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Opinion | Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Opinion | Letty Cottin Pogrebin

20:09 29 August in 2013 September-October, Israel, Politics
7 Comments

Israel’s Other Land Grab

In August, despite the fragility of the newly resurrected peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government announced plans to build 1,187 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This came hard on the heels of the 1,096 new units promoted by the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] Civil Administration and the 91 settlements the government recently added to the “national priority list,” presumably rendering them non-negotiable.

With the eyes of the world focused on this defiant expansion of Israeli “facts on the ground,” few were paying attention to a simultaneous land grab taking place in the Negev: Israel’s systematic expropriation of areas that for generations have been inhabited by Bedouins.

On my first trip to Israel 37 years ago, I was hosted for dinner in a Bedouin tent in the desert. Our delegation of eight or ten American media types sat on beautiful hand-loomed rugs. We ate with our hands.  We heard about Bedouin culture and traditions.  The men who sat with us in that tent (the women were behind a curtain, though we saw one peeking out) were warm, welcoming and responsive to our questions. Only later did it occur to me that our travel agent or the Israel tourism authority was paying the Bedouins to exhibit their “native” ways to visiting foreigners. And while other stops on our itinerary—Masada, Mea Shearim, Rachel’s Tomb—were introduced with extensive background information, the Bedouins were presented as ethnic exotica, a people without a history. Only later did I wonder how they really felt about these encounters.

Since then, the Jewish state seems to have become markedly less appreciative of Bedouin culture and traditions. Hundreds of times over the last few years, Bedouin homes and villages have been summarily demolished by IDF and Jewish National Fund (JNF) bulldozers.

Media sources and advocacy groups such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice in Israel and the New Israel Fund report that Bedouins have been beaten, shot and forcibly evacuated from their ancestral lands so that this fertile area can be developed for Jewish agricultural development, JNF forests and Jewish habitation.

In 2007, the government appointed the Goldberg Commission to address the Bedouin “problem.” (Needless to say, there were no Bedouins on the commission.) Their findings led to the Prawer Plan, a proposed law that would relocate up to 40,000 semi-nomadic Bedouins, concentrating them in seven “officially recognized” urban townships that rank at the bottom of every Israeli socioeconomic measure, with an infant mortality rate four times worse than that of any Jewish Israeli community. Last June, the Prawer Plan passed its first Knesset reading by a slim majority. The final two readings needed in order for the Knesset bill to pass are expected in October.

Somehow, it’s unthinkable to evacuate thousands of Jews from their West Bank settlements in the interests of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But expelling 40,000 Arab Israeli citizens from their homes for the sake of Jewish development is considered a great idea. Moreover, Israel presents its transfer policy in a benevolent light, as if by trashing Bedouin dwellings, the IDF is expelling these noble savages from their “primitive” habitats for their own good.

Mind you, I’m not romanticizing the Bedouins. They don’t just keep their women behind a curtain, they keep them uneducated, isolated and cut off from modern health care. And though they are not responsible for their extreme impoverishment and rampant unemployment, these conditions have spawned alarming rates of criminal behavior and drug use.  Altogether, it’s not a pretty picture.

Likewise, I’m mindful of the legal complexities of the land use issue. The Bedouins don’t hold title; their system of land acquisition and ownership recognition is based on oral agreements that date back to the Ottoman Empire. Expecting them to produce airtight proof of ownership of territory they’ve inhabited for centuries would be like asking American Indians, who believe the earth cannot be owned, to produce a deed from Christopher Columbus, or asking the Australian Aborigines, who mark territorial borders by transmitting “songlines” known only to the indigenous tribes, to produce transmittal documents signed by the British.

The bottom line is that Bedouin Arabs are citizens of the state of Israel. Some of their elders fought with the Palmach. Many Bedouin men have volunteered for the IDF, serving as trackers and defending the country’s borders. Yet these peaceful, loyal citizens are being targeted for internal dislocation on the basis of their ethnicity, race, religion and normative social arrangements.  And Israel shows little respect for their historic ties to the land.

Rather than herd them into the seven ghetto-like “recognized” villages with inadequate services, pathetic infrastructure and few jobs, Israel should improve the conditions of everyday life for Bedouins in the 35 “unrecognized” villages. The government should invest in Bedouin roads, schools, job creation and health care and connect these villages to the Israeli water, sewage and electricity systems.

Likewise, rather than turn a blind eye to the ongoing injustice of forcible Bedouin dislocation, American Jews should think twice before buying a tree from the JNF in a forest that may have been created on the ruins of Bedouin homes.

And we should insist that our communal organizations address both the moral and political dimensions of this issue. Israel cannot claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” if it continues uprooting thousands of its citizens against their will.

 

Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s latest book is How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick. She is currently working on a novel.

7 Comments
  • Stanley M Blumberg 03:22h, 21 September Reply

    As usual Moment,and MsPogrebin are to be complemented for refusing to
    feed American Jews more sugar coated pills about some of the the darker
    sides of the land of milk,and honey. While Israel will always maintain a special
    place in our hearts,and minds we will not help her by accepting without question
    the propaganda that flows from most pulpits,and the so called Jewish leaders of
    the major Jewish organizations.It should come as small surprize that two millenia
    of suffering has taught little except that the corrupting influence of power is all
    pervading.

  • Dan 20:47h, 08 October Reply

    From chicken soup Judaism to J Street anti-zionism, Moment is there to serve up what the twisted unJewish left craves.

    • henry gottlieb 21:54h, 23 October Reply

      too bad ms. pogregin is right ……. truth is usually a bitter dish

  • Elder of Ziyon 08:13h, 10 October Reply

    Ms. Cottin-Pogrebin has clearly only looked at one side of the story. My last visit to Israel I was shown how the Bedouin, instead of living in the romanticized 35 villages she implies, are setting up hundreds of settlements throughout the entire Negev. It is a complicated issue and this article obfuscates more than it enlightens.

    You can see my video about the issue here: http://elderofziyon.blogspot.com/2013/03/eoznews-video-bedouin-problem-in-negev.html

    • henry gottlieb 21:55h, 23 October Reply

      what has that to do with stealing, yes stealing , homes and land

  • Israel's Negev Bedouin Challenge and the Exploitation of Human Rights - Moment Magazine 14:08h, 24 November Reply

    […] 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 […]

  • moshe 13:16h, 12 August Reply

    !! go back to basics BEDUIN by definition HAVE NO CONCEPT of SETTLEMENT & PRIVATE OWNERSHIP{==hisitorically they are INVADERS / RAIDERS my mother z’l’ remembered the TUKKS ( 120 years ago ) beheaded a bedduin raider and put his head on the JAFFA gate n JERUSALEM

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