Saturday, December 12, 2015

New Jewish settlements planned 'on top of' Bedouin villages, by Natasha Roth, +972

The Israeli government approves a plan for five new settlements in the Negev/Naqab. Rights group says the plan, like Israel’s overall policy regarding its Bedouin citizens, is discriminatory.

A man from the Zanoun family sits on the ruins of his house in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi Al Na’am a few hours after it was demolished by Israeli authorities, Negev, May 18, 2014. Wadi Al-Na’am is the largest unrecognized village in Israel, with about 13,000 inhabitants, most of whom are internally displaced from elsewhere in Israel. The village is not connected to electricity. (Keren Manor/Activestills)
The Israeli government on Sunday [Nov. 22, 2015] approved a plan for five new Jewish settlements to be built in the Negev (Naqab) in the south of Israel. The plan, which was submitted by Housing Minister Yoav Galant of Kulanu, threatens to displace thousands of Bedouin from their homes.

Two of the settlements are due to be built where Bedouin villages already exist, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). The new town of Daya is to be established on top of the unrecognized village of Katamat, which would displace its 1,500 Bedouin residents. Neve Gurion, meanwhile, is meant to be built on part of the land of the recognized village of Be’er Hadaj, home to 6,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel.

“This decision is a mere continuation of the government’s unequal planning policy, which attempts to move the inhabitants of Bedouin villages to urban or semi-urban settlements or existing townships, which are ranked at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and are already under significant stress,” ACRI wrote in a statement on Sunday.

The government’s announcement comes just weeks after the unrecognized Bedouin village of Al-Araqib in the Negev was demolished for the 90th time. Israel’s continual razing of Al Araqib began in 2010, and the village has become a symbol of the ethnic discrimination that characterizes the state’s policies in the Negev.

Since the founding of the State of Israel, Jewish settlement in the Negev has been considered Zionism’s final frontier — an impression largely instilled by the vision of David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister. “It is in the Negev that the people of Israel will be tested,” Ben-Gurion said in the 1950s.

“Only with a united effort … will we accomplish the great mission of populating the wilderness and bringing it to flourish. This effort will determine the fate of the State of Israel and the standing of our people in the history of mankind.” Several years later, he reiterated: “The Negev is a great Zionist asset, with no substitute anywhere in the country.”

Sixty years later, the wheels of Ben-Gurion’s dream have been firmly set in motion. The Prawer Plan, a government framework for forcibly moving thousands of Bedouin living in unrecognized villages in the Negev into impoverished townships, seemed dead in the water until the last elections. During coalition negotiations, the plan was resuscitated as a bargaining chip between the Likud and Jewish Home, with Naftali Bennett leveraging its revival as a condition for joining the government.

Israeli is also expropriating large tracts of Bedouin land – either for “greening” (i.e. planting forests on top of the ruins of demolished villages) under the auspices of the JNF, or for building new Jewish settlements on top of Bedouin towns, as is the state’s wont.

Israel has systematically refused to recognize many of the Negev villages and towns in which Bedouin citizens live, meaning that they have no connections to electricity, water or sewage infrastructure, and are in constant danger of demolition. The new suburban settlements the state builds in the Negev are generally designated for Jews, whereas Bedouin are encouraged to move to Bedouin-only townships that lack economic opportunities and are not designed with Bedouin social structures in mind.

The Negev village of Umm el-Hiran is perhaps the most blatant example of how the state hopes to displace Bedouin citizens for the benefit of Jewish citizens. The Israeli Supreme Court recently upheld plans to demolish Umm el-Hiran and build a Jewish town, named Hiran, in its place. Umm el-Hiran’s Bedouin residents would be forcibly relocated to the nearby township of Hura, according to the state’s plans.

Adjacent to Umm el-Hiran is the village of Atir, which also faces destruction — so that the JNF can expand a manmade forest, named Yatir, over its ruins. (Notice the pattern of only slightly altering names to Hebraize them?)

Housing Minister Galant on Sunday evoked Ben-Gurion when praising the government’s passing of his plan [Heb]: “It is our responsibility to settle the Negev … to turn it into a desirable and thriving area, in keeping with the Zionist vision,” he said.

