quinta-feira, 31 de março de 2011

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Lifting the olive branch: Recognising the needs and and securing the rights of the Bedouin in the Negev

The Israeli government can make the first step to securing peace in the Negev - by acknowledging the needs and securing the rights of its Bedouin citizens in the region.

The olive tree. A native tree species to Israel, and a biblical symbol of peace. Indeed, it was a dove carrying an olive leaf in its beak which informed Noah, a key religious figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, that God had taken mercy on humanity and the flood was over. In the village of al-Arakib in the Negev region of Israel however, the olive tree has come to symbolise anything but peace. For the Bedouin residents of al-Arakib, the uprooting of hundreds of olive trees in the village symbolises the destruction of their homes and their expulsion from what they see as their historic land, for which they claim to have land deeds pre-dating the existence of the State itself. For Israeli government law enforcement officials, the planting of these same olive trees, represents the intransience and determination of the Bedouin to occupy State-owned lands illegally.

Since the 27th of July of last year, clashes have broken out between the two sides over a dozen times, and makeshift homes have been erected - and then destroyed - over twenty times. The situation has left around 300 people homeless, many of whom now live in the village cemetery. But as this relentless cycle of rebuilding and demolishment persists, the government will have to deal with the current crisis and recognise and remedy the wider issues that al-Arakib has brought to light. This includes the need for economic investment in the Bedouin community, the positive implications of changing the legal status of Bedouin villages, and the right of the the Bedouin to live free of discrimination. Action of this kind will not only halt the expansion of the type of conflict seen in al-Arakib, but also help secure the rights of the Bedouin as Israeli citizens. Peace is not impossible in the Negev of Israel, but difficult work needs to be done to achieve it.

The situation in al-Arakib has highlighted the precariousness of Israel's Bedouin community, particularly in the more than 40 legally unrecognised villages inhabited by around 62,000 people located mainly in the Negev region [1]. In November 2008, the government-created Committee for the Regulation of Bedouin Settlements in the Negev (the Goldberg Commission), headed by retired Justice Eliezer Goldberg, concluded that "Israel must change the legal status of at least 46 villages so as to prevent the perpetuation of the community's unbearable state"[2].

The "community's unbearable state" to which Justice Goldberg was referring, is one in which most unrecognised villages lack basic public services, such as municipal administration, running water, sewage, electricity, health care services, schools, and paved roads. According to the Galilee Society survey, as of 2007 approximately one quarter of the inhabitants of these villages lack sanitation facilities. Less than 0.5 per cent and 18 per cent of the houses are connected to the nationwide sewage and water systems, respectively, and more than 90 per cent are not connected to the nationwide electricity system but use private generators for electricity [3]. The Bedouin of the Negev are by far Israel's most disadvantaged community in terms of per capita income, unemployment, poverty rate, education and public infrastructure [4], and it is primarily the responsibility of the government to invest in their development – after all the Bedouin, alongside Arab-Israelis and Jews, are also Israeli citizens.

Of course, the government will not invest in villages it does not recognise. As Justice Goldberg rightly acknowledged, a necessary prerequisite for development in Bedouin villages is a change in their legal status. In 2005, the government formed the Abu Basma Regional Council incorporating 11 Bedouin unrecognised and new villages, and allocated 470 million New Israeli Shekels for Council development projects [5]. Indeed, although the deeds that al-Arakib and other Bedouin residents claim they have proving ownership since 1906 may not have any legal standing in Israeli courts, changing the legal status of the villages is more likely to lead to development in the region, thereby relieving the "unbearable state" of the community. The Israeli Declaration of Independence promises social and economic equality for all its inhabitants- Jewish and non-Jewish alike. This demands investment in its Bedouin minority to close the ever-widening poverty gap between it and the rest of Israeli society [6]. Changing the legal status of Bedouin villages therefore, is a necessary means to achieve this end.

Affording some form of legal recognition to Bedouin villages in the Negev, and other such appropriate initiatives, also has additional benefits. Following the cycle of conflict in the village of al-Arakib, Ynetnews reported earlier this month that, in pursuant of the recommendations made by the Goldberg Commission, the government may grant ownership of 50 per cent of the lands the Bedouin currently occupy, and receive compensation for the other 50 per cent [7]. Governmental initiatives which acknowledge the Bedouin link to this land, historically or otherwise, are likely to encourage stability in the region, or at the very least, halt the escalation of the kind of confrontation seen in al-Arakib over the last eight months.

