The Bedouin vs Israel's bulldozers

As Jewish settlers move into the desert to make it 'bloom', an ancient way of life is under threat. In Alsra, Catrina Stewart speaks to Arab families on the fault line

Alsra

At the top of an unmarked track leading into the small village of Alsra, in the Negev desert, somebody has placed a triangular road sign barring the entry of bulldozers. They will come, nevertheless, for every family in this village has been served with a demolition order by the Israeli authorities.

The indigenous Bedouin Arabs have eked out an existence in the desert for generations, but despite being citizens of Israel, their communities do not exist officially. Alsra, and others like it, does not appear on any official map; does not connect to any roads, and does not receive basic services from the state, such as electricity or sewage treatment.

By contrast, Jewish families have been encouraged to settle in this part of the country to make the desert "bloom" and small, gated farming communities – fully serviced with water and electricity – have sprung up close to the Bedouin villages.

For the Bedouin, however, worse is to come. Under a sweeping new proposal, dubbed the Prawer report, Israel is seeking to corral 30,000 Bedouin living in the Negev's "unrecognised" villages – some little more than tented encampments – into destitute Bedouin townships, a move that human rights groups say will not only dispossess a people of their ancestral lands but also shatter a disappearing way of life.

Those townships are some of the poorest, most overcrowded and crime-ridden communities in Israel, a far cry from the farms where the Bedouin can tend their livestock.

"It is our second naqba," says Khalil Alamour, a teacher from Alsra. Naqba is the Arabic for catastrophe and refers to the events of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled their homes or were driven out during fighting as the State of Israel was formed, many of them doomed to become refugees. "There will be no more Bedouin."

Although nobody knows for sure which communities will be affected, the residents of Alsra, that existed long before the creation of the Jewish state, believe it is almost certain to go.

Sitting on the shaded veranda of an attractive brick home, Mr Alamour says that this land has remained in his family's hands for generations. He produces original ownership deeds, stamped by British Mandate officials in 1921. His family paid taxes on the land until the 1950s, when Israel ceased to collect it.

But like every other house in this village, it was built without a permit, permits that are impossible to obtain in light of a 1965 planning law that ignores the existence of the Bedouin villages. The Israeli government says that it wants a solution to the unchecked spread of Bedouin communities in the Negev, with many officials viewing the Bedouin as squatters on state land.

Meeting Bedouin leaders this week, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said they were facing an "historic opportunity".

"The plan will allow the Bedouin, for the first time, to realise their assets and turn them from dead capital into living capital – to receive ownership of the land, which will allow for home construction according to law and for the development of enterprises and employment," he said.

But despite a £200m sweetener that accompanies the plan, the Bedouin are incensed that such an important decision has been made without consulting them. "The Bedouin are not against a plan... but the issue is to consult with them and see what their needs are," says Mansour Nsasra, an Israeli Bedouin researching his PhD at Exeter University.

Moving them to townships, he says, "is not a solution".

The Prawer plan envisages a five-year implementation, where Bedouin will be compensated for up to 50 per cent of their land claims. But swathes of Bedouin internally displaced in the 1950s will be ineligible, while those who hope to receive compensation must not only agree to evacuate their lands but also meet complicated criteria, meaning that the eventual payout will be much less, according to Israel's Association for Civil Rights.

Some 160,000 Bedouin live in the Negev, a people whose plight is generally forgotten in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today, they live on 5 per cent of the Negev, roughly half of them in designated towns; the remainder in 45 villages, 35 of which are still unrecognised and receive no services from the state.Every Bedouin has closely followed the fate of Al Araqib, an hour's drive away from Alsyra, which has been destroyed 29 times by Israeli soldiers in the past year. The villagers return every time to rebuild, only for the soldiers to knock it down again to make way for the planting of a new forest. Many fear that what is happening in Al Araqib is a "dry run" for the expulsion of Bedouin who resist in other communities. Mr Alamour faces far more than just losing his home if the government's proposals come to fruition. "My only ambition is to maintain my lifestyle, my traditions and values," the teacher says. "This is what I will lose if they transfer my family to the townships."

In the 1970s, Israel built seven designated towns for the Bedouin in the Negev, persuading thousands of Arabs to move through a mixture of force and inducements. Rahat is the largest of these, home to 53,000 people. It is also one of the poorest cities in Israel, with a soaring birthrate, 37 per cent unemployment and 50 per cent of its residents living below the poverty line by the most conservative estimates.

In his office, Rahat's mayor is feeling particularly gloomy. He looks at the map behind his desk of the densely populated city and asks nobody in particular where a new influx of Bedouin can go. "It will create a new intifada in the Naqab [Negev]. It is impossible to transfer 30,000 people," Faiz Abu Sahiban says. "We tell them: 'Stay where you are and ask for your rights'."

Outside the municipality, several Bedouin youths are haring around a parking lot in a souped-up Toyota, a reminder of the lack of opportunity and jobs facing many of the city's residents today. The city has suffered from chronic underinvestment. Rahat receives an annual budget of 153 million shekels (£26.4m) from the Israeli government, less than half of the 380m shekels (£65.7m) that goes to Kiryat Gat, a nearby Jewish town roughly equivalent in size, according to the municipality. If Rahat agrees to take in 3,000 Bedouin living in villages on its immediate outskirts, the Israeli government will give it 100,000 shekels (£17,300) for each one, Mr Abu Sahiban says. "It is a bribe for the city. They refuse to develop [Rahat] until we accept the offer."

Speaking to local residents, there is a sense of hopelessness in this city and the Bedouin are unconvinced that the government has their best interests at heart. The uprooting of the Bedouin in the 1970s was a "huge failure", says Naif al-Tlalka, 65, a resident of Rahat who moved to the city in 1981 when his family was forced from their homes for a second time after being driven off their land in the western Negev in the 1950s.

"We used to laugh at the people who lived in these conditions. We used to say they lived in boxes," he says with a wry smile, as he fondly watches his many grandchildren playing in the yard.

"How I wish I could go back to a time before, where I could hear the sound of the wind, the birds and the animals and smell the clean air."

Desert dwellers

* The Bedouin are traditionally desert dwellers, who until the past 50 years or so lived nomadic or semi-nomadic lives in some of the harshest environments known to man.

* They are scattered across the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Syria to Israel, and have been described as the "true wanderers" of the desert.

* In times past, the Bedouin lived in tents, the camel their workhorse, as they roamed the desert, moving from pasture to pasture, unhindered by the lack of artificial national boundaries that have hemmed in the Bedouin the last century or so.

* Famed for their desert hospitality, they would feed and water a visitor for three days and extend protection to them for a further three days.

* To varying degrees, the Bedouin have seen their traditional nomadic and pastoral traditions disappear, as creeping urbanisation, drought and government policy have guided them towards a more settled and conventional life.

* When Wilfred Thesiger, the explorer, wrote about the Bedouin in the Arabian Empty Quarter in the 1940s and 1950s, he believed that he was recording a dying way of life.

Indeed, the warring and raiding by the different tribes that he so memorably described is now a thing of the distant past and the camel has long been replaced by the motor car. While many Bedouin still live in tents across the Middle East, many others have settled in permanent, mostly agricultural communities, their homes made of brick or mortar.

* In the Negev desert, the Bedouin are typically engaged in farming goats and sheep. Pre-1948, 90,000 Bedouin lived in Palestine. Only 11,000 remained after the new state was formed, the remainder having either fled or been driven out during fighting.

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