BULLDOZING THE BEDOUIN
I'm just back from a trip to Israel where I witnessed a Bedouin village being razed to the ground by security forces, and Sunday Herald in Scotland published the following article. Israel is forcibly removing Bedouin Arabs from land they have lived on for hundreds of years in the south of the country. According to the Bedouin, this is 'ethnic cleansing' to make way for 250,00 Jewish immigrants over the next few years.
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THE destruction began just before midday when Israeli security forces fanned out to form a line on a hill overlooking the tiny Bedouin settlement. Armed with guns, sprays and batons, the police moved forward with military precision led by a paramilitary force called the Green Patrol.
Out of sight, reinforcements sat in a fleet of vehicles in case of resistance by the Arab villagers, while behind the police line three bulldozers revved their engines ominously. Once they reached the bottom of the hill officers vaulted a fence then began clearing the village systematically. As police entered the homes and ordered families to vacate, people were still inside frantically trying to salvage clothes and possessions.
Some of the Bedouin, resigned to their fate, were already on the move carrying items such as pets, potted plants and kitchen utensils, but others lingered and pleaded for more time. As one old woman left her home for the last time she wept and looked to the sky while her daughter turned and spat in the direction of a policewoman videoing the operation. “I hope you show your film so the world can see this ethnic cleansing,” she shouted in Arabic.
From another shack two woman wearing black abiyas appeared carrying a sofa. They struggled with the piece for about 20 yards until exhausted they gave up and sat on it for one last time in the shade of a small tree. Staring ahead in stunned silence, they remained there briefly until policeman arrived waving their arms to shoo them away as if herding cattle or sheep.
The youngest Bedouin evictee, Mohammed, only five days old, was carried away by his mother in a blue plastic bucket seat, sleeping and oblivious to the plight of his tribe and three elder siblings. “Where will we go?,” his mother, Khatan, said as she walked away from the land she was brought up in.
According to the State of Israel, these Bedouin Arabs have no rights to live on this desert land in the Negev region of Israel. This community, close to the town of Be’er Sheeva in the south of the country and known as an ‘unrecognised village’, was home to members of the al-Atrash tribe for nearly 30 years until the authorities arrived on Tuesday to destroy it.
As 20 homes were razed to the ground an official from the Israel Land Administration said the settlement was illegal and that security forces were executing a ruling made by Be’er Sheeva magistrate's court in 2000. “The land is state land. They (the Negev Bedouin) do not have a link to this land. The court gave a verdict and we are fulfilling it,” said the official who was monitoring the demolitions.
The al-Atrash tribe had made numerous appeals against the order but a few days earlier a judge ruled the destruction of the village must take place. Some residents claimed they had not been served with a demolition notice and only when found out when police arrived at dawn. The Bedouin insist they have legal and moral rights to the land and claim the first recorded settlement of their ancestors dates back 7000 years.
As we watched the bulldozers plough into the the ramshackle huts demolishing them easily and sending clouds of dust swirling through the air, Hussein Al-Rafaya, President of the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages (RCUV), said the tribe had nowhere to go.
“Where can they go? Most say they have no choice but to stay and pitch tents. And then the police will come back. They say these are illegal homes because we don’t have permits but it is impossible for the Bedouin to get a permit – it is catch 22. This is like apartheid, like South Africa,” he said.
These Bedouin are among an estimated 62,000 Arabs who live under the Sword of Damocles in 45 ‘unrecognised villages’ in the Negev. They are Israeli citizens and tax payers but they face the constant threat of forced removal and have limited, if any, access to services such as education, garbage collection, water and electricity supplies. Although Arabs, many Bedouin opt to do national service in the Israeli army and they are not politicised in the same way as Palestinians – not yet anyway.
Both the Ottoman Empire and the British in Palestine during the 1920s acknowledged Bedouin rights but the Israeli government refuses to accept their land claims. As a consequence, the 45 ‘unrecognised villages’ have no legal status and are not signposted on roads nor marked on any official maps.
After remonstrating with police, Al-Rafaya showed me a document from the British Mandate that he claims granted land rights. “Israel has ripped this up and has taken away everything from us. We are an invisible people,” he said angrily.
According to the Bedouin, they have suffered persecution since Israel was established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war when many fled the Negev, or were expelled to Egypt and Jordan. In the 1950s and 1960s, Israel passed laws enabling the government to lay claim to large areas of the Negev where the Bedouin had formerly owned or used the land. Planning authorities ignored the existence of Bedouin villages when they created Israel’s first master plan in the late 1960s, embedding discrimination in policies that continue today, some 40 years later.
