The residents of Twail Abu-Jirwal have been subjected to home demolitions at least fifteen times since 2006, most of these times the whole village was completely flattened.2 This village is not the exception, but the rule in the Naqab; Israel has systematically tried to squeeze these Palestinian Bedouin in the south of the country onto smaller patches of land while confiscating the rest of this forgotten half of Palestine.
On the eve of the Nakba (1947-1949), more than 100,000 Palestinian Bedouin lived in the Naqab, and made up over 99 percent of the area's inhabitants.3 The particular lifestyle of the Bedouin in this large and partially fertile desert area was based on animal husbandry, which required vast grazing areas for goats, sheep and camels, and on agriculture in years of adequate rainfall. While the clan-based structure of the society did not lend itself to chopping up the land into privately owned parcels, each tribe held customary ownership of a certain territory, and the territorial boundaries were respected by other tribes as well as by the Ottoman and, later, the British authorities.4
Large scale and systematic forced displacement of the Palestinian Bedouin began in 1948 with Israel's conquest of the town of Beersheba and the complete destruction and depopulation of all Palestinian communities in the district. By the early 1950s, more than 90,000 Palestinian Bedouin were forcibly displaced; most of them becoming refugees in the adjacent Gaza strip, West Bank, Sinai Peninsula and Jordan.5 Subsequent large-scale and systematic dispossession is rooted in the decision of the state of Israel not to recognize the Bedouin's customary tribal land rights. Israel treats all Bedouin land as state land, unless it was registered as private property.
Between 1948 and 1967, population transfer (ethnic cleansing), dispossession and oppression proceeded through a discriminatory military regime that controlled Palestinian Arabs who managed to remain within the borders of the new state; these military laws did not apply to Jewish Israelis. The approximately 10,000 Palestinian Bedouin who managed to remain in the Naqab were systematically rounded up and forcibly transferred and confined to the so-called siyaj (fenced) area located in the north-east corner of the Naqab, just south of the West Bank, in a triangle marked by the towns of Beersheba, Arad and Dimona.6
Israel conditioned the granting of citizenship (under the 1952 Citizenship Law) to Palestinian Bedouin in the Naqab upon registration with one of the 18 tribes recognized by the state. Israeli military and civil authorities communicated with the Bedouin population only via the sheikhs or heads of these tribes who served as intermediaries.7 Under military rule, no Palestinian was allowed to leave or enter their towns and villages without military permits.
In 1965, Israel passed the Planning and Building Law 5275-1965 which sets out, in minute detail, the authorities of various official bodies responsible for planning and implementation under the law, as well as a country-wide master plan including maps of all existing communities and zones for residential, industrial and agricultural development, road and electricity networks, archaeological and antiquity sites, forecasts of population trends, settlement needs, etc. A key element of the 1965 Planning and Building Law is that it was designed to obstruct the development of the indigenous Palestinian population in Israel and discriminating against it in the provision of public services and resource allocation.8
Although most Palestinian communities within the green line in 1965 had existed long before the establishment of Israel, many Palestinian villages in the Galilee, and at least 50 Bedouin communities in the Naqab, were not included in the 1965 Planning and Building Law. Not part of the national master plan, they became "unrecognized" or illegal under the law.
Since 1965 when the law was passed, unrecognized villages do not appear on state maps; they receive no water, electricity, sewage, waste collection, or any municipal services; no roads are built to service the villages, no schools, no community centres, nothing. The denial of electricity is particularly stark given that the vast majority of these villages have high-tension electricity cables running above them. One of the main electric-power-generation plants that service the Bir Saba' area sits right in the middle of Wadi al-Na'am, an unrecognised village with no electricity. In addition, since Israel considers the villages illegal, homes are subject to demolition at any time, as are any and all structures from tents to water tanks to cattle pens, a constant fear and reality for over 75,000 Palestinian Bedouin citizens of the state of Israel who live in these villages in the Naqab, including the village of Twail Abu-Jirwal.9
Although the period of military rule witnessed massive displacement of Palestinian Bedouin and the confiscation of their lands, the north-east of the Naqab remained an area with a very high Palestinian population density. The next step was to squeeze as many Palestinian Bedouin as possible into the smallest portion of land within the "fenced area."
Beginning in 1968, the Israeli government "recognized" seven Palestinian villages, referred to as concentration townships. Tel Sheva, Rahat, Arara, Kseiffa, Segev Shalom, Houra, and Laqiyya are the poorest recognised communities in Israel, a stark contrast to the nearby Jewish-Israeli settlements, many of which boast some of the highest socio-economic indicators in the country. The clear purpose of the concentration townships, as obvious in their designation, is to concentrate the Palestinian Bedouin in ghettoised urban spaces, severing them from their pastoral and nomadic way of life and transforming them into exploitable workers for the various Jewish-owned industries in the Naqab.
