Beersheba, Israel — To the Bedouins, the plan for a mass demolition of their villages is a cruel move that would expel them from land they say belongs to them; to the Israeli government it is a bold attempt to remedy this minority’s own complaints about its low living standard and bring it into the 21st century.
Israel’s government is poised to propose legislation to solve a dispute as old as the country itself. It will compensate 80,000 Bedouin Arabs for land in the Negev that they say they own. Israel considers them squatters, and will demand that they leave.
As the villages slated for evacuation are considered illegal by Israel, inhabitants do not receive services like sewage and connection to the country’s electricity grid —services they are to receive in the government’s mass resettlement plan. “You cannot say they don’t have the standard of living of other Israelis and criticize when we give that,” said Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman in the Prime Minister’s Office.
In response, Bedouin activists and their supporters have turned to Washington. In late October, three Bedouin activists and one Jewish advocate for their cause flew to America from Israel to seek the administration’s intervention in an effort to avert the plan. They held meetings at the White House and lobbied Congress members. They tried to raise objections from civil society, briefing think tanks, meeting with faith groups and speaking at universities.
“This kind of action against the most disadvantaged community in Israel should be taken seriously by the American state and by Americans,” said delegation member Rawia Aburabia, a Bedouin attorney who deals with Bedouin-related cases at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “America considers itself a friend of Israel, and we’re saying that to be a friend of Israel it needs to be a friend of Israel’s citizens, including the Bedouins.”
Doni Remba, co-director of the American-based Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice in Israel, who participated in the Washington visit, said delegation members were told that the American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, would soon travel to some of the Bedouin sites slated for demolition. Remba stressed that the trip would not be a solidarity visit but part of the effort of the United States to “learn about the situation.”
But if Washington is acting, it’s not in public. Asked if Shapiro had, in fact, since the Washington mission, visited any of the sites due to be demolished, embassy press attaché Kurt Hoyer replied, “The ambassador, as his predecessors did, visits communities all around Israel as a normal part of his portfolio, not in response to any particular event or actions of others.”
Israel’s plans for its Bedouin citizens, who live in Israel, parallel those it implemented in Israeli-occupied Gaza when troops evacuated Israeli Jews living in settlements there. “If the government evacuated 8,000 citizens living in legally authorized buildings, it can also evacuate those living in illegal buildings,” wrote Ehud Praver, head of the department for policy planning in the Prime Minister’s Office, shortly after the Gaza disengagement of 2005.
Praver went on to head the committee providing policy for the forthcoming legislation. Its report, released last May, does not specify the number of Bedouins that will be relocated, but Gendelman, the prime minister’s spokesman, revealed to the Forward that the legislation will propose evacuation of all 80,000 who live on disputed land — double the number estimated by critics of the new policy.
Gendelman said that the legislation will offer generous compensation to evacuees for land that they inhabit as well as for land over which they claim ownership. But while the Praver report says that compensation may be as high as 50% of the value of the land claimed, Bedouin activists say that the complicated structure for calculating compensation means that in the final reckoning it will be much lower.