Government policy was summed up in 1963 by Moshe Dayan, the famous Israeli general and politician, who said: “We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat – in industry, services, construction, and agriculture. 88% of the Israeli population are not farmers, let the Bedouin be like them. Indeed, this will be a radical move which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children will get used to a father who wears pants, without a dagger, and who does not pick out their nits in public. They will go to school, their hair combed and parted. This will be a revolution, but it can be achieved in two generations. Without coercion but with governmental direction … this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear.”
In 1979, Ariel Sharon continued Dayan's thinking by declaring a 1500 square kilometre area of the Negev a protected nature reserve. Sharon also established the Green Patrol to stop tribes entering the area. During his tenure as agricultural minister between 1977 and 1981, the Green Patrol removed 900 Bedouin encampments. Today the Bedouin occupy just two per cent of the Negev.
During the 1970s, Israel built townships for the Bedouin and promised them services in exchange for the renunciation of their ancestral land. Around half the indigenous population accepted as grazing restrictions had denied them access to sources of sustenance. But the other half resisted in the hope of retaining some of their traditions and customs. In 1984 the courts ruled that the Negev Bedouin had no land ownership claims, effectively illegalizing their existing settlements.
Israel says the Arabs could move into these towns and that as long as they refuse to do so demolitions will continue. The Bedouin say they do not wish inhabit urban areas as it goes against the natural grain of who they are. “Conditions there are terrible for the Bedouin anyway, with disease, crime and high unemployment,” Al Rafaya said.
One factor in the removal of the Bedouin, according to RCUV, is to make space for 250,000 new Jewish immigrants over the next five years, as part of a plan called Blueprint Negev to develop the region because of overpopulation in the north.
At least 59 new Jewish settlements have been established in the Negev. While Blueprint Negev includes money for development of the government-run Bedouin townships, the unrecognized villages are in grave danger. “This is ethnic cleansing to make room for Jews and it is a taste of things to come for our people,” Al Rafaya claimed.
As the al-Atrash village morphed into smashed wood, metal and corrugated iron piled high like bonfires, Al-Rafaya pointed to a settlement about two miles away.
“That is Givoat Bar, a new Jewish settlement. How can these people be allowed to live there when many were not even born in Israel?” he said.
In March, Human Rights Watch said Israel should declare an immediate moratorium on demolitions of Bedouin homes and investigate discrimination against its citizens in the Negev. “Israel is willing and able to build new Negev towns for Jewish Israelis seeking a rural way of life, but not for the people who have lived and worked this land for generations. This is grossly unfair,” a report said.
For the al-Atrash people, salt was rubbed into their wounds as their expulsion came a matter of days after a state-appointed commission recommended that many unrecognised villages be accepted as legal. The government-appointed Goldberg Commission, charged with arriving at a solution for the permanent settlement of Bedouin, called on the government to recognise villages to alleviate an “unbearable situation”. Some 66 per cent live below the poverty line and they are the poorest people in Israel and suffer because of a lack of water and proper sanitation.
The commission said the villages should be recognised and the Bedouin properly compensated. The cabinet is expected to consider the report for approval by the end of the month. But all this will be too late for the Al-Atrash tribe and they doubt that much will change even if the government accepts the report. “Israel makes up the rules as it goes along and there are laws for Jews and laws for Arabs,” Al Rafaya said.
His comment was brought into sharp focus on the day of the eviction by a meeting thousands of miles away in London. There are around 300,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, in breach of international law, and during talks with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister Gordon Brown raised his concerns. According to the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, Olmert criticised Brown for instructing the Foreign Office to warn British citizens against buying real estate in these settlements. “There is no justification for what you are now doing. During my time as prime minister no new settlements have been built and you know it,” Olmert said.
This week, however, statistics published by the Ariel University Centre of Samaria showed that the Jewish population of the West Bank has grown three times as fast as the general Israeli population over the last decade. The study found that over the last 12 years, the settler population grew by 107 percent. Over the same period, the general Israeli population grew by only 29 percent.
This trend was maintained over the last three years.
All the Bedouin want is a traditional life and the same rights as other Israeli citizens. At al-Atrash, there was no resistance and by 2pm the bulldozers were finished and the village was destroyed. On a hill, the Bedouin sat watching quietly contemplating their fate.
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