Making the land without a people
To "free up" the Negev for Jewish settlement, 140,000 Negev Bedouin face ethnic cleansing, writes Jonathan Cook
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New buildings can be seen through a barbed wire fence shielding the West Bank Jewish settlement of Beitar Illit
Four years ago Raed Abu Elkian, 27, finished serving in the Israeli army as a Bedouin tracker. Today the entrance to his village in Israel's southern semi-desert region, the Negev, is marked by a giant concrete block stamped in black ink with the words "Danger. Entry Forbidden: Firing Range".
The army laid a trail of these blocks along the road to the village in March to alert anyone venturing into this part of the north- eastern Negev to keep away. For the 1,000 residents of Atir, who have farmed this corner of the Negev for generations, the creation of a military firing range right by their homes was only an advance warning of the Israeli authorities' intentions.
In April the water supply from a single standpipe, the only source of running water in the village, was cut off. A private contractor now has to be paid to bring a tanker of water every few days so that they can fill their jerry cans.
And last month the state authorities left the residents in no doubt that it wanted them out of their homes: everyone over the age of 16 received an evacuation notice telling him or her to leave the village "vacant, without person, object or animal in the area".
A lawyer representing the state, Gioara Adatao, told the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz at the time: "As far as I am concerned, these are people who seized land illegally. The state has no obligation to supply them with alternative places of residence."
Although the international spotlight has long been directed at the harsh measures being taken against Palestinians in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, few observers outside Israel have noticed the threatening mood developing in the Negev, as the government plans a potentially violent assault on the rights of its Bedouin citizens.
In late June, some 23 members of the Abu Elkian tribe, mostly women and children who were not at work, were injured when paramilitary police forces entered the village to demolish seven homes, including that of Raed's 90-year-old grandfather, Moussa Abu Elkian. On the same day, another member of the tribe, a 24-year-old teacher, Youssef Abu Elkian, was mistakenly shot in the shoulder by the army in a separate incident.
The harsh measures being taken against the Abu Elkian tribe are being repeated across the Negev against other Bedouin villagers, as the state begins implementing a scheme, known as the Negev Development Plan, personally devised by the prime minister, Ariel Sharon.
Over the next few years the government has set aside $200 million to enforce the removal from the Negev of the last remaining Bedouin farming communities, home to some 70,000 Bedouin.
"The development Sharon wants for the Negev is only Jewish development," said Raed Abu Elkian. "And that means ethnic cleansing for us. Sharon wants the land of Atir so that he can build a Jewish settlement in its place."
The Negev Bedouin have been living much like outlaws from the earliest days of the Jewish state's creation, more than five decades ago.
They were collectively criminalised in 1965 by a planning law which zoned the lands on which they live as green areas, making their homes retroactively illegal and subject to destruction at any moment. The Bedouin villagers must repay the state for the cost of the demolition.
Today half the 140,000 Negev Bedouin live in 45 villages the state refuses to recognise and which lack all public amenities, including running water, electricity, sewage and garbage disposal, medical care and schools.
The rest have been forced into seven urban reservations, officially known as "concentration centres", since the early 1970s. All these townships languish at the bottom of the country's social and economic league tables.
Although they were designed to urbanise the Bedouin, the townships lack industrial areas and even the most basic infrastructure. The largest, Rahat, which has 45,000 Bedouin inhabitants, boasts only a post office and one bank.
The reason for the state's long-running battle with the Bedouin is the Zionist mission to "free up" the huge land mass of the Negev -- some two-thirds of Israeli territory -- for Jewish immigration. Today the Bedouin, a quarter of the Negev's population and its historic owners, live on only two per cent of its land.
But apparently, even this figure is considered too great by Sharon. His Development Plan will use draconian measures to ensure that the townships policy partially implemented in the 1970s succeeds three decades later.
According to legislation Sharon is pushing through the Knesset, any Bedouin living outside a township and continuing with his traditional pastoral way of life, growing cereal crops and herding cattle, goats and sheep, will be redefined as an illegal squatter. Repeat offenders risk two years in jail.
"The government wants to force us to move to Hura," says Abu Elkian, referring to a Bedouin township a few miles from Atir. "But Hura is a graveyard for the living. There we will be choked to death."
The latest moves by the army against the villagers of Atir, says Abu Elkian, have chilling echoes of past Israeli policies. In the early 1950s most of the Bedouin tribes were forced from their ancestral villages, which were declared "closed military zones", in an attempt to sever their historic ties to their lands.
Resettled temporarily by the army at other sites, the state now argues that the Bedouin have no rights to land in the Negev or to live outside the townships. So far the courts have backed the government's position.
This explains the increasingly inflammatory language being used by members of the cabinet. In February 2002 the National Infrastructures Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Israeli media: "We must stop their illegal invasion of state land by all means possible. The Bedouin have no regard for our laws."
