The Scene of Many Crimes: Suffocating self-subsistence in the Negev


25 March 07

Check out BUSTAN's article on the stifling of Bedouin self-subsistence grazing, in the April edition of News From Within: Download file

In the past two months, the Israeli daily YNet has reported regularly on the escalation of events around the killing of a Bedouin attempting to steal sheep from an illegal settler on the Green Line:

Protests in the killer's defense (who did not have government permission for the land on which the Bedouin trespassed or the sheep they attempted to steal), the subsequent introduction of a new 'self-defense bill' in the Knesset (now passed its first reading), and the related development of Jewish militias forwarding a vigilante 'justice' agenda. See below....


By Rebecca Manski
Communications Coordinator, BUSTAN
News From Within, March 2007

The confiscation of Bedouin grazing grounds for military uses and Jewish-only development has long pitted Bedouin against Jew. Today the situation is escalating.

In early February 2007, Shai Dromi, a Jewish rancher developing an illegal settlement on the Green Line in the Negev Desert, killed Khaled al-Atrash, a Bedouin man attempting to steal his sheep.

Far from raising 'riots' within 'the Bedouin sector,' regular protests have been held in the killer's defense, at which top officials such as the Head of the nearby regional council commented that the killer should be awarded a "badge of honor" for defending "his land." However, in actuality the land was not Dromi's, and he did not bother to apply for a permit to conduct agriculture in the area. His settlement near Yatir Forest, one of the Jewish National Fund's first projects, was illegal.

In the flurry around the Dromi-Atrash affair, hardly anyone asked why Dromi's sheep were not confiscated by the Israel Land Authority's 'environmental paramilitary unit,' the 'Green Patrol,' which claims to enforce a policy of preventing the creation of facts on the ground on State Lands. If Dromi was engaged in illegal grazing on State Lands, he had no right to the sheep to begin with - indeed no more right than the Bedouin who attempted to steal them.

To take it a step further, one could look at Negev Arabs who steal sheep and olive trees from illegal settlers as a kind of 'Bedouin Green Patrol.' A January 22nd article in Haaretz recently quoted the head of Ramat Negev regional council, Shmuel Rifman, claiming that Bedouin had been stealing hundreds of olive trees and calves from his Kibbutz and surrounding farms, and transferring them to the Palestinian Authority. Without justifying this informal economic 'strategy' (in which West Bank Palestinians pay double, by the way) one can relate to a feeling among some Bedouin that this informal economic activity entails taking back what was theirs to begin with, reclaiming what was stolen - i.e. livestock that could have belonged to Bedouin before they were confiscated by the Green Patrol, and olive trees originally uprooted from Palestinian farms in the West Bank for use in Jewish settlements.

Legalizing Jewish Vigilantism: Encouraging an Internal Uprising?

Immediately following the killing, Shmuel Rifman and Pini Badash, heads of the nearest local councils, said Drori should not be blamed for the incident. The daily newspaper Haaretz quoted Tzvika Bar-Chai, head of the Mount Hebron Regional Council on January 16th: "He acted as any Jew or Zionist representing Israel who needs to guard his property would… The only problem is that Dromi didn't hit all of them." No such lenient rationalizations were cast Al-Atrash’s way, whose economic circumstances were so desperate that he risked the raid just a month after serving a four-year sentence for theft; Furthermore, the Bedouin men with Al-Atrash, who were also shot and survived, were jailed and are being prosecuted for stealing.

In contrast, it was quickly concluded that the killer would not undergo murder charges and he was rapidly set free to house arrest. This despite the fact that, as Haaretz reported on January 21st: "The police representative said that the investigation conducted so far reveals that Dromi's claim to self-defense is unreliable." Nevertheless, within a few weeks of the killing, amidst a flurry of pro-Dromi protests spreading all the way from the desert to Jerusalem, the incident reached the Knesset and a 'self-defense bill' to legalize Dromi’s actions passed the first of three readings.

For decades, references have been made to the possibility of an internal intifada in the Negev, initiated by this - the main Arab population trained by the Israeli army and allowed to possess weapons. Yet at the moment, an uprising of Jewish Israelis seems more likely. Referring to the Bedouin crime-rings which have mushroomed in the past five or so years (*see footnote), this February Ynet quoted a settler named Kobi in Tamer Eliayahu settlement: "Even the police in Omer (a rich Jewish suburb with one of the highest rates of car theft in the country) pay protection. We’re not going to be Omer. If anything, we’ll be the next Shai Dromi. We carry weapons. What happened to Dromi could have happened to us. We won’t pay protection – if we have to go to war, we’ll go to war." Boaz, an area farmer told the Israeli daily Ynet that small Jewish militias are developing in the Negev as we speak, and offered his preferred 'solution:' "Every person wakes up in the morning, goes and shoots a Bedouin. There are a 100 thousand people shouting Bedouins. What are you going to do, punish them all?"

