by Amy Styer
26 December 2013. Jerusalem, Israel. The Negev Desert today looks much like it did when T.E. Lawrence passed through in 1914. The swath of arid land making up the southern half of Israel is open skies, craters, and sand. Largely undeveloped and underpopulated, the government of Israel has promoted various plans to develop the region. The first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, spent his last days living on a kibbutz in the Negev to encourage Israelis to move there.
While underpopulated, the Negev isn’t empty. It’s home to approximately 180,000-190,000 Beduin, all of whom are Israeli citizens. Today the Beduin live like their ancestors—nomadic herdsman. They travel around the Negev to areas where their herds can graze. The lifestyle, while romantic in thought, is difficult in reality. The temporary homes (usually corrugated tin shacks) in unrecognized villages lack water, electricity, and proper sewage. Because the villages aren’t even represented on a map, schooling and other state services are often lacking.
The Prawer Plan, approved by the Israeli cabinet in 2011, was meant to integrate the Beduin into Israeli society. A number of unrecognized villages were to be legalized gaining them state services. Integrate also meant moving approximately 40,000 Beduin from lands they were living on and placing them in recognized villages. The plan included compensating the Beduin for 50 percent of the land they were living on (considering that they did not have deeds). Investment and living in townships was meant to urbanize Beduin—a way to counter poverty and prevent people from living on state-owned land.
Rahat, the largest Beduin township in Israel, is an example of what relocated Beduin can expect. There are schools, mosques, clinics, and community centers. It’s what else the city contains that worry many Beduin—drugs, unemployment, and crime. Rahat also has one of the highest school dropout rates in the country. Residents blame these problems on the city’s design. Due to crowding extended families are not able to live close together causing a breakdown in the tight family structure.
On November 30th, there was a demonstration to mark a “Day of Rage” against the legislation. I had driven through the area two days before and did not get a sense of tension or unrest. The news had been showing tire burnings and Molotov cocktails, but none of this was apparent. The Negev was its usual drowsy self. At a rest stop, I talked to a few Beduin. They were wearing traditional keffiyes (head scarves) and jellabiyas (robes). They had ridden in a truck from their village to get gas. All smiles and very friendly, they had no idea what the Prawer Plan was. I asked a few others and got curious looks and no answers. (On December 10th, it was revealed that former minister Bennie Begin, who was the main architect of the plan, had never shared it with the Beduin as many had thought, me included.)
Ironically, the “Day of Rage” protests recorded in the media were largely made of Palestinians, left-wing Israelis, and international activists. PLO flags were seen in the crowds. Palestinians also held protests in Haifa and Gaza with politicians in attendance. The reason for Palestinians and international groups being involved was that they are against the forced displacement of Beduin.
Forced is tricky word, the original Prawer Plan was supposed to have the consent of Beduin tribal elders. Many in the Israeli Knesset thought that it was obvious and why they supported the plan. When the parliamentarians learned that many Beduin did not in fact know about the plan, the plan began to unravel. On December 12th, Begin suggested to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the plan be stopped because it did not have enough votes to proceed. Netanyahu took Begin’s suggestion and shelved the unpopular plan.
The question is what now for the Beduin? Their communities are consistently ranked lowest in socio-economic studies year after year. Without schools and medical care, children are unlikely to escape the poverty. When there is poverty, it is often girls that suffer the most. Teenage brides, arranged marriages, and polygamy are part of Beduin culture. The Israeli government argues that it cannot offer infrastructure to small, remote encampments. The Beduin do not want to leave their traditional grazing grounds for dormitory cities. What is likely to happen is that the Prawer Plan will undergo major changes and include the approval of Beduin leaders. One thing all parties agree to is that it’s time to help the Beduin communities of the south.
Amy Styer is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem, Israel.