Originally published at +972 on Nov. 23, 2015   

Friday, October 30, 2015

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Bedouin Facing Eviction Submit New Appeal to Israel's Supreme Court

Acknowledging that the chances of obtaining legal redress are slim, opponents of the eviction are planning for a public struggle.

By Jack Khoury and Shirly Seidler, Ha'aretz Jun 09, 2015

The residents of the unrecognized Bedouin village Umm al-Hiran on Monday petitioned the Supreme Court for another hearing, following its previous ruling that they could be evacuated and the village demolished to make way for the construction of a Jewish community, named Hiran.

The residents, who are represented by the legal aid NGO Adalah, argued in their petition that last month’s ruling constituted a “new and historic law,” requiring another hearing before an expanded Supreme Court bench.

In terms of the “new and historic law,” according to the petition states, “the state may, as owner of the land, instruct that the residents be evacuated at any time it wants, even if the state itself gave them permission to use the land and live there, as it gave the residents of Umm al-Hiran.”

In so doing, according to the petition, the state “utterly ignored the lengthy period of time the citizens lived on the land,” and made it impossible for them to protect themselves constitutionally.

“The state is the owner of the disputed land, which was registered to it in the framework of an arrangement process,” Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote in the verdict that has been challenged by Umm al-Hiram residents. “The residents did not buy the right to the land but rather lived on it for free with permission, which has been legally abrogated by the state. Under such circumstances there is no justification for the intervention of the courts in previous verdicts.”

Justice Daphne Barak-Erez, who did not accept Rubinstein’s decision in its entirety, was critical of the state’s actions. “The petitioners cannot receive all the redress they seek, but we cannot accept the faults in the actions of the authorities regarding the decision on evacuation and compensation,” she said.

“It has been noted that the petitioners were authorized to live in the place for some 60 years and the fact that the state insists that the new settlement is not restricted and is open to every person, including the petitioners themselves should they want to [live there.] Thus, for example, the state can consider the possibility, besides moving them to Hura [another Negev Bedouin town], of providing them with lots in the new community of Hiran.”

Adalah acknowledges that the chances of legal success are slim and intends focusing its main effort on a public struggle. In a petition published by the Umbrella Organization of Human Rights and Social Organizations in Israel, the evacuation was defined as an “unjust, racist and discriminatory step.”

The steering committee of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee announced that thousands of residents of the unrecognized villages in the Negev would come to Be’er Sheva next Thursday to protest against the house demolitions. The intention is to march from market square to the government buildings.

Another protest against house demolitions will be held at the entrance to the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm in Wadi Ara this evening.

read more:

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Why Have Jewish-Arab Relations Deteriorated in Israel? The View of Sikkuy's Ron Gerlitz, by Phyllis Bernstein

What follows is a summary of remarks delivered by Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, at an Inter-Agency Task Force for Israeli Arab Issues meeting on November 6, 2014 in New York. 

"To hate Arabs isn't racism, it's having moral values! #Israeldemandsrevenge
By Phyllis Bernstein

This summer, and since the war in Gaza, we have witnessed a serious deterioration in relations between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel.  Unlike the events which took place in 2000 between the police and Arab citizens, since the summer of 2014 we’ve seen civil clashes between Jewish and Arab citizens.

In most cases, Jews have attacked Arabs verbally or physically.  What’s new is the frequency and intensity of these incidents. This is something we’ve never seen before in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.   A few examples:  shouting “death to Arabs” on the street, demonstrations demanding the firing of all Arab employees in some shopping malls, organized pressure on employers to fire Arab employees, death threats against people who expressed sympathy for Arabs, including former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, physical and verbal attacks against Arab citizens, racist incitement in social media, dismissal of Arab employees by mainstream Jewish employers, and incitement by politicians such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman who called on Jews to boycott Arab businesses.

The results:  Arabs have simply become afraid to go out in the street, speak Arabic in public, and go to work. The level of hate has increased significantly on both sides.   Extreme right-wing organizations have also incited hatred against Israeli Arabs through well-organized demonstrations and marches.