In the wild 'Western' which is the Dromi-Atrash story, each character has a pre-defined role. Negev settlers such as Dromi, and legal ranchers such as Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself, represent the contemporary pioneers of the Zionist project to 'redeem barren land' for Jews. In turn, Bedouin rustlers such as Al-Atrash represent the wild natives refusing to accept settlers' hegemony over their tribal lands; bringing law, order and civilization to the area means rounding them up, fencing them in, and if necessary, slaughtering them, as militiamen like Boaz suggest.

A Microcosm of the Land Conflict between Palestinians and Israelis inside Israel

Indeed, far more than the story of an isolated killing, this is a story that deserves broader contextualization within a reality of limited land available for civilian uses, and a reality of abject poverty arising from confiscation of grazing lands and the rapid elimination of the main sources of Bedouin livelihood. The Dromi-Atrash affair is a manifestation of competition between Arabs and Jews over the largest yet least 'open' spaces in the country.

Formerly masters of the entire desert, the Bedouin have been severed from their lands via the creation of massive military zones, and corralled 1.3% of the Naqab/Negev, a mere sliver of their former holdings. 60% of Naqab/Negev lands are officially zoned as 'military areas,' and the Israeli army has appropriated at least an additional 25% of State Lands designated as park space. No development for either Arabs or Jews can be conceived on these untouchable, un-negotiable army lands, leaving little space in the 'wide open' desert for agriculture, industry, or housing projects.

The conflict over the desert's last remaining empty space raises questions of scale. Whole Bedouin villages now compete with individual Jewish families for relatively small parcels of land. At the same time, Jewish 'single-family-farms' are in reality industrial-scale projects while Bedouin tend to till small-scale subsistence plots. The construction of 30 additional brand-new family farms were approved last summer; In contrast, Bedouin citizens have never received government approval to initiate a significant agricultural enterprise of their own. Another 20 illegal Jewish settlements no more than a decade or so old have been recognized by the government, many of which have been built directly upon Bedouin lands; In contrast, Negev Arabs are lucky if even a few of their existing villages encounter recognition after five decades under Israeli rule and over 500 years in the region.

From Pastoral Nomadism, to Migration in Search of Work

For those unfamiliar with the story of the 'illegalization' of the Bedouin way of life and livelihood, substantial background is necessary. In the year prior to the creation of the State of Israel, roughly 80,000 Bedouin from 96 different tribes lived in the region. After the 1948 war, the new State of Israel declared most of the Naqab/Negev a closed military zone, designated 85% of the Naqab/Negev "State Land," and imposed military administration over the region. All Bedouin habitation on the newly declared "State Land" was retroactively termed "illegal," and all Bedouin villages on "State Land" were thenceforth "unrecognized." Since then, 85% of the Negev (which is 60% of the country) has been literally under military administration, and the Negev Bedouin of the unrecognized villages have lived under a kind of 'unrecognized occupation,' denied basic services accorded every other citizen of Israel, patrolled by police rather than an army, with over 40,000 demolition orders hanging over their heads, and living under constant threat of transfer from their ancestral lands.

Unique among the Palestinian people, the Negev Bedouin continued to suffer mass expulsions long after 1948. The new government failed to issue the Bedouin identity cards until 1952 and thus justified the expulsion of thousands of Bedouin who remained within the borders of the new state in 1948. Even after the government had distributed these emblems of citizenship to the Bedouin, as late as 1959 the Israeli government expelled thousands of Bedouin to Egypt and Jordan; Only UN intervention halted this process. Throughout the 1950's, "Unit 101," a military patrol established by Dayan and later commanded by Ariel Sharon, conducted numerous controversial raids against Bedouin tribes. In 1959 Ha'aretz described Unit 101's activities: "The army's desert patrols would turn up in the midst of a bedouin encampment day after day, dispersing it with a sudden burst of machine-gun fire until the sons of the desert were broken and, gathering what little was left of their belongings, led their camels in long silent strings into the heart of the Sinai desert."

