Bedouin: Israeli Citizens, Not Illegal Squatters

Less than 10 miles east of Beersheva sits the "unrecognized" Israeli Bedouin village of Khashem Zaneh. When I last visited, Atia Atameen, a community leader, welcomed me into his home. Over tea Atia regaled me with stories about his village's history.

Atia told me that Khashem Zaneh dates its roots at this location back hundreds of years, to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Approximately 2,300 men, women and children currently live there. Its residents rely mostly on subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry. Like dozens of other Bedouin villages in the Negev region, Khashem Zaneh lacks paved roads, water, sanitation, electricity, garbage collection, schools or health clinics. The government does not recognize this village -- despite its hundreds of years of history -- and so does not provide basic municipal services.

Tens of thousands of Israeli Bedouin citizens like Atia Atameen have been labeled as illegal squatters by several recent articles in the Jewish press. Hard-line politicians like Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein and right-wing activist organizations like Regavim have issued inflammatory statements laced with revisionist history suggesting that the Bedouin are lawless intruders with no historical claim to land in the Negev.

The current official Israeli government policy about Bedouin settlements in Negev, known as the Prawer Plan, could lead to the displacement of 30,000-40,000 people like Atia. Approximately 25 of the 35 remaining unrecognized Bedouin villages of the Negev are under threat of demolition with partial to no government compensation.

These Bedouin communities are not illegal squatters. Rather, their situation is a result of a long history of discriminatory and repressive government policies.

After the War of Independence in 1948, Israel did not recognize the Bedouin traditional system of communal and individual land ownership. The new government used martial law to force the Bedouin who remained in the Negev to live within an arid area between Beersheva, Arad, Dimona and Yeruham known as the Siyag (Hebrew for the "Fence") and confiscated most Bedouin land outside of this area as state land. Under the 1965 Planning and Building Law, all land within the Siyag became zoned exclusively for agricultural, industrial or military purposes, making every existing and future Bedouin structures illegal within the region where the government confined them.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Israeli policy focused on further condensing the Bedouin population into seven urban townships created by the government. Those who remained in the unrecognized villages have been unable to get building permits. All new constructions are under threat of demolition and residents who build face the possibility of hefty government-imposed fines.

The government's Prawer Plan is the latest example of the systematic violation of Bedouin human rights and the denial of basic human needs. The prohibition against discrimination, as in access to land, government allocation of state land and provision of social services, is a central tenet of all international human rights treaties ratified by Israel. And according to the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the body that monitors state parties' compliance to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ratified by Israel in 1991), "instances of forced eviction are prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant."

The Book of Micah makes the following comment about abusing power to seize property: "And they covet fields, and seize them; and [they covet] houses, and take them away; thus they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage." As a nation of people that know all too well what it means to be an oppressed minority, Israel has a moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable within its midst.

Demolishing homes, forcing people off of their land and denying basic government services builds animosity among the Bedouin population toward the state and toward their Jewish neighbors. Making more Bedouin move into impoverished urban slums against their will where there are few economic opportunities will breed crime and further entrenches cycles of poverty.

Joshua Bloom is Director of Israel Programs at Rabbis for Human Rights-North America.