More recently Tzachi Hanegbi, the public security minister, urged an audience of Jews in the Negev: "Come on friends, pick up a stick and beat any Bedouin criminal until he leaves."
Officially the state justifies its aggressive approach on the grounds that the Bedouin are too scattered to be connected to services. The irony is not lost on Bedouin leaders like Labad Abu Afash, the mayor of the unrecognised village of Wadi Al-Naam, near Beersheva.
In the late 1970s the state built the Negev's main electricity sub-station in the very centre of the village, with volts surging over the heads of the 3,000 inhabitants even though none of their homes is connected to the supply. "We can feel the electricity humming in our heads but we are not allowed to benefit from it,' he says.
Similar criteria are not being enforced on the more than 100 tiny Jewish communities that have sprung up all over the Negev in recent years. Some have barely more than a dozen families but are instantly connected to public services.
A Bedouin leader Nuri Al-Ughbi noted the difference in treatment: "Jews can choose to live in urban or rural communities, and in farming communities like the kibbutz and moshav. But we are allowed only to live in poor urban townships."
Sharon's main goal is to establish in the place of the Bedouin villages dozens of new Jewish settlements in the Negev to house some of the 350,000 immigrants the World Zionist Organisation hopes to bring to the Galilee and the Negev by the end of the decade.
He also wants the territory for a network of land-hungry private Jewish ranches similar to Sharon's own Negev farmstead, Sycamore Ranch. Grapes and dates will be grown in the unsuitable desert climate by offering the ranchers large quantities of subsidised water. The infrastructure for 36 ranches has already been approved in what will form the spine of a touristic "Wine Road".
Finally there are widespread rumours that Sharon intends to use the cleared Negev land to provide homes for settlers evacuated from Gaza or the West Bank, if a disengagement plan can be agreed to by his cabinet. The suspicion among the Bedouin is that he will use the Negev as the place to house the most militant settler groups.
Faced with the blanket opposition of the Bedouin to his plan, Sharon is recruiting lawyers and justice officials to devise new measures to be used against the Bedouin.
And a special Negev paramilitary police force known as the Green Patrol, set up in 1976 by Sharon to enforce laws against the Bedouin, particularly house demolitions and the slaughter of herds, is being beefed up.
One of the most controversial innovations has been adopted by the Israel Lands Administration, a government body responsible for state land. It has repeatedly sent planes to spray the fields of Bedouin farmers with herbicide, each time destroying many hundreds of acres of cereal crops and livestock feed.
According to a report released this month by the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) in Nazareth, there have been seven such incidents since February 2002, with thousands of acres of crops destroyed close to harvest time.
In at least two of the surprise raids Bedouin were sprayed with the poison while they were out in their fields. In March 2003, the pilots ignored the presence of people in the fields below as they sprayed toxic chemicals on the crops of Al-Gharir village. At least 11 men and children had to be treated in hospital for breathing problems, dizziness, blurred vision and intestinal pains.
Sharon's determination to win in the Negev this time can be gauged by the case of the Ughbi tribe, whose lands lie close to the Bedouin township of Rahat.
The Ughbi, like the Abu Elkian, were "temporarily" evacuated by the army from their homes in 1951 and moved to lands close to Hura. Today they live on a small enclosure of land, refused the right to farm or live in anything more than tents or tin shacks.
Despite being declared a military zone five decades ago, the Ughbi's ancestral land, Araqeeb village, remains unused. In the late 1990s the government of Ehud Barak offered another Bedouin tribe, the Tarabin a- Sana, the chance to live on the land of Araqeeb. The move was entirely cynical: the Barak government wanted to expand the wealthy Jewish Negev community of Omer and the Tarabin tribe, living close by, stood in the way.
Nuri Al-Ughbi, whose family originates from Araqeeb, says the leaders of the Tarabin rejected the offer because they knew that the land had been taken from his tribe.
"Uniquely, however, the authorities had planned the new village for the Tarabin as a rural community," he said. "So after the Tarabin rejected the offer we approached the government and asked that our tribe be given back our lands and allowed to return to our traditional way of life."
But with the arrival of Sharon's government, the new hard-line policy was adopted in the Negev. The exclusively Jewish-staffed planning authorities rejected the Ughbi's request and secretly turned the plans for a new Bedouin community at Araqeeb into plans for a new Jewish community, Givot Bar.
The first caravans for Givot Bar were smuggled onto the site under the cover of night on 19 January this year by the housing minister, Effi Eitam, a right-wing extremist leader. The action was taken even though the Ughi were appealing in the courts against the planning decision.
Almost immediately work began on connecting the site to the water and electricity grids.
"The Jewish families living here are not in need: most are young couples that have been encouraged by the state to move out of Beersheva and Arad with housing grants and benefits," said Nuri Al-Ughbi.
"Our families, on the other hand, are living in terrible conditions, in tents and metal shacks. We have no running water or electricity. At the very least don't we deserve a proper housing solution like these Jewish families?"