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Reservations reborn

Al-Ahram Weekly – 15 August 2002

The scores of corrugated zinc shacks that form the village of Wadi Al-Naam, south of Beersheva, almost visibly vibrate to the humming of thousands of volts of electricity that surge through the power lines overhead. There are as many pylons to be found here as homes.
 
The population of 3,900 Bedouins, who have lived on this land and farmed it since well before the creation of the state of Israel, have been left in no doubt of how much their presence at the site is valued. Over the past decades the state’s planning authorities have turned Wadi Al-Naam into the bleakest of environmental blackspots.
 
To the west of the village has been built a vast chemical dump, Ramat Hubab, the site at which all of Israel’s toxic chemical waste is disposed. On the other side is a huge electricity generating plant, with hundreds of pylons fanning out in all directions to feed the needs of the Negev. And cutting through the village are a series of roads that make visiting friends or relatives a potentially life-threatening venture for children.
 
“It’s as though the authorities are taunting the inhabitants,” says Bedouin leader Jabar Abu Kaff. “The villagers have hundreds of power lines running over their heads but it is illegal for any of the houses to be connected to the grid.”
 
Wadi Al-Naam is one of 45 villages in the Negev, home to some 60,000 Bedouins, that the state refuses to recognise. They have no municipal services such as water and electricity supplies, sewage disposal or rubbish collection.
 
Inhabitants also have no right to vote in municipal elections and no political representation, although they are still expected to pay taxes.
 
“The villages were not shown on any map until we created our own,” says Abu Kaff. “The state is blind to the villages’ existence — except of course when it wants to make life more unbearable for them.”
 
Most of these villages lack medical clinics and schools. In Abda, some 270 children aged between six and 11 are required to travel 70km each day for their schooling. Drop-out rates of 60 per cent among Bedouin children are by far the highest in the country.
 
But most cruelly, the state refuses to allow the Bedouins of the unrecognised villages planning permission for their homes. As a result more than half the population is living in tents. Some 23,000 dwelling structures in the Negev — huts, tents and cinderblock houses — are reported to be under threat of demolition.
 
Maha Qubty, spokeswoman for the Bedouin pressure group the Regional Council for Unrecognised Villages in the Negev, says most Bedouins live in tents or zinc huts for two reasons. “First it is self-preservation: the state is less likely to demolish a hut or tent than a stone building. And second, the cost of repairing a hut is much lower than rebuilding a house.”
 
The threat of demolition is not an empty one. On 4 July, some 500 policemen escorted bulldozers into Wadi Al-Naam to demolish four homes close to the main road. According to witnesses, when one woman tried to stop the destruction the police tied her to an electricity pylon as her children looked on.
 
The four houses destroyed in Wadi Al-Naam are part of a wave of demolitions that have been ordered in the Negev recently. In the past few years the Bedouins had grown resigned to a dozen or so demolitions a year, but there have been more than 70 in the past two months alone.
 
In Al-Garin village, Abed Al-Arzeq Al-Sayed sat under a tarpaulin tent with a handful of his 16 children the day after they were all made homeless. At 4.30am on 9 July the family was woken by the sound of police breaking down the doors of his two-storey cinderblock home with pickaxes.
 
“The next thing we knew there were police everywhere, grabbing the children from their beds and taking them down to the street,” he says. “The bulldozers destroyed the house in minutes. We didn’t have the chance to save any of our possessions.”
 
Al-Sayed says the court order he was later shown by the police was out of date: it was issued in June before he lodged an appeal that was still being considered by the court. “They didn’t seem concerned that their actions were illegal.”
 
On 11 July, in a sign of the growing anger at the rampant destruction, Bedouin tribal leaders held a protest outside the Interior Ministry in Beersheva. They say the recent destructions break an unwritten promise to freeze demolitions in the most crowded villages.
 
Taleb Al-Saana, a Bedouin member of Knesset who was at the demonstration, said: “This kind of harassment has been part of Israeli policy since 1948. The Zionist idea is that this country is only for Jews and that we are foreigners in our own land.”
 
Under the previous government of Ehud Barak the Bedouins had been buoyed by a decision to partially recognise eight of the villages. Now they fear that even this recognition is turning hollow. Recent house demolitions have occurred in two recognised villages, Al-Garin and Bir Hadaj.
 
Tribal leaders suspect the hand of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the architect of previous attempts to “Judaise” Arab areas of Israel — in the Negev, Galilee and central Triangle region — behind the latest assault.
 
According to reports in the Arab press in Israel, he agreed a plan on 25 June to confiscate the remaining Bedouin lands over the next three years. Much of this land he wants for more than a dozen new Jewish settlements.
 
The fate of the Bedouins in the Negev neatly illustrates the reasons for the Israeli cabinet’s recent about-turn in its decision to pass a bill guaranteeing land only for Jews. Faced with cries that Israel was legalising apartheid, the government shelved the proposal. Overnight Sharon was persuaded that the bill, far from being a bulwark of Zionism, was “unnecessary”.
 
The Negev villages are proof of how unnecessary such legislation is. The Bedouins comprise a quarter of the Negev population but have only two per cent of the land allocated for their use.
 
Amar Al-Huzil, a municipal planner in the Bedouin town of Rahat and one of the founders of the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages, says: “There’s a clear principle: to create the maximum amount of land for the minimum number of Jews, and the minimum amount of land for the maximum number of Bedouins.”
 
He says, with the Bedouins’ high fertility rate, numbers will swell from their current 130,000 to 320,000 by 2020. But national planning guidelines take almost no account of the community and refer to the unrecognised villages only as “scattered communities”.
 
“This is a deception,” he said. “The 45 unrecognised villages we have identified each has a population of at least 500, and a majority of them have more than 1,000 inhabitants.
 
“Compare this with the recognition given to Jewish settlements in the Negev of only a dozen or so families. The state seems able to offer them a full range of municipal services.”
 
Al-Huzil says the reason for refusing to recognise the villages is not, as the government claims, because of difficulties in providing services.
 
Rather it is because the state wants to transfer the villagers to three Bedouin “planned towns” it hopes to build at Bir Hadaj, Beit Pelet and Mari’at. “The state wants to make life so difficult for the Bedouins that they agree to move to these townships.
 
“So far there are no takers among the Bedouins so the state is upping its war against the Bedouins to make the offer seem more palatable.”
 
The Bedouins know from experience what life in such towns is likely to be. Seven such towns were built in the 1970s but they have proved disastrous for most of the Bedouins who moved there.
 
“They were built as concentration centres for the Bedouins,” says Abu Kaff. “No thought was given to the customs of the Bedouins or to their farming traditions. They were forced to give up their fields and herds of animals. But the state made no attempt to provide them with new jobs.”

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