Al-Ahram Weekly – 8 August 2002
The small fleet of light aircraft swept in low over the northern Negev on a clear spring morning bearing a message from the Israeli government for the region’s Bedouin farmers.
The planes released their load of toxic chemicals, stored in canisters under the wings, a hundred feet or so above fields of cereal crops. A fine mist settled on the plants, darkening each stalk over the next few days until it shrivelled and died.
Over some areas, the pilots paid scant attention to where they were spraying: 1000 students at the Al-Amar school in the village of Chirbe Alutan, close to farming land, also received a dose of the pesticide, although no one was sent by the authorities to check on the effects.
A total of 12,000 dunums (3,000 acres) were damaged on 14 February. Fields south of the Bedouin town of Rahat are still bare; there is no cultivation until one reaches land north of Beersheva owned by kibbutzim (farm collectives) and private Jewish farmers.
Salem Abu Modarin, 33, one of the Bedouin farmers whose land was sprayed, had cultivated 240 dunums with his uncles close to Rahat. In the winter they had planted wheat both for their own consumption and for sale, and hay for their livestock, a few goats and sheep.
He says: “In previous years the government has sent tractors to wreck Bedouin crops but they have never before sent planes in. The poisoning of our crops was like a declaration of war against us, like something from the Vietnam war. ”
It is imagery not out of keeping with the language being used by Israeli Cabinet Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is responsible for land management. He believes Israel can no longer allow the Bedouins to stake a claim to state lands he wants to reserve for Jewish settlement and development.
Apparently forgetting that he was referring to Israeli citizens, he said: “We must stop their illegal invasion of state land by all means possible. The Bedouin have no regard for our laws; in the process we are losing the last resources of state lands. One of my main missions is to return to the power of the Lands Authority in dealing with the non-Jewish threat to our lands.”
To understand the conflicting claims between the Bedouin and the state, one has to return to the days after the war of 1948 when many families were forced off their historic lands, says Jabar Abu Kaff, a Bedouin leader from the village of Umbatin. The state transferred the Bedouins to what he calls the “siege area”: a parcel of land close to Beersheva in the northern Negev.
Under military rule until 1966, the Bedouins were powerless to resist confiscations of great swaths of land for Jewish settlements, military zones, airports, conservation areas and industrial parks. Tribes that had once farmed large tracts of the Negev were soon penned into a crowded landscape of modern Jewish development.
In 1972, says Abu Kaff, the government offered the Bedouins the chance to register what was left of their lands in the siege area. But the registration was largely a pretext for offering paltry compensation in return for the acceptance of a home in one of seven “planned towns”.
Of the 800,000 dunums registered in the 1970s, only 150,000 dunums were given up in exchange for compensation. The remaining 650,000 are still claimed by the Bedouins, although they are only allowed access to 240,000 dunums. They have supplemented their farming land by renting another 100,000 dunums from the Israel Lands Authority.
Today the Bedouins, 25 per cent of the Negev population, live on and cultivate a total of 350,000 dunums in the northern Negev, out of a total of 13 million dunums in the Beersheva region. The rest is state land and not likely to be made available for their use.
Of those tribes that chose to move to the towns many are now bitterly regretting it.
Amar Al-Huzil, a planner in Rahat, points out that even the names of the towns encouraged alienation among their inhabitants. “All the names are in Hebrew and some do not even have pleasant connotations. Rahat, for example, means animal trough.”
Rahat, considered by many the Bedouin capital of the Negev, has a long-term unemployment rate of some 60 per cent among its 35,000 inhabitants. Since Rahat and the other Bedouin towns were built three decades ago they have languished at the bottom of Israel’s employment tables. In a government survey of prosperity in 1996 Rahat came in at 201st in a list of 201 recognised localities.
The reason the Bedouin towns are so disadvantaged is not hard to pinpoint: they were hurriedly constructed without considering what to do with farmers once they were deprived of their lands and traditions. It is still possible to see flocks of sheep penned into small back gardens in Hura or Kseifa.
According to researchers at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva, employment discrimination against the Bedouins is rife. Of the 15,000 people employed in the Negev’s industrial sector last year, only 335 were Bedouin. At the Omar industrial park which is located next to three Bedouin towns, not one Bedouin is employed. And, apart from the education authority, government ministries employ only 32 Bedouin.
The result is that this neglected urban population is growing politically militant, especially the youngsters. Even the traditional leaders are tempering their historic tribal rivalries in an attempt to present a united front to demand fairer treatment. This year, for the first time, Land Day was held in the Negev.
A survey published in May by the Centre for Peace Research at Givat Haviva in Galilee confirmed the picture. It showed that the Bedouins were the most alienated and radical sector among the one million Arab citizens of Israel. Some 42 per cent believe that Israel has no right to exist, compared with just 16 per cent among all Arab respondents.
Many young people from the towns are also talking openly about defying government restrictions and returning to the lands that they believe were stolen from their families decades ago.
Even Abu Modarin, a successful administrator in a legal office in Beersheva, talks longingly about a more traditional way of life.
He says: “In 1948 my tribe, the Abumderum, owned 4,000 dunums close to the village of Al-Araqib, south of what is now Rahat. The graveyard where my grandparents and father are buried is visible from the road.”
In the 1950s the village was declared a military zone and his tribe was moved a few kilometres away. In the late 1960s they began renting farm land nearby from the Israel Lands Authority but the arrangement was ended in 1985.
“I think they were worried we would gain rights to the land if they continued letting it. Without the land we were forced to move into Rahat, one of the last families to do so.”
Individual families continued renting small plots from private Jewish farmers until this winter when the tribe decided to reclaim 3,400 dunums close to Rahat and planted their crops.
“We’ve stopped being afraid. We are better educated than our parents and know that we will not get any rights here unless we fight for them.”
The defiance of Abu Modarin and others flies in the face of plans by the Israeli government to confiscate all traditional Bedouin lands within three years. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to relocate 60,000 Bedouins living in 45 unrecognised villages into three new planned towns that will supplement the existing seven.
Faced with stiff resistance from the Bedouins, the government is showing the first signs of recognising that it must do something to improve the image of the towns and halt the exodus back to the countryside.
It has approved an industrial zone for Rahat, although it will be shared with two Jewish settlements, Lehavim and Beit Shimon, and a new housing assistance programme has been devised for the Bedouins.
Professor Oren Yiftachel, a geographer at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva, said: “The problem for the government is that the towns are being partially emptied and the Bedouins are returning to the hills. Many feel it’s better to be there than in towns riddled with economic and social problems like unemployment, drugs and crime.
“But although the state recognises that it needs to encourage them to stay in the towns it is acting far too slowly. The Bedouin population is growing rapidly and their problems are multiplying fast. The current government has to stop seeing the Negev through only one lens — that of bringing the land under Jewish control.”