Some believe this has happened because of the war in Gaza.   But there have been three other wars in Gaza in recent years and these things did not happen before.    If we simply see these developments as an “unexplained outburst of racism" in Jewish society, we will be unable to find solutions.   What we are seeing is a backlash by the very extreme right to the strengthening of Arab society and its ever-increasing integration in the economy and society in Israel.

Arab society in Israel has gotten stronger – economically, socially and also in terms of political representation.  Many factors have driven this process, some due to Arab society itself, some to government efforts, and some to NGO’s working for equality. 

While growing up near Tira in the seventies, Ron saw Arabs working only as school janitors or as farmers. Today you can see Arabs working in pharmacies and in hospitals as doctors and nurses.  The symbol of success is the Arab Supreme Court judge who sent former President Katzav to jail.  Arab citizens of Israel have not only become better off, but they are also more visible and this has changed how the extreme Jewish right sees them.

The backlash began in the Knesset with a wave of legislation against Arab citizens.  But the politicians failed, and Arab society has continued to flourish.   This summer, people took to the streets to try to do what the politicians couldn’t do. 

The extreme right wing wanted to stop integration in employment, and the “Chuligans” in the street (similar to the KKK, but with different hats) descended on pharmacies to demand the dismissal of Arab employees. They cannot tolerate the strength and visibility of Arabs in public in Israel. They want to put them in the only place they’re willing to see them – back down at the bottom. 

During the summer, the assault against Arab citizens took place in the Knesset, within the government, on social networks, in the media and, of course, on the street.  This makes the situation much worse because it is harder to control.  And we have come very close to the point where things could spin out of control. 

What does all this mean for Israeli society?   In a word, it’s dangerous.    There is a real possibility that the largely non-violent relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel will deteriorate into serious violence. 

We must develop solutions for this new situation, because things have changed dramatically.   A few important lessons emerge.    First, we didn't expect the backlash from the right wing to the success of efforts to strengthen Arab society and especially to the strides made in integrating Arabs into the Israeli work place.  The process of economic development, integration and narrowing of gaps between Arabs and Jews is not linear.  There are people on the other side who want to stop it and we need to take this into account.  An example:  While Israeli and American Jewish philanthropists are giving microfinance to small Arab businesses, the foreign minister called on Jews not to buy from those very same businesses!   Philanthropic efforts must take this into account.  Otherwise, their efforts are at risk of failing.

There are more and more shared spaces in which Jews and Arabs mix on an equal basis, especially in work places and in the new mixed cities like Nazareth Illit.  And it is exactly in those places that we saw clashes between Jewish and Arab citizens.

If the Arab woman from Sakhnin hadn’t graduated university and worked as a pharmacist in Haifa, no one would have cared what she thought about the IDF during the Gaza war.   But she is a graduate of an Israeli college and she works in a pharmacy.   So right-wing hooligans demanded her dismissal because of what she wrote on Facebook during the war.   "Death to the Arabs" marches were not held in Baqa al-Gharbiya but in Nazareth Illit and Haifa.  The Arab doctor was fired and not the Arab hospital cleaner.

While we have worked hard and had success in narrowing gaps, for example through increased economic development in the Arab sector and creating more shared places, no one considered that those places could become focal points for tension between Jews and Arabs in times of war.   It is exactly in those places where the right wing will react. 

Perhaps the most important lesson is that economic development by itself simply isn’t enough.  The difference in narratives between Jews and Arabs dramatically affects the ability of these societies to live together.  NGOs and philanthropists cannot create a common narrative for both sides.   The Zionist and Palestinian narratives are very far apart.   That chasm will not be bridged in the next two generations.   But we must find ways to live together despite these different narratives.

We must be ready for the next escalation.   Every newly shared space could become the arena for the next escalation between Jews and Arabs.  It is important to develop and promote ideas that will enable those shared places:  for example, the workplace must become tolerant of the different narratives.  As an example, an Arab doctor should not be fired for Facebook posts in sympathy with the Palestinian children killed in Gaza.   

