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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 13:51 GMT
Land struggle of Israel's Bedouin
Jon Leyne
By Jon Leyne
Negev desert, Israel

Bedouin singers

On the drive out of the modern Israeli city of Beer Sheva, the tin shacks scar the landscape. It is a shanty town as poor and depressing as anywhere in the world.

These are the homes of the proud Bedouin Arabs. Once the citizens of the desert, the Bedouin of southern Israel are now the poorest and unhealthiest citizens of the state of Israel.

Take the "village" of Wadi Nam. Technically it does not exist; it is unrecognised by the government and appears on no maps. The thousands of Bedouin clustered here have no proper water supply and no sewage system.

The homes have no electricity despite the fact that there is a massive power plant in the middle of the village, and high tension cables hum overhead. There is a chemical waste plant on the edge of the village. A foul smell hangs in the air.


There are around 150,000 Bedouin in the Negev, close to the city of Beer Sheva. Some of the villages claim to have been here for generations. Others sprung up when Israel moved the Bedouin in the 1950s from their ancestral lands they used to cultivate and use to graze their animals.

Khalil al-Amur
Khalil al-Amur fears his house will be removed
Khalil al-Amur says his family has lived in the village of As-Sira since before the foundation of the state of Israel. Last year the whole village received notices of demolition. The authorities say all the homes are illegal, built without permission.

Khalil says they are caught in a Catch 22 - with nowhere to go for permits. "I could come home and not find my house, " he explained. "My children are very, very terrified and uncertain, asking - are they really coming, when are they coming."

The Israeli housing minister, Meir Shitreet, is unapologetic. "The fact is that this land does not belong to them, so they have no license to build on it," he argued.

"We are suggesting a very fair solution to each and every one of them. Every one of them can get land, legally, with all the infrastructure legally to build their home. If they want their children to be educated, to grow up in the right environment, with all the culture and services, they cannot live in the desert. "


Many of the Bedouin have moved, with government encouragement, to several of these new "townships".

They are notorious, crime-ridden slums, partly because of bad planning, partly because these formerly nomadic people have not taken easily to urban life. Many Bedouin prefer to stay in their villages, however poorly provided for. And even in the new townships it is extremely difficult to get permission to build.

The policy of Israel in the Negev and in other areas of the country is to 'Judaise' the land.
Prof Yanni Nevo, Ben Gurion University
The Israeli policy seems confused. Nevertheless, Prof Yanni Nevo of Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva detects a theme:

"The policy of Israel in the Negev and in other areas of the country is to 'Judaise' the land, " he said. "It does not mean that others will not exist here at all. It means Jewish settlements are favoured. In the Negev they have established seven townships, not to the liking of the population, against the cultural heritage of the population, and they have tried to concentrate as many Bedouin in those townships in order to vacate as much land as possible for mostly Jewish uses."

In its most extreme form, the Israeli policy denies there were any Bedouin here before the State of Israel was established. More usually, Israel resorts to a narrow legalism, the government arguing that the Bedouin have no rights to the land because they cannot produce the necessary documentation.

Inevitably there is conflict. Sitting in the middle of the bedouin villages and townships is the wealthy Israeli town of Omer. A private security firm patrols, protecting against what the citizens of the town say is a mini- crime wave, emanating from the bedouin village next door.


Bedouin children
Bedouin children make the long walk to school
The mayor of Omer, Pini Badash, says the Bedouin are out of control, building illegally, and raising families of up to forty children: "They drive without registration, driving stolen cars; they don't stop at red lights. This chaos must stop. The bedouin economy - it's a black economy. The system considers them poor, but really they are driving Mercedes, Jeeps, luxury cars."

The problem, for those who share the same outlook as Pini Badash, is that the Israeli government is not prepared to be ruthless enough. Officially, there are thousands of illegal Bedouin homes.

But the government does not have the stomach for the sort of mass demolitions, and movement of people, that would dramatically change the situation.

So there is a stalemate. The Bedouin, poor, living on the edge. The Israeli authorities unwilling to give them the sort of official recognition they crave.

"They have to find a new way to treat the Bedouin if they want to live in peace with these people," argued Khalil al-Amur. "These people are existing here and living here before the existence and establishment of the state. The people here are indigenous people."

It is, perhaps the fundamental issue facing Israel. How can this modern society make its peace with the people who have lived here since before there was a Jewish state.

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