Crazy Country, by Adam Keller
The media usually weren't interested. "So the Bedouins are
demonstrating again? Against the Prawer Law? You mean this law of
Minister Begin? And also Jews will demonstrate with them? A few
leftists perhaps. How do you call this village where they demonstrate?
I never heard of such a place. An unrecognized village? Well then, who
can recognize it. Twenty kilometers from Beershebah? I see. Tomorrow
evening at seven? Well, we'll see if we have somebody free. Say, why
are the Bedouins crying so much, anyway? The government wants to give
them modern houses, what's wrong with that. What do you say? They are
going to be expelled from their lands? Tens of thousands? But Bedouins
are nomads. Nomads don't have lands. What do you say? Bedouins aren't
nomads? But everybody knows Bedouins are nomads. No matter, say, is
there going to be something hot in this demonstration? Some clash,
something sexy? What? You are not planning to clash with the police? No
action? Well, I will see whether we have somebody free in the South at
that time. Bye."
Saturday, December 7, 2013
And then came the Bedouin Day of Rage
On lucky occasions, a photo did make it into the back-pages: a sheikh
in traditional clothing, and behind him young Bedouins in jeans
together with students from Tel-Aviv University holding signs "Prawer
will not pass!" in Hebrew and Arabic. But it quite often happened that
a demonstration - even a big one - took place without the Israeli
public knowing about it even by a hint.
Politicians and commentators were heard saying that this was a good law
which would greatly benefit the Bedouins and what a pity it was that
the ingrates did not grasp this. There were also who said that the law
would give the Bedouins far more than they deserved, that indeed they
deserved nothing at all, since the Bedouins “are taking
over State Lands and building on them illegally " and “constitute
a demographic threat" and “organized crime is rampant among them
" and so on and so on. " State Lands" was the term commonly used, which
is their status under Israeli law.
The Bedouins tried their best to reiterate that they had lived in the
Negev centuries before Israel dreamed of being born, that land
ownership by every tribe and every family within each tribe had been
determined by Bedouin Tribal Law and has been recognized by the many
changing rulers who had power in this country. For example, Ottoman
Sultan Abdul Hamid II had not always been a paragon of enlightenment in
his conduct, but when he decided to build the town of Beersheba in the
middle of the desert he made sure to buy the land from its Bedouin
owners at full price. When the land came under British rule, Colonial
Secretary Winston Churchill came to Jerusalem in March 1921, where he
met with a delegation of Bedouin sheikhs and assured them that the
tribes’ ownership over their lands would be respected and that
land ownership cases in the Negev would be adjudicated according to
Bedouin Tribal law - a promise which was honored until the day when the
last British High Commissioner sailed away. Also the Zionist movement
at the time, when seeking to set up Kibbutzim in the Negev, saw no
problem in approaching Bedouin land owners, paying for the land
and signing with them deeds of sale.
Only when the Negev became part of the newly founded Israel was the
legal situation changed and with a stroke of the pen all Bedouin lands
became State Lands, a property of the Government of Israel earmarked
for the settlement of Jews. Overnight, the Bedouins became "intruders"
and "squatters" in their own ancestral lands, and many of them were
expelled in the early 1950’s. Some were transferred by force
beyond the borders, and those who remained inside Israel were
concentrated in a small area called "The Sayyag”. It is from this
small remnant that the "Prawer Law " would expel them.
The facts of this history had been written down by Bedouins with a
university education and by several Human Rights organizations.
This was published in articles and brochures and internet websites as
well as in several thick tomes, full of documents and photos. But all
this stuff reached mainly those who were convinced already. Most
citizens of Israel neither knew nor cared.
The Prawer Law’s public relations were greatly helped by
its being identified with former minister Benny Begin, a man with
a reputation for honesty and integrity who was considered a Liberal by
Likud Party standards – which led other Likudniks, who have no
fondness for Liberals, to terminate Begin’s career early this
year. The “Regulation of Negev Bedouin Settlement Act", to
cite its official name, was Begin’s swan song. He gave repeated
assurances that his bill was drafted in consultation with
Bedouins; that it was designed to help them and improve their
conditions and to give their children better opportunities in life. It
is quite possible that Begin himself honestly believed so.
