Although not fierce in intensity, the struggle of the Bedouins has been protracted and tenacious. Their demand has become a slogan for the Negev region: recognition. Ever since the Palestinian exodus of 1948, Israel has not recognized the Bedouin villages of the Negev, and has only limited legal recognition of the towns that the government built and forcibly moved the population into.
In 2003, however, the government made the unorthodox decision to recognize 13 villages. This implies recognition on the part of the Israeli state that these villages exist and have a presence in official data. It also implies that the authorities are dealing with them as legal populations, while unrecognized villages are deemed illegal, "intruder" settlements. The state has recognized 13 localities in the Abu Basma region including Abu Qrenat, Qasr al-Sir and Bir Hadaj, whose residents were forced to abandon it during the exodus but later returned despite the military rule. Israel annexed all these localities under the administration of the so-called “regional council,” a local governing body for a group of small populations in a particular area.
What have the Bedouins gained from this recognition? Nothing. Before, these villages — which were recognized a decade ago — with a population of more than 36,000, were denied basic services such as water, electricity, medical clinics, schools, transportation, roads and sewers. The houses were continuously demolished and the land was confiscated. Those services are still denied today.
Where does the problem start?
At the heart of this crisis lies an integrated Israeli policy that is applied everywhere: in Jerusalem, in the territories occupied in 1967 and even in Galilee and the Triangle area. The first principle of this policy is to break up issues and find a solution to each part of the occupation issue, taking the smallest details into consideration.
Recognizing the existence of these villages separated the issue from recognizing the Bedouin’s ownership of the land in the village. This means that Israel officially recognizes the existence of these villages, but the land on which the villages are built is the property of the state. The Bedouin do not have the historical right to the land that they have inhabited for hundreds of years.
At this point, the conflict turns into a struggle over land ownership, the only conflict that Israel can never compromise on. For Zionists, recognizing the Bedouin's ownership of the land will unleash what they consider hell: people obtaining their rights. Everything Israel is doing in the Negev region is basically an attempt to settle the issue of “ownership claims,” which are the land claims filed by the residents of Negev to have their ownership rights recognized. A main part of the Israeli attempt to settle this issue is found in the Prawer Bill. Under this bill, the only way to prove the Bedouin's ownership of their land is through official Israeli documents. Any colonial or Ottoman documents, even the British Archive photographs, proving this ownership will have no value. Moreover, archaeological and historical monuments — such as cemeteries and wells — are no longer valid to prove the Bedouin’s land ownership. The only way Israel will recognize the Bedouin’s ownership of the land is if they agree to sell it.
Following the official recognition of these villages, basic human services such as ambulances and water turn into tools to blackmail the Bedouin to cede their land. Education, electricity, medical clinics, mail service, official offices and many other services are denied by Israel until the Bedouin withdraw their ownership claims. For instance, in unrecognized villages, building permits cannot be issued, and any “illegal” construction is under threat of being demolished at any moment. It is a vicious and absurd cycle, though planned and rational. Although the maps of the regional council are available and 10 years have passed since the “recognition,” no building permits have been issued, and the Israeli demolition continues.
Children are the first victims
Despite the seriousness on all levels, there is something much more worrying at the basic humanitarian one. The negligence and marginalization that the Negev residents in these villages suffer are taking children's lives. There are no medical clinics, particularly pediatric ones, responsible for vaccinations and follow-up on children’s health during infancy. According to Israeli statistics, the Bedouin infant mortality rate in the Negev is 275% higher than that of Israeli society. While 10.5 out of 1,000 Bedouin children die at birth, only 3.8 out of 1,000 Jewish infants are lost.
Without medical centers, transportation and roads allowing ambulances to reach villages, the safety of the Bedouin families remains precarious. Perhaps the story of Abdeh, one of the Abu Basma villages, most accurately describes the situation. After a long struggle, a medical clinic was opened in the village. Shortly after opening, it started working only three days per week. Then, it started working for limited hours during the day. Now, the only medical clinic in the area is open for only four hours per week. To make things worse, physicians working at the clinic are mainly from the medical center in the Jewish Mitzpe Ramon settlement. They often do not even show up for the four weekly hours because of the workload in the settlement. Only when the number of Jewish patients decreases do the Arab patients get their turn.
It is worth mentioning that the Israeli Ministry of Health has begun the enforcement of a law, under which there is a drastic reduction in allocations for children who did not get their vaccines. The law targets the poorest social segments. The occupation authorities have increased the people’s poverty based on a reality that the occupation itself imposed, and that people are demanding to change. This gains greater significance as Negev populations live in areas through which swamps of sewage and wastewater pass, as a result of the Israeli insistence on not linking the region to a sewer system until the land is ceded.
Why is the issue more urgent today?
The issue of villages recognized by Israel is pressing, and unfortunately, Israeli Arabs are taking too long to address it. The Prawer Bill, which will lead to the displacement of as many as 50,000 people living in the 40 not-yet-recognized villages, is near. It will lead to the towns’ demolition and settle the ownership claims over nearly 1 million dunams [386 square miles]. The main and almost only allegation with which the Israelis justify the Prawer Bill is that the population will be moved from the unrecognized villages to the recognized ones, so that they will benefit from the services and adequate standard of living there.
In addition to Israel stealing around 1 million dunams of land, moving around 50,000 additional people to the recognized villages will make the living conditions in these villages an unprecedented social catastrophe.
Israel is insisting on implementing its plans and resorting to a central weapon in this battle: leadership. For 10 years now, Israel has forbidden democratic elections of the president and the members of the Abu Basma Regional Council. It bans Bedouin from electing a person to represent them and their interests.
The state stalled and stuck with its oppressive policies until the court forced it to hold elections in response to a petition presented by the Adalah Center, which works in legal proceedings before Israeli courts in Negev issues. In response, the state declared the dissolution of the regional council and the re-establishment of two separate councils in order to gain 10 additional years to stall and implement its plans.
Who will stand up against this? The Negev leadership is divided between a conventional one and a youthful one, and the relations between them fluctuate. As both leaderships are clinging to a protracted struggle, the conflict comes down to the “aggressiveness” of their approaches. The conventional leadership is holding on to the option of legal proceedings, negotiations and middle ground, while the youth leadership believes that public action is the way to stop the displacement plans. However, the cabilities of the youth and their interaction with society are limited.
The Negev case is one of land ownership. This makes it a central issue in Palestine and in the colonial settlement setting. This is the last place in Palestine where the issue is still direct, clear and unwavering. Israel is trying to shift the issue into a conflict over services and budgets, just like it managed to do in other regions in Palestine. However, time and the way Bedouin are dealing with the land have changed, and so have the norms and the social and traditional structures. In spite of all the internal social criticism and debates, this is what protects the land today. The Negev is primarily characterized by its persistence, patience and enduring struggle. However, the question that the youth there ask themselves is one of necessity and legitimacy.
“Until when shall we remain the negative party in this conflict? Until when will we stand our ground, while being beaten, destroyed and marginalized? Until when will ‘aggressiveness’ be absent from our struggle?”
The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.