JERUSALEM — As Israel prepares to force thousands of Bedouins to give up land that their families have lived on for generations, officials have struggled to convince residents of the ramshackle communities scattered across the vast Negev desert that moving to new, legal homes will pave a path to a better future.
After decades of discrimination and neglect, many Bedouins and their supporters see only a plot to destroy their way of life.
“I don’t need gutters,” complained one man during a recent meeting with government representatives in a tin-roofed tent in Abdeh, one of many villages in the desert that Israel does not recognize. “I don’t want a road,” added another. Finally, to be perfectly clear, 70-year-old Swellem al-Kallab, the tribal elder, leaned into his visitors’ faces, took the toothpick from his mouth and traced a circle on the concrete floor. “Where we sit right now, you just draw a line around it,” he seethed. “I want to stay here.”
The fundamental disconnect reflects the increasingly contentious dispute over Israel’s $2 billion plan to resettle its Bedouin citizens as part of a major redevelopment initiative as it moves two huge military bases into the Negev. The plight of the Bedouins has in many circles become a proxy for the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, prompting condemnation from human rights groups, European lawmakers and cultural celebrities. Demonstrations against the plan last weekend left 15 police officers injured and 48 protesters arrested.
As right-wing lawmakers threatened to kill the plan because of the Bedouins’ unwillingness to make concessions, Arab members of Israel’s Parliament sent a letter Thursday asking U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to help block it.
Proponents of the project say that no state can abide people’s building where and what they wish without approval, and that it promises the Bedouins, by far Israel’s poorest sector, clinics, jobs, education and infrastructure that they sorely lack. Opponents call it insidious racism, ethnic cleansing or even apartheid, complain that the Bedouins were not consulted enough in the plan’s construction and accuse Israel of a land grab that ignores their culture and traditions.
It would be difficult to overstate the level of distrust underlying the dispute. But there is no denying the hardship that Bedouins face: Their infant mortality rate is seven times that in Tel Aviv, illiteracy and unemployment are rampant and many live without water, electricity, phone and sewage services.
“They deserve more, and they can be given more,” said Clinton Bailey, an Israeli scholar who has studied the Bedouins for 45 years. “If the government just realizes that it has to think it out and decide what it can give them and specify it and then talk to people, they’ll find much less opposition than they have today.”
The Bedouins, seminomadic Arab Muslims, trace their history in the 4,700-square-mile Negev to the seventh century. When Israel became a state in 1948, all but 11,000 of the 90,000 Bedouins fled. Those who remained were granted citizenship but concentrated under military rule in about 10 percent of the area known as the Siyag — Arabic for “fence” — that their advocates liken to a Native American reservation in the United States.
Today, that area is home to 200,000 Bedouins, whose birthrates are the world’s highest. Roughly one-third of them are polygamous, and about half live in seven towns that Israel built between 1968 and 1989, where crime is high and streets are strewn with garbage. Israel has in recent years recognized 13 villages, legalizing dwellings long slated for demolition, but has moved slowly, if at all, to modernize them. There remain 35 unrecognized villages like Abdeh, with a total of 70,000 residents, who could face forced relocation.
The most contested element of the plan — known as Prawer-Begin after its authors, Ehud Prawer, the government’s director of planning, and Benny Begin, a former Cabinet minister — is its proposed resolution of nearly 3,000 land claims totaling 230 square miles. After Israeli courts rejected 200 such claims, most based on handwritten deeds, the government created a complex formula to compensate Bedouins based on the location of the land, whether they are still cultivating it and how quickly they apply.
Most would get half or a quarter of the land, plus some cash. The rest of the land would be seized by the state for its own use, or redistributed to Bedouins from far-flung areas of what officials call “the diaspora.”
“We are not against development,’’ said Thabet Abu Rass of Adalah, an advocacy group for Arab rights in Israel. “The question is why, whenever the state of Israel wants to develop the Negev, it’s always at the expense of the Bedouin.”
The Bedouins and their advocates say that they simply want to maintain their small agricultural villages, and have developed an alternative plan to put them on the grid, but that the government has ignored it.
One such place is Alsra, whose residents had a sign made to mark it that uses the same colors and fonts of those that the government places on roads across Israel. But the Bedouins added the phrase “established in the Ottoman Empire,” along with a picture of a bulldozer and a house to symbolize the demolition orders pending since 2006 against the village’s 70 structures.
Khalil Alamour, a high school teacher and father of seven, persuaded Waze, the popular Israeli GPS system, to put Alsra on its maps, and he provides pirated Wi-Fi to his neighbors. A 1-inch pipe brings a trickle of water to the 500 residents, who dug 10 cisterns and pay to have sewage pumped out every 18 months.
There is no garbage collection, but solar panels are everywhere: Eight recharge Alamour’s 12 two-volt batteries, which serve his three-bedroom stucco house, behind which are satellite dishes and the 10 hens that provide his daily breakfast. A math and computer teacher, he said that Israel wanted to condense the Bedouins in urban centers “like a zip drive to compress files.”
“They will take me into a cage and build a house and put me inside of these four walls and say, ‘You are modernized, now you have electricity and washing machine,’” Alamour said. “I have that already. I don’t even need the services, just to live in peace in my father’s land.”
Ami Tesler, who is promoting the plan for the prime minister’s office, said about a dozen such villages would probably be recognized, although he would not say which — and the lack of specifics has infuriated the Bedouins. On a recent tour of the area, he said he hoped that 80 percent of the Bedouins would remain in place, but added, “You cannot make infrastructure to one tent here and one tent 200 meters or 400 meters there — they give you models that cannot work.”
Tesler drove to El Sayed, a village of 5,000 officially recognized a decade ago, yet still without a sewage system, electric lines or the promised strip of shops and schools, which he attributed to “bureaucracy.” Then he went to Hura, a Bedouin city of 17,500, where bulldozers were busy carving a new subdivision, with concrete blocks on each lot to house utilities — this he called “the beginning of modernity.”
Bedouins displaced by the plan will be given lots of 5,400 to 8,600 square feet in places like Hura, Tesler said, plus at least $28,000 to build. The government also promises investment in job training, education, health care and transportation.
The next stop was Abdeh, one of four villages slated to become a new municipality on a dirt expanse a couple of miles away. The steepness of the challenge spilled out in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic as the government representatives tried to explain taxes, urban planning and parliamentary processes to men unwilling to leave their homes. “If we need to move you, we’ll move you,” warned Eli Azmon, a government consultant. “You live in Zinco,” he said, referring to the corrugated metal that constitutes many Bedouin walls. “What’s the problem to move you a few hundred meters?”
The conversation, like two before it in Abdeh, broke up without progress. “We have our own way of thinking, and you have your way of thinking,” said Labad Tasan, 45, after telling the visitors that Abdeh wanted to develop a tourism business but did not need toilets. “It will be a confrontation.”
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