Israel’s Bedouin villages struggle for existence

BY REBECCA AGULE

A Bedouin village goes without electricity while Israeli industry is fed by power lines in the background

When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, the new government expelled approximately 50,000 Bedouins, a semi-nomadic and pastoral community, from their homes in the Negev Desert. Others fled into the surrounding countries. In the 1960s, the Israeli government began transferring the remaining Negev Bedouins to permanent, state-built townships.

Though these areas now have approximately 90,000 residents, an additional 80,000 Bedouins continue to live in unrecognized villages. The government views unrecognized villages as illegal settlements and refuses to provide services such as running water, electricity, schools and hospitals. This illegal status leaves many Bedouins in constant fear that their homes will be demolished or that they will be forced to relocate.

On November 10th, Ahmad Amara, a Global Advocacy Fellow with Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program, moderated a panel on the Bedouin entitled “Invisible Citizens”. Speakers Khalil Alumur and Yeela Raanan outlined the plight of Israel’s Bedouin citizens. Alumur, an Israeli Bedouin, serves as the representative of al-Sira, an unrecognized village in the Negev and home to his family for more than seven generations. Raanan works with the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages, a grassroots organization created to advocate for villages and communities, such as the one where Alumur currently lives.

Underscoring the depth of the rift between Bedouins and the Israeli government, Alumur said,  that “this is something bigger than misunderstanding or mistrust. There is a crisis between the citizens and the government.” 

Alumur described life in his village, which has established a daycare, built a mosque, paved the dirt roads and laid water pipes. The residents of al-Sira, located just south of Arad, often cooperate to fill one another’s basic needs. 

Before we had any regular power, my fridge was like a pharmacy for the whole village,” Alumur said. 

Seemingly small tactics often make the difference between a home’s destruction and preservation. Alumur’s own home remains grey and unpainted, as he know that, were it white, the chances of demolition would increase. More permanent-looking structures or those built higher on the hills are also at greater risk. 

Each individual feels the impact of life in an unrecognized village deeply and differently. Ranaan described dire health consequences, such as chronic diabetes and widespread asthma. Women living in Wadi al Na’am, a village close to Ramat Hovav, suffer the highest rate of miscarriages in the country. Without schools, children must be bused to out of the villages to receive an education, a process that results in the exclusion of many girls. Unable to marry without homes, young men also suffer. 

“You don’t want to upset the young men,” Raanan said.

Sometimes done to send a message, bulldozing also carries strong symbolism. Pushed by an audience member for the reasoning behind home demolition and the refusal to extend recognition, Raanan admitted that the answer would likely be unsatisfactory. 

“Recognition of the villages would allow people to stay.” Raanan said. “No government wants to make something illegal legal.”

Raanan offered the audience a bit of historical context. She described what she termed “a process of concentration” by the Israeli government to remove Bedouins from the larger Negev, originally to Jordan and then into certain areas of the desert. The 1965 Planning and Building Law determined the hows and wheres of homebuilding and set out the home registration process, but the law provided no authority to give permission to Bedouins. 
Compounding these tensions, the Bedouin community has historically operated its own courts, previously recognized under the British, and, given this parallel system, many saw registration as unnecessary. 

“There was no reason to register,” Raanan said. “They had their own system.”  

Raanan continued that the government does allow for registration when a family decides to sell its home.  “But you see the table of what the land is worth, and its really just pennies.” 
Rejecting violence, Alumur does not consider breaking the law a viable advocacy tool. Instead, he organizes demonstrations and protests at Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, as well as working to draw media coverage and the interest of politicians. “We want to fight for rights peacefully, legally. We work from the inside, not only from the outside,” Alumur said.
Alumur explained the purpose of his trip to Harvard, one of several speaking engagements. 

“I hope to bring the story of the unrecognized villages to you. I will just tell you the story of al-Sira,” said Alumur. “But it isn’t a different story from the others.”  

In closing, Ranaan urged the audience to take action, reminding them that the issues at hand are hardly unique to Israel.

“Canada, the US, Australia, they are all dealing with this. The question is, how do you deal with indigenous land rights in a western court? This is a political question, not a judicial issue.” 

Clinical Instructor Amara works on numerous initiatives related to Israel and Palestine. More than a dozen clinical students have joined Amara, undertaking a variety of projects related to the Bedouin population. These efforts have included research in support of cases heard before the Israeli Supreme Court, recommendations to a task force focusing on Bedouin land issues created by the Israeli government, and submissions to the United States Department of State. 

The Middle East Initiative, the Outreach Center at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School co-sponsored this event.

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