We should not stop pushing economic development forward, and we should continue to build a shared society.  But now we must also prepare for the reactions of those who find these unwelcome.   In addition to our investment in economic progress, we will also have to invest in preparing our response to the likely counterattack.   We will have to find ways that those shared spaces, especially places of employment, can accommodate the two differing and sometimes conflicting narratives of Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Phyllis Bernstein adds:   Israeli Arabs, and the Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza, all view themselves as part of the same “Palestinian people.”   Arab citizens want to remain in Israel as citizens, but in times of war they are unable to express dissenting views against the government’s policies or the IDF’s actions.   Israeli civil society really needs to start addressing the question of how to deal with the “Palestinian peoplehood narrative” of Israel’s Arab citizens.   In short, Israel needs to work much more on its democracy issues.

Phyllis Bernstein is co-chair of the Israeli Arab Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest New Jersey and serves on the executive board of Partners for Progressive Israel.  Her views are her own and not those of any organization with which she is affiliated. 

Here are links to three Op-eds by Ron Gerlitz with further analysis of the deterioration in Arab-Jewish relations in Israel this summer: 

1. Why Palestinian citizens of Israel are no longer safe, Ron Gerlitz | +972 Magazine  

2.  A short version of that op-ed appeared in Ha’aretz:   The backlash against Arab integration
3.  And a new op-ed about the firing of Arab employees during the war:   Dismissal for Narrative Reasons | Ron Gerlitz | The Times of Israel

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Stop Prawer-Begin plan for Bedouin resettlement, by Devorah Brous, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

Women stand near a washing line in the Bedouin town of Rahat in southern Israel on Dec. 10. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters
Women stand near a washing line in the Bedouin town of Rahat
in southern Israel on Dec. 10.
Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters
By Devorah Brous, Founder and former Executive Director Bustan, former co-director of the Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice
The Negev Bedouin village of Umm el-Hiran is where I first learned about what it means to be rooted, to be devoted to something with steadfastness. It is here that I learned the true impact of Jewish National Fund (JNF) afforestation on the Bedouin, which is far from JNF’s whitewashed and spit-shined-glossy version. Rayid Abu Alkeean, an Israeli Bedouin, partnered with Bustan, an environmental justice organization that I founded, to host delegations on dozens of our Negev Unplugged Tours in his village, where we learned about Bedouin traditional life unplugged from the nation’s electricity grid, and from Israel’s democracy.

Imagine serving in the Israel Defense Forces and having your home demolished by the government in front of your children. Next, imagine being billed for the demolition. Imagine watching religious Jews building a barbed wire fence to stake a claim to the hilltop just above your home. Hiran and Kasif, two Jewish-only religious towns slated to be built on the lands of Rayid’s village, were just approved.

Fortunately, the Knesset vote on the controversial Prawer-Begin Plan to resettle the Negev Bedouin has been postponed for the next one to two months. We must urge Israeli officials to take this discriminatory plan off the table and encourage them to adopt the Alternative Master Plan (AMP) developed by Bedouin leadership and Jewish planners of the human rights non-governmental organization Bimkom. The AMP will delimit territorial boundaries on historical village lands. It will enable formal village planning and access to the full basket of rights and services afforded Jewish villages and towns — housing, clinics, roads, waste removal and schools. We must make every effort to advance this alternative plan and promote sustainable economic development for all residents of the Negev.

Here’s why it is in the best interest of every Jew in the Negev and the Diaspora to stop the Prawer Plan.

• Because it is morally unconscionable to uproot this Negev Arab minority from their homes and against their will.

• Because token symbolic gestures aimed at recognition, such as granting formal ownership over less than 2 percent of historic Bedouin lands to some while denying the rest to the vast majority of others, simply won’t work. The Prawer Plan will dispossess some 40,000 Bedouin, requiring entire villages to be demolished wholesale.
• Because squeezing the remaining lands that have not yet been confiscated from the Bedouin population and urging them to live as neighbors with Jewish homesteaders and families that replace them will deepen already existing social cleavages.

