New Bill Threatens Bedouin Rights in Israel

05.24.13 5:45 PM ET

Israel recently advanced legislation calling for tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens to be uprooted and dispossessed. As a rabbi, as someone who cares deeply about Israel and as someone who has close ties with Bedouin families, I am alarmed and deeply troubled.

On Monday, May 6, Israel’s Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs approved the draft “Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev” and sent it on to the Knesset for passage. This legislation would cause 30,000 to 40,000 Bedouin Israelis to be expelled from their homes and more than two dozen villages to be demolished within three years. It would also authorize funding for 150 new police and security officers to supplement a force of 250 officers already allocated to the job of carrying out expulsions of the Bedouin.

Before I became a rabbi 15 years ago, I had the unique opportunity as an early-childhood educator to teach in a newly-established pre-school for the El-Okbi Bedouin tribe in the Negev desert in southern Israel. I lived with the family of Zana and Yusef El-Okbi and developed a wonderful friendship with Zana. In spite of the demands of caring for her husband and six children, Zana took the time to teach me about the Bedouin culture and way of life and to educate me about the plight of the Bedouin in the Negev.

I remember one afternoon, sitting outside in the spring sunshine with Zana, her sisters-in-law and her cousins. While everyone was washing laundry by hand, the conversation turned to discrimination against the Bedouin. These women could see that the Jewish settlements in the area had electricity, running water, roads and agricultural assistance, as well as better schools and better health care. Zana told us that recently representatives of several tribes had gone to talk with a government official about water rights. His reply had been: “We don't even have enough water for all the Jews. Why should we give any to you?” Then Zana looked at me and said, in a way that was more bewildered than angry, “Why are your people doing this to us?” I didn't have an answer.

The situation of the Negev Bedouin has been precarious for many decades. After the establishment of the State of Israel, the government used martial law to require essentially all the Bedouin to live in an arid area known as the Siyag, east of Beer Sheva. When Israel developed a master zoning plan for the Siyag area in the 1960s, it did not acknowledge the existence of any of the Bedouin villages, regardless of whether they pre-dated Israeli statehood or were established after the forced relocation. The government then zoned all land within the Siyag as exclusively for industrial, military or Jewish agricultural purposes. All Bedouin houses and structures became “illegal,” which meant the government could come and demolish them at any time.

Then, in the late 1960s, the government began building urban “townships” for the Bedouin and used persuasion and coercion to move them there. This required abandoning their traditional way of life based on tribal, agricultural villages. In the townships, each Bedouin family is given a house with electricity and running water. However, they have no access to agricultural land, few businesses and limited industry, resulting in high unemployment rates and the highest poverty rates of any towns in Israel.

If the new “Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev” goes forward, Bedouin men, women, and children would be forced to leave their homes, villages, and lands. Some of them will go quietly, but some will resist and will be forced to leave. It will be reminiscent of the many times in Jewish history that Jewish men, women, and children were forced to leave their homes and villages at gunpoint or at the point of a sword. And I will ask myself, as Zana asked me, “Why are my people doing this to them?” But I will have no answer.

However, the law has not passed and it is not too late for Israel to change course. Even if Israel agreed to all current Bedouin land claims, Bedouin lands would only amount to 5 percent of the territory of the Negev. Instead of forcibly displacing and dispossessing tens of thousands of Bedouin, Israel could recognize their villages, include them in the plan for the Negev and give them the infrastructure and services routinely afforded to Jewish villages. 

It is time for a different vision of the Negev, one in which Jewish and Bedouin citizens develop the lands of the Negev together, fulfilling the promise found in Israel's Declaration of Independence to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.”