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Israel’s Negev Bedouin Challenge and the Exploitation of Human Rights

By Emily Ziedman

The relationship between the state of Israel and the Bedouin population in the Negev is extremely complex, and is the subject of intense debate in Israeli society and the Knesset. This debate and the different opinions are healthy and reflect Israel’s robust democracy.

However, outside of Israel, information about this issue is often delivered through a distorted, simplistic, and counterproductive narrative—Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s account in her article “Israel’s Other Land Grab” (September/October Issue, 2013) is one such example—promoted by a narrow group of political advocacy NGOs (non-governmental organizations). In media campaigns targeting American Jews, and presentations to European diplomats and parliaments, these NGOs cynically exploit the Bedouin question and demonize Israel with false allegations of “racism,” “dispossession,” “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing.”

The Negev encompasses over half of Israel’s total territory, and includes the city of Beersheva and Ben Gurion University, as well as Dimona and other towns, extending to the Red Sea port of Eilat.  The complex issues in this region cannot be isolated from the wider Israeli context or reduced to simple slogans. Ensuring the security, development, and responsible preservation of the delicate desert region are central to the future of the entire country.

The Bedouin citizens of Israel who live in the Negev are a central dimension in this complex framework. Bedouin society is in the midst of a transition from a nomadic lifestyle to modern urban dwellings. Israel, as a modern state with zoning and property laws, has sought to adjust to this process. In particular, as many as 40,000 Bedouins live in so-called “unrecognized villages,” in which all structures were built illegally and haphazardly on land that they do not own. The problems of poor education, low incomes, and lack of women’s rights in Bedouin communities are compounded by high crime rates and general lawlessness.

Israel, as any other state, is obligated to restore the rule of law in areas under its sovereignty, and specifically to facilitate legal and safe construction by its citizens. After many years and intense debate, what is known as the Prawer-Begin plan is currently being debated in the Knesset. Its supporters claim that it provides the optimum balance between overall national needs and the need to improve the quality of life for all Negev residents, recognizing the majority of Bedouin villages in the Negev and absorbing the residents of 35 “unrecognized villages” into existing and new settlements.

However, the network of political NGOs—including groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights, Adalah, and Negev Coexistence Forum (NCF)—which are particularly active in promoting their agendas outside Israel, do not acknowledge these key complexities. Instead, they demand full recognition of all Bedouin land claims, despite numerous court decisions that reject them. The NGO campaigns also erase the vital national context, and promote the unsubstantiated claim in the UN and elsewhere that the Negev Bedouin are “indigenous” to the Negev, and therefore enjoy special rights above and beyond other Israelis. As demonstrated by academics Ruth Kark, Seth J. Frantzman and Havatzelet Yahel, the Bedouins are not the original inhabitants of the Negev, but rather began to arrive during Ottoman rule, and belong to a nomadic culture that “by definition, precludes permanent attachment to specific territory.”

In promoting these highly distorted political campaigns, the NGOs have traveled frequently to European capitals and the United Nations, where they accuse Israel of “apartheid,” “using forcible displacement and dispossession,” and “ethnic cleansing.” For instance, on June 20, 2013, a representative of NCF testified before the EU Parliament subcommittee on human rights, claiming that the Prawer plan “represents two principles: Apartheid and Military Rule.” During the session, MEP David Martin of the Socialists and Democrats group responded, “I would go further than our guests…I think what we are seeing taking place is ethnic cleansing…under any definition.”

Most recently, on October 17, representatives of NCF participated in a seminar at the European Parliament, hosted by the Group of Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats. During the event, a poster that read “Stop Prawer-Begin Plan, no ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Bedouins” was prominently displayed. Key Israeli officials involved with setting government policy on the Negev were refused permission to participate, despite repeated requests, and all other voices from Israel were censored.

While the NGOs’ factual distortions are dubious, this rhetoric of demonization reflects a broader political agenda, and conflates the Bedouin issue with the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. Campaigns promoting Palestinian claims in the West Bank and Gaza are being recycled on behalf of Bedouin citizens and the Negev, which is an integral part of pre-1967 Israel. These NGO attacks are part of a wider strategy of delegitimizing Israeli sovereignty, democratic processes, and judicial independence.

In addition, this political war against Israel is enabled by funding from European governments and private foundations, under the banner of human rights. Funders for groups such as NCF, Rabbis for Human Rights, Adalah and others that exploit the Bedouin issue include the New Israel Fund (NIF), the European Union, Switzerland, the Ford Foundation, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway. Through direct and indirect funding mechanisms, these countries and institutions contribute to divisive campaigns targeting Israel, rather than human rights and humanitarian goals.

The challenges posed by the Negev Bedouin are highly complex, requiring a detailed examination of all dimensions and a consideration of consequences that goes beyond simplistic slogans. Unfortunately, serious and constructive analyses are not reflected in the activities and statements of political advocacy NGOs and their leaders.

Emily Ziedman is communications associate for NGO Monitor.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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