End of the road for the Bedouin

The Arab Bedouin are Israeli citizens and many fight in the Israeli army. But an attempt to force them off their land has led to violent clashes with the police

The 3,000 or so residents of Bir al Mshash are distinctly unmoved by the prospect of Israeli elections next March. The villagers, who like all their fellow Bedouin in the Negev desert are Israeli citizens, many of whom serve in the Israeli army, normally vote Labour. "I don't want to vote for any party now," says Ibrahim Abu Speyt, 48. "I want to boycott the elections."

The reason isn't hard to find. Two weeks ago, a 50-year-old problem came to a head for Bir al Mshash. Israeli police and ministry of interior officials arrived to put formal notices on 12 houses slated for demolition in what the villagers believe is the first of a multi-stage operation in which they will be moved off the land they regard as having been theirs since Ottoman times.

Violence erupted. According to the ministry of interior, warning shots were fired in response to stone throwing by children specifically called out of school for the purpose by "leaders of the tribe", and police were in fear of their lives. According to Naef Abu Speyt, 35, a member of the residents' committee, the violence started after police struck his uncle Ahmed as he tried to mediate between a force of 65 police, with helmets and riot shields, and 200 angry residents. He said 16 people were arrested and 18 people, including nine women, were injured by baton-wielding police.

Broken windows and doors taken off their frames were visible in several houses in the village. Surprisingly, given the normally deeply conservative attitudes to women among the Bedouin, Muna Abu Speyt, 19, who was in her ninth month of pregnancy at the time, was willing to display a deep bruise on her back which she said was a result of being struck by police. She started to have contractions after the incident and gave birth to her (healthy) baby in Beersheeva's Seroka hospital where she had been taken by an ambulance ordered by the police.

One of the extended family's matriarchs, Ibrahim's spritely mother Fatima Abu Speyt, 93 - who says she too was struck by the police officers though seems none the worse for the experience - is nostalgic for the old times, "the life in tents," as she puts it, when they could travel freely throughout Palestine finding pastures for their livestock. "Under the British [mandate] it was better. We had more freedom to go where we wanted." Fatima adds: "The British would arrest someone who did something wrong but they didn't attack people just sitting in their houses." But then the British, whatever else they did to dismay both Jews and Arabs during the mandate, had not been seeking to move the Bedouin; instead they acknowledged the Arab rights of land ownership established over the previous 400 hundred years after the Bedouin came, mainly from the Arabian peninsula, to Palestine. The official record of the relevant "Law Reports of Palestine" of 1923 states that "The Colonial Secretary Winston S Churchill," no less, "confirmed in the presence of the High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel, that ownership of land in Beer Sheba, determined by custom law, is recognised by the British government".

But much of the Negev has long been earmarked for development for and by Jewish immigrants; more than 40 years ago the Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan summed up with clarity the "sharp transition" he envisaged: "We must turn the Bedouin into urban labourers ... It means that the Bedouin will no longer live on his land with his flocks but will become an urbanite 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. Not by coercion but with direction from the state. This reality that is known as the Bedouin will disappear."

Bir al Mshash is one of 37 unrecognised villages whose inhabitants Israel wants to move to specially designated towns or villages. Although some Bedouin still move to relatively nearby summer grazing pastures, they no longer live as the nomads they once were, settling instead in villages on stretches of the desert they used to visit for long periods each year.

Yet the villages do not appear on any Israeli map, nor on the ID cards the residents carry. Nor are there roadsigns to them; the only vestige of their presence on the main highways are the big yellow signs announcing: "Beware of camels by the road." The villages do not have running water; they are not linked to the electricity grid. In stark contrast even to the smallest kibbutzim there are only eight - very basic - clinics for the 37 villages. In most cases only dirt roads lead to them. And of course, because the villages are unregistered, none of the houses they live in have permits, which is why the ministry of the interior is empowered to demolish them if and when they choose.

