In Search of a Bedouin Intifada
By: Mya Guarnieri
Published Friday, February 17, 2012
Recent years have seen Israel escalate its campaign to push Palestinians and Bedouin out of their homes. According to the UN, nearly 1100 Palestinians and Bedouin were displaced by Israeli house demolitions in 2011 – approximately 80 percent more than 2010.
So where is the Bedouin Intifada?
The Israeli state continues to Judaize the Negev (Naqab) desert. This “development” includes last year’s Prawer plan. The plan recommends that Israel relocate between 30,000-40,000 Bedouin citizens, ripping them away from their villages and relocating them in impoverished townships to clear the area for Jewish-only settlements.
After the Israeli Cabinet passed the Prawer plan in September 2011, Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel likened it to “a declaration of war.”
Al Arakib could be considered an opening battle. The state first demolished the unrecognized village in July 2010 – destroying homes and tearing olive trees from the ground to make way for a forest to be planted by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF). After the Bedouin residents of Al Arakib rebuilt their village, Israeli forces returned and destroyed it again. Since then, Al Arakib has been demolished and rebuilt over 30 times.
Israel’s policies are just as inhumane on the other side of the Green Line, where the so-called “Civil Administration” is seeking to remove 27,000 Bedouin from Area C in order to expand illegal Israeli settlements. The Civil Administration’s plans will be carried out over the next three to six years. Many of the Bedouin who will be affected are refugees whose families were forced out of the Negev during the Nakba or, later, in the early 1950s.
The United Nations reports that Israeli forces demolished 44 Palestinian-owned buildings in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in January, including 14 houses. Sixty-six people were displaced, 40 of whom were Bedouin.
In 2004, the Israeli daily Haaretz called a Bedouin uprising “practically inevitable.” Lurching from one alarmist quote to the next, the article labeled the Bedouin a “ticking bomb,” a “keg of dynamite,” depicting them not as native inhabitants but as criminals who have taken over the Negev.
Amidst the hysteria came a fetishizing remark from Reuven Gal, then-Deputy National Security Advisor for Domestic Policy, who commented that, to the Bedouin, “honor is more precious than money.”
The writer concluded, ominously, “Every plan to develop the Negev is likely to face violent opposition because of the Bedouin who live in the area.”
The article drips with racism and colonialism – Israeli plans to displace the Bedouin constitute “development.” Not only are the Bedouin sure to oppose such “progress,” they are likely to be “violent.” And then there are the Orientalist depictions of the Bedouin as reactionary, volatile beings unable to control their impulses, especially when “honor” is at stake.
But it would be wrong to blame the writer and his interviewees alone.
In his book Good Arabs, Hillel Cohen describes an incident that took place in 1950, when the Israeli army’s chief of staff visited a Bedouin tribe with a reporter in tow. The journalist recounted a “royal meal,” eaten against the backdrop of “the echoes of gunshots” and “riders’ galloping.” The evening climaxed with a ceremonial “presentation of the sword of the desert.”
Cohen explains that the reporter’s depiction “fit well with that period’s common portrayal of the Bedouin as hospitable noble savages...”
An Orientalist view of the Bedouin is deeply rooted in Israeli society and, as the 2004 Haaretz article suggests, persists. So feverish proclamations about a Bedouin Intifada should be taken with a camel-sized grain of salt.
We should also consider the motives behind such “warnings.” As, Jaber Abu Kaf, a representative of the Regional Council for Unrecognized Bedouin Villages told Haaretz in 2004, claims of an imminent Bedouin Intifada “are baseless and are intended to promote a political agenda.” That is, frightening the public so the state will be free to do what it wishes with these potentially “violent” people, this “imminent” security threat.
But, for argument’s sake, let’s say that the Bedouin would like to revolt, violently, against Israel’s discrimination.
Let’s set aside the quiet acts of resistance, the small silent intifada already taking place. This includes rebuilding demolished homes, the day-long general strike held in December of 2011, and the massive protest outside the Prime Minister’s office on the same December day.
And let’s set aside individual agency and pretend the Bedouin can only react collectively to Israeli policies. So why hasn’t that “ticking bomb” exploded?
The answer lies, in part, in the state’s founding. Before Israel was established in 1948, about 91,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev. After the war, only 12 percent of the original population remained. Many of the Bedouin facing forced transfer from the West Bank today are refugees whose families fled or were driven from the Negev during the Nakba.
Shattered and scattered, the Bedouin were subject to additional Israeli efforts to divide and rule. A number of those who had managed to hang on to their land in the Negev were pushed off of it. In some cases, the state appointed local village chiefs, or mukhtars, pitting families against one another, and putting weak leaders, or those who would serve Israeli interests, at the head of villages.
Israeli authorities also sowed seeds of disunity by actively encouraging – and rewarding – collaboration. That some took the bait undermines the Orientalist assertion that the Bedouin necessarily value honor more than money.
Israel has also fomented poverty in the Bedouin community. In the 1970s, the state built seven townships for the Negev Bedouin that are home today to approximately 80,000 Bedouin. These ghettos have the country’s highest unemployment and school dropout rates as well as the social problems that accompany poverty and hopelessness, including rampant drug abuse.
Those that remained in the desert have not had it much easier. Despite the fact that many Bedouin live in villages that predate the state itself, Israel does not recognize most of these communities. About 80,000 Bedouin live in the unrecognized villages that lack infrastructure and high schools. Rawia Aburabia, an attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), calls the status of Bedouin education, “catastrophic,” pointing to a drop-out rate that tops 40 percent.
There is also the contentious issue of military service. Some Bedouin tribes serve in the Israeli army but many do not. This creates tension within the community and serves as yet another obstacle to the unity needed for a successful uprising.
Palestine’s Bedouin are divided between Israel and the surrounding countries, split between those who serve in the Israeli army and those who don’t. They are struggling to survive, lack leadership, and do not have a cohesive national strategy, making an organized and sustainable uprising unlikely.
The international community, then, has a responsibility to stop the home demolitions and forced transfers that Palestinians and Bedouin face in the West Bank and inside Israel.
Advocating for outside intervention runs the risk of sounding patronizing, at best, colonial, at worst. That’s the beauty of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. The call for BDS comes from Palestinian civil society and is self-empowering. And, because Israel’s policies affect both Palestinians who live under occupation as well as those who are citizens of the state, the BDS movement advocates for both groups. The occupation must end, the refugees’ right of return must be respected, and citizens must have equal rights.
While some Palestinians don’t consider the Bedouin to be Palestinian – and many Bedouin don’t consider themselves Palestinian either – BDS is an appropriate response to Israel’s treatment of the Bedouin. Many are refugees. Bedouin struggle and suffer under the occupation and those inside the Green Line face discrimination and forced relocation. Both the Bedouin and Palestinian communities share common hopes for human and civil rights. They endeavor to return to their homeland and to live in freedom, justice, and dignity.