Saturday, December 7, 2013

And then came the Bedouin Day of Rage

The media usually weren't interested. "So the Bedouins are demonstrating again? Against the Prawer Law? You mean this law of Minister Begin? And also Jews will demonstrate with them? A few leftists perhaps. How do you call this village where they demonstrate? I never heard of such a place. An unrecognized village? Well then, who can recognize it. Twenty kilometers from Beershebah? I see. Tomorrow evening at seven? Well, we'll see if we have somebody free. Say, why are the Bedouins crying so much, anyway? The government wants to give them modern houses, what's wrong with that. What do you say? They are going to be expelled from their lands? Tens of thousands? But Bedouins are nomads. Nomads don't have lands. What do you say? Bedouins aren't nomads? But everybody knows Bedouins are nomads. No matter, say, is there going to be something hot in this demonstration? Some clash, something sexy? What? You are not planning to clash with the police? No action? Well, I will see whether we have somebody free in the South at that time. Bye."

On lucky occasions, a photo did make it into the back-pages: a sheikh in traditional clothing, and behind him young Bedouins in jeans together with students from Tel-Aviv University holding signs "Prawer will not pass!" in Hebrew and Arabic. But it quite often happened that a demonstration - even a big one - took place without the Israeli public knowing about it even by a hint.

Politicians and commentators were heard saying that this was a good law which would greatly benefit the Bedouins and what a pity it was that the ingrates did not grasp this. There were also who said that the law would give the Bedouins far more than they deserved, that indeed they deserved nothing at all,  since the Bedouins “are taking over State Lands and building on them illegally " and “constitute a demographic threat" and “organized crime is rampant among them " and so on and so on. " State Lands" was the term commonly used, which is their status under Israeli law.  

The Bedouins tried their best to reiterate that they had lived in the Negev centuries before Israel dreamed of being born, that land ownership by every tribe and every family within each tribe had been determined by Bedouin Tribal Law and has been recognized by the many changing rulers who had power in this country. For example, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II had not always been a paragon of enlightenment in his conduct, but when he decided to build the town of Beersheba in the middle of the desert he made ​​sure to buy the land from its Bedouin owners at full price. When the land came under British rule, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill came to Jerusalem in March 1921, where he met with a delegation of Bedouin sheikhs and assured them that the tribes’ ownership over their lands would be respected and that land ownership cases in the Negev would be adjudicated according to Bedouin Tribal law - a promise which was honored until the day when the last British High Commissioner sailed away. Also the Zionist movement at the time, when seeking to set up Kibbutzim in the Negev, saw no problem in approaching  Bedouin land owners, paying for the land and signing with them deeds of sale.  

Only when the Negev became part of the newly founded Israel was the legal situation changed and with a stroke of the pen all Bedouin lands became State Lands, a property of the Government of Israel earmarked for the settlement of Jews. Overnight, the Bedouins became "intruders" and "squatters" in their own ancestral lands, and many of them were expelled in the early 1950’s. Some were transferred by force beyond the borders, and those who remained inside Israel were concentrated in a small area called "The Sayyag”. It is from this small remnant that the "Prawer Law " would expel them.

The facts of this history had been written down by Bedouins with a university education and by several Human Rights organizations.  This was published in articles and brochures and internet websites as well as in several thick tomes, full of documents and photos. But all this stuff reached mainly those who were  convinced already. Most citizens of Israel neither knew nor cared.

The Prawer Law’s  public relations were greatly helped by its being identified  with former minister Benny Begin, a man with a reputation for honesty and integrity who was considered a Liberal by Likud Party standards – which led other Likudniks, who have no fondness for Liberals, to terminate Begin’s career early this year.  The “Regulation of Negev Bedouin Settlement Act", to cite its official name, was Begin’s swan song. He gave repeated assurances  that his bill was drafted in consultation with Bedouins; that it was designed to help them and improve their conditions and to give their children better opportunities in life. It is quite possible that Begin himself honestly believed so.

But Human Rights activists have examined the text of the bill presented to the Knesset and found that, as in many cases, "the devil is in the details." When the details were looked into, it emerged that the bill which Begin introduced in the cabinet and the Knesset was virtually identical with that proposed a year earlier by Ehud Prawer, former military officer and a senior official of the Prime Minister’s bureau.