• Because it will lead to violence. Today the youth in Bedouin villages act on behalf of a civilian population of 200,000 Negev Arabs that has been marginalized, criminalized and pauperized for decades. “Days of Rage” protests and vigils are surging to increasingly high levels of tension in what is now front and center stage of Israel’s ongoing land conflict. By declaring a civilian population a national security threat, the government further alienates and even catalyzes an already enraged and disenfranchised minority into the streets. Many believe that despite the intentions of community elders to organize nonviolently, there is no further incentive to do so.

• Because living off the grid is hard, but the unrecognized Bedouin prefer that to losing their lands. Most “unrecognized villagers” have consistently resisted running water and electricity to power their computers and washing machines, preferring to stay on their lands rather than be holed up in cities with different and sometimes clashing familial clans, and pushed into wage labor —– when it is even available — at the expense of their traditional cultural pursuits. Unrecognized Bedouin have organized however haphazardly and have used nonviolent but futile tactics to have their land rights recognized by the Israeli courts. More than 100,000 Bedouin continue to resist being transferred into impoverished townships that are drug-riddled pits of crime. They fight to keep their lands because even in recognized towns, Bedouin are denied building permits, basic infrastructure and services.

• Because we’ve learned from villages like Al-Arakib and Umm el-Hiran, among others, that coercion is not sustainable. To try to rip Negev Arabs from their lands will only make them, and more of us, more resolute.

• Because the northern Negev is already a toxic tinderbox. Most Negev Arabs and Bedouin have been relocated into a triangle of territory in the northern Negev between Beer-Sheva, Arad and Dimona that has been zoned to encircle them  to prevent further construction.

The conflict between Bedouin and the State of Israel is about land, resources and control. Investment in developing Jewish towns and demolishing Arab villages happens most aggressively in Arab areas of the Negev and the Galilee, battlefields of Israel’s demographic war to create a Jewish majority in every region of Israel.  One tactic is to break apart contiguous Bedouin villages and to concentrate the maximum number of Bedouin onto the minimum amount of territory.

Like Rayid, head of the village council of al-Sira, Khalil el Amor resists the Prawer Plan. His entire village is slated for demolition. I spoke with Khalil yesterday. He said, “I am a teacher, and finishing school to become a lawyer. As a child, I would return home from school to tend our flock and help my mother milk the animals until dark. I would light a lantern and start my homework. I want my granddaughter Siraj (meaning “lantern”) to have the choice to tend a flock. If I stay on my village lands, I dream of inviting tourists to learn about our traditions and our changing Bedouin culture.” Rather than give up the land, and give up the lantern, Khalil holds steadfast.

The AMP is a viable way for Negev Arabs like Khalil and Rayid to showcase their village culture to tourists and to earn livable incomes rather than masquerading as traditional Bedouin for Jewish-owned tourist companies that romanticize their culture if they’ll pretend to be shepherds for a photo-op on a camel. If Prawer passes, that is all our children will know about Bedouin culture.

Published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, December 14, 2013

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Israel's Plan To Move Bedouins from Villages Sparks Large Protests, Forward/Reuters, Nov. 30, 2013

Published Saturday, November 30, 2013, The Forward
Israel's Plan To Move Bedouins from Villages Sparks Large Protests
Arabs Tie Bedouin Plight To Fight for Palestine

By Reuters

Protest Scenes: Bedouins flee from a protest after Israelis fire tear gas into the crowd.

Hundreds of Bedouin Arabs and their supporters clashed with Israeli forces on Saturday in protests against a government plan to force 40,000 Bedouins living in the southern Negev region to leave their villages.

The plan has not only angered the Bedouins but also spurred many other young Arab citizens of Israel to associate it with Israel’s occupation of Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and so identify themselves more closely with demands for a Palestinian state.

The historic heart of Haifa, Israel’s northern port city on the Mediterranean, was brought to a standstill as hundreds of Israeli Arabs scuffled with scores of security forces.

Police fired stun grenades and water cannon at the youths, who blocked a main thoroughfare and chanted: “With our souls and blood we will defend you, Palestine!”

