Israeli Bedouins fight resettlement plan

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Associated Press

Posted on August 1, 2013 at 4:05 PM

Updated Thursday, Aug 1 at 4:05 PM

AL-SIRA, Israel (AP) — Khalil Alamour's comfortable house in the Bedouin village of al-Sira boasts many things: a well-tended garden, a clutch of chickens, a complex home-built water system. There's also a government demolition order pasted to the front door.

Since 2006, Alamour and many of the village's 500 residents have lived with the threat of bulldozers tearing down their homes. And with a plan to address the future of Israel's Bedouin Arab minority now before Israel's parliament, Alamour fears that time may have finally run out.

Al-Sira, like many Bedouin villages, is not recognized by the Israeli government. It's cut off from basic services like water and electricity, and new construction is forbidden.

The new plan would recognize many such villages, most in Israel's southern Negev Desert, and pump over $2 billion into developing the region. But as many as 40,000 Bedouins would be relocated to government-built towns, where crime and poverty are rampant, and al-Sira's residents are among them.

The Israeli government says the plan will give the Bedouin the services and economic opportunities they currently lack. "The current levels of underdevelopment in the Bedouin community are simply unacceptable," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Bedouins who are forced to move would be compensated by the government.

The plan is just the latest government attempt to address the future of the Bedouin.

A commission under former Supreme Court justice Eliezer Goldberg delivered that plan in 2011 but the Israeli right complained it gave the Bedouin too much land. That led to a new committee and two more rounds of revisions.

In June the new plan finally passed the first of three parliament votes necessary to become law. It is expected to receive final approval after parliament returns from its summer recess.

But the contours of the debate have barely changed over the past two years. The Bedouin agree that the status quo is untenable. But where the government sees investment, Bedouin and human rights activists see a land grab tinged with anti-Arab racism.

"I think the Israeli government is very right-wing and they are insisting on confiscating as much Arab land as possible," said Salah Mohsen, the media coordinator for Adalah, an advocacy group for Israel's 1.7 million Arab citizens. He and other Bedouin advocates believe that the government is hoping to shunt them aside as Jews move to the Negev and the military builds new bases there.

Israeli Arabs have long contended that, despite their citizenship, they are victims of official discrimination, with their communities receiving fewer resources than Jewish towns. While some Arabs have made strides in recent years in entering the Israeli mainstream, they are on average poorer and less educated than their Jewish counterparts, and many complain that Israeli security services view them as a threat.

Bedouins make up a subgroup in the Arab minority, with strong nomadic traditions. Traditionally, Bedouins have identified more closely with Israel than their Arab brethren, but their complaints against the resettlement program, known as the Prawer Plan, echo broader sentiments among other Arab Israelis.

Regev, the government spokesman, argued that much of the criticism against the plan is driven by that narrative rather than the government's proposal itself.

"I think some of the criticism is automatic," said Regev, the government spokesman. "I don't understand how anybody can seriously say that this program is not going to move the ball forward in a positive direction."

Around 200,000 Bedouins live in the Negev, most concentrated in an area around the city of Beersheba.

They lived under military rule until the 1960s, and have since resisted government efforts to move them into seven larger, recognized communities. Bedouins say those towns are rife with crime, poverty and the same lack of basic services they currently face.

The urban setting also makes their traditional occupation, raising livestock, much more difficult. To the Bedouin, resettlement is simply an attack on their culture.

While the Prawer Plan allows for the "overwhelming majority" of Bedouin to receive recognition for their villages and houses, Bedouin advocates say that there are no obstacles to recognizing all of the current villages in place.

Against claims that services are too expensive to provide to scattered settlements, they charge that isolated Jewish towns and farms in the Negev have been given such services while Bedouin requests have been ignored, an accusation the government denies.

Bedouins and the government have frequently clashed over land claims. Many Bedouin have lived in their unrecognized homes and towns for decades, but few have any documentation.

Even when they can produce deeds — Khalil Alamour keeps a fragile, detailed piece of paper from 1921 recording the purchase of his family's home — the documents usually predate Israel's founding and hold little weight in the country's legal system.

Thabet Abu Ras, the head of Adalah's office in the Negev, claimed that one sign of growing Bedouin mistrust in the government is a drop in the number of Bedouins serving in the Israeli military in response to the resettlement plan.

Though Bedouins are not drafted by the Israeli military, some traditionally volunteered to serve as scouts and trackers. Military spokesmen said that most Bedouin enlistees come from the north of Israel, though recruitment from the south have ticked up in recent years.

As the bill gathers steam, Bedouins have ramped up their opposition.

Arab groups held protests across the country in July and organized two more demonstrations on Thursday. Their efforts also prompted a statement from Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said the government's plan would "legitimize forcible displacement and dispossession."

The statement got an angry Israeli response. The Foreign Ministry said the statement "displays ignorance and lack of acquaintance with the subject matter."

Abu Ras believes that the conflict is just starting to heat up. He predicted that once the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ends and the school year starts, more protests will come. "I believe a real upheaval is coming in late August, early September," he said.

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