The bill states that any Bedouin may file a request for a piece of land to be registered in his name and that "whenever possible" this would be the land on which he is living at present. But what will determine whether this is "possible" or "impossible"? The bill does not say. And where will those who are moved get alternative land? Would it be in one of the Bedouin townships, very densely populated and poverty stricken, where the State of Israel already concentrated tens of thousands of Bedouins in the seventies? On this, too, the bill remains  silent.

What does appear very explicitly is the penal clause: a Bedouin dissatisfied with the deal offered him could not challenge it in court - and if insisting on remaining at his current location, he would be evicted by force and might be liable to as much as two years’ imprisonment. At the cabinet meeting where the bill was adopted as an official policy of the Government of Israel, the estimate was made that implementation of the law would necessitate the recruiting of  several hundred new police officers. By now, even without the law being finally adopted, the officers have already been recruited and a new police unit,  called "Yoav " has already started operations in the Negev Bedouin villages.

How many of the thirty-five “Unrecognzied Villages”, which have existed for many years though denied links to water and electricity, are condemned by the Prawer Law to be demolished and razed to the ground? No one knows. How many residents would be expelled? No one knows this, either. The figure of thirty to forty thousand, mentioned in various demonstrations and protests, is only a reasonable estimate. To be more precise, somebody – or a few select somebodies – might know. Already for some time, journalists with good sources in the corridors of power tell of a map depicting exactly what the consequences of the Prawer Law would be on the ground, which villages would be destroyed and which would survive. But this map, if it exists, is kept a closely guarded secret, as if it were a top secret military document. Certainly no one had presented it to the Knesset Members who are expected to vote on this bill.

By the way, it might be that the similarity to military secrecy is not completely coincidental, considering that most of the government officials involved in the issue have an extensive military past. In charge of the implementing the Bedouin Resettlement Project is none other than Major General ( Ret.) Doron Almog – the same Doron Almog who in 2005 fled in haste from Heathrow Airport in London when being told that a British arrest warrant had been  issued against him on suspicion of war crimes, because of his involvement in the destruction of fifty Palestinian houses in the Gaza Strip .

The Bedouins have very many good reasons for protesting and crying out with all their might against this bill, but until this week their cry did not really reach the ears of the general public. Out of Israel, it got a bit little more of an echo. In  many places there were protest demonstrations at Israeli embassies and institutions (including some by young American Jews ). Quite a lot of people went into YouTube to view “Fiddler Without a Roof”, the video produced by " Rabbis for Human Rights and featuring Theodore Bikel , well known for portraying Tevye  in “Fiddler on the Roof”. " A comparison is drawn between the expulsion of the Jews from the shtetl of Anatebka in Czarist Russia - with which the musical ends - and the expected expulsion of the Negev Bedouin, touching many sensitive strings.

Also the European Parliament held a special session on the Prawer Law and its implications. This did get covered in the Israeli media, mainly in a tone of exasperation at the European interference in internal Israeli affairs and broad hints that this was due to anti-semitism.

The Prawer Law rolled forward through the Israeli legislative system – approved in its First Reading after a tense and heated debate and going on to the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee – towards final approval and entry into the statute books of the State of Israel and implementation on the ground by the hundreds of police officers who were already been recruited. But then the ​​government of Binyamin Netanyahu went one provocation too far. A few weeks ago the ministers went southwards to the Negev and held a special cabinet meeting at Kibbutz Sde Boker, where Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion lived in his last years and where he is buried. So as to celebrate Ben Gurion’s heritage, a special “Facing towards the Negev” governmental program was adopted. Its centerpiece would be the demolition and complete razing of the Bedouin village of Umm Al Hiran and the creation on its site of a  a Jewish community called - how original – Hiran. A kind of appetizer towards the main course to be served once the Prawer Law is enacted by the Knesset. The intended new residents of Jewish-Hiran-to-be have already been selected and are getting ready to move in. Interestingly, they are religious-nationalists, mostly young settlers who will be coming directly from settlements on the West Bank. "The Negev is Eretz-Yisrael, too, and it is incumbent on Jews to settle there." said their leader on the radio. " I don’t understand all this fuss.  When we went into Judea and Samaria, Peace Now called upon us to go down to the Negev instead. Now we are really going there. Has that become forbidden, too?" Yes, mister settler, also within the Green Line stealing somebody else’s property is a morally unacceptable act.