Two Israeli High Court hearings yesterday suggest the government regards such conditions as just one more incentive for the Bedouin to move. In Sawa, another Negev village, three-year-old Ennas al Atrash is suffering from a chest cancer, has been receiving chemotherapy and needs, to support her collapsed immune system, drugs which have to be refrigerated. But Sawa is not connected to the electricity grid and her father, who ironically is himself a doctor in the Israeli health service, cannot afford more than a part share in a £900-per-month generator running for four hours each day. Two Israeli NGOs, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR-Israel) and the Association of Civil Rights (ACRI) had petitioned the court for the family to be connected to the grid; they argued that it was an abuse of Ennas's human right to health to pay the price of what was in effect a discriminatory planning policy. They also cited, in answer to the argument that the family could move to a recognised village or town, clinical evidence that the support of her close and extended family - as well as the need for relatives to look after her five siblings when her parents accompanied her on her frequent trips to hospital - was essential to her treatment. But the court, while expressing sympathy, yesterday rejected the petition. Justice Edmond Levy declared: "One cannot ignore the fact that it was the petitioners' decision to settle in an unrecognised village, knowing that as a result they would be unable to have the most basic facilities."

Another petition by several groups including PHR is against the spraying of Bedouin crops with highly toxic weedkiller by the Israel Lands Administration, which fears the Bedouin will use continuous cultivation to reinforce their land claims. The petitioners cited an opinion by Dr Elihu Richter, a Hebrew University public health expert that the practice, which was halted by an injunction in March 2004, pending a final court decision, was "an immoral act of human experimentation". But the government's lawyer strongly defended the practice in court yesterday as one of the best ways to enforce the law and prevent "anarchy" in use of the land.

For the Bedouin do not want to move. Their representatives point out that while the Israeli state comptroller estimates that the Bedouin own around 87,500 acres of the Negev they are only occupying around 60,000, and that the unregistered villages themselves occupy around 45,000 acres - around 1.3 per cent of the total area of the Negev.

Recognising their villages, they argue, and improving what PHR regards as their Third World conditions would still leave plenty of room for development of, say, Jewish agriculture.

It particularly rankles with the Abu Speyt family that many of them volunteer to serve in the Israeli army, where the Bedouin are especially valued for their tracking skills, and have often served in particularly dangerous places like the southern Gaza border. "Where the war is, there are the Bedouin," says Ahmed, who is deeply resistant to losing the sheep, goats and camels he and his brother own if they are forced into a state township. "We will only get one dunum [a quarter acre] when we need ten."

"I want to tell the government of Israel that we are part of their state, but they have rejected us." Although the Bedouin have virtually no history of Palestinian nationalism, Ibrahim adds: "Before 1948 [and Israel's establishment as a state after the war of independence] we were Palestinians. When the Israelis came they cancelled our Palestinian identity. I have Israeli ID. I drive a car with Israeli plates. I am a citizen of Israel. But I am a second-class citizen."

The Bedouin deeply fear moving to the seven existing townships, which themselves have only the most minimal of services, established by the state for them in the late Sixties - or another seven long scheduled but not yet built. When Suleiman Abu Steyt, 46, says of the prospect: "Here, I am with my brothers. There I won't know anybody. I don't care if I have to sleep in tents or on the open ground. I am not going", he is touching on something basic to the Bedouin; each village tends to be occupied by one extended family - something which not only stops disputes between families but allows women more freedom since they can go out among their own neighbours in a way they couldn't among strangers -something which in turn underlines the need for primary health care clinics in each village. Clinton Bailey, an American-born Israeli academic and leading expert on Bedouin culture, who agitated on the Bedouins' behalf in the early 1990s, thinks their final destiny will be within the townships. As recently as this year he sought to mediate with the state on behalf of villagers unable to build new homes when they got married. But his recent contacts with government officials dealing with the Bedouin have led him to believe that even Ariel Sharon, despite having been one of the harshest exponents of the Dayan doctrine, sees that carrot as well as stick is needed to effect its goals. He believes that up to $2bn of the $17bn earmarked by Mr Sharon and Shimon Peres for a huge development project to bring more Jewish housing, industry and agriculture to the Negev will be used to ease the removal of the Bedouin from the unrecognised villages. This will be done, for example, by using mediation to process land claims and provide compensation, and ensuring that the second wave of townships are not only built but properly serviced before the Bedouin have to move in. "I am more hopeful than I have been for many years," he says.

Neither his optimism - nor his view of the long-term solution - is shared by groups like PHR which have long campaigned for the villages to be recognised and for services to be provided.

If anything, PHR-Israel's Orly Almi says, "The government is using more force and issuing more demolition orders. And unless the court tells them not to the crop spraying will start again." She adds: "The bigger plan is to implant Judaism in the Negev. It can't be a coincidence that the government often plans Jewish settlements close to where unrecognised villages are." But arguing that there is easily enough room for both to co-exist, she adds: "There is no reason why Jewish communities shouldn't live along aside the Bedouin villages, with both recognised. But that seems to be impossible in Israel."

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