Bedouins Fight Israel's Resettlement Plan — and Bid for American Jews' Support

Ancient Negev Desert People Resist Urbanization Push

Long Fight: Israel claims it is doing what’s best for Bedouin peoples of the Negev desert by resettling them in nearby towns. But the ancient people vow to keep rebuilding their makeshift settlements — and fight for their homes.
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Long Fight: Israel claims it is doing what’s best for Bedouin peoples of the Negev desert by resettling them in nearby towns. But the ancient people vow to keep rebuilding their makeshift settlements — and fight for their homes.

By Nathan Guttman and Nathan Jeffay

Published July 13, 2013, issue of July 19, 2013.
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Critics of Israeli legislation aimed at urbanizing the Bedouin population of the Negev desert are trying to enlist American Jews to support their struggle and to apply pressure on the Israeli government to halt implementation of the program.

The plight of the Bedouins, dramatized in the 2012 award-winning feature film “Sharqiya,” is that their land claims were never formalized under Turkish, British or Israeli rule. This has led Bedouin villages — often without running water or electricity — to be poor and largely “unrecognized.” And that means that inhabitants have little legal recourse when the government, ostensibly attempting to alleviate national poverty levels, razes their homes and sends them to cities with amenities.

Anticipating the late June vote, advocates drew attention to the Bedouin cause with a video message by Jewish actor Theodore Bikel, famed for his portrayal of Tevye, in which he compares the situation of Bedouins under the proposed law to that of the Jews being expelled from Anatevka, the fictional Jewish shtetl depicted in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.”

“We want Jews to help us on this issue — Jews from Israel and Jews from abroad — as we think the prime minister listens to them more than he listens to us,” said Attia al-Asam, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages.

American supporters of Bedouin rights are hopeful that Jewish involvement from abroad will succeed where domestic advocacy has failed. They view the struggle of Women of the Wall as a model of a campaign in which American Jews were able to change political realities in Israel. But the drive to help Israeli Bedouin has yet to garner similar support and, with the exception of the Reform movement, most mainstream Jewish organizations have chosen to sit out on this debate, avoiding confrontation with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

The plan for resettlement of Negev Bedouins, which was written by former Cabinet minister Benny Begin and by Ehud Prawer, head of the policy planning division at the Prime Minister’s Office, is aimed at regulating the living areas of Arab Bedouin residents of the Negev. The Bedouins, who make up between 20% and 30% of the area’s population, reside in small, unrecognized villages that do not receive governmental or municipal services.

According to the plan, between 20,000 and 30,000 Bedouin will relocate to towns in the Negev, receiving compensation and new plots of land. Backers of the plan insist the displacement “can be a blessing” because of the modernization and financial opportunities that it will bring. The relocation of families “will make it possible for their children to leap in time into the midst of the 21st century, and to build a better future for them while maintaining their culture and way of life,” Begin wrote when presenting the plan.

But critics say that precedent does not back up this optimism. Bedouin towns suffer from poverty, infrastructure problems and disproportionately high crime rates, and urbanization thus far has been a “horrible failure,” said Marc Grey, spokesman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, arguing that there is nothing to suggest that this wave of urbanization will be more successful.


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