Forty-Thousand Bedouin Are Being Kicked Off Their Land by Israel

I saw protesters face off with police in the desert and on the streets of Jerusalem.

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Aug 2 2013, 1:15pm

Although its name sounds like a way to pay in multiple instalments for a fish dinner, the Prawer Plan is truly some insane, devious shit. The government of Israel, being no stranger to the insane and the devious, has somehow decided that, in 2013, it's OK for a supposedly civilised country to displace 40,000 - 70,000 people based solely on their ethnicity.

The Prawer Plan, the full text of which can be found in English here, is a long-term "development" plan for the Naqab (Negev) desert, the thrust of which is that nearly all the Bedouin living there will be dragged from their rural homes and forcibly placed in cities built by the Israeli government. If that sounds familiar, it's because the South African government did exactly the same thing during the apartheid years. Israel, of course, likes to cry foul whenever the apartheid comparison is invoked, but in this case, they're really inviting it – they're literally relocating people into Bantustans.

The Israeli government justifies the displacement by saying the Bedouin in question live in "unrecognised villages." But in a typical case, the Bedouin were forcibly relocated following Israel's independence in 1948, and the government now refuses to recognise their village on its current land. 

Unfortunately, in some respects this is nothing new – one Bedouin village in the Naqab has been destroyed and rebuilt over 50 times since 2010. The Israeli government is also quite fond of destroying villages, both Bedouin and Palestinian, in the West Bank. The difference here, though, is that the Prawer Plan proposes to evict tens of thousands of Palestinians in one fell swoop.  (Estimates vary on exactly how many people will lose their homes.) Last month, the plan passed its first reading in the Knesset, but it still has two more readings to go before it gets final approval. 

For their part, the Bedouin haven't been silent on the issue. In July, thousands of people in Israel and Palestine demonstrated against the Prawer Plan, and on the 1st of August the demonstrations were followed up with a "Day of Rage". This saw demonstrations take place in the Naqab, Northern Israel, Ramallah and Jerusalem, as well as solidarity demonstrations in several cities outside Israel (thanks for the support, London). 

Which brings me to the part where I'm standing in the dusty desert heat next to an intersection that protesters are hoping to block, surrounded by 400 Israeli police. The day's main demonstration, attended by about 600, was held at the central Lehavim junction in the Naqab, near the planned Bedouin city of Rahat. 

The demonstrators didn't manage to close the junction, and the cars streamed by along with the occasional tank on its way to a military base as they chanted anti-Zionist slogans and messages of unity between Palestinians and the Bedouin. But they did knock down the police barricades, bringing them face-to-face with the weird-ankle-fringed Israeli police horses, with which I'm already all too familiar

A demonstrator I spoke to named Wisam said he was unsurprised by the Prawer Plan, given the Israeli government's historical penchant for home demolitions and land theft. "It's a normal thing for this government," he said. "You don't have to think a lot about this. They are doing this every day." 

One of the organisers of the demonstration, Amir Abu-Kweider, explained that the Prawer Plan is just the latest in a series of human rights violations committed by Israel in the Naqab.

"To begin with, the issue of unrecognised villages is that basically, people don't exist, he said. "They are not provided basic services. They are not connected to the electricity grid; they don't have any paved roads in the villages… And of course, there are almost weekly house demolitions taking place in the Naqab."

Ayman, a Palestinian cameraman I spoke to, had an even harsher message for Israelis planning to live in the Naqab following the Prawer Plan's implementation.

"Just fuck off, OK? You have your land, just fuck off," he said. 

Unlike the last round of demonstrations, the Lehavim junction protest ended rather peacefully after a tense standoff with the cops. (Although a reporter friend of mine saw a police horse kick a woman in the back, it's unlikely the animal had been trained to do this.) The anti-Prawer Plan demonstration in Jerusalem later that night, however, was a different story. 

The demonstration of three or four hundred people started at the Damascus Gate, the entrance to the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's old city. But the demonstrators swiftly took to the streets, provoking a reaction from the police. I saw a child grabbed and roughly dragged away before being violently thrown into a police car. This tallies with a recent UN report, which decried the "systematically abusive" child arrests carried out by the Israeli government. 

I witnessed two other arrests, both involving the use of extreme force, and Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that at least 20 arrests were made during the demonstrations. After arriving back at Damascus Gate, the demonstrators started to push towards Jewish West Jerusalem, but were met by riot police tossing flash-bang grenades and trying to run them down with the demon-horses. 

The streets were crowded after Iftar, the breaking of the fast at the end of each day of Ramadan. But while vendors continued selling baked chicken and corn on the cob, the demonstrators and police fought a pitched battle, turning Jerusalem into a temporary approximation of a warzone. The air filled with smoke and the cries of the vendors were drowned out by the flash-bang explosions and screams of the demonstrators. After about ten minutes of street fighting, the police retreated to a nearby intersection and the tension level went from an explosive boil back to its normal simmer. 

But was it worth it? Does screaming slogans at passing cars in the Naqab and fighting with horse cops in Jerusalem stand a chance of stopping the Prawer Plan? 

"I have to say no," said Wisam, the demonstrator in the Naqab. "We're sure that the Israelis will do whatever they want."

Follow Andy on Twitter: @HanDetenido

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