The Israeli government however, needs to do more than change its own land and planning policies in order to prevent further hostilities. The government also needs to tackle the problem of discrimination towards its Bedouin minority. Testimonies of young Israelis cheering and singing "Am Israel Chai" [the people of Israel live] as bulldozers demolished the Bedouin village [8] depicts an Israel in which not only are certain minorities excluded from "the people" but some Israelis celebrate as other citizens lose what they believe, rightly or wrongly, to be their home. The government should foster an environment conducive to respect, and in accordance with the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Inherent to the Declaration's promise of social equality is equality in terms of civil recognition - that "the people" include all citizens "without distinction" as the Declaration itself states. The Bedouin have the right to live free from discrimination, and if Israelis see the Bedouin as one of 'us' (a fellow Israeli) rather than the 'other', such events are less likely to occur in the future.

Another way of tackling discrimination is to actively discourage linking demolitions, legal status or even compensation to concepts such as the "Judaisation of the Negev". Ramat Negev Council head Shmulik Rifman for example, when discussing compensatory initiatives for the Bedouin to Ynetnews, did not discuss it in terms of social development for Bedouin citizens, or in terms of ending the conflict in the region. Rather, he stated the Bedouin settlement must be finalised "if one wants 70,000 Jews in the Negev"[9]. Similarly, Oren Yifachel, professor of political geography at the nearby Ben-Gurion University claimed that afforestation has become a tool of the Judaisation of the Negev. "The authorities have uprooted thousands of olive trees to replace them with 'Jewish trees'. It's only our trees that matter" [10].

Ethnically-charged language such as 'Judaising the Negev' will not only fuel discrimination towards Bedouin communities, but also accentuate and create ethnic, ideological and even religious divides, expanding the the current conflict beyond the village of al-Arakib into the rest of the Negev region - and maybe even beyond.

Linking 'Judaisation' to afforestation in particular, is likely to play a central role in the provocation of conflict for two reasons. First, the original mandate of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the national foresters of Israel, was to purchase land for the settlement of Jews in Eretz Israel, operating under a restriction that it could not lease land to non-Jews [11]. Second, the JNF acknowledges the donation of half a million trees from God TV, a Christian Zionist movement that believe Jews must return to the Holy Land as a prerequisite of the Second Coming of Christ [12].

In June 2009, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz stated that JNF's lands must be administered on the basis of equality, and the JNF itself has and continues to work on behalf of the Bedouin community in the Negev. As part of its Blueprint Negev campaign for example, JNF's leadership meets with several Bedouin regional councils to assess community needs and develop solutions. It would be extremely unfortunate if JNF's current afforestation plan in the region overshadows positive work with the Bedouin, especially in al-Arakib where 6 people were wounded in clashes between residents and JNF officials last month.

If the Israeli government chooses to ignore the needs and rights of its Bedouin minority such as the need for economic investment, and the right to live free from discrimination, it runs the risk of helping marginalise and radicalise a key minority in the Negev. The Knesset's only Bedouin member, MK Talab El-Sana has warned "the State is pushing its Bedouin citizens to the point where they may launch an intifada, which will have severe results" [13] - a statement echoed by many throughout Israeli society including celebrated Israeli novelist Amos Oz who referred to al-Arakib as a "ticking time-bomb" [14] - a 'bomb' which will no doubt have effect in the whole region, if not the whole country.

Indeed, if the speculated Bedouin intifada takes on an ideological or religious demeanour, Arab- or Muslim-Israelis within and beyond the Negev could mobilise behind the Bedouin, possibly under the banner of the Islamic Movement. After the demolition of al-Arakib, the Islamic Movement, an organisation in Israel which follows the worldview of the Muslim Brotherhood, were quick to donate tents and offer help to the residents. This led one al-Arakib resident to claim, "You are pushing us directly into the welcoming arms of the Islamic movement" [15]. Beyond the Negev however, the Movement is still popular in other parts of Israel such as Umm al-Fahm, the second largest Arab city in Israel [16].

The olive trees in al-Arakib have gone, but let's hope any remaining notions of peace and the desire for peace have not. If the government shows willingness and initiative in managing the complicated task of balancing the notion of equality before the law (and therefore punishing anyone who illegally occupies state-land), with minority claims of the Bedouin community of their right to lands which they have traditionally owned and occupied - and accommodating civil equality with ethnic and religious diversity in Israeli society, we may just see a white dove carrying an olive branch flying across the harsh terrain of the Negev desert.

Romana is currently studying for a Masters Degree in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, with the Arab Citizens of Israel as her research focus. She is an intern at the UK Task Force on issues facing Arab Citizens of Israel, a diverse, broad-based coalition of organizations committed to building a shared society between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens. Romana has previously studied Social and Political Sciences at St Catharine's College, University of Cambridge.

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