July 2003



                     
    THE BEDOUINS’ LAST STAND


                            WADI AL NAAM, Israel – When nostalgia gnaws at his heart
Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Afash takes his three small sons across the asphalt road, the part
off-limits to Bedouins, the part Israel already annexed in his grandfather’s days as
a “military zone.�

          â€œMy sons, remember all this is our land,â€� he tells the boys.  â€œThis is
the land of the El Asasma tribe. Tell this to your children and their children, so they
never forget.�

           Such reminders are the legacy Bedouins of the Negev pass on to the next
generation as they cling to the last plots of a desert that was once their exclusive realm
and stubbornly resist a government plan to be corralled into six “official�
Bedouin towns created by the Israeli government.    

          In the Shikh, the tent where men sit around a coffee pot and talk of better days,  
Abu Afash points at the rolling desert skyline, broken only by the chimneys of the
Ramat Hovav toxic waste dump. The dump’s foul stench, carried by the gentle
desert breeze, wafts through the open tent.

           â€œIf we move from here, away from the smell, the government will confiscate
our land and argue we have deserted it,� he explained. “So we can’t move.
Yet at the same time they say we are here illegally and they constantly threaten to
demolish our homes, forcing us to move so they can then say we deserted the land.�

          Like 44 other so-called “Unrecognized Villagesâ€� Wadi Al Naam is not
marked on any Israeli map. It simply doesn’t exist though all its inhabitants are
Israeli citizen and insist Wadi Al Naam existed long before the Jewish State.

          The cluster of tents and corrugated iron and asbestos huts are scattered on the
dusty desert plain south of Beersheva off the road to Yeroham. The desert here is
spattered with the carcasses of rusted vehicles and patches of hearty grain, pale
yellow stalks that survive on winter rains.

            Some 2,000 Bedouins live at Wadi Al Naam along dirt tracks. They cohabit with
their livestock - sheep, goats and the odd camel. The camel is coveted today more for
its milk than as mode of transport.

          The Bedouins here are part of the 140,000 Bedouins in the Negev, battling for
survival against half a million Israelis and 120 Jewish Kibbutzes and  Moshavs.
          
         A 1998 State of Israel report to the U.N. Human Rights Commission admitted: â
€œThe Bedouin population in Israel, particularly in the Negev Desert area, is perhaps
the most disadvantaged single community in Israel in terms of per capita income,
unemployment and the level of infrastructure and services in their communities.�

          Nothing has changed since 1998.

          Above the people of Wadi Al Naam thick cables carry electricity from the Negev
power grit to the rest of Israel. Up the hill potbellied Israel Water Company storage
tanks dominate the skykline, supplying water to Jewish homes in areas where the
roads are paved.

         But the Bedouin here have no right to electricity, water or roads. Their children
must walk on dirt tracks, often for hours, to attend one of the 14 elementary schools
and four clinics, made of mud brick. The clinics were built over the last two years after
the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government to set them up because every Israeli
citizen has the right to medical access.

         The Negev’s “Unrecognized Villagesâ€� house 75,000 Bedouins but the
Interior Ministry considers them illegal, their occupants squatters and their homes fair
game for demolition.

         This month the Ministry again issued 50 random eviction notices, this time to
residents of Dachiyya village next door to Kibbutz Shoval, Israel’s largest
agricultural settlement north of Beersheva.

         Shoval has 250 residents. The kibbutz is on the map and nestles in a large green
oasis of trees, gardens and lawns kept lush by automatic sprinklers. Across the asphalt
road are the huts of the Bedouin – a telling contrast between first class and third
class Israeli citizen.

         â€œThis is my third eviction notice,â€� complained one-legged Aruf El Hussail,
40, at Dachiyya. “The first was at my wedding in 1987. I had to pull my own house
down. The second was in 1993 a month after my leg was amputated following a road
accident.

         â€œThe inspectors came again after I smashed the house and said: “You
didn’t do this properly.’ I was fined 12,000 Shekels ($2,800) and jailed for six
days.�

         El Hussail has planted a small garden outside his cement house. His Jewish
neighbours at Shoval do give his Bedouin town some water through a pipeline every
day. El Hussail’s  sitting room is neatly furnished with the portraits of his ancestors
and verses of the Koran on the wall.  He sells jeans in the market of Beersheva. He is
doing well. His children are brought up in the Bedouin tradition.

          â€œI don’t want my kids to become criminals in a ghost town like Rabat.
This time I won’t pull my own home down. This time they can come with the
bulldozers and bulldoze me into the ground. I’m not going to budge,� he
threatened.

        Brave words. Today the Bedouins in the Negev are outnumbered four to one by
the Jewish population. The average infantile death rate among Bedouins is four times
higher than among Jews. Bedouins are prosecuted for illegal occupation of the desert
they once owned. They are forced to pull down their own homes or face fines and jail
sentences if the government has to dispatch bulldozers and police to demolish them.

       Bedouins in the Unrecognized Villages have no right to vote in local elections.
They have no legal right to water, electricity, roads or a plot of land  - unless they sign
papers renouncing claims to ancestral land or move into urban areas set aside for them.

