El Araqib and the struggle of the Negev Bedouin

The Southern District which includes the Negev desert is the largest district of Israel. In UN partition plan of 1947 it was awarded to the Jewish State although at the time Jews were only 1% of its 100,000 population. The Bedouin are the indigenous people of the Negev and are semi nomadic, by 1948 most lived in villages from which they move their flocks between winter and summer grazing grounds.

In the 1950's the Bedouin were forcibly moved into a triangle between Beersheva, Arad and Dimona which is only 2% of the area of the Negev, requiring many of them to establish new villages. From the 1970's Israeli government policy has been to move the Bedouin into seven new towns, planned without regard to the needs or traditional way of life of the inhabitants. These towns lack basic infrastructure, including transportation, schools and employment opportunities, and are afflicted with numerous social problems. About half of the Negev Bedouin live in the seven government planned towns.

The remainder of the Bedouin, comprising 90,000 people, live in 45 "unrecognised villages". Unrecognised villages are not supplied with water, electricity, sewage services or garbage removal. There are no schools, health clinics or tarred roads connecting the villages with Israel's road network. Many of these villages, including El Araqib, predate the State of Israel, but Israeli planning laws for the region ignore their existence and define them as being in areas where all residential construction is illegal. The same laws deny villagers their right to land which they have lived on and worked for decades.

The villagers are thus placed in the situation that they cannot legally obtain any building permits, and the homes in which they were born are considered illegal by the state. These homes are perpetually under the threat of demolition and of incurring fines. Administrative demolition, under the planning and building law of 1965, requires no judicial review, bulldozers can arrive and simply destroy property and livelihood.

The Bedouin are being forcibly urbanised in order to free up the most fertile areas of the Negev in which the state continues to establish new Jewish agricultural settlements. More than one hundred Jewish settlements exist today in the Be'er Sheva district, and the Jewish National Fund aims to settle another 250,000 Jews in the Negev by 2015.

The Goldberg Commission which reported in 2008 recommended that the unrecognized villages of the Bedouin should be granted recognition and there should be recognition of Bedouin rights to land ownership because of their historic links to the land. Its underlying principle was that the Bedouin should be treated as any other Israeli citizen.

This has been rejected by the Israeli government which voted in September 2011 to adopt an alternative plan drawn up by a committee under Ehud Prawer, Director of Planning Policy in PM Netanyahu's office. This requires 35 of the unrecognised Bedouin villages to be demolished and 30,000 inhabitants relocated to the government townships. They will be compensated for only half the value of their land.

The centre of the struggle for Bedouin land rights is the village of El Araqib, which has been demolished 28 times to make way for a JNF forest, but whose villagers refuse to leave. The bulldozers have destroyed not only the houses, leaving 300 people homeless, but also the water tanks, and uprooted olive trees and grape vines to make way for the forest. The villagers are fighting a battle through the courts to have their land rights recognised, which will be an important test case.

Dr. Awad Abu Freih is the spokesmen for the village. A new umbrella organization called "Recognition Now" has been formed to fight for Bedouin land and civil rights in the Negev and coordinate between the various human rights groups and activists working on these issues, in Israel and internationally. Dr Abu Freih acts as the coordinator of this campaign.

In an interview with Electronic Intifada Dr Abu Freih notes that Bedouin citizens are only offered the option of urbanization — while Jewish citizens can live in many different types of communities. "We feel that this plan will make it very obvious that there [are] two peoples in the Negev. The Jews have recognized villages and they have agricultural villages and kibbutzim, [but the state wants to] take the Bedouin and concentrate them in very, very small cities, closed cities, very poor cities. When they destroy our village, they will put Jews in the same place and they will have water, education and everything. This is apartheid."