Over 1,000 demonstrated in the largest gathering, in Hura, in Israel’s Negev Desert. Stone-throwers clashed with police, who used tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon.

Eyewitnesses said several demonstrators had been injured. An Israeli police spokesman said at least 28 people had been arrested in Haifa and Hura and some 15 officers treated for injuries.

A bill set for a final vote in parliament before the end of the year provides for 40,000 Arab Bedouins from many villages that are “unrecognised” by the Israeli state to be forced to move into seven townships.

Bedouins, other Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank all say the plan is a land grab meant to benefit Jews at their expense, and point to the lack of progress in the latest, U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and Palestinians.


“We were here before Israel. What they’re doing in the Negev is what they’ve done to us all along,” Haneen Zoabi, an Arab member of parliament, told Reuters at the Haifa protest.

“It may pass a vote, but the youth here and in the Negev will resist democratically in any way possible, and stop them.”

Other demonstrations took place near the old city of Arab East Jerusalem, another Arab town in central Israel and an area adjoining a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, where tear gas was used to scatter protesters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the protests.

“The attempts of a boisterous and violent minority to deny a better future for a large population are grave. We will continue to promote this law for the better future that it will provide for all the Negev’s citizens,” Netanyahu said.

Israel says it will compensate many of the Bedouins with a combination of land and cash, and “bring them into the 21st century” by significantly improving their standard of living, according to a government-sponsored report on the draft.

The majority of Israel’s 1.6 million Arab citizens dwell in cities and small towns in the north and centre.

But 200,000 Bedouin live in the southern desert, half in government-built townships and half in 42 ramshackle “unrecognised” villages without running water, electricity or sanitation. Civil rights groups say it is these the government should be developing, rather than the soulless dormitory towns where the Bedouins are being forced to move.

The government agency in charge of the Prawer Plan, based in the prime minister’s office, condemned the protests.

“Extremists, many of whom are not Bedouin, chose to divert the open debate about a purely social and humanitarian cause into a confrontation, falsely linked to the Palestinian issue,” it said in a statement.

“The Bedouin of the Negev, being equal citizens, deserve adequate housing, public services and a better future for their children.”

But Medhat Diab, a young Arab activist from a town outside Haifa wearing the trademark Palestinian chequered scarf, said the Bedouin and Palestinian causes were linked.

“Our ID says we’re Israeli but our identity is Palestinian,” he said. “My generation sees that there’s no justice or equality for Arabs, just taking more and more of our land.”

Monday, September 30, 2013

Israel’s Other Land Grab, by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Moment, Sept-Oct, 2013


In August, despite the fragility of the newly resurrected peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government announced plans to build 1,187 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This came hard on the heels of the 1,096 new units promoted by the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] Civil Administration and the 91 settlements the government recently added to the “national priority list,” presumably rendering them non-negotiable.

With the eyes of the world focused on this defiant expansion of Israeli “facts on the ground,” few were paying attention to a simultaneous land grab taking place in the Negev: Israel’s systematic expropriation of areas that for generations have been inhabited by Bedouins.

On my first trip to Israel 37 years ago, I was hosted for dinner in a Bedouin tent in the desert. Our delegation of eight or ten American media types sat on beautiful hand-loomed rugs. We ate with our hands.  We heard about Bedouin culture and traditions.  The men who sat with us in that tent (the women were behind a curtain, though we saw one peeking out) were warm, welcoming and responsive to our questions. Only later did it occur to me that our travel agent or the Israel tourism authority was paying the Bedouins to exhibit their “native” ways to visiting foreigners. And while other stops on our itinerary—Masada, Mea Shearim, Rachel’s Tomb—were introduced with extensive background information, the Bedouins were presented as ethnic exotica, a people without a history. Only later did I wonder how they really felt about these encounters.

Since then, the Jewish state seems to have become markedly less appreciative of Bedouin culture and traditions. Hundreds of times over the last few years, Bedouin homes and villages have been summarily demolished by IDF and Jewish National Fund (JNF) bulldozers.

