Monday, 17 June 2013
4,000 people gathered in Beer Sheva Thursday to protest a government bill that would forcibly displace at least 40,000 Bedouin in Israel’s southern Negev desert. The demonstration was organized by Bedouin community leaders, and the High Follow-Up Commitee for Arab Citizens of Israel called for a general strike that day. Protestors marched through Beer Sheva’s central shopping street to municipal government buildings.
Bedouin citizens of Israel protest the plan which would forcibly displace and urbanise them (Photo: Mona Niebuhr, AIC)
Demonstrators sought to express their deep dissatisfaction with the so-called Prawer-Begin Plan. The bill proposes land expropriation and resettlement of large parts of the Bedouin community in the Negev. It is backed by the government and currently pending its first reading in the Knesset, which was postponed last week until further notice. Human rights organizations and local committees note that the plan was drafted without consultation and input from the Bedouins themselves, a violation of international norms, and tramples traditional land ownership claims and the community’s agricultural lifestyle.
Thursday’s march was the biggest demonstration against Bedouin displacement since the Prawer-Begin Plan was first proposed in 2011. The vast majority of demonstrators were Bedouin-Palestinian citizens of Israel with a handful Jewish activists attending on the weekday to express their support. While the communities’ senior leadership gathered to hear their speakers, hundreds of youth voiced their opposition and anger, chanting slogans reminiscent of the Arab revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. “This is our Tahrir Square!” ran through the crowd.
Young Bedouins protest: “no justice, the police threaten, not help” (Photo: Mona Niebuhr, AIC)
The divide between young and old visible at the Beer Sheva demonstration seems to reflect growing inter-generational conflict within Bedouin society more widely. “The old generation is completely disconnected from our youth nowadays,” says Ala’ Abu Abeyyed, a 26 year old engineer from Laqia village. “You can see it right here: While the old men gather making speeches and seeking outside attention, the youth focus their anger against the government. They work for real change on the ground.” In Laqia and other Negev villages, youth initiatives for community development have sprung up in recent years. While they do not actively challenge elders’ authority, they seek to pave the way for a better future through practical action where formal politics fail.
Living conditions in all rural Bedouin villages in the Negev are substandard, lacking basic infrastructure such as water, electricity, and sewage. Only eleven of 46 villages are recognized by the state, and all others are considered illegal settlements. In both cases, the state fails to provide services. On a weekly basis, state authorities demolish what they consider illegally constructed houses, commonly simple tin shack homes.
Thursday’s protest gathered an exceptionally large and very active group of women participating. “We all came here today because we will be the ones affected most strongly by what the government plans,” explained Fatma Aborkeek from the state-installed Bedouin town of Tel Sheva. “When they demolish our homes, bring us to artificial towns, we as women lose our sphere, the home, our work in the fields and our social networks. Look at me: My family moved to the town when the government talked of great development plans and now all of us are unemployed and hopeless.”
Bedouin women came out strong in the demonstrating, highlighting that they will be most impacted by Israel’s planned forced displacement (Photo: Mona Niebuhr, AIC)
As part of traditional Bedouin society strongly shaped by patriarchal structures, women are facing a double challenge today, says Hanan Alsanah, a female Bedouin activist seeking to advance women’s rights: “We as women bear twofold pressures. First inside the community and second through living the limbo of unrecognised villages and disregard for our rights as citizens of this state.” Alsanah’s organization Sidreh recently found that only 10% of women from Bedouin villages are employed in the workforce today. While the authorities neglect the matter, local groups are working to provide new economic opportunities for Bedouin women.
For decades, the state has withheld services and recognition from rural Bedouin communities to pressure Bedouin citizens into giving up land rights and subscribing to an urbanised lifestyle. If passed, the Prawer-Begin Plan will reinforce this pressure, foreseeing the destruction of all unrecognized villages and resettlement of their inhabitants to hastily constructed towns as well as the annulment of all land rights unless cheaply sold to the state. According to residents, local communities were at no point consulted in this planning process.
The government plan has been met with strong criticism from the international community. In March 2012, the UN Committee on the Elimination for Racial Discrimination condemned the proposed legislation as discriminatory and demanded the government to withdraw the bill. The European Parliament in July 2012 passed a similar resolution. Considering the current makeup of the Israeli Knesset, however, the bill will likely be passed nonetheless. In that case, a female protestor stated firmly on Thursday, “we will stay, we will resist, and we will act collectively against the racist government.”