Every policy decision made by any country ultimately hinges on its government’s understanding of a single question: What is that country’s character? The question is of course implicit to votes on, say, health care or education; rarely is it on such stark display as it has been in Israel in recent days.
The Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev (also called the Prawer Plan) is slated to come before the Knesset during its winter session, and—as is true for so many of the Netanyahu governments’ policies—is being greeted with horror by many in Israel and the international community. Demonstrations held this past Saturday to protest the bill were broken up with great (and largely ignored) violence by Israel’s police force—men, women and children, Israeli Jews and Israeli Bedouin, beaten and bloodied, physically threatened and hauled off to jail.
Prawer purports to resolve outstanding land ownership issues between the state and the Bedouin population of the Negev (at a cost of $5.6 billion), but despite government efforts to paint a rosy picture, the bill’s actual purpose is painfully clear: To forcibly remove tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens from the villages in which their people have lived since the founding of the state or before, with minimum input from the Bedouin themselves, in order to clear the area for Jewish communities. What Prawer recommends, simply put, is ethnic cleansing.
Lest you think I overstate my case, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Foreign Minister, recently made the point yet clearer in comments to the press:
This isn't a social problem or a housing crisis, but a battle for the land.... We are fighting for the national lands of the Jewish people and some are intentionally trying to steal them and forcibly take them over. We cannot close our eyes and escape this reality.
Here’s the real reality: Bedouin communities have deep historical roots in the Negev. Soon after Israel was founded, the government forcibly transferred more Bedouin to the area. Of the 46 villages now there, the state considers 35 illegal and their residents “squatters,” despite the fact that these communities were established at a time of duress and under martial law. Because the villages are officially unrecognized, the 100,000 or so Israeli citizens who live in them receive no—that is to say: zero—services from the state. No water, electricity, health care or schools. Here’s another fact: Despite making up 30 percent of the Negev’s population, the Bedouin claim only 5.4 percent of the land.
One of the government’s most frequently cited excuses for wanting to force some 40,000 citizens off their land and into urban townships is that Prawer will allow the state to finally provide them with infrastructure—but Rabbi Arik Ascherman, president of Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights, minces no words in response: “[That] isn’t true, because there [are] many Jewish communities which receive services which are smaller and more spread out. It’s basically wanting land for the Jewish people.”
In an effort to forestall the passage and implementation of the Prawer bill, members of the communities likely to be affected have prepared an Alternative Master Plan for Bedouin Villages. The plan would recognize the “illegal” villages, “in accordance with equitable and broadly accepted professional planning standards.” According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel,
This solution can be implemented independently of the resolution of land ownership issues and is based on the historical ownership paradigm…. [It will provide] a legal, just, and equitable solution for everyone in Israel...[that is] totally economically viable.
A poll conducted by Rabbis for Human Rights in June revealed that, when Prawer’s particulars were explained, a majority of Israeli Jews opposed the plan, and RHR reported that
the findings indicate the effects of a severe campaign of incitement and misinformation against the Bedouin population, creating the impression that the Bedouin are plotting to take over the Negev, while in fact their modest demands—considered fair by most of the Jewish population—are proportionate to less than a sixth of their share of the population.
Yet that was then, and this is now—I have to wonder what new polling would reveal. Many Israeli Jews are actively engaged in the anti-Prawer struggle, but most see only what the government and the media provide—and what they’re seeing this week is pictures of burning tires and reports of “rioting” Arabs.
Little context is provided, there’s almost no mention of police brutality, and the images and words fit very neatly into pre-existing Israeli Jewish narratives concerning the Arab Other and decades of Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories. In short, slowly but surely (and despite a tradition of volunteering to serve in the Israeli armed forces), Israel’s Bedouin citizens are being framed not just as second-class citizens, but as enemies of the state.
And so: What is the character of the state of Israel?
In its Declaration of Independence, the country’s founders appealed to Arab residents to “participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” Most Jews around the world want to believe that these words represent Israel’s character.
But if Prawer is implemented, we’ll be forced to admit that the current government of Israel sees the country quite differently.