Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Bedouin

Israeli military and police razed the Bedouin village of al-Arakib in the Negev desert for a fourth time on August 17, leaving homeless more than 300 Palestinian Bedouin from the al-Turi tribe, the majority of them children.

The village was first razed on July 27 by so-called Green Patrols from the Israeli Land Administration, under the protection of more than 1500 heavily armed police. According to a July 27 report by the Bethlehem-based Alternative Information Centre, the police were “carrying firearms and stun grenades, followed by a special patrol unit, helicopter, mounted horsemen and bulldozers”. The Green Patrol, using bulldozers, destroyed 45 structures, including dozens of homes, as well as agricultural buildings and livestock pens.

Al-Arakib is home to the al-Turi tribe and is one of 45 “unrecognised” villages in the Negev. These villages are home to more than 80,000 Palestinian Bedouin, approximately half of the Bedouin population of the region. Despite the majority of the villages being in existence before the establishment of the Israeli state, repeated Israeli governments have refused to give them legal status. As a result, the villages are systematically excluded from government maps and the provision of local and national government infrastructure, such as electricity, water, telephone lines and educational and health facilities and services.

Ban on development

According to Adalah, the Legal Centre for the Arab Minority in Israel, “the [Israeli] government refuses to allow any physical infrastructure development in these villages, thus prohibiting the building and repairing of homes and the construction of paved roads and proper sewage facilities in these communities. New construction requires a permit from the government; however, without a local council, the residents do not have an office from which to request a permit. Consequently, any new construction by the residents is declared illegal and potentially targeted for demolition.”

According to Professor Oren Yiftachel, an Israeli researcher and human rights lawyer who has represented Bedouin communities in courts and planning forums, the al-Turi tribe were forcibly relocated in the 1950s from their traditional land, which al-Arakib village is built on. The villagers, however, returned to the land in defiance of the Israeli state a decade ago, establishing al-Arakib.

In 1948, prior to the establishment of the Israeli state, more than 100,000 Palestinian Bedouin, making up 95 tribes, lived in the Negev (or Naqab as it is known in Arabic). They made up approximately 99% of the region’s inhabitants. In mid-1948, however, the Bedouin, along with other Palestinian Arabs, were ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces. In the wake of the 1948 Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic), which marked the destruction of Palestinian society by Zionist forces, only 19 tribes remained inside the ceasefire lines, which became the 1948 boundaries for the newly created Zionist state.

According to Hazem Jamjoum, the editor of al-Majdal — a journal published by the Badil Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugees rights - “the approximately 10,000 Palestinian Bedouin who managed to remain in the Naqab were systematically rounded up and forcibly transferred and confined to the so-called Siyaj (fenced) area located in the north-east corner of the Naqab, just south of the West Bank, in a triangle marked by the towns of Beersheba, Arad and Dimona”. These “fenced” or “closed” areas made up about 10% of the ancestral land belonging to the Palestinian Bedouin. Jamjoum notes in the Autumn 2008-Winter 2009 edition of al-Majdal: “[B]y the early 1950s, more than 90,000 Palestinian Bedouin were forcibly displaced, most of them becoming refugees in the adjacent Gaza strip, West Bank, Sinai Peninsula and Jordan”.

‘Dead’ land

In an article for Haaretz’s online Hebrew edition on August 6 (translated by the Middle East News Service), Yiftachel notes that the Israeli state declared all Palestinian Bedouin land in 1948 “dead” land, claiming the land was unsettled, unassigned and uncultivated. However, “Bedouin lands were managed for generations by a well functioning traditional land ownership system, which allocated residential, agricultural and grazing lands, and adjudicated on land disputes, under the approval of the Ottoman and British rulers. While the Bedouin did not register their land in the British land title books (a fact used against them by Israel), no-one can seriously say that the lands around Beersheba were ‘dead’.” Yiftachel points out that the claim by the Israeli state that the land in the Negev was “dead” resembles the terra nullius doctrine in Australia, which claimed that Australia was an “empty land” prior to being colonised by the British.

Between 1948 and 1967, the dispossession and oppression of Palestinian Bedouin and Arabs continued under a discriminatory martial law that did not apply to Jewish Israelis. As a result, Palestinian citizens of Israel were not allowed to leave or enter their towns unless they were granted permits to do so, their employment was restricted and they were subjected to regular curfew.

In 1952, Israel granted citizenship to the Palestinian Bedouin, along with other internally displaced Palestinian refugees who found themselves inside the new Zionist state. However, as Jamjoum notes, Israel conditioned the citizenship upon the Bedouin registering with one of the 18 tribes formally recognised by the state and remaining sedentary permanently in government-built towns.

During the period of martial law, Palestinian Bedouin were kept under surveillance by the military Unit 101 and Green Patrols under the auspices of the minister of agriculture (at the time Ariel Sharon). The primary role of the two units was to maintain military control over the Palestinian Bedouin and to continue the ethnic cleansing of the tribes, which were systematically expelled up until 1954. The Green Patrols were created to fight Bedouin “infiltration” into their former ancestral lands, which had now been claimed by the Israeli state. The main aim of the patrols was to prevent the Bedouin from re-establishing residence on their ancestral land.

In addition, the Israeli state seeks to prevent Bedouin use of the land by planting trees via the Jewish National Fund. While the JNF claims that it is rehabilitating the land, critics claim the main purpose of the tree planting is to ensure control of the land and the Bedouin. According to Nasser Victor Rego, writing on the Middle East Online website, the primary purpose of the plan is to free the land of “obstacles” and “nuisances” in order to free the land for Jewish settlement. Rego points out: “These ‘obstacles’ and ‘nuisances’ are the Arab Bedouin of the Naqab”.

Similarly on December 8, 2008, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper carried an article outlining the JNF’s plan to increase the number of trees being planted in the Negev. However, Dr. Yehoshua Shkedi, director of the science division of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, noted that the JNF often carries out tree planting “without proper planning and changes areas containing a rich variety of unique plants and animals”. Shkedi told Haaretz: “We’ve spoken to the JNF people about this a number of times and have tried to persuade them to change the way they work, but nothing helps”. Haaretz also noted that many experts had pointed out that “the purpose of the planting is to keep illegal Bedouin construction at bay”.

Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Bedouin is a part of its overall ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs. However, despite, the destruction of al-Arakib, the al-Turi tribe and other Palestinian Bedouin have vowed to continue to rebuild al-Arakib and other razed villages. On July 27, Israel’s YNet news service quoted al-Arakib spokesperson and local resident Dr. Awad Abu-Farikh as saying: “Today we got a close glimpse of the government’s true face. We were stunned to witness the violent force being used. The black-clad special unit forces are the true face of Lieberman’s [leader of the anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu party and Israeli foreign minister] democracy. This operation is the first step in the uprooting of many villages. We shall return to our villages, build our homes and not leave this place.”