Thursday, December 1, 2011

Problems with Prawer: Recent Developments in Negev Land Conflict

A stand-off is escalating in the Negev region of southern Israel. Though less publicized than Palestinian-Israeli conflict over state borders, this struggle between Jewish and Bedouin Arab citizens and the Israeli government has profound implications for civil rights, ethno-religious divisions, and democratic representation in the region. The conflict, which is commonly and prejudicially dubbed the “Bedouin problem,” involves disputed lands over which Bedouin Arab residents and the government both claim rights.

This September, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the Prawer plan, which would forcibly relocate 30,000 Bedouin Arab residents from their villages to governmentally planned towns.

Bedouin-Jewish inequality is a real problem in Israel, but its causes, consequences, and solutions are hotly debated. In recent years, warnings of a “Bedouin Intifada” due to Bedouin citizens’ mounting frustration over structural violence and second-class citizenship status have increasingly flown through Israel’s media. Governmental representatives acknowledge that “the Bedouin community” has lower standards of health care, employment, and education than the rest of Israel’s citizens and claim that relocation will improve their access to government services. As Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev stated last month in The Guardian, “We are investing 1.2 billion shekels [$325m] to move them into the mainstream, to reduce that gap.”

However, following announcement of the Prawer plan, thousands gathered in Beersheba, the Negev’s largest city, to protest the proposed relocations. Since then, national and international advocacy networks already calling for Bedouin Arabs’ land ownership and civil rights have focused their energies on preventing implementation of the Prawer plan. They point to the national government’s simultaneous push to remove Bedouin residents from large areas of land and plans to create new rural settlements for Jewish residents as evidence that land-use discrimination, rather than raising standards of living, is at issue in the threatened evictions.

The Prawer plan and subsequent mass protests mark a new development in a decades-old struggle over access to land for farming and homes and the status of “unrecognized” Bedouin villages. Historical and ethnographic background information is necessary to clarify this current escalation, and I contend that this background clearly warns against proceeding with the planned relocations.

A Growing Conflict
After the 1948 war that ended in Israel’s founding, Palestinians who remained within the territory of the new state became citizens. However, they were also placed under military rule, and Palestinian Arabs in the Negev—also identified as Bedouins—were moved to the siyag, a restricted area of residence comprising 10% of their former lands. In 1966, military rule ended, but it was quickly replaced by the policy of Iyur HaBedowim, or “Urbanizing the Bedouin,” which aimed to relocate Bedouin Arabs from rural communities into government-planned townships. These townships received less funding than their Jewish counterparts, and most Bedouin Arabs who moved there became disillusioned and now see them as places of crime, neglect, and economic stagnation.

Today, approximately half of the 180,000 Bedouin Arabs of the Negev live in these townships. The rest live in villages and family clusters that the government deems illegal. Residents of unrecognized villages claim rights to village lands based on their families’ historical occupancy and sometimes even documented agricultural use. But government officials contend that these residents illegally occupy state-owned lands. In a political and legal culture that prioritizes the territorial integrity of a Jewish state and enlists a strict interpretation of property rights, Bedouin Arab residents’ claims in terms of morality, family lineage, and affiliation hold little weight. Through home and crop demolitions, legal suits, and withholding municipal services government officials attempt to move residents out. Residents respond by rebuilding or protesting, and some move to the planned townships.

Throughout this history, Bedouin Arab residents have been treated as a problem to be minimized, rather than citizens possessing both rights and responsibilities shared by a wider Israeli public.

State officials say they must concentrate the Arab population to provide services like schools, electricity, and medical care. But the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages (a representative body that is not acknowledged by the Israeli government) and planners from an NGO called Bimkom have presented alternative plans to the government. Developed in collaboration with residents, these plans would consolidate and “rationalize” spatial planning within existing villages. While enabling municipal services, these plans would move as few residents as possible and encourage both industrial and agricultural livelihoods.

While ignoring such proposals to recognize existing Bedouin settlements, the government continues to plan and support small towns and agricultural villages designed for Jewish residents.

As a result, widespread mistrust among Bedouin Arab residents greets any government proposals involving relocation. Many Bedouin Arabs resent a history of removal from purportedly state lands because they feel excluded from the national priorities that guide the use of those lands. They see relocation as attempts to free lands of Bedouin Arabs and make room for Jews.

Problems with Prawer
As a peripheral region within the country, the Negev faces considerable economic, environmental, and social difficulties. Unfortunately, most governmental efforts to resolve the issue of disputed lands have had the opposite effect, enlarging and entangling land disputes with these other difficulties. Rather than including Bedouin Arab residents in efforts to solve these problems, past governmental policies have pushed them to the margins. They have consistently excluded Bedouin Arabs from the national “we.” 

In 2008, the Goldberg Commission hinted at a shift from previous government policy. The Commission was formed according to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s directive, and though the panel’s final report did not go far enough for most advocates of Bedouin land rights, it did advocate collaboration in resolving the Negev’s disputes. The report acknowledged Bedouin Arabs’ “historic connection” to the Negev and recommended recognizing most of the unrecognized villages. “We need to listen to their [Bedouin Arabs’] claims,” urged the report, “and to take their needs into consideration, and they must be involved in determining their own future.”

The recent Prawer proposal rejects that promising shift and would continue the exclusion and imposition of past governmental approaches to “the Bedouin problem.” It drastically cuts the amount of land to be recognized for Bedouin Arab residences and has not included these residents in decision-making.

With September’s protests against the Prawer plan, Bedouin Arabs exercised their rights as citizens. They were attempting to participate in land-use decision-making as members of Israeli society. To succeed in moving past the current status quo of conflict, governmental officials should embrace this participation. Proposed solutions must face the difficult history of Bedouin-government relations and include Bedouin Arabs in nation-building.

“Our state is leaping toward the future and you need to be part of this future,” Prime Minister Netanyahu told a group of Bedouin mayors this month in a meeting regarding implementation of the Prawer plan, according to Reuters. “We want to help you reach economic independence. This plan is designed to bring about development and prosperity.”

If the Netanyahu administration’s true goal is an improvement in living standards, then Bedouin Arab residents themselves must be included within processes of problem-solving and decision-making. Bedouin Arab residents’ efforts to maintain possession of rural landscapes are not simply a matter of traditionalism or a nostalgic clinging to land. They are not a rejection of modernization or change. Rather, they constitute a reaction in kind to the pressures applied by state planners that push Bedouin Arab residents to relinquish familiar lifestyles without real inclusion in the governmental decisions that will shape future lifestyles. A “move into the mainstream” or “development and prosperity” cannot be done to any minority group. It must be done with them.

Emily McKee has conducted ethnographic research in the Negev Region of Israel to examine land relations, social conflict, governance and activism among Jewish and Bedouin Arab residents. Having written a dissertation on the subject, she completed her Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Michigan in 2011.  She is currently a Postdoctoral Associate at Yale University.

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