Photo by Eugene Peress.
In the early hours of the morning the Israeli Authorities and their convoy of vehicles arrived atop the hill that looks down upon the small Bedouin community of Attir in the Negev Desert. At 7 AM Israeli forces descended into the town below, destroying 18 buildings, uprooting some 500 trees and leaving more than 80 people homeless.
This is not the first time the houses of Attir have been demolished by the Israeli government, yet this most recent incursion is a stark reminder of the constant threat of displacement that plagues all Bedouins that live in one of the 35 unrecognized villages throughout the region.
The Plight of the Bedouins
Nearly a week after the initial demolition took place, numerous residents, activists and journalists gathered in Attir to show solidarity and spread awareness of the plight of the Bedouin. Surrounding the gathered demonstrators were massive piles of sheet metal, wood and rubble; a chaotic amalgamation of materials from various Bedouin homes and structures.
Khalil Abu Al-Qi’an is the head of the family whose houses were destroyed by the Israeli government. Despite a number of warnings and eviction orders, he insists they were unprepared for what happened. “No one was in the village that day because I was at the hospital. When we came back we saw the view.” This is the second time the houses have been demolished. The first was in 2007, when family members were forced outside and obliged to sit aside while Israeli soldiers tore up their homes.
The olive trees surrounding the area told the story of Khalil’s family. “They were my father’s and my grandfather’s before him. They have always been there, and now the Israelis have thrown them in a garbage dump,” he cries. Construction of new structures has begun, but fear of new demolition already exists. “We were working on the new houses when the Israeli police came and took pictures of us, so they know who we are and can prepare papers for the next eviction order.”
The Prawer Plan
This story is not unique to the people of Attir. Amir, who works for the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, speaks about the increasingly frequent demolitions taking place across the region. “Between 2008 and 2011, 2,2000 Palestinian Bedouin homes have been demolished, and more than 14,000 individuals displaced,” He says. Many of these villages, considered illegal under Israeli law, were established prior to the State’s creation. And while this process of dispossession has been taking place for decades many fear that the approval of the controversial Prawer Plan is Israel’s final solution to the Bedouin “problem.”
The Prawer Plan, approved in 2011, is a settlement plan for those Arab Bedouins living in “unrecognized” villages in the Negev. If fully implemented, the Plan will lead to the displacement of nearly 70,000 Bedouins, “relocating” them in one of the seven government-planned townships in the area. In an interview with Ma’an News Agency, Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Islamic movement in northern Israel, spoke about the recent demolitions: "Perhaps what we are watching now is the beginning of disastrous consequences of the Prawer Plan which is aimed at displacing our people from Negev indiscriminately.” This plan is the extension of an Israeli policy, in place since the 1960s, to minimize the land inhabited by the Bedouins and concentrate the population in areas that would not be detrimental to the interest of new coming Israeli settlers (1).
Arab Bedouins of the Negev
Prior to 1948, the Bedouin in the Negev numbered between 60,000 and 90,000, their presence dating as far back as the 7th century. During the 1948 war, the majority of the Bedouin fled to neighboring states. Of the 11,000 that remained, 85% were forced off their ancestral land and into a restricted zone in the northern part of the Negev desert (3). These people were promised the right to return to their lands within six months, but to this day no Bedouin has been allowed to return nor have they been given any proprietary rights to the lands on which they were forced to settle.
Beginning in 1969 the Israeli government began its “comprehensive approach” to the Bedouin “problem.” The State established townships, offering the Bedouin land in these government-planned towns on the condition that they gave up all ancestral claims to their original lands. Of the nearly 200,000 Bedouins that live in the Negev today, some 100,000 reside in the seven urban townships (which have the highest rates of crime and poverty in all the country). The remaining Bedouin population lives in one of the unrecognized villages, considered illegal under Israeli law.
Attir is one of these 35 unrecognized villages whose residents refused the forced ghettoization in one of the seven failing government-planned towns (3). These villages include those that were founded prior to the creation of Israel, as well as those established after the initial internal displacement and relocation by the Israeli government after 1948. According to the Israeli national planning regime, these villages are located on state land and all structures therein are subject to demolition (2).
In the Negev there is a variety of laws that Israeli courts use to legitimize dispossession. These include the Land Ordinance Law (1943), Land Acquisition Law (1953), and Absentee Property Law. The National Planning and Building Law which came into effect in 1965, allowed the Israeli government to deny recognition to all the Arab Bedouin villages (2).
Most important of all has been the courts’ manipulation of Ottoman law, whereby Israel has declared that all desert land belongs to the state by virtue of its “mawat” (dead) categorization (4). This tactic of declaring land terra nullis (land belonging to no one) has been the ideological underpinning of so many settler states, from the U.S. to Australia to Israel. This categorization seeks to rationalize the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of natives by describing land as “uninhabited,” “unused” or in this case “dead”. This process is in full effect in the Negev where 65% of the land has been confiscated for public purposes via such practice (2).
Beyond mere dispossession, official state policy is to deny these villages basic services such as water, electricity, roads, education, welfare services and health care (3). While Bedouin villages are denied the most basic human necessities, Israel continues to support and provide services to the 100 or so rural Jewish towns as well as 59 individual farms, of which 39 were established illegally, in the Negev (2). Since 1997, Israel has retroactively legalized 35 “individual settlements” in the Negev, which house single Jewish families on vast swathes of lands; these farms were established outside the law and the national planning regime (5).
Making the Desert Bloom
The Prawer Plan utilizes the discriminatory land laws that operate in both the West Bank and Israel to relinquish property from Palestinians and to transfer it to the state and to Jewish Israeli Citizens. If the plan is put into full effect, the village of Attir will become a forest preserve funded by the quasi-governmental organization known as the Jewish National Fund. As Amir notes, “This process [the demolitions, evictions, etc] is about land. The very Zionist idea about land: To dominate and control people in a space.” From East Jerusalem to the Negev, the same processes are taking place. And in Attir, the Zionist idea of coveting the land without the people is made tragically apparent as these Bedouin peoples are being uprooted from their land and a forest is being planted in their place.
1)“Nomads against their will: The attempted expulsion of the Arab Bedouin in the Naqab: The example of Atir-Umm al-Hieran.” Adalah, Septermber 2011.
2)“From Al-Araqib to Susiya: The forced displacement of Palestinians on Both Sides of Green Line.” Adalah, May 2013
3)Noach, Haia. “The Bedouin Arabs in the Negev-Naqab Desert in Israel.” Negev Coexistence Forum Civil Rights. August, 2009
4)Koeller, Kathrin. “The Bedouin of the Negev: A forgotten minority.” Forced Migration Review, 26
5)“The Arab Bedouin and the Prawer Plan: Ongoing Displacement in the Naqab. “ Adalah,