‘Developing’ the Negev has entailed repeated efforts to displace Bedouin Palestinians from ‘unrecognised’ villages.
Al-Jazeera / January 27, 2019
As many as 1,000 Bedouin Palestinian families are threatened with forced displacement by the Israeli government under plans for a major new highway in the Naqab (Negev) region.
The route of the new section of Road 6 already entails the forcible relocation of some 100 Bedouin families. In December 2018, however, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel declared he intended to take advantage of the situation to expel a further 900 families.
“The government is committed to demonstrating governance in the Negev,” Ariel declared, describing the construction of the road as an opportunity to “return to the state huge tracts of land” – language often used by officials in reference to displacing Bedouin communities.
Yair Maayan, head of the government’s Bedouin Development Authority, a body that plays a central role in demolitions and evictions, added, “The construction of the highway and its paving is a very significant step on the way to turning the Negev into an advanced and regulated territory.”
Such discourse has long been part of the Israeli authorities’ policy in the Negev. During the Nakba, the vast majority of the area’s Bedouin Palestinian population was either expelled outside what became the state of Israel, or corralled into an area known as the Siyag, or “fence”.
Ever since, “developing” the Negev has entailed repeated efforts to displace Bedouin Palestinians from so-called unrecognised villages into government-approved townships and recognised villages.
Even without the scaled-up displacement threatened by Ariel, the new stretch of Road 6 will already have a devastating effect on local Bedouin Palestinians, according to human rights groups.
“There are about 350 houses which are already going to be destroyed because of this road,” Dafna Saporta, an architect with Israeli planning and human rights NGO Bimkom, told Al Jazeera. “That’s in addition to some 60 roads being blocked or ruined, separating local communities and families.”
Home demolitions and expulsions of Palestinians by Israeli occupation authorities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are often followed by international condemnation, albeit with a lack of meaningful accountability. However, the displacement of Bedouin Palestinian citizens gets much less attention.
There have been exceptions – plans to destroy the entire village of Umm al-Hiran and build a Jewish town on its lands have attracted international criticism. (Agriculture Minister Ariel approvingly cited the case of Umm al-Hiran last May when discussing Road 6.)
In 2011-13, meanwhile, efforts by the Israeli authorities to implement a mass expulsion of Bedouin Palestinians – known as the Prawer Plan – faced coordinated resistance on the ground, and also prompted concern from international human rights groups and diplomats.
While the Prawer Plan as originally conceived by the Israeli government was thwarted, on the ground, demolitions and displacement have continued apace, in piecemeal form.
In 2017, as reported by the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, the number of demolitions in Bedouin villages in the Negev reached a record high, with 2,220 structures destroyed. More than one-third of all demolished structures were used as dwellings.
But in addition to routine demolition raids, the story of Road 6 is an example of another trend: What activists and campaigners are describing as displacement through “development”.
“Prawer was frozen,” lawyer Myssana Morany, coordinator of Adalah’s Land and Planning Rights Unit, told Al Jazeera. “But we see it happening now through different tools.”
Morany pointed to several large-scale infrastructure plans that will displace Bedouin residents, including a rail line that will “swallow up extensive tracts of land and cause serious harm to the 1,400-strong Bedouin community of Rahma”. A new phosphate mine will also entail the forced relocation of at least 10,000 Bedouin citizens.
Meanwhile, Israeli arms giant IMI (recently purchased from the state by Elbit Systems) is relocating a massive testing facility to the Negev “in a move that puts some 1,200 Bedouin homes and other structures at risk of forced displacement” alongside a large-scale relocation of Israeli military infrastructure to the region.
“They are using terms like ‘development’ and taking decisions to move military structures as if the Naqab is empty,” Morany said, “as if the Bedouin don’t exist.”
Saporta concurred. “When they plan these large-scale developments, the Bedouin who live in these areas are invisible citizens that the state doesn’t see,” she told Al Jazeera.
Some infrastructure projects are justified by Israeli authorities in explicitly ideological terms.
A year ago, the Housing and Construction Ministry launched a plan for housing units in the Negev and Galilee, described by then-minister Yoav Galant as “a significant step towards realising the Zionist vision of settlement”. At the launch, Galant said he was “shocked by the amount of illegal Bedouin construction” in the Negev, declaring: “We must not lose our hold on the south.”
In June 2018, discussing plans to create new communities in the Negev, Galant told the Knesset: “The south is under attack not only from Gaza – the illegal and hostile construction in the rural Bedouin areas in the Negev and in the area of Beersheba in recent years has spun out of control.”
“The programme to reinforce Jewish settlement in the Negev constitutes a long term and stable solution for a Jewish hold over the region,” he added.
Rafat Abu Aish, a school teacher, journalist and activist, told Al Jazeera how his home village of Laqiya, a Bedouin Palestinian community near Beersheva, is hemmed in by Israeli military infrastructure and the Jewish community of Carmit, “leaving no room for the village to grow”.
“Soon you will find that between all the Bedouin communities are Jewish communities or army bases,” Abu Aish said, adding, “separating us from each other – it’s very planned.”
For Bedouin Palestinians and their allies in civil society, resisting the Israeli authorities’ plans is a big ask.
“We’re in a bad era,” said Saporta, noting it is unlikely – though not impossible – that even a change in government will fundamentally alter how the state has related to the Bedouin population for some 70 years.
“What we can do, however, is to try and use this opportunity to push for formal recognition of those villages near Road 6,” Saporta continued – “instead of moving the population, work towards recognition”, adding recent plans such as the Beersheva District Plan allow for such a possibility.
Abu Aish, who was part of the campaign to block the Prawer Plan, said the experience “showed us you can’t do anything by relying on Israeli law”.
“The only way to fight is through popular struggle,” he continued, “by raising awareness, affirming our Palestinian identity, and bringing people back into the street.”