Israel’s less than silent cleansing of Bedouins

Forget all the media babble about a “peace process” in the Middle East. It’s a distraction from the main game. US journalist Ben Ehrenreich, writer of the wonderful recent New York Times magazine cover story on non-violent Palestinian resistance in the West Bank, reports for the Los Angeles Review of Books:

It would be a long day. The drive from Jerusalem to Beersheba took two hours — longer, because by the time we arrived in that dusty, grimly sun-bleached desert city, Israeli police had already blocked all roads leading to the demonstration. A one-day strike had been called to protest the so-called Prawer Plan, which was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet in 2011 and passed in its first run through the Knesset last month. The bill has to survive two more votes in the legislature, but if it does — and it is expected to — the law will forcibly displace tens of thousands of Palestinian Bedouin citizens of Israel from their officially “unrecognized” communities in the Negev desert, or the Naqab, as it is called in Arabic. Protests were planned in Yaffa, in Jerusalem, in Palestinian cities and towns all over the north of the country, as well as in Gaza and the West Bank, but Beersheba — think Riverside, without the glamour — was the site closest to the communities facing eviction, so we started there.

It was not yet 11 am and already over 90 degrees. We had missed the main demonstration, but perhaps 300 people, most of them students and residents of the imperiled villages, had stuck around. They stood huddled at the edge of the street beside a small and nearly shade-less park. Across the road was the campus of Ben Gurion University. The protesters clapped and chanted joyously. The several dozen green-bereted Israeli Border Police — six of them on horseback — who surrounded them seemed to only add to the crowd’s enthusiasm. “Take to the streets my people,” they chanted, “Free your land!” (It sounds a lot better in Arabic.) An old Bedouin woman standing no higher than my ribcage waved a Palestinian flag, her white headscarf almost transparent with sweat.

The horses charged, their riders swinging. The crowd scattered. Before it was over, 14 people had been arrested. The police handcuffed their captives to a fence on the median strip of the road facing the park. When a white van idled between the officers and the crowd on the sidewalk, I saw a flurry or elbows and fists through the windshield, and, when the van had pulled away, a young Palestinian stood hunched with his shirt half off. They shoved him into an unmarked Mazda and sped away. Another woman’s head was bloodied.

The police linked arms and pushed the remaining protesters some yards back from the street. It was okay — they could chant and clap there too, and did so, their high spirits unabated. Only now there were nearly as many police as demonstrators: the paramilitary Border Police, some armed with M-16s; grey-uniformed Yasam, or “counter-terror” units; and at least a dozen muscular men in dark tee shirts with pistols stuffed into their jeans. An armored white tanker truck arrived, a water cannon mounted on its cab.

When the tension had dipped and the police had begun rubbing their noses with sunscreen and passing each other bottles of water — it is Ramadan, so the protesters went without — I spoke with a young woman named Alia Saleen. She was from Al-Araqib, one of the 36 unrecognized villages targeted for demolition. Although it is entirely within the boundaries of Israel, Al-Araqib has no electricity, no running water, no sewage system, no infrastructure whatsoever. Its residents have been repeatedly expelled since 1951 — their homes demolished by Israeli security forces more than 50 times, Saleen said, since 2007. They now live in the village cemetery, the only place, she said, that the Israelis have not destroyed.

One of those demolitions, in 2010, came shortly after Netanyahu worried that the Negev might become “a region without a Jewish majority.” The Prawer Plan would provide the solution to this demographic emergency: the evacuation of the area’s non-Jewish residents. There is also, as it happens, money at stake. One day before the Monday protest, Netanyahu’s cabinet approved a $150 million development project for the Negev, part of a long-term plan to bring high-tech industry and ethnically approved suburban development to the southern desert. No one likes to see real estate go unsold. If it all goes through, Saleen and as many as 40,000 others will be relocated to all-Bedouin townships like the nearby city of Rahat, of which she said, “The place looks like a chicken coop. People don’t have space to live.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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