Sunday, November 21, 2010

Are Israel's Harsh Policies Toward the Bedouin Justified? Response to a Critic, by Gidon D. Remba

A critic and friend wrote to us the following: "A prominent oncologist attended a cancer conference in the Negev on Bedouin health care and made the point that by being nomads, living in tents, etc. the Bedouin short-change both their medical care and their children's education. The oncologist, who happens to be a peacenik, says that both Palestinian and Israeli doctors have seen the most horrendous, advanced breast cancers among Bedouin women who don't go for treatment until their cancers literally burst from their skin.

"Israeli methods with the Negev Bedouin may be harsh, but their motivation is to bring Bedouin into the 21st century so they can live healthier lives and their children can excel beyond their parents. This requires that they live in places where there are schools and clinics."

It’s a mistake to cast the Bedouin issue as if it’s a dispute between those who favor bringing the Bedouin into the 21st century – modernization – and those who want to preserve the Bedouin lifestyle in their existing villages, with all the good and the bad, including the abysmal health conditions. All of us who defend the land, housing and healthcare rights of the Bedouin – including Amos Oz, AB Yeshoshua, David Grossman, Naomi Chazan, Shulamit Aloni, and many Israeli peace activists, American Jewish progressives, and every human rights organization in Israel and the US – aren’t arguing in favor of preserving the conditions that make for the horrific health practices you alluded to. None of us are arguing against modernization or against bringing the Bedouin into the 21st century.

You wrote that to bring the Bedouin into the 21st century, “this requires that they live in places where there are schools and clinics.” But none of us are advocating that they should not live where there are schools and health clinics. This is arguing against a straw man, rather than against the actual views of those who are working for Bedouin human rights. In a nutshell, we’re arguing instead that schools and health clinics should be built in the unrecognized villages – that’s what would happen if the government recognized and developed them, making them legal. (In fact that’s what will ultimately happen in the cases where the government is recognizing a few of the unrecognized villages.)

The Olmert government appointed a blue-ribbon commission – the Goldberg Committee – to develop a solution to the state’s dispute with the Bedouin, and the Committee recommended that most of the unrecognized villages should be recognized – which means to legalize them as recognized villages and towns. That in turn means that the government would develop them and provide health clinics, schools, running water, sewage disposal, and other basic services that the state provides to all other communities in Israel. So we are all in favor of modernization and ending the scourge of breast cancer and other diseases among the Bedouin that you describe. That isn’t what divides us from those who justify the government’s brutality against the Bedouin, and presenting the issue this way, miscasts the debate, and gets its fundamentals wrong.

Given that we all agree that Bedouin life should be brought into the 21st century, the real question is how? And what we, who are defending the human rights of the Bedouin, are saying to the Israeli government is essentially what Ahad Ha’am said of the early Zionist settlers’ treatment of Palestinian Arabs a century ago: this is not the way.

You wrote that a “prominent oncologist who attended a cancer conference in the Negev on Bedouin health care made the point that by being nomads, living in tents, etc. the Bedouin short-change both their medical care and their children's education.” But this oncologist is poorly informed about the basic facts of Bedouin life: in fact, the Negev Bedouin are not nomads, and most do not live in tents. They have lived in settled villages for more than a century. Many homes in the unrecognized villages are built from wood frames and corrugated metal because they are in danger of repeated demolition, and because of the cost of more durable housing.

Second, the oncologist has misdiagnosed the causes of the lack of healthcare and education in the unrecognized villages, which is mainly the result of the lack of livable conditions and jobs in the recognized towns, and the fact that the government has refused (in violation of the Bedouin’s human rights) to provide healthcare and schools to the Bedouin who refuse to surrender their land in the unrecognized villages in exchange for paltry compensation with no employment prospects and a squalid life in the urban towns.

Moreover, the unrecognized village of "Wadi el-Naam suffers from a very high incidence of cancer, asthma, severe birth defects, miscarriages, and skin diseases because" the Israeli government allowed toxic chemical plants to be built near the Bedouin village. "For, example, there is a 45% higher cancer rate here than in Israel as a whole," writes Natalie Becker. One can’t treat the problem if one doesn’t properly understand its causes.

You suggest that the government’s harsh and brutal policy may be justified because it is supposedly serving just ends. But there are a number of real problems with this. Setting aside for the moment the aims of Israeli government policy, is the brutality of forcing Bedouin off their lands by expelling them from their homes and demolishing their villages ultimately (whether intentionally or unintentionally) serving their well-being, their and their children’s health, and promoting their human rights by bringing them into the 21st century? Decidedly not. The 7 urban towns into which the Israeli government has been trying to force the Bedouin are the most neglected and impoverished of all the communities in Israel. To cite one of many examples, the infant mortality rate in Rahat – one of the seven urban Bedouin towns built by the government – was double that of Beersheva (in 2000) – 11.6 per thousand babies born vs. 5.4.

Nor is there room in them for the other 90,000 Bedouin from the unrecognized villages, and even if there were, there are no jobs, the government hasn’t established industrial zones for them, or provided them with alternate forms of livelihood once they force them to give up their land and the farming which supports the Negev Bedouin community. All serious students of the subject agree – including Israeli and American social scientists – that the government’s forced urbanization policy has been an abysmal failure, and remains so.

