to university and gain an academic degree, though it was much more difficult for them than for their Jewish Israeli contemporaries.

Furthermore, the number of Bedouins rose rapidly, a poor community with a very high birthrate, and they were no longer the small handful left in the Negev in the aftermath of 1948. And this increase alarmed those who are obsessed with the “demographic balance”, a type of accountants busy with constant calculations in which all Jews are entered on the credit side and all Arabs on the debit, and similarly any house in which a Jew lives and any acre cultivated by Jews is considered a gain while any Arab house or acre constitute a loss. Many of Israel’s decision makers are always busy with making such accounts, regardless of which political party got to form the current government.

At that time an attempt was made to concentrate the Bedouins in townships, and let them take up as few acres as possible on the ground. This was presented as a benevolent gesture by a government seeking to do its best for the Bedouins. But the townships were overcrowded and lacked sources of livelihood, quickly becoming mired in poverty and distress. Those who were tempted to go there were required to give up what remained of their land and traditional way of life, and who have not yet moved did not feel any great urge to do so.

The  scattered Bedouin villages were declared "unrecognized villages”, where all buildings are considered illegal by definition, and there is no way to get a building permit. From time to time bulldozers come to demolish the houses, and a law passed at the initiative of right-wing Knesset Members made it illegal to connect "illegal houses" to electricity, water or sewage – dooming generations of Bedouins to grow up without access to such facilities.

At the same time, the government embarked on an extensive effort to induce  Jews from the center of the country to settle in the Negev and increase the Jewish majority there. Since nowadays there are fewer idealistic pioneers who want to establish a kibbutz or a moshav, the government encourages the establishment of "family farms." Any Jewish Israeli family finding in themselves a bit of Zionist pioneering spirit can get a very nice house in the  Negev for next to nothing, linked of course to water and electricity and sewage at government expense, and surrounded by a plot of land larger than that available to an entire Bedouin tribe. For its part the media published feature stories praising and paying tribute to these modern pioneers.

And this is probably the time when Bedouin hatred began to permeate the Israeli Jewish society. It trickled down from politicians who began to find in it a convenient  tool for career advancement. For example, Pinni Badash started his political career as a member of the Tzomet Party, whose leader Rafael Eitan once spoke of Arabs as "drugged cockroaches running around in a bottle". Eitan is long since gone and his party is but a fading memory, but Pinni Badash remains the long-standing mayor of Omer, the affluent suburb of Be’ersheba. And indeed, he made a name for himself in the fight against the Bedouins, in particular in relentless efforts to expel members of the Tarabin Tribe whose impoverished village hindered the town’s expansion. Eventually he did get rid of them, clearing the space for a very lucrative and prestigious real estate development project. Subsequently he won handsomely the municipal elections, following a  campaign in which he voiced dire warnings about the serious threat posed by Bedouin land thieves who take over state lands.

Then came the moment when the government established a Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Eliezer Goldberg to look into the Bedouin problem.  Goldberg did grapple with the issue and even took the trouble to hear the opinions of some Bedouins. The Goldberg Commission's conclusions included a recommendation to recognize at least a large part of the unrecognized Bedouin villages and give them official status, building permits and basic services such as water and electricity.

The Bedouins were not entirely enthusiastic about the Goldberg Commission's conclusions,  but also did not reject them outright. But there were government officials that very much disliked them. Ehud Prawer was appointed by the Prime Minister to review the recommendations and improve them, and he did a thorough job of deleting any item that might be remotely acceptable to the Bedouins.  And National Security Yacov Amidror declared the matter of the Bedouins to be a serious national security issue, and he got to make still further changes and improvements.

The program eventually left after all these changes no longer included the option of recognizing existing villages. Instead, it included the offer to each individual Bedouin to come and apply for a plot of land, which the government might grant him at an unspecified location according to an extremely complicated table of calculations. It is far from sure that even the officials who drew it up completely understand it), with the underlying basic assumption that the Bedouins have no title to any land and therefore anything given them would be a special favor. Anyone refusing these generous offers and insisting upon sticking to his land would be liable to up to two years’ imprisonment and the loss of further entitlement to land. The number of Bedouins who would be forcibly evicted from their land is estimated at 30,000 to 40,000.

Bedouin organizations got together with Jewish activists who supported their cause, to cry out in protest against the Prawer Plan. Prime Minister Netanyahu then appointed Minister Benny Begin to examine the program again and meet with Bedouins and propose amendments and changes. And Begin, whose political career was nearing its end, did present a revised and improved plan, and stated that its purpose was to ensure the welfare of the Bedouins and provide humane living conditions for their children. He then added that "where possible" recognition would be given to existing villages. However, Human Rights organizations which examined minutely the fine print and the technical clauses and sub-sections concluded that there was no fundamental difference from the Prawer Plan and that tens of thousands would still be uprooted and expelled from their land.

When the cabinet approved the Begin Plan, the right wing protested vociferously, their cri de coeur reverberating in the banner headlines of the twin Ma'ariv and Makor Rishon newspaper. They bitterly accused Begin of having sold out to the Bedouins and warned that Israel was abut to lose the Negev. Their representatives in government demanded that the plan be drastically changed and the far-reaching concessions made to the Bedouins be removed. And indeed the plan was approved at the Ministerial Committee for Legislation only after the Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lapid promised the ministers of the Jewish Home Party that the amount of land to be given to the Bedouins will be cut drastically so as to ensure that the Jewish State of Israel will continue to hold on firmly to the Negev.

And that is the "Law on Bedouin Permanent Residence" which the Government of Israel intends to bring to its first reading in the Knesset on Monday, 27 May 2013. In preparation for this important event, last Thursday there arrived a big entourage at the Bedouin village Atir, which is located in the North-Eastern Negev, not far from the Yatir Forest and from the Green Line. Representatives of the Israel Lands Administration and the Green Patrol came there, accompanied by hundreds of police. Within hours, they destroyed eighteen buildings and uprooted hundreds of olive and fruit trees, leaving dozens of people homeless. They also loaded on trucks and took away agricultural equipment of all kinds as well as household items, among them lifesaving medical devices for children.

It was, it seems, an effort to signal to the Bedouin villagers the merciless fate which they might expect once the law is enacted. Specifically, a similar fate to that of Atir is also in store for its neighboring village of Umm Hiran, which is to be razed, its site to be used partly for building a new Jewish community and partly for extension of the Yatir Forest by the JNF.  After the work of destruction is ended and the construction and forestry work completed, tourists might be invited to see how once more the desert is made to bloom.

This morning, as I sit here writing, a great “procession of protest and outcry” is setting out from the community center at Bedouin town of Rahat and moving through the streets. Protesters are led by residents of  Arakib, who had undergone several times the trauma of destruction and displacement but did not give up their village, rebuilding it again and again. At the end of the procession, Bedouins and Jewish activists intend to go to Atir, to rebuild  destroyed houses and plant new olive trees to replace those which were uprooted.

Days before the expected vote in the Knesset the case was taken up by the Avaaz organization. Avaaz is known for its energetic campaigns against notorious acts of injustice around the globe and has already succeeded in some cases to influence the policies of various governments.  The present campaign aims at  stopping at the last moment the dispossession and destruction planned by the Israeli government against its Negev Bedouin citizens.

And what if the law does pass its first reading, and second and third ones as well, and comes to implementation in the field?

Itzchak Aharonovitz, Minister of Public Security, has stated that he would undertake enforcement of this law only provided that the Ministry of Finance undertakes to finance the hiring of a two hundred and fifty new policemen.

Two hundred and fifty extra police to enforce this draconian law all over the Negev? The minister must be an optimist.