After police killings, anger simmers in Negev Bedouin villages

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Originally published on Ma’an News Agency on Feb. 5, 2015.

BEERSHEBA (Ma’an) — The killing of two Bedouin youths in southern Israel by police over the last week has shocked the nation’s Palestinian community and has brought storms of protest across the country.

The killing of Sami al-Jaar, 22, last Tuesday during a raid on Rahat triggered a strong reaction across the Arab communities of the Negev, and his funeral reportedly drew 10,000. When Israeli police cars drove into the funeral march, they found themselves pelted with rocks.

Police subsequently opened fire on mourners with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets, and in the ensuing melee Sami al-Zayadna, 45, fell dead in the crowd. Leaders of the 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel — of whom the Bedouins are a part — declared a national strike in response, expanding the scope of the battle with authorities from the isolated villages of the Negev to the entire country.

In the 24 hours after the killing at the funeral march, police arrested at least nine local activists, including four from a local university, and locals fear the crackdown is just the beginning of the expected state repression.

But the killings have triggered a political mobilization not seen in the South in more than a year since the defeat of the Prawer Plan, and they have re-awakened an anger against what many see as the racist policies of the Israeli state that have unified Bedouin communities with their urban and rural counterparts elsewhere.

On Tuesday, Ma’an spoke with prominent local activist, school teacher, and lawyer Khaled al-Amour at his home in the village of al-Sira about the history of the Bedouin struggle in the Negev and the future of the Palestinian south.

A ‘private holocaust’

Al-Sira itself is located in an arid valley just beyond Beersheba dotted by clusters of ramshackle homes and sheet-metal barns, and is one of 35 villages unrecognized by the state and lacking any form of public services.

From al-Amour’s home, the foundations of the homes of a village destroyed by Israeli bulldozers is visible atop a small hill on the horizon. On his front door, meanwhile, the demolition order he himself once received is still prominently displayed, a constant reminder of the looming threat of destruction at the hands of Israeli bulldozers.

Al-Amour told Ma’an that in his opinion it is impossible to understand the violence of the past week without also knowing the history of displacement that has stalked the Bedouins since the establishment of the State of Israel.

“Before 1948, there were 90,000 Bedouins in all of the Negev, but 90 percent were expelled” by Israeli authorities to neighboring countries, he told Ma’an. As a result the Bedouin population fell to 11,000, who are the ancestors of the approximately 200-230,000 Bedouins today living in the Negev. The process was but one part of the larger expulsion of around 750,000 Palestinians from what became Israel.

“No one talks about our Nakba towns because we did not have fancy towns,” al-Amour told Ma’an, pointing out that the destruction of Bedouin life did not leave behind the kinds of physical remains found in depopulated Palestinian villages across what is now Israel. After the Nakba, the remaining Bedouins were forcibly settler inside what al-Amour called a “reservation,” or a zone comprising about 10 percent of the Negev also called the “Permitted Zone.”

Similar to what happened to Palestinians elsewhere inside Israel, who were also living under military rule, the lands of the Bedouins outside the zone were confiscated and they were forced to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle. Instead, they settled in 45 villages inside the Permitted Zone, where they maintained aspects of their culture but also focused as well on agriculture.

Al-Amour called the episode the Bedouins’ “own private holocaust,” but argued that the attacks on the community had hardly ceased since then.

‘Maximum number of Arabs, minimum area of land’

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, he argued that authorities had pursued two parallel policies: “The maximum number of Arabs in the minimum area of land, and the minimum number of Jews in the maximum area of land.”

Thus, the state built large kibbutzim for Jewish settlers across the region on the lands confiscated from Bedouins, including 30 farms for individual families in the areas around al-Sira itself. While the state refused to recognize the 45 Bedouin villages and failed to provide water, electricity, schools, clinics, or even paid roads, al-Amour said that the Jewish farms beside them were given every kind of service imaginable.

Al-Amour and others in the village began organizing more than a decade ago and manage to form a local council of unrecognized villages, hoping to increase their influence through the creation of decision-making structures and a unified body to negotiate on behalf of the Bedouin communities.

In response, Israeli authorities recognized 10 of the 45 villages. However, in 2011 they followed up by demanding the rest of the villagers move to seven cities authorities built for the Bedouin, all of which would have cut them off from their lands and forced them into urban poverty. Called the Prawer Plan, it would have forcibly removed the residents of the 35 remaining villages — which together house between 40-70,000 people — from their homes.

The plan sparked massive outrage across the Negev as well as Palestinian communities across the country, leading to an unprecedented mobilization of Bedouins and tens of thousands of others in support of their rights.The move surprised many Israeli experts, who had long treated the Bedouins as a discrete community from the Palestinians and had sought to foster a sense of distinctness.”

Most Bedouins consider themselves Palestinians and we are a part of the Palestinian people, even though our way of living characterizes us as different,” al-Amour told Ma’an, highlighting that the state had sought to “isolate” the community from other Palestinians but that the shared culture and experiences bound the community together.

Amid the widespread indignation caused by the Plan, the state quietly shelved the plan by the end of 2013. But throughout the protests, the state continued its attempts to force out the residents of the villages using localized demolition orders, a process which continues until this day.

A coming ‘explosion’

Al-Amour estimates that an average of 800 families, or around 4-5,000 people, have had their homes demolished in the area every year.

His village al-Sira was also targeted, but because of his activist work and his connections to legal aid group Adalah, he was able to take the state to court and fend off the attempt to demolish the home of 500 villagers.

But other villages are rarely so lucky, nor can they afford to constantly take the state to court to prove their right to exist.When Ma’an sought to take pictures of the villages from a nearby hill, one local approached angrily fearing the crew had come to photograph on behalf of government authorities trying to drive them from the land.

“In the Negev, there is one authority that demolishes homes, but none that gives permits,” al-Amour told Ma’an, stressing that there was no way for villagers to legalize their status, only the possibility of staving off destruction each time demolition orders were filed.

“They say that they are trying to force us into the cities they build in order to promote a good life, but they are the ones who are preventing us from living here by confiscating our lands.”

“I don’t find any contradictions between our lives and modernization. We like services but we don’t have to be urbanized,” he told Ma’an, stressing that most villagers only know how to graze animals and raise chickens or camels or make other agricultural products.”

We could develop the areas around the village to allow people more space to carry out these activities, but they’re not available because of the confiscations.”

For Bedouins who have exited the nightmare cycle of demolitions in the unrecognized villages and moved to the cities, the situation is hardly better. Unemployment and drug abuse are rampant in the city, while locals are heavily discriminated against by Israeli Jews in other nearby cities.

For those who take the government’s offer of a “better life,” few opportunities appear and many end up volunteering to serve in the military, looking for a way out of the cycle of poverty created by the authorities.

“The Bedouins are depicted as evil invaders and trespassers, but they forget that we are the indigenous people.”But Israel is Israel, they never change,” al-Amour told Ma’an. “They always have the same colonialist attitude toward us.

“While by Wednesday the furor caused by last week’s killings had quieted down and work had resumed after days of strikes and protests, the anger remains simmering in the towns and villages of the Bedouin Negev.

But everyone knows that demolitions will soon continue, and the State will continue to inflict low-intensity but unceasing humiliations on the residents of the Bedouin towns and villages of the South.”The pressure on people is always increasing,” al-Amour told Ma’an. “If Israel doesn’t change its policies, there will be an explosion.”