In 1950, Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, his advisors, and members of the IDF General Staff, agreed that the Bedouin presence disturbed Jewish development plans and agreed the solution was to concentrate the Bedouin in the Northern Negev. The government forced remaining Bedouin tribes into the triangular Siyag "Bedouin Reserve" (Arabic for 'fence') near Beer Sheva, ghettoes adjacent to towns like Ramle and Lod, and the center of the country. The government then declared the Siyag closed, and enabled the military governor to impose strict movement restrictions. Negev Arabs were allowed to leave these zones only with special permits, and as a result, the Bedouin were unable to conduct trade in the ancient regional trade center Bir Seba (Beer Sheva).

In part in order to reinforce the invisible Siyag fence, the government employed a reining mechanism, the Black Goat Law of 1950, prohibiting the grazing of goats outside one's own holdings. Since few Bedouin land claims were recognized, most grazing was thereby rendered illegal; those whose land claims were recognized found it almost impossible to keep their goats within the periphery of their newly limited range.

In 1953, Israel passed the Land Acquisition Law (modeled after the 1858 Ottoman Land Code which had previously resulted in the dispossession of the majority of Palestinian farmers but left the nomadic Bedouin undisturbed) and thereby finalized the expropriation of 93% of the Naqab/Negev. Now that the richest agricultural lands in the Naqab/Negev had been confiscated and designated State Land, the Bedouin had no source of livelihood. Further, due to the Zionist prohibition against leasing lands to non-Jews at the time, the Bedouin were not allowed to rent farmland. The Bedouin were fenced in physically and economically.

Instead of migrating with their goats in search of pasture, the Bedouin migrated in search of wage-labor. Following the disintegration of a decade-long ban on hiring non-Jewish labor, thousands of Negev Bedouin moved north in search of work on Jewish farms. Others remained at home in the south and spent half the week working for Israelis in the north, greatly encumbered by the strict work and travel permits required under Military Rule. The cost of living rose in the 1970's, hurting the small margin of Bedouin wage-laborers who had managed to become independent agricultural contractors; These were replaced by a new type of 'contractor' involved in the drug and prostitution trades.

Only a small portion of Bedouin managed to engage in shepherding, both to self-subsist and resist. In the context of the loss of lands and culture, shepherding was seen as the ultimate statement of independence from the State and its borders, the ultimate defiance of policies which spelled ethnocide for the Bedouin way of life. But for most Bedouin, shepherding above all represented simple self-reliance, a form of resistance against going on state welfare rolls, engaging in crime, building Israel as construction workers, or joining the IDF in order to make a living.

An article by Gideon Kressel dating back to the 1970's reported: "In several instances the herdsmen violently refused to remove their herds claiming that the field had belonged to their forefathers..." Kressel extended a revealing explanation for what he called "lighthandedness" towards Negev Arab grazing: "The disregard for the law was condoned in light of the important function that the Bedouin fulfill in the regional employment system...."

Creating an Unemployed Urban Proletariat

"We should transform the Bedouins into an urban proletariat - in industry, services, construction, and agriculture. 88% of the Israeli population are not farmers, let the Bedouins be like them. Indeed, this will be a radical move which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children would be accustomed to a father who wears trousers, does not carry a Shabaria (traditional Bedouin knife) and does not search for vermin in public. The children would go to school with their hair properly combed. This would be a revolution, but it may be fixed within two generations. Without coercion but with government direction….this phenomenon of the Bedouin will disappear."

-Moshe Dayan to Haaretz, July 31st, 1963

Throughout the 1970's, the government started to build the first legal settlements to concentrate the Bedouin in the northern Negev. The Bedouin Sedentarization Plan mapped 7 villages and promised services to lure Bedouin from outlying areas. At the same time, the Israel Land Authority's 'Green Patrol' set about aggressively enforcing the Black Goat Law and preventing Bedouin farming, acting as a means of control and harassment cloaked in environmentalist rhetoric. In a few years, under Ariel Sharon, the Green Patrol successfully confiscated 1/3 of Bedouin herds; in less than a decade, the majority of Bedouin were unable to engage in herding or agriculture any longer. Denied access to their former sources of sustenance, severed from the possibility of receiving services in the unrecognized villages, and trusting in government promises that they would receive services, tens of thousands of Bedouin moved to the legal villages.

Yet these seven towns were not planned in consultation with the Bedouin and they did not serve their needs. Harvey Lithwick of the Negev Center for Regional Development describes an intrinsic absence of any urban policy framework in prevailing planning: "Turning to the seven Bedouin towns, it is difficult to discover even minimal systematic rationales for their creation.... they were conceived, designed and built from above, by officials in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv who knew little of the intended residents, and cared less for their special needs and then walked away from the chaos that was programmed into their creations....the major failure was a lack of an economic rationale for the towns...."

