Negev Bedouin face Jewish settlers, destruction of farmland

The estimated 100,000 Bedouin Arabs live in communities that Israel refuses to recognise, Ben Lynfield reports.

Salameh Gwineh, 64, with his children near his home in the village of Qatamat located in the Negev Desert south of Israeli city of Beersheba. The Israeli government has plans to build a Jewish community called Daya but Gwineh says, ‘I want to stay where I live, this is my place.’ Photo by Heidi Levine for The National
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Qatamat, Israel // There is one small light bulb inside the structure of corrugated metal where Salman Maabda receives visitors. It’s powered by his car battery because his home is not connected to the electricity grid.

Nor does he have running water and he must use a tractor pull a water tank along rocky hills with no paved road to resupply his family.

Mr Maabda’s plight is shared by an estimated 100,000 Bedouin Arabs in Israel’s southern Negev desert. The Bedouin live in 34 communities that the state of Israel refuses to recognise because it lays claim to their lands.

But Mr Maabda is soon to get some new neighbours. The Israeli government plans to build a series of Jewish settlements in the area, providing them with electricity, water and paved access to highways.

Last week, it approved plans for five new communities “that will strengthen the [Jewish] settlement in the Negev,” the housing ministry said. One of the planned communities, Daya, is slated to be built on the land where Mr Maabda’s village of Qatamat is located and Israeli rights groups and Bedouin leaders fear Arab residents could be evicted.

Qatamat, east of Beersheba and north of a government built township, Arara of the Negev, is considered a village by the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages, which said it is home to 800 people. But rather than having most of its houses close together, many of its homes are spread out and separated by open terrain.

Mr Maabda, who said his family’s presence in Qatamat dates back to the Ottoman Turkish era that ended in 1917, has two homes, one for each of his two wives. One of the homes has been demolished twice, a common occurrence in unrecognised villages because the Israeli state regards all buildings there as illegal.

He plants wheat on his land every year, but invariably authorities send in a tractor to destroy it on the grounds that he is “invading” state land.

“It is a hard life,” he said. “I recently put in a covering for my sheep pen. I’m waiting for them to come and destroy it. If you fix something up they come and destroy.” Beduin leaders say the destruction is a deliberate effort to force Beduin to vacate their lands.

The government plan is to build Daya close to Highway 80, which is where Salameh Gwineh lives. This 64-year-old father of 11, a former lorry driver who no longer works for health reasons, was already displaced once, in 1984 when an air force base was built on land where he lived and grew wheat and figs.

The government paid compensation to his family and other Bedouin to relocate.

Mr Gwineh, who also is not connected to electricity or water, moved three kilometres to other land owned by a relative. “No one knows where they are going to build, but I can tell you I am certainly worried,” he said, while pouring sweetened tea. “I want to stay where I live. This is my place.”

Israeli housing minister Yoav Gallant, a retired army general, seems to disagree, viewing the new communities to be built as vital for Jewish Israelis to win what he sees as a turf battle with the Bedouin over the Negev. “Building the communities is essential to strengthening our hold in under populated areas that are of national importance,” he posted on Facebook last week.

In response to a question about how the plans will effect Bedouin, the housing ministry said: “The matter of the Bedouin population is an important matter that needs systemic treatment.’’

Bimkom, an Israeli NGO that combats discrimination in planning matters and supports Bedouin rights, said there is actually no planning needed for the five new communities since tens of thousands of apartment units in existing communities have already been approved for the Negev. Moreover, existing Jewish communities of the area are underpopulated and suffering from an exodus of residents leaving because they lack employment opportunities. “From every planning criteria this plan is unnecessary, said Bimkom’s Nili Baruch.

The real motivation for the plan, she said, is “Zionist ideology and the desire to control the sphere through Jewish settlement. In the Zionist ethos, the Negev is the last place to conquer.”

In a sense, that conquest has been underway since the Arab-Israeli war of 1947-49, when the overwhelming majority of the Bedouin population was either expelled or fled to Jordan, Egypt and the Gaza Strip. In subsequent years, those who remained in the Negev and lived between Beersheba and the Israel-Gaza border were forcibly moved into a delimited area known as the Siyaj.

In the 1960s, when Israeli officials devised master plans for the entire country, they did not include the existing Bedouin villages as inhabited areas, making them unrecognised. Some of the villages existed in the Siyaj before Israeli statehood, while others were established by those Bedouin forced from their original villages, some of which became the sites for Jewish communal farms.

Bedouin leaders contrast their being ignored by the government in their efforts to gain recognition and infrastructure for the existing Arab villages with the enthusiasm for establishing the five Jewish communities.

They said that while the government has nominally recognised 12 villages since 2000, in practice they remain without water, electricity and services. “Establishing these Jewish communities is clear discrimination,” said Fadi Masamra, director-general of the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages. “For Jews the government has resources and planning but for the Bedouin no resources, no budget, no planning and no services.”

The Israeli housing ministry did not respond to a request for a comment.

Mr Masamra said that a young person in an unrecognised village watching the sudden construction of a Jewish town “can only ask himself ‘why are they deserving and I am not?’”

“The state is creating antagonism and hostility within Israeli society, it’s making a clash that it won’t be able to control,” he said. “The Bedouin aren’t enemies, they are citizens. Either they are equal like everyone or they are second or third class citizens.”