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Shattering Israel’s image of ‘democracy’

A struggle over land, home demolitions, and an Israeli government working with Jewish agencies to “develop” the land for the benefit of one group at the expense of another. It could be a picture of the illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, but in fact, it’s inside Israel – in the Negev.

The Negev, or al-Naqab in Arabic, is an area that since the inception of the state has been targeted by Israeli governments, along with agencies like the Jewish National Fund (JNF), for so-called “development”.

This investment in the country’s periphery is characterised by systematic discrimination against the Negev’s Bedouin population, many of whom live in “unrecognised” villages or townships. Recent developments bring these policies into sharper focus, as well as pointing to fundamental problems with Israel’s image as “the Middle East’s only democracy”.

First, three vital clinics serving Bedouin women and children have been shut down, with the result that the nearest equivalent facilities are now hours away. The official reason is a shortage of staff, but this does not sit well with the severity of the health problem among these Bedouin children, where the infant mortality rate is more than three times higher than in the Israeli Jewish community.

Second, in mid-November the Knesset passed an amendment to prevent around 25,000 Bedouins from voting for their mayor and regional councillors. Elections had already been postponed for two years, but now the law means “that as long as the minister of interior deems the residents not ready for elections, the elections will be postponed”.

Finally, six weeks ago, lawyers acting on behalf of the Bedouins who live in the unrecognised village of Umm al-Hieran appealed against a previous court decision ordering the eviction of the community’s residents.

Ironically, this village had been established by the Israeli military in the 1950s as part of a wider-scale forced relocation of Bedouins from territory intended for Jewish settlement. Now they are once again being targeted for removal, labelled “intruders”, to make way for the planned creation of a Jewish town, Hiran.

Meanwhile, there have been reports about a Bedouin “mini-intifada” in the Negev, with Israeli military personnel targeted on the roads near a key base. Such fears are not new: a Haaretz article in 2004 predicted that a “Bedouin intifada” was “on the way” – a conclusion supposedly shared by senior government and military leaders.

What then, is the wider context? As a Human Rights Watch report put it last year, “the state’s motives for these discriminatory, exclusionary and punitive policies can be elicited from policy documents and official rhetoric”. The Israeli state’s aim: “maximising its control over Negev land and increasing the Jewish population in the area for strategic, economic and demographic reasons”. Professor Oren Yifatchel of Ben-Gurion University has put it bluntly: “the government wants to de-Arabise the land”.

This is the common thread that runs through Israel’s approach to the Negev since 1948: from physical expulsions and the legislation used to exclude communities from official recognition, through to budget allocations, creating Bedouin townships, and the flipside of “development” – demolitions.

In 2003, then-PM Ariel Sharon announced a new initiative calling “for the establishment of some 30 new towns” in the Galilee and Negev. One of the PM’s advisers at the time, Uzi Keren, told a radio station that it was important to locate the new towns in “the places that are important to the state, that is, for Jewish settlement”, in order to “strengthen settlement in areas sparse in Jewish population”.

One of the groups helping the state is the Jewish Agency for Israel. A few years ago, the organisation’s foreign media liaison officer was quoted on the JTA news website as describing the goal of the joint venture with the Israeli government as “a Jewish majority in all parts of Israel”.

Another key organisation involved is the Jewish National Fund. Its UK website, for example, talks about how “the future of Israel lies in the Negev” and says the goal of the “major initiative” known as “Blueprint Negev” is to “revitalise Israel’s southern region”.

In January, the chief executive of JNF in the US, Russell Robinson, expressed his concern that “if we don’t get 500,000 people to move to the Negev in the next five years, we’re going to lose it”. To what – or who – went unsaid. In 2005, Robinson was clearer about the consequences of the JNF’s “project to remake” the demographics: “such an influx” of Jews would mean “a certain amount of displacement” for the Bedouin.

Robinson actually tried to present this as helping tackle Bedouin unemployment. With their slick focus on “environmentally friendly” initiatives and helping the disadvantaged Arabs, groups like the JNF do their best to make sure that scenes like this go unnoticed.

This is the Israel that its government and propagandists do not want to be seen, the Israel where non-Jews are a demographic “threat”, and the state works with agencies (often funded by western donors) to “secure” a Jewish majority. It is the reality behind the myth of Israel as the region’s only democracy, and away from the weekly twists and turns of the peace process, such policies shed light on the root problem preventing a resolution of the conflict just as well as, or better than, the number of housing units in Gilo.

First published in The Guardian UK.

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