Whereas the tactics used by Israeli authorities have varied, the main purpose of Israeli policy in the Naqab since the mid-1970s has been one of forcibly displacing the Palestinian Bedouin from the unrecognised villages into the concentration townships. For instance, schools were only built in the concentration townships, and Israel passed mandatory education laws which meant that parents in the unrecognised villages faced a difficult choice: make their children go by foot to schools that were many kilometres away, move to the nearby township, or face punishment under the mandatory education laws.10
During the late 1970s, Ariel Sharon was the Israeli minister of agriculture and established military units called the Green Patrols that were accountable to his ministry.11 The main task of these patrols was to harass the Palestinian Bedouin of the unrecognised villages, often damaging their property. Black goats, perhaps the most important Bedouin livestock, were deemed a danger to the environment by Israeli legislation; and "stray" goats were confiscated by the Israeli authorities. Green Patrols would descend on Palestinian shepherds making as much noise as possible with their jeeps and weapons in order to scare the goats and make them run in every direction. The following hours would be a race in which the shepherd and his family would run to collect as many of the mortified "stray" goats as possible before the Green Patrol units reached them.12
Until today, Israeli policies governing livestock herders are starkly discriminatory against Palestinian shepherds at every level of implementation. Shepherds require licenses to raise livestock, and Israeli authorities only allow a limited number of licenses to be issued; no new licenses are issued, nor are any licenses for the raising of camels, a creature on which Bedouin throughout the Arab world depend heavily for their livelihood. In years of drought, Palestinian shepherds must transport their herds north to pasture, this transportation requires licensing which is very difficult to obtain, as is the permission to graze their cattle on land which they often have to rent from the Jewish National Fund.13
Since the 1980s, Israeli authorities have also targeted the Palestinian agricultural crops in the Naqab as a means of triggering forced displacement to the townships. Green Patrols, and other agents of the state, would use bulldozers and other machinery to physically destroy Palestinian crops, ruining the livelihood of the owners. During the years 2002 to 2004, agents of the Israeli Lands Authority began using a new method: fumigating the crops from the air using the poisonous herbicide "Roundup." During these years, more than 30,000 dunums of Bedouin-cultivated land were destroyed in this way, and the poisonous chemicals used also resulted in the death of hundreds of animals, miscarriages among pregnant Palestinian women, and a sharp increase in the rates of certain diseases among Palestinians who inhaled the chemical or ate from the fumigated crops.14 This practice was discontinued only after Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli human rights organisations won a fierce legal battle obtaining a court-ordered cessation of the fumigations.
The clearest method through which Israeli authorities have displaced Palestinian Bedouin from the unrecognised villages is house demolition. At 5 a.m. on 15 December 2008 (while this article was being written), more than 200 police and a number of Green Patrol units descended upon the Bedouin encampment of Abdallah al-Atrash, near the Rahat township. Over the following 6 hours, they proceeded to demolish the entire village and forcibly expel all 20 families living there. Not a single structure was left standing, and all men, women, and children were pushed off their land.15 The residents of this village had been living in the same location for close to 20 years, after having been expelled from their previous homes farther to the west.
Perhaps the only Palestinian village where the inhabitants have requested to be relocated, Wadi al-Na'am is one of the most miserable places in Palestine. The 5,000 or so Palestinian residents of the village were displaced from the western part of the Naqab in the early 1950s where Israel has banned them from returning. In addition to the problems of ongoing home demolition, lack of water, electricity, etc.. that the residents of other unrecognized villages face, a major power generation plant sits in the middle of the village, while to the south east lies the Ramat Hovav industrial zone specializing in chemical production. The winds from the industrial zone carry with them dangerous emissions that have resulted in extremely high rates of cancer, respiratory disease, skin disease, infertility, and miscarriages. Israeli authorities have severely hindered efforts to staff and supply a clinic in the village.
1994 witnessed a major mobilization of Palestinian Bedouin to reclaim some of the land from which they were displaced in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Overnight, over five-hundred tents were set up in Bir Haddaj, a village south west of the fence area. The action took place at a unique political moment in which a Palestinian party held the balance of votes in the Knesset, and through some maneuvering managed to stop the forced removal of the Bir Haddaj reclaimers.16 This event brought the issue of Palestinians of the Naqab back on the agenda, with Israeli authorities responding, as before, that the Bedouin had no real leadership or representatives with whom Israeli authorities could negotiate.
In 1997, a group of Palestinian activists from the Naqab began to work to build the capacities of their community, in part as a response to the claim that Palestinian Bedouin lacked representatives. They worked to form their own municipal body to provide the basic services provided elsewhere by municipal councils. The process involved the establishment of local elected committees that voted for representatives of all the unrecognized villages in what is now known as the Regional Council of the Unrecognized Villages of the Naqab (RCUV). In its first three years of work, the RCUV found that municipal services required major resources, and that the main obstacle was indeed political, the fact that Israel's policies and practices severely discriminate against Palestinians.
Since 1995, the RCUV has worked to educate and organize the Palestinians of the Naqab around the issues directly affecting them. These efforts have included 'know your rights campaigns', support with access to electricity generators and water tanks, home rebuilding efforts, and local and international advocacy. In several cases, the RCUV has launched legal challenges in attempts to secure access to health facilities, schools and pastures often with the support of Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and through which they have managed to set up three schools and seven clinics in unrecognized villages. Some of the Council's work has built on the direct-action experience of Bir Haddaj; in 2006 the Israeli authorities banned the grazing of cattle in Um Khashram, an extremely important grazing area north west of the fence area. In a spectacular coordinated action, over 200,000 heads of cattle were transported to Um Khashram as an act of defiance and protest.17 While the Israeli government managed to clamp down on the herders, it is this spirit of defiance and will to implement their rights that is growing among the Palestinians of the Naqab.
The Israeli government has made several attempts to settle Bedouin land claims, but never on the bases of actual restitution to the rightful owners of the land. The recent Goldberg Commission Report is only the latest of these attempts to settle land claims by creating a few more concentration townships, giving more time, and providing a little more space on which to segregate the Palestinians of the Naqab. Despite the intensity and violence of these displacement-inducing policies and practices, only half of the 150,000 Palestinian Bedouin remaining in the Naqab live in concentration townships, clear evidence that in the face of ongoing Israeli efforts to displace Palestinians and take control of their land will always stand the ongoing steadfastness of the Palestinian Bedouin of the Naqab.