The two chief stable sources of employment for Negev Arabs today - the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Ramat Hovav toxic waste facility - involve risking one's life for one's livelihood. Both types of employment directly challenge the basis of Bedouin culture. Employment in Ramat Hovav involves processing some of the most destructive substances known to humankind, toxins which have on multiple occasions poisoned Bedouin agriculture and herds, as well as shepherds, workers and soldiers. In turn, employment in the IDF as Border Policemen not only pits Naqab Palestinians against West Bank and Gaza Palestinians (some of which are members of their own family), it entails reinforcing movement restrictions which have intrinsically constricted, indeed strangled, their way of life.

Today, although the Bedouin continue to be perceived as nomads, they are in fact fully sedentarized. Indeed, most prefer not to call themselves 'Bedouin' any longer, explaining that 'Bedouin' identity is intimately tied in with a pastoral nomadic way of life. Ironically, Negev Arabs have become a new type of proletariat-nomad, in search of work rather than water. Since Negev Arabs lack steady job options, Bustan member Najib Abu Gharbiyeh of Wadi el-Na'am says, "Most Bedouin men must travel immense distances, and pay a high proportion of their paychecks, to reach temp-jobs of 2 or 3 days in the far reaches of the country. We construct housing for Jews when we ourselves are not allowed to build, build new factories which won't employ us, and expand industrial zones in Jewish areas, while they fail to zone business districts in our towns."

Civilizing the Bedouin: Criminalizing Self-Subsistence

Ultimately, no more than 30% of Bedouin in townships or unrecognized villages have permanent jobs. And as a result, Negev Arabs have come to develop a two-tiered reputation for welfare dependence and criminality. These images serve to distract Israeli citizens from the severe dearth of dignified income-generating activities available to Negev Arabs. They also demean the Bedouins' decades of service to the State - service which most now regret - in the IDF.

Meanwhile, the Bedouin reputation for welfare dependence fails to take into account efforts to engage in self-subsistence agriculture in the face of the severe State repression (via chemical crop destruction campaigns and heavy-handed restrictions of grazing). To illustrate, several days before the Tu B'Shvat planting holiday a little more than one year ago, Vice Mayor of Rahat Youseff Abu Zayd stood over barley fields uprooted by the State. Abu Zayd told Bustan he planted in vacant space "to be self-sufficient, and make a dignified living," in conscious defiance of the image of Bedouin as a burden. Israel Land Authority spokeswoman Ortal Tzabar indirectly acknowledged that the permit system negates incentive to secure legal go-ahead, "In all the court cases that there have been about this until now, they have lost - they are now afraid to go to court." In cases such as these, the Bedouin reputation for involvement in crime has become confused with their defiance of laws that not only fail to serve them, but attack their means of livelihood.

To add to the picture, as Bedouin adhere to pastures less than 1% their former span, the IDF threatens to confiscate still more. Exactly one year ago, the IDF revealed a sudden decision to rescind Bedouin rights to graze herds on the fringe of Negev training grounds, in effect expelling two-thirds of Bedouin herds from their former range. Several days after the announcement, two young shepherds were blown up by a mine while grazing their goats on the periphery of an unmarked, recently militarized zone. To reiterate, 80% of the Negev, about 1/3 of the country, is designated as a military firing range, yet rarely demarcated; No signs were posted in the area, and no officials offered condolences for the deaths of Naif and Salem Al-Atrash. The decision barring grazing was later reversed, but it is unclear for how long. More recently, early this March, twelve-year-old shepherdess Hanan Anami survived a shot in the head near Abu Krirnat, or what Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy calls: "Two hours from Tel Aviv, 2,000 years from Tel Aviv."

As the State of Israel has aggressively cracked down upon efforts to uphold Bedouin tradition through dignified, self-reliant, peaceful self-subsistence, the State has permitted the persistence of what Arabs in Israel themselves commonly refer to as the most "primitive" aspects of Bedouin tradition: polygamy and the 'protection' system. The Israeli government has never enforced the law against polygamy, an indication, many in the Arab community charge, of a general lack of interest in the advancement of the Bedouin community – since the ascension of a society depends upon the status of its female population. And by all accounts, the government has failed to invest serious attention in curbing crime in the Bedouin community or corruption within the Israeli law enforcement system - due to the appeal of 'protection' bribes. In fact, protection fees and polygamy are two aspects of the old Bedouin way of life that a great number of Negev Arabs would prefer to see fade out. Instead, as polygamy endures and the 'protection' system thrives, the most universally 'wholesome' of Bedouin traditions are in their final death throes.