Media sources and advocacy groups such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice in Israel and the New Israel Fund report that Bedouins have been beaten, shot and forcibly evacuated from their ancestral lands so that this fertile area can be developed for Jewish agricultural development, JNF forests and Jewish habitation.

In 2007, the government appointed the Goldberg Commission to address the Bedouin “problem.” (Needless to say, there were no Bedouins on the commission.) Their findings led to the Prawer Plan, a proposed law that would relocate up to 40,000 semi-nomadic Bedouins, concentrating them in seven “officially recognized” urban townships that rank at the bottom of every Israeli socioeconomic measure, with an infant mortality rate four times worse than that of any Jewish Israeli community. Last June, the Prawer Plan passed its first Knesset reading by a slim majority. The final two readings needed in order for the Knesset bill to pass are expected in October.

Somehow, it’s unthinkable to evacuate thousands of Jews from their West Bank settlements in the interests of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But expelling 40,000 Arab Israeli citizens from their homes for the sake of Jewish development is considered a great idea. Moreover, Israel presents its transfer policy in a benevolent light, as if by trashing Bedouin dwellings, the IDF is expelling these noble savages from their “primitive” habitats for their own good.

Mind you, I’m not romanticizing the Bedouins. They don’t just keep their women behind a curtain, they keep them uneducated, isolated and cut off from modern health care. And though they are not responsible for their extreme impoverishment and rampant unemployment, these conditions have spawned alarming rates of criminal behavior and drug use.  Altogether, it’s not a pretty picture.

Likewise, I’m mindful of the legal complexities of the land use issue. The Bedouins don’t hold title; their system of land acquisition and ownership recognition is based on oral agreements that date back to the Ottoman Empire. Expecting them to produce airtight proof of ownership of territory they’ve inhabited for centuries would be like asking American Indians, who believe the earth cannot be owned, to produce a deed from Christopher Columbus, or asking the Australian Aborigines, who mark territorial borders by transmitting “songlines” known only to the indigenous tribes, to produce transmittal documents signed by the British.

The bottom line is that Bedouin Arabs are citizens of the state of Israel. Some of their elders fought with the Palmach. Many Bedouin men have volunteered for the IDF, serving as trackers and defending the country’s borders. Yet these peaceful, loyal citizens are being targeted for internal dislocation on the basis of their ethnicity, race, religion and normative social arrangements.  And Israel shows little respect for their historic ties to the land.

Rather than herd them into the seven ghetto-like “recognized” villages with inadequate services, pathetic infrastructure and few jobs, Israel should improve the conditions of everyday life for Bedouins in the 35 “unrecognized” villages. The government should invest in Bedouin roads, schools, job creation and health care and connect these villages to the Israeli water, sewage and electricity systems.

Likewise, rather than turn a blind eye to the ongoing injustice of forcible Bedouin dislocation, American Jews should think twice before buying a tree from the JNF in a forest that may have been created on the ruins of Bedouin homes.

And we should insist that our communal organizations address both the moral and political dimensions of this issue. Israel cannot claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” if it continues uprooting thousands of its citizens against their will.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s latest book is How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick. She is currently working on a novel.

Published here in Moment magazine, Sept-Oct 2013

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Every Jew should see the Bedouin issue as test of Israel's moral values, by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Ha’aretz

Why have the relocations and demolitions of Negev Bedouin homes, an issue not related to Israel’s security or vexed questions such as "Who is a Jew?", aroused such strong feelings amongst Diaspora Jews actively engaged with Israel?

Should the Begin-Prawer plan become law, it will have an enormous effect on Israel’s Bedouin, with tens of villages destroyed and tens of thousands of people removed from their homes into poverty-stricken townships. This will be extremely painful for Israel's supporters in the Diaspora to observe.

That is why the progress of the bill through the Knesset is making such an impact well beyond the Negev, in Israel and abroad. In Britain, sixty-five rabbis from across the denominations, supporting the courageous lead of Israel’s Rabbis for Human Rights, signed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior ministers, asking them to re-consider their proposals. In the U.S., the Religious Action Centre of the Reform Movement, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and thousands of individual rabbis and Jews have written in a similar vein.