       The largest of these designated Bedouin towns is Rahat (population 37,000).  
Along its paved roads are the modern houses of those who sold their land to Israel and
build homes with the proceeds. Next door  are the ramshackle huts of those who were
persuaded to live in Rahat.  There is a secondary school and the white minarets of five
mosques identify Rahat as an Arab town.

      â€œRahat has no industrial infrastructure. Half the population are unemployed so
young people turn to thieving and drugs. The place is a concentration camp,�
complained Abdul Karim El Ataika who lives in an Unrecognized village, El Batel, just
outside the town.

       He added: “Rahat is the Israeli carrot, their way to squeeze us all into one
place they can control. You move into towns like Rahat and you have water, electricity,
roads, schools and a clinic but you have no desert, no culture, no animals. On the other
hand the Unrecognized Villages are the whip: If you stay there the Israelis can come
anytime to demolish your house.�

        There are other ways to use the carrot and whip approach.

         Sewage from nearby Israeli towns runs through the Unrecognized Village of Um-
Batin. The green odorous slime trickles through an open riverbed. Everyone at Um-
Batin knows the sewage is kept under covered canals near the Israeli towns and only
allowed to surface near Um-Batin.

         The Civil Rights Association of Israel complains that official  crop duster planes
drop Roundup pesticide on the grain crops of Bedouin squatters, killing the crops,
deemed illegal, within a week.

          For years El Hussail visited his Jewish friends in Kibbutz Shoval. The kibbuzniks
commiserated with him each time he had another eviction notice.

         â€œThey are good people,â€� he said. “But the other day the Kibbutz
security guard stopped me. He said: “You are crossing Kibbutz land.� I told him:
“This is my family’s land.� But he said: “From now on advise me each
time you want to cross.’

          â€œSo now I don’t go to Shoval anymore. The government policy has
ruined our friendship,� he added.

           In Shoval, a Kibbutz founded in 1946, the plight of the Bedouins does touch
sensitive nerves.

            â€œThree nights ago Bedouin youths tried to steal our cows. We didn’t go
to the police. These people have no jobs and if they’re hungry of course they steal.
The government of Israel is to blame for this situation,� said Elazar Granot, 76, the
Kibbutz’ Secretary and a former member of the Knesset (Parliament) for eight
years.

             â€œWe asked (the government) for a million shekels ($230,000) to create a
joint industrial project with the Bedouin of Rahat to give them jobs. We have not
received an answer. There is a lot to be done to give our Arab citizen equal rights.
They do have a case and justice must be done for them, on a political level,� Granot
added.

            In the meantime the law remains Wild West style in the Negev.

             â€œIf I am willing to renounce the land of my fathers then I am recognized as
owning the land. I even get some compensation, about a tenth of what the land is
worth. But if I don’t want to sell, and most of us don’t want to sell, then I am told
I have no right to the land. Explain that reasoning to me?� said the Sheikh of Wadi
Al Naam.

            Israeli zoning laws stipulate Bedouins are squatters since they live scattered
around “unrecognised villages.� The law says all such Bedouins must live in the
designated urban centres.

            â€œThese special towns are dog-pounds,â€� scoffed Abu Afash. “They
are asking desert people to live in kennels. In these dog-pounds we are not even
allowed to keep livestock. We cannot see the desert and what is a Bedouin without his
desert or his animals?�

            Worse is to come.

            Over the last year Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government has rekindled
the old Zionist dream of turning the Negev into a garden.
Fresh water is already pumped in from lake Tiberius on a 100-mile pipeline. The
greening of the desert envisages water for irrigation from eight huge desalination plants
in the Red Sea.

             Sharon himself owns one of the 59 large ranches owned by prominent Israelis
in the Negev. Outside these ranches, provided with water and farming infrastructure,
the Bedouins, who have also farmed for generations,  still plead for a  small piece of
open land and access to water.

           In Tel Aviv advertisements offer “cheap land, good housing and great
opportunities� for those ready to move to the desert where Bedouins face eviction
every day.

           An official Negev development plan envisages 35 new Jewish towns over the
next years but Civil Rights activists complain fourteen of these are to be build on land
now considered illegally occupied by Bedouin families.

       â€œI am a realist,â€� said the Sheikh, offering another cup of mint tea. “I donâ
€™t expect to have my father’s land back. I just want my little slice of desert to
graze my goats, sheep and my two camels. Is that too much?�

        The plight of the Bedouins goes back to 1948 when the new State of Israel forced
100,000  to move into the Saig, the barren part of the Negev in the north-east. The
more fertile western part was reserved for Jewish kibbutzniks.

          Intimidated, sometimes ambushed, always ordered to vacate tribal land for
military or security reasons, 90,000 of the Negev Bedouins packed up and left for
Jordan, Egypt and Syria in a massive exodus of caravans.

            But with an annual birth rate of 5.7 the 11,000 who stayed behind soon
replenished and surpassed the original population.

            â€œIsn’t it tragic that a country born out of the persecution of a  minority is
now doing the same to its own minority,� mused human rights lawyer Banna
Badarne-Shoughry of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. (endit)