'Everyone' Profits from the Death of Indigenous Culture

Today, former head of the Council of Unrecognized Villages Jabr Abu-Kaff admits: "We are no longer a wandering people. We want a solid roof over our heads, paved roads, and proper schools and clinics. Some of us try our best, but we are not following the old ways. The government will not allow us to graze our animals. The black goat is gone. Even so, those who can afford to, keep animals to butcher for guests. If I want my children to know how I lived, and how our ancestors lived in the past, I take them to a museum!"

Nowhere is this mummification of culture more apparent than in the Joe Alon Bedouin Museum to which Abu-Kaff refers, replete with dressed-up dummies and a conspicious lack of reference to the role of the State in strangulating the Bedouin way of life. Joe Alon is co culturally inappropriate that one of the main collectors for the museum, Orna Goren, resigned from the museum last year. Haaretz quoted her in an article entitled, "A culture preserved, or stolen heritage?:" "A museum has to evolve, to stay in touch with its subject and reflect what it is experiencing today."

Bustan, representatives of an unrecognized village, and the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages (RCUV) met several months ago to discuss definitions of a Bedouin-defined alternative to the extant culturally-insensitive museum. At the meeting, a village shaykh said that since ordering a black-goat-hair tent from Jordan would cost tens of thousands of shekels (since black goats are now almost extinct in Israel, procuring a black-goat-hair tent is no longer a simple prospect), he suggested erecting an airplane hanger to protect the pricey special-ordered tent. Ali Abu Sbeih of the RCUV remarked in dismay: "I have never in my life heard of putting a nomad's tent inside a building. If Bedouin culture is dead, an airplane hanger would be its mausoleum."

Unfortunately, as a consequence of the snuffing out of Bedouin self-subsistence traditions and consequent absence of any means of income-generation, more and more Negev Arabs are recognizing their comparative advantage and participating in the sale of their culture. After all, making a living off of touristic intrigue in the last romantic vestiges of Bedouin culture -- rather than relying on welfare or, for that matter, stealing sheep -- is socially-sanctioned. For instance, successful tourism entrepreneurs will pour a cement floor, lay down woven Bedouin rugs they cannot themselves afford, erect a plastic tarp around it (since a real tent is too expensive), and offer 'traditional Bedouin hospitality' to hundreds of bewildered Jewish youth during a pit-stop on a Birthright-Israel trip. Just as commonly, pairs of Bedouin will be paid to don traditional dress and give presentations to thousands of Israeli students about the Bedouin way of life; focusing entirely on Bedouin traditions, they will not mention the changes the Bedouin have undergone in the past 50 years as their pastures have been confiscated and their traditional way of life has ended.

Permit me to pose a cynical question: Is stealing sheep from settlers who are illegally staked out on State (or what were previously Bedouin) Lands and lack a permit for their sheep, significantly more damaging than other accessible and socially-sanctioned means for earning a living, such as becoming Border Policeman and apprehending Palestinian workers without permits, building Jewish settlements, working in toxic industries, or selling Bedouin culture?

In the few cases in which reasonable alternatives have been created which promote living applications of Bedouin traditions in a specialized manner (i.e. focused only on weaving, or desert medicine, etc), few have dared to contextualize the end of the Bedouin way of life by referring to the reasons for its disintegration.

Perhaps they assume that such a concept wouldn't sell. Tragic stories of the culturecide* of non-Jewish communities, especially when caused by Jews, tend to attract a very niche market in Israel.

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* Crime has doubled and tripled throughout the past 5 or so years. This might be due somewhat to the severely accelerated curtailing of Bedouin self-subsistence agriculture as of 1999, when the Agriculture stopped dispensing grazing permits. The existing crime problem may also have worsened due to former Finance Minister Netanyahu's cuts to child subsidies, without offering a suitable alternative; A large proportion of Bedouin families relied directly upon these subsidies.

* 'Culturecide' signifies processes that have usually been purposely introduced that result in the decline or demise of a culture, without necessarily resulting in the physical destruction of its bearers. Moshe Dayan's statement about culturally 'disappearing' the Bedouin - "Without coercion but with government direction....this phenomenon of the Bedouin will disappear" - was not merely his own opinion, but State policy.

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