Beer-Sheva, Israel: "It is not every day that a government decides to relocate almost half a per cent of its population in a programme of forced urbanisation," Rawia Aburabia asserted, adding that "this is precisely what Prawer wants to do".
The meeting, which was attempting to coordinate various actions against the Prawer Plan, had just ended, and Rawia, an outspoken Bedouin leader who works for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, was clearly upset. She realised that the possibility of changing the course of events was extremely unlikely and that, at the end of the day, the government would uproot 30,000 Negev Bedouin and put them in townships. This would result in an end to their rural way of life and would ultimately deprive them of their livelihood and land rights.
Rawia's wrath was directed at Ehud Prawer, the Director of the Planning Policy Division in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office. Prawer took on this role after serving as the deputy director of Israel's National Security Council. His mandate is to implement the decisions of the Goldberg Committee for the Arrangement of Arab Settlement in the Negev, by offering a "concrete solution" to the problem of the 45 unrecognised Bedouin villages in the region.
An estimated 70,000 people are currently living in these villages, which are prohibited by law from connecting any of their houses to electricity grids, running water or sewage systems. Construction regulations are also harshly enforced and in this past year alone, about 1,000 Bedouin homes and animal pens - usually referred to by the government simple as "structures" - were demolished. There are no paved roads in these villages and it is illegal to place signposts near the highways designating the village's location. Opening a map will not help either, since none of these villages are marked. Geographically, at least, these citizens of Israel do not exist.
The State's relationship with the Bedouin has been thorny from the beginning. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, about 70,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev. Following the 1948 war, however, only 12,000 or so remained, while the rest fled or were expelled to Jordan and Egypt.
Under the directives of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, many of the remaining Bedouin were uprooted from the lands they had inhabited for generations and were concentrated in the mostly barren area in the north-eastern part of the Negev known as the Siyag (enclosure) zone. This area comprises one million dunams [one dunam = 1,000m2], or slightly less than ten per cent of the Negev's territory. Through this process of forced relocation, the Negev's most arable lands were cleared of Arab residents and were given to new kibbutzim and moshavim, Jewish agriculture communities, which took full advantage of the fertile soil.
After their relocation and up until 1966, the Bedouin citizens of Israel were subjected to a harsh military rule; their movement was restricted and they were denied basic political, social and economic rights. But even in the post-military rule of the late 1960s, many Israeli decision makers still considered the Bedouin living within the Siyag threatening and occupying too much land, so, despite the relocation that had been carried out in the 1950s, the state decided to find a better solution to the "Bedouin problem".
The plan was to concentrate the Bedouin population within semi-urban spaces that would ultimately comprise only a minute percentage of their original tribal lands. Over the course of several years, government officials met with Bedouin sheikhs and reached agreements with many of them. In a gradual process, spanning about 20 years, seven towns were created - Tel-Sheva, Rahat, Segev Shalom, Kusaife, Lqya, Hura and Ar'ara.
In some cases, Bedouin were already living where the town was built, but the large majority of the Bedouin were relocated once again and moved into these Bedouin-only towns. Some did it of their own volition, while others were forced. The price that most families had to pay for their own displacement was hefty: renouncing the right to large portions of their land and giving up their rural way of life.
For many years following the establishment of each town, the Bedouin residents were not allowed to hold democratic elections and their municipalities were run by Jewish officials from the Ministry of Interior. The towns also rapidly turned into over-crowded townships, with dilapidated infrastructure and hardly any employment opportunities. Currently, all seven townships, which are home to about 135,000 people, are ranked one on the Israeli socio-economic scale of one (lowest) to ten (highest), and are characterised by a high unemployment, high birth rates and third-rate education institutions.
After years of indecision, the government appointed Prawer to try, yet again, to solve the "Bedouin problem" once and for all. His mandate is to relocate the Bedouin who had been unwilling to sign over their property rights and remained in unrecognised villages. The government's justification for not recognising these villages is that they are relatively small (ranging from a couple of hundred to several thousand people) and are scattered across a large area, all of which makes it difficult, in the government's view, to provide them with satisfactory infrastructure. In the name of modernism, then, the government wants to concentrate the Bedouin in a small number of towns.
Wadi al Na'am
After meeting Rawia, I drove to Wadi al Na'am, an unrecognised Bedouin village located about 20 minutes south of my house in Beer-Sheva. I wanted to ask some of the people there what they think of Prawer's Plan.
This article first appeared in Al Jazeera. A shorter version of the article also appeared in the London Review of Books.