/ 7 April 2008

Bedouin pushed out of Negev

There are no road signs to the village, just a dirt track off the highway to the north of the Israeli city of Beer Sheva. Officially Twayil Abu Jarwal, a village on the land where the Talalqah clan has lived for generations, does not exist. It is ”unrecognised” in the terminology that shapes the bitter land dispute between the 160 000 indigenous Bedouin in the Negev desert and the Israeli state.

Last year the authorities mounted eight separate operations in Twayil to demolish the homes of those living there, but the villagers stayed on. Now they live in poor quality tents surrounded by the remains of destroyed homes: corrugated iron, bricks and heaps of dirt piled on torn-down tents.

”The government used force against us, they detained people, demolished houses, fined us and nothing helped,” said Aqil al-Talalqah (66), a retired headmaster who now lives in a tent in Twayil, only a few hundred metres from the demolished two-room building where he once went to school as a child.

”They say we are invading state land. How are we invading state land? This is our land.”

A leading international human rights group this week accused the Israeli government of discrimination against the Bedouin, citing a sharp increase in housing demolitions and a ”systematic violation” of their land and housing rights.

The detailed 126-page report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) comes as a new government-appointed commission begins a study on the long-running land ownership dispute. The Goldberg commission, appointed by the housing ministry but without any representatives from the unrecognised villages, is due to report later this year.

Tens of thousands of Bedouin — Arabs who have lived a semi-nomadic life on the land for many generations and who all carry full Israeli citizenship — live in 39 ”unrecognised villages” in southern Israel where their homes are subject to frequent demolition.

”Discriminatory land and planning policies have made it virtually impossible for bedouin to build legally where they live and also exclude them from the state’s development plans for the region,” HRW said in the report.

It described ”discriminatory, exclusionary and punitive policies” and noted that new farms and towns for Jewish Israelis were being built in the area. ”The state appears intent on maximising its control over Negev land and increasing the Jewish population in the area for strategic, economic and demographic reasons,” it said. In 2005, the Israeli government adopted a $3,6-billion plan to bring another 200 000 Israelis to the Negev to ease housing pressure elsewhere.

HRW called for an immediate halt to house demolitions and the creation of an independent commission to investigate the dispute.

Twayil is one of the villages worst hit by the recent increase in demolitions. The Talalqah clan was moved from the area in the 1950s, a time when Israel’s Arab population was subject to military rule. In 1978, clan members bought plots of land in Lakiya, one of seven townships established for the Bedouin on the advice of a government committee, thinking they could restart their lives.

But they have not received their land and soon discovered Lakiya was built on land claimed by another Bedouin tribe. Eventually, they returned to Twayil, where they now live surrounded by the signs of demolitions and without even basic services like water or electricity.

Talalqah, who was one of those who bought land in Lakiya, acknowledges that Bedouin traditions of grazing are largely gone and irreplaceable. Now he wants the village of Twayil to be formally recognised and provided with basic public services. ”They put so much pressure on us,” he said. ”But we will not evacuate unless we have a real solution.” Six Bedouin villages have received limited recognition from the state.

The Bedouin case is complicated by disputes between the different groups representing them and the fact that few have the mid-19th century Ottoman land ownership document, known as a Tabu. There is also a broad Israeli perception that the community is responsible for most of the crime in the area and is making unrealistic claims to the land.

In December 2000 Ariel Sharon, who was then head of the Likud opposition party and later became prime minister, said: ”The Bedouin are grabbing new territory. They are gnawing away at the country’s land reserves and no one is doing anything significant about it.”

A spokesperson for Israel’s housing ministry said that it wanted to encourage all Bedouin to move into the seven townships built for them. A Bedouin administration is recruiting bedouin staff to deal with the community’s issues and the Goldberg Commission, which will report later this year, will advise on how to resolve the land ownership dispute. ”Our goal is to stop them from spreading out and to bring them into these towns,” the spokesperson said. ”The land they are sitting on today is not their land. This is Israeli land.”

The Israel Land Administration, which manages the 93% of Israeli land that is publicly owned, said it is ”doing everything in its power to resolve the problems of the landless bedouin in the Negev.” ”Instead of prosecution, Israel proposes to settle the conflict by offering extremely generous settlements in return for the withdrawal of the Bedouins’ ownership claims,” it says.

However, the seven townships to which it wants the Bedouin to move are already overcrowded and have poor living conditions — in stark contrast to the new communities being built nearby for Israelis relocating to the Negev.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2003 all the townships ranked among the eight poorest areas of Israel. But of the newly built communities around Beer Sheva, with their predominantly Jewish populations, two were in the top five wealthiest areas of the country. — Â