Inside Israeli desert, standoff over land

October 13, 2011 - 3:05 AM

AL GREN, Israel (AP) — Decades of fraught relations between the Israeli government and Bedouin Arabs living in the hardscrabble Negev desert are coming to a head over a state plan that would expel 30,000 of the nomads from unauthorized tent encampments and shantytowns and move them into some of the country's most destitute towns.

The Israeli Cabinet recently approved the plan, reflecting growing anxiety that Bedouin are taking over more of the Negev, an inverted triangle in the country's south crisscrossed with rocky mountains and dry riverbeds and covering more than half of Israel's land mass.

Bedouin say their unrecognized villages were built on lands that have been theirs for generations. Citizens of Israel, they claim to be victims of decades of neglect and discrimination and tend to distrust the plan's declared aim of improving the lot of the country's poorest population. Many live in tents or flimsy houses and lack even the most basic services.

"The Israeli government's plan is to concentrate Bedouin on a minimum amount of land after confiscating their land, in cities beset by unemployment and poverty," said Nuri el-Okbi, head of the Association for the Protection of the Rights of Bedouin. "We will never agree to have our lands taken from us."

The program "is making the utmost effort so people don't have to be uprooted," said Israel Skop, of the Israel Lands Administration, the government agency responsible for implementing the plan.

Skop said that even those who move will be able to "live according to their cultural norms" on farmland and parcels that would be large enough to accommodate extended families and offer opportunities to continue an agrarian lifestyle.

"We're accommodating them to an amazing degree," he said.

About 2,000 Bedouin gathered last week opposite the government's Bedouin affairs agency in Beersheba, the Negev's main city, to protest the plan.

"A Bedouin will sit in his tent in the rain ... and suffer, but he won't leave his land," said Bedouin activist Ali Abu Shcheta, whose village of Al-Gren is set to be demolished under the plan. "They don't understand the Bedouin mentality."

Bedouin Arabs, known for their nomadic ways and intricate network of tribal and clan lines, have chafed at state authority across the Middle East. Ties with Israel have been especially complicated.

Most of the 65,000 Bedouin living in the Negev at the time of Israel's 1948 creation fled or were driven out during fighting over the state's establishment.

The roughly 15,000 who stayed behind remained in a pocket of the Negev, where they lived under military rule into the 1960s. Since then, the government has attempted to urbanize them in seven Negev communities.

The 180,000 Bedouin of the Negev are about equally divided between these impoverished and crime-ridden towns — and unrecognized villages. The latter occupy about 3 percent of the Negev's 3 million acres, range from tiny clusters of tents to ramshackle villages.

Because the villages are not recognized, they are not serviced by schools, roads, garbage collection, clinics, sewage systems, running water or electricity. Most people who live there are poorly educated and live in poverty.

Since construction is not allowed, homes and other buildings are subject to demolition orders. Several villages have been razed by the government many times, including el-Okbi's village, Al-Arakib.

In these villages, homes are at best made of cinderblocks and corrugated metal. Many other people live in tents. Others are even flimsier. Such structures become stiflingly hot in the summer and are whipped by desert winds in the winter. Floors are dirt or concrete. There are no kindergartens or playgrounds, and few schools. Water is stored in tanks, and power is often provided by generators and candles. Public transport doesn't reach them.

Bedouin acknowledge that they cannot document their land ownership. They say they did not register their landholdings under Ottoman or British rule for a variety of reasons, including fear of being taxed or being drafted into the Ottoman army. And Bedouin had their own traditional system of property acquisition.

Traditionally, Bedouin were desert-dwelling nomads descended from Saudi Arabian migrants or Egyptian peasants who raised goats and sheep. But across the Middle East, they have become far more sedentary in recent decades because of urbanization programs and societal shifts.

Their primary alliances are to families and tribes, and most do not share the nationalist goals of the Palestinians and other Arab peoples. A few hundred serve as volunteers in Israel's army, the military says.

Many say that while they are citizens of Israel, they feel discriminated against and denied the same services Jewish communities enjoy.

The Israeli government says it cannot provide expensive state services to every corner the Bedouin inhabit.

Bedouin and their supporters counter that the state does just that for the Jewish population, including residents of tiny settlements in the West Bank.

Israeli officials also say government efforts to improve life for the Bedouin often have been undermined by sometimes violent tribal infighting over land claims. Some of the villages, they note, stand in areas inappropriate for settling because they are near gas lines, military bases, power plants and toxic landfills.

The government's response to the Bedouin land claims, approved by Cabinet last month, would recognize about half of the unrecognized villages and make them eligible for services. Over five years, the other unrecognized villages would be demolished and their 30,000 residents forced to move to existing Negev Bedouin towns.

About $330 million would be allocated to compensate relocated Bedouin with alternate land and funds to build homes, and to develop services like industrial zones, employment centers and professional training.

The plan requires approval by the parliament, where it could spend up to a year being enacted into legislation.