Far from this being a case of brutality in the service of the good, what we have is a brutal policy that is causing more harm and more suffering. One study by a Ben-Gurion University scholar sums it up this way: “Neglect of the [urban] Bedouin towns has made them Third World enclaves in the surrounding affluent society.” Compare Rahat – the largest Bedouin urban town – to the nearby Beersheva suburb of Omer, and on every measure the Bedouin urban towns suffer from severe discrimination and grossly inadequate services.

Let’s first see the government treat the Bedouin decently in the urban towns before we even consider justifying any kind of forced urbanization – and we are still very far from that – and even then, I think the case for forced urbanization, is extremely problematic. One could instead make a case for the government simply providing appealing opportunities and strong incentives for Bedouin to choose an urban lifestyle. That is what liberal democracies and civilized societies do. It’s very far from what Israel does.

Equally important, the Goldberg Committee concluded that in those cases where it doesn’t make sense to legalize an existing unrecognized village, and where it would be best to relocate the Bedouin in that village, then it should make a fair offer of compensation to them in exchange for their land. But again, that isn’t what the government has been doing. It forces the Bedouin out of their homes and villages, offering no decent livable alternative to them, and fails to provide them with the option of fair compensation for their land when it wants to expropriate it and declare it state land for its own (Jewish-supremacy driven) development purposes.

There would be no need for the brutality of expulsions and demolition if the government were recognizing and modernizing the unrecognized villages – providing healthcare, schools, running water, sewage disposal, electricity, paved roads and public transportation to the now unrecognized towns, or to most of them. So you have to ask yourself: why does the government prefer to expel Bedouin from their land and force them into over-crowded, blighted urban towns? And the answer is: because they covet the land, not because they care about the well-being or modernization of the Bedouin.

If the government were offering a just solution to the Bedouin, one that would be agreed upon by the state and the Bedouin community, the brutality would not be necessary to get the Bedouin to accept it. The government’s brutality is a product of the absence of justice. You must force people to live with injustice, not with justice.

Then there’s this problem: even if the government were offering a just solution which really was good for the Bedouin – improving their health and well-being, bringing them into the 21st century, but did so by requiring them to give up all their land claims and move into urban towns with no land and no ability to continue to engage in agriculture, and if there were Bedouin who still preferred their traditional lifestyle in the villages on their ancestral land, there would still be a serious question about whether brutal expulsions and demolitions would be morally justified.

Cigarette smoking causes nearly half a million cancer deaths in the US each year (5.4 million annually worldwide – 1 billion deaths worldwide are projected from tobacco use in the 21st century), and the US government takes various steps to discourage cigarette smoking, including banning advertising. But nonetheless 47 million Americans still smoke, and millions die as a result. Given the grave damage to the health and well-being of these legions of people, and the burden cigarette smoking imposes on our society and economy, you would think that it would be morally justified to violate people’s rights to enforce a complete ban on smoking: arresting and punishing them for breaking a ban on smoking, enabling the police to get warrants to enter people’s homes to look for illegal cigarettes, closing down cigarette factories, and so on. But we don’t do that, and no non-totalitarian country does.

So even if it were uncontroversial that the goal is clearly good – people’s health and well-being, saving millions of lives – we don’t and we shouldn’t deprive people of their basic rights, including their right to privacy, to ensure that they make the decisions that will be best for their health and spare them and our society from the enormous evil of millions of cancer deaths. And we certainly shouldn't deprive people - citizens - of their right to healthcare and schools wherever they live now, on the grounds that we want to bring them into the 21st century to enable them and their children to be healthier and better educated! Yet that's what the Israeli government does to 90,000 Bedouin citizens in the unrecognized villages of the Negev.

We all believe that the government should pursue good ends, but it can’t use any means necessary – including brutality and the violation of human rights – in order to bring about the good, assuming that it really is aiming at or at least doing that which serves the good. But in the case of the Israeli government, it’s hard to see that the government is either aiming at, or even unintentionally serving, the good with expulsions, demolitions, forced urbanization, and a policy of systematic discrimination and neglect towards the Bedouin – both those in the urban towns and in the unrecognized villages.

Finally, I have serious doubts that the Israeli government’s intent is to serve the well-being of the Bedouin through these policies. The overriding motive, in my view, for the government’s approach is to gain control over nearly all of the land in the Negev for Jewish use, to preserve a Jewish majority in the Negev by developing it with new Jewish communities, forests and more, to deprive the Bedouin of their land so as to eliminate what ultra-nationalist Zionists see as the “threat” of a territorial secession in Bedouin areas near the West Bank if the Bedouin were to demand cultural autonomy or wanted to become part of a neighboring Palestinian state. This is an unrealistic fear; but irrationality has never been an obstacle to the Israeli government’s policies towards Israel’s Palestinian and Arab minorities, or towards the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It’s certainly never gotten in the way of the government’s blind and self-defeating approach to the Negev Bedouin.

Gidon D. Remba is Executive Director and President of the Jewish Alliance for Change, co-sponsor with Rabbis for Human Rights-North America of the Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice in Israel.

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