Why should this issue, which does not threaten Israel’s immediate security and has no influence over the vexed questions of ‘Who is a Jew?’ with its obvious Diaspora dimensions, have aroused such strong feelings amongst Jews actively engaged with Israel?

The matter goes to the heart of how we identify with Israel, and of the nature of Israel as a society. Living abroad, rightly or wrongly, we don’t experience Israel through the everyday realities of its traffic jams, cafes, and hamsins. We identify with Israel because we are family. We identify via those hyper-sensitive antennae which quadruple our anxiety the moment we hear Israel mentioned on the news. Primarily, we identify with Israel as Jews.

To some the slogan is ‘Israel, right or wrong’. To a few it is, sadly and unjustly, ‘Israel, usually wrong’. But for most of us, in spite of all the fears and frustrations, Israel remains the country where our Jewish values are, should and shall be realized. We still hope for and believe in the Israel whose founders, less than three years after the Holocaust, presented to the world the remarkable vision of a country which "will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or gender; will guarantee full freedom of worship, conscience, culture and education" and live and legislate according to "the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Prophets of Israel."

We know that, for all the daily difficulties the country encounters, this Israel is not just the stuff of dreams. Countless Israelis put into practice in their daily lives the values of justice and compassion. ‘That’s only a bubble’, someone recently told me. If so, it’s a big bubble or many bubbles. One has only to think of Israel’s extraordinary number of chesed organisations. To the outsider it can be hard to credit how many groups work across the painful divisions between Arab and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian and continue to affirm in spite of all the conflicts the core Jewish value of universal human dignity in the image of God.

That is why so many of us care when Israel threatens to pass a law so deeply at odds with its own principles. "So long as Israel claims to be a Jewish state, it must act according to Jewish moral values," commented Gidon Remba, Director of the U.S.-based Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice. "The way a country treats its most disadvantaged citizens defines its moral character, and so too its Jewish character as a bearer of the Jewish moral tradition."

It’s not just that Diaspora Jews are pained by the prospect of watching on their national television Israeli bulldozers flattening villages and forcing thousands of men, women and children from their homes, actions which the Begin-Prawer plan could indeed entail. The matter goes deeper than the damage that would be done to Israel’s international reputation.

It relates to a profound moral instinct that Israel’s safety depends not only on military superiority and the skill and courage of its armed forces, but is connected in some unquantifiable way to its faithfulness to the age-old Jewish values of justice and human dignity.

It connects to those historical experiences of exile and persecution which Jews carry subliminally in their souls. As Theodore Bikel, who played Tevye in countless productions of Fiddler on the Roof, said, "What hurts is the fact that the very people who are telling them [the Bedouin] to “Get out” are the descendents of the people of Anatevka. My people."

I’ve been to El Arakib, demolished fifty times, spoken with its leaders and seen footage of its destruction. It was a shocking experience. "You mustn’t believe everything the Bedouin claim", I was told. Yet Bedouin land ownership was honoured by the Ottomans and the British, and pre-State aerial photographs document extensive Bedouin agriculture. There is much misinformation. A recent poll conducted by Panelresearch showed that 70% of Israelis thought on average that the Bedouin wanted forty per cent of the Negev. In fact, they are asking for just 5.4% of the area. When told this fact most Israelis felt the Bedouin claims were reasonable.

It’s beyond dispute that the situation of Israel’s Bedouin requires legislation. Their villages can’t remain unrecognised, without the provision of electricity and hygiene services other Israelis take for granted. After all, the Bedouin are full citizens and many have traditionally served in the IDF. What the thousands of voices from abroad and within Israel are asking for is a proper partnership between Israel and the Bedouin leadership in agreeing a solution. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah writes, "Demolishing homes, forcing people off their land, and denying basic government services contradict the moral values…on which the State of Israel was founded."

Surely the Knesset, and the Jewish community around the world, will not allow that to happen.

Jonathan Wittenberg is a rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and has strong family, communal and charitable connections with Israel.