The Umm al-Hiran affair was the spark which set off the  “Bedouin Day of Rage", on November 30, 2013 – a date which might well go down in the history of the Bedouins in Israel, and not only theirs. There was a major demonstration of Bedouins and their supporters at the Bedouin town of Hura in the Negev, as well as solidarity protests in Haifa and Jaffa and  Taybeh and the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. And the media editors were certainly not disappointed this time. These demonstrations were very hot indeed, with a lot of "action " .

"A policeman grabbed a girl by the throat, right near me. When I tried to convince him to leave her alone, he hit me in the leg with his club” wrote veteran activist Alma Biblash a few hours after returning from Hura. "Another officer grabbed me by the arms and dragged me away. A moment later the second policeman grabbed a little boy standing next to me, and stuck his face hard into the ground, screaming and threatening to kill him . A young woman called out “Relax, stop beating everybody!”. He slapped her hard in the face and she fell. They started spraying the crowd with a strong stream of stinking water, and I run and run to get away from this horrible smell. A man ran near me. Suddenly the mounted police came, throwing him up into the air. I hid behind a parked car with stun grenades exploding all around. At a quiet moment I decided to go back again towards the buses. On the way I saw a crying child on the floor, I told him it was dangerous to sit there like this, but he did not hear me or maybe did not understand Hebrew . Finally he got up and ran with me. Suddenly somebody called him, he recognized the voice, snatched away his hand and run off. Finally I got back on the bus, more or less a safe place. One friend came in with a swollen face, another with a deep gash in her back, blood on her face and her shirt. Some who were at the demonstration did not return, they were left in police detention. Some had been taken off to detention in ambulances . "

The next day, the Bedouin made the headlines in every newspaper in Israel. "Riot, Disturbances, Clashes". "Bedouins take to the streets." "Bedouins burst out in furious demonstrations." "Bedouins rioted and rampaged." "Violence in the Negev." "Bedouins threw stones at police officers". " Brutal police violence against Bedouins, children and youths dragged on the pavement". “The Negev is exploding". “Is The Third Intifada starting - in the Negev?". The angles of coverage were different and contradictory, but certainly a few hours of clashes in front of clicking cameras did what a year of peaceful protests never did. The Bedouins and their problem with the Prawer Law got to the top of the public agenda .

"This was only a minority of radical law-breaker, the Bedouin silent majority supports the government’s plan. We will not yield to violence" declared PM Netanyahu. Also President Peres declared his support for going on with the legislation as “the best available solution”. But precisely Netanyahu’s partners on the far right seem to have a different opinion. "Bennett and Lieberman agreed to torpedo the Bedouin Law " announced a banner headline in Ma’ariv”. As the reporter noted, there is only a narrow margin in the Knesset separating the left-wing which opposes the Prawer Law and the government supporters. If it will also be opposed by two major right wing parties, Naftali Bennet’s “Jewish Home” and Avigdor Liebarman’s “Israel is Our Home”, it would be a death blow to the Prawer law. "This law was a personal project of Benny Begin. Begin assured us that the Bedouins will support it. Now we see the Bedouins are violently resisting it, so why should we support it? Why should we give them anything at all? We will teach the Bedouins a lesson,  torpedo this law and then go on to defend the lands of the Jewish Nation, with no concessions. No holds barred" said KM Robert Iltov, Lieberman's representative .

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a veteran Human Rights activist, compared the “punishing" of the Bedouins by torpedoing the Prawer Law  with the story of  the mischievous "Br’er Rabbit" in Black American folklore, who tricked his enemies bent upon punishing him and made them throw him into the thicket of thorns which was his home.

And seriously - with or without the Prawer Law , the struggle for the rights of the Negev Bedouins has just begun.

Stop the Begin-Prawer Law -

Demonstration in Tel - Aviv
Today , Saturday , December 7, 2013 at 19:00
Ben-Zion Boulevard corner King George

We call:
No to the Begin-Prawer Plan!
No to displacement of 40,000 Bedouin from their homes!
No to the destruction of dozens of villages!
Yes to the alternative zoning plan formulated by the Bedouin community!!!
 Stand with the Bedouin Community! Come and be counted!

(signed) The Recognition Forum