But Human Rights activists have examined the text of the bill presented
to the Knesset and found that, as in many cases, "the devil is in the
details." When the details were looked into, it emerged that the bill
which Begin introduced in the cabinet and the Knesset was virtually
identical with that proposed a year earlier by Ehud Prawer, former
military officer and a senior official of the Prime Minister’s
The bill states that any Bedouin may file a request for a piece of land
to be registered in his name and that "whenever possible" this would be
the land on which he is living at present. But what will determine
whether this is "possible" or "impossible"? The bill does not say. And
where will those who are moved get alternative land? Would it be in one
of the Bedouin townships, very densely populated and poverty stricken,
where the State of Israel already concentrated tens of thousands of
Bedouins in the seventies? On this, too, the bill remains silent.
What does appear very explicitly is the penal clause: a Bedouin
dissatisfied with the deal offered him could not challenge it in court
- and if insisting on remaining at his current location, he would be
evicted by force and might be liable to as much as two years’
imprisonment. At the cabinet meeting where the bill was adopted as an
official policy of the Government of Israel, the estimate was made that
implementation of the law would necessitate the recruiting of
several hundred new police officers. By now, even without the law being
finally adopted, the officers have already been recruited and a new
police unit, called "Yoav " has already started operations in the
Negev Bedouin villages.
How many of the thirty-five “Unrecognzied Villages”, which
have existed for many years though denied links to water and
electricity, are condemned by the Prawer Law to be demolished and razed
to the ground? No one knows. How many residents would be expelled? No
one knows this, either. The figure of thirty to forty thousand,
mentioned in various demonstrations and protests, is only a reasonable
estimate. To be more precise, somebody – or a few select
somebodies – might know. Already for some time, journalists with
good sources in the corridors of power tell of a map depicting exactly
what the consequences of the Prawer Law would be on the ground, which
villages would be destroyed and which would survive. But this map, if
it exists, is kept a closely guarded secret, as if it were a top secret
military document. Certainly no one had presented it to the Knesset
Members who are expected to vote on this bill.
By the way, it might be that the similarity to military secrecy is not
completely coincidental, considering that most of the government
officials involved in the issue have an extensive military past. In
charge of the implementing the Bedouin Resettlement Project is none
other than Major General ( Ret.) Doron Almog – the same Doron
Almog who in 2005 fled in haste from Heathrow Airport in London when
being told that a British arrest warrant had been issued against
him on suspicion of war crimes, because of his involvement in the
destruction of fifty Palestinian houses in the Gaza Strip .
The Bedouins have very many good reasons for protesting and crying out
with all their might against this bill, but until this week their cry
did not really reach the ears of the general public. Out of Israel, it
got a bit little more of an echo. In many places there were
protest demonstrations at Israeli embassies and institutions (including
some by young American Jews ). Quite a lot of people went into YouTube
to view “Fiddler Without a Roof”, the video produced by "
Rabbis for Human Rights and featuring Theodore Bikel , well known for
portraying Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof”. " A
comparison is drawn between the expulsion of the Jews from the shtetl
of Anatebka in Czarist Russia - with which the musical ends - and the
expected expulsion of the Negev Bedouin, touching many sensitive
Also the European Parliament held a special session on the Prawer Law
and its implications. This did get covered in the Israeli media, mainly
in a tone of exasperation at the European interference in internal
Israeli affairs and broad hints that this was due to anti-semitism.
The Prawer Law rolled forward through the Israeli legislative system
– approved in its First Reading after a tense and heated debate
and going on to the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee – towards
final approval and entry into the statute books of the State of Israel
and implementation on the ground by the hundreds of police officers who
were already been recruited. But then the government of Binyamin
Netanyahu went one provocation too far. A few weeks ago the ministers
went southwards to the Negev and held a special cabinet meeting at
Kibbutz Sde Boker, where Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben
Gurion lived in his last years and where he is buried. So as to
celebrate Ben Gurion’s heritage, a special “Facing towards
the Negev” governmental program was adopted. Its centerpiece
would be the demolition and complete razing of the Bedouin village of
Umm Al Hiran and the creation on its site of a a Jewish community
called - how original – Hiran. A kind of appetizer towards the
main course to be served once the Prawer Law is enacted by the Knesset.
