There is nothing new in the intense interest foreigners take in the Israeli-Arab conflict. But the concentrated flurry of discussion and activism abroad over the government’s so-called Prawer-Begin plan to resettle some of the Bedouin population in the Negev took many Israelis by surprise.
In October, the second-largest bloc in the European Parliament, the Socialists and Democrats group, held a conference on the issue in which posters urged parliamentarians to “Stop Prawer-Begin Plan, no ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Bedouin.”
The idea of the plan — developed in the Prime Minister’s Office Planning Directorate headed by Udi Prawer, and advanced by former cabinet minister Benny Begin — is to move some of the Negev’s Bedouin, Arab Israelis who lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle, off of unrecognized hamlets on state land and into cities.
Last week, 50 British artists, musicians and left-wing activists penned a letter to the Guardian newspaper accusing Israel of planning the “the expulsion and confinement of up to 70,000 Palestinian Bedouins,” and of “systematic discrimination and separation.” They called on the UK government to cut ties with Israel until it showed “respect for human rights and international law.”
Protests were held against the plan in an estimated two-dozen countries.
For Israelis watching the burgeoning international opposition to the program, the surprise stems from the sense here at home that the question of Bedouin settlement is a domestic issue, not part of the Arab-Israeli conflict that reliably draws the passion of foreign activists.
After all, the Bedouin are Israeli citizens. Their sons serve in the IDF.
But it wasn’t the British activists or European parliamentarians who set the tone in framing the Bedouin resettlement debate as part of a generations-long Arab-Jewish war.
Spectacularly excessive rhetoric
Israeli Arab leaders, never ones to miss an opportunity to benefit from populist rabble-rousing, teamed up with the most incendiary of Jewish politicians to transform a carefully crafted development scheme, cultivated over several years by professional planners and economists, into a nationalist tug-of-war.
“This is a transfer plan,” declared Balad MK Jamal Zahalke in a recent Knesset Interior Committee debate that had to be stopped several times as MKs were ushered out for shouting wildly. “It is a colonial scheme!” he added.
Never one, for her part, to miss a chance to shout at an Arab MK, Jewish Home MK Orit Strock screeched her own reply to Zahalke: “The Negev belongs to the people of Israel [i.e., Jews] and we are allowing you to live there!”
Some left-wing advocacy groups have gotten in on the uninformative shouting match as well. Rabbis for Human Rights published earlier this year a video starring Fiddler on the Roof’s Theodor Bikel, who explained to viewers that the Prawer plan is morally identical to one of the great acts of ethnic cleansing in history, the forced expulsion of Jews to the Pale of Settlement by the Russian czar.
In the video, Bikel asks – in the name of the oppressed Jews of Czarist Russia who are his stand-ins for the Bedouin – what will happen if they refuse to leave.
“We know the consequences of refusal…,” Bikel concludes menacingly.
In 19th-century Russia, the consequences were state-sanctioned incitement and widespread killing and rape. The film leaves unstated what the consequences might be in Israel.
One key problem with this spectacularly excessive rhetoric is that for all the noise it generates, it fails to provide actual information to its audience.
For example, one cannot discover from the Rabbis for Human Rights video that almost half of the Bedouin being moved — roughly 15,000 – actually asked to be moved, even appealing to courts to get the state to grant them a new planned town in a separate location because the site where they had encamped was too close to the chemical works of Ramat Hovav, Israel’s main hazardous waste disposal facility.
Similarly, Guardian readers had no way of finding out in the paper’s coverage or the artists’ letter that Israel has already recognized several of the haphazard tent-cities of the Bedouin “dispersion,” but could not keep doing so indefinitely for the simple reason that the Negev Bedouin are the fastest growing population in the world, according to the Israeli government. They double their population every 15 years, and are expected to reach 300,000 by 2020. There simply isn’t any sustainable way to accommodate such a fast-growing population without municipal planning and multi-story housing.
And nowhere in the EU Parliament’s gathering of Socialists and Democrats could one learn that the Bedouin are being moved just three to five kilometers down the road from their current place of residence, and not out of the country.
The Brussels gathering could have learned these facts, but alas, the conference of the parliament’s major left-wing bloc declined the Israeli ambassador’s request to appear and offer a full rebuttal, instead granting him just five minutes’ speaking time in the framework of a larger debate about Israel’s faults.
Indeed, the entire discussion is taking place without basic polling data about what the Bedouin themselves – not the wealthy leadership but the overwhelmingly poor families living in the tent cities – think about the plan. Do they reject the government’s offer of modern housing, running water, sanitation and paved roads? The Bedouin leadership says yes; government planners say otherwise.
One would think that activists claiming to be fighting on the Bedouins’ behalf would seek out – and then deploy as their primary weapon – the opinions of the Bedouin themselves.
It is in these missing details that the narratives of clashing national movements, state oppression or ethnic cleansing break down. But these are merely errors of omission. The new-found cause celebre of foreign activists also suffers from misnomers and oversimplification.
For example, the British press habitually calls the Bedouin simply “Palestinians.” But the Bedouin are not “Palestinian” in the sense meant by the Guardian, as an expression of a coherent national identity or political loyalty. Indeed, a key divide in Jordanian society separates the Bedouin from the Palestinians. More to the point, any discussion of the Negev Bedouins’ plight that does not mention their loyal IDF military service misunderstands and misrepresents their predicament.
Unlike the refugee question in the peace talks with the Palestinians, the question of Bedouin resettlement is not about demographics or Israel’s “Jewishness.” After all, the Bedouin are already Israeli citizens. Their demographics are part of the fabric of the Israeli state, come what may.
None of this is an argument for the Prawer plan. The plan itself can and must be subjected to intense public scrutiny. Are the Bedouin receiving enough financial compensation for the eminent domain-style resettlement? Are the planned towns to which they are being moved sufficient to their present and future needs, and do they respect their cultural norms as much as possible?
Honest observers can disagree on these questions, and it is the Bedouins’ right as citizens to lobby, campaign and demonstrate about them.
But it is difficult even to raise these questions or begin a serious national discussion on the long-term development of the poorest and most neglected among Israel’s minorities while the debate is dominated by flamboyant populism and flagrant dishonesty.
The Bedouins’ plight is real. The state’s failure over the decades to supply them with basic services is a documented fact. At the same time, many Bedouin leaders’ resistance to the kind of centralized planning necessary for such services to be properly deployed is also a fact.
And it is the ordinary, unassuming families of the sprawling tent-cities who are the true suffering victims of their own leaders’, and Israel’s, collective neglect. And who are not being usefully served by the passionate, largely under-informed, and in some cases perniciously motivated international outcry.