The intended new residents of Jewish-Hiran-to-be have already been
selected and are getting ready to move in. Interestingly, they are
religious-nationalists, mostly young settlers who will be coming
directly from settlements on the West Bank. "The Negev is
Eretz-Yisrael, too, and it is incumbent on Jews to settle there." said
their leader on the radio. " I don’t understand all this
fuss. When we went into Judea and Samaria, Peace Now called upon
us to go down to the Negev instead. Now we are really going there. Has
that become forbidden, too?" Yes, mister settler, also within the Green
Line stealing somebody else’s property is a morally unacceptable
The Umm al-Hiran affair was the spark which set off the
“Bedouin Day of Rage", on November 30, 2013 – a date which
might well go down in the history of the Bedouins in Israel, and not
only theirs. There was a major demonstration of Bedouins and their
supporters at the Bedouin town of Hura in the Negev, as well as
solidarity protests in Haifa and Jaffa and Taybeh and the
Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. And the media editors were
certainly not disappointed this time. These demonstrations were very
hot indeed, with a lot of "action " .
"A policeman grabbed a girl by the throat, right near me. When I tried
to convince him to leave her alone, he hit me in the leg with his
club” wrote veteran activist Alma Biblash a few hours after
returning from Hura. "Another officer grabbed me by the arms and
dragged me away. A moment later the second policeman grabbed a little
boy standing next to me, and stuck his face hard into the ground,
screaming and threatening to kill him . A young woman called out
“Relax, stop beating everybody!”. He slapped her hard in
the face and she fell. They started spraying the crowd with a strong
stream of stinking water, and I run and run to get away from this
horrible smell. A man ran near me. Suddenly the mounted police came,
throwing him up into the air. I hid behind a parked car with stun
grenades exploding all around. At a quiet moment I decided to go back
again towards the buses. On the way I saw a crying child on the floor,
I told him it was dangerous to sit there like this, but he did not hear
me or maybe did not understand Hebrew . Finally he got up and ran with
me. Suddenly somebody called him, he recognized the voice, snatched
away his hand and run off. Finally I got back on the bus, more or less
a safe place. One friend came in with a swollen face, another with a
deep gash in her back, blood on her face and her shirt. Some who were
at the demonstration did not return, they were left in police
detention. Some had been taken off to detention in ambulances . "
The next day, the Bedouin made the headlines in every newspaper in
Israel. "Riot, Disturbances, Clashes". "Bedouins take to the streets."
"Bedouins burst out in furious demonstrations." "Bedouins rioted and
rampaged." "Violence in the Negev." "Bedouins threw stones at police
officers". " Brutal police violence against Bedouins, children and
youths dragged on the pavement". “The Negev is exploding".
“Is The Third Intifada starting - in the Negev?". The angles of
coverage were different and contradictory, but certainly a few hours of
clashes in front of clicking cameras did what a year of peaceful
protests never did. The Bedouins and their problem with the Prawer Law
got to the top of the public agenda .
"This was only a minority of radical law-breaker, the Bedouin silent
majority supports the government’s plan. We will not yield to
violence" declared PM Netanyahu. Also President Peres declared his
support for going on with the legislation as “the best available
solution”. But precisely Netanyahu’s partners on the far
right seem to have a different opinion. "Bennett and Lieberman agreed
to torpedo the Bedouin Law " announced a banner headline in
Ma’ariv”. As the reporter noted, there is only a narrow
margin in the Knesset separating the left-wing which opposes the Prawer
Law and the government supporters. If it will also be opposed by two
major right wing parties, Naftali Bennet’s “Jewish
Home” and Avigdor Liebarman’s “Israel is Our
Home”, it would be a death blow to the Prawer law. "This law was
a personal project of Benny Begin. Begin assured us that the Bedouins
will support it. Now we see the Bedouins are violently resisting it, so
why should we support it? Why should we give them anything at all? We
will teach the Bedouins a lesson, torpedo this law and then go on
to defend the lands of the Jewish Nation, with no concessions. No holds
barred" said KM Robert Iltov, Lieberman's representative .
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a veteran Human Rights activist, compared the
“punishing" of the Bedouins by torpedoing the Prawer Law
with the story of the mischievous "Br’er Rabbit" in Black
American folklore, who tricked his enemies bent upon punishing him and
made them throw him into the thicket of thorns which was his home.
And seriously - with or without the Prawer Law , the struggle for the rights of the Negev Bedouins has just began.
Stop the Begin-Prawer Law -
Demonstration in Tel - Aviv
Today , Saturday , December 7, 2013 at 19:00
Ben-Zion Boulevard corner King George
No to the Begin-Prawer Plan!
No to displacement of 40,000 Bedouin from their homes!
No to the destruction of dozens of villages!
Yes to the alternative zoning plan formulated by the Bedouin community!!!
Stand with the Bedouin Community! Come and be counted!
(signed) The Recognition Forum