The Araqib tribe have farmed the land close to the city of Beer Sheva in southern Israel for generations. But in the past year the Israeli government has declared war on them and some 70,000 other beduin living in 45 communities it refuses to recognise in the Negev (al-Naqab).

 

On 15 January the authorities stepped up the pressure on the Araqib to leave by spraying powerful herbicides on their crops, making the young shoots shrivel and die in the following weeks.

 

It was the third time the Araqib's crops had been sprayed in the past two years by a government agency, the Israel Lands Authority.

 

"This time we hurriedly took what crops we could for feed," says Abu Darim. "We made the mistake of giving them to our animals. Nearly 400 of the sheep miscarried."

 

The recent campaign of crop-spraying by the authorities - more than 6000 acres have been destroyed over a wide area of the Negev in the last two years - is not the only weapon being used by the state.

 

Over the past 12 months, there has also been a wave of house demolitions, making nearly 2000 beduin homeless. At least three mosques have also been destroyed. Another 10,000 structures are under threat of demolition.

 

Forced off

 

The surge in activity is not accidental. It is the result of a government plan, personally approved a year ago by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and backed by $200 million, to force the rural beduin off their lands and into a handful of urban reservations the state is building for them.

 

Critics have accused the government of plotting a quiet transfer of the beduin from their historic lands and the destruction of their traditional way of life.

 

Professor Yitzhak Nevo, of Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva, says: "When crops are destroyed, the population is at risk of malnutrition and hunger. And that's what the government aims at: to use poverty and hunger to coerce

the beduin to accept a townships policy."

 

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon who himself has a ranch

If successful, the five-year plan will make these 70,000 unrecognised villagers join a similar number of beduin who were forced into seven reservations built in the 1970s. Those towns are at the very bottom of all Israel's social and economic league tables.

 

"Sharon is struggling to persuade the villagers that refused to be driven from their lands 30 years ago to move now, especially when it is clear how unsuitable the new communities created by the state were," says Jabr Abu Kaff, a beduin leader. "This is why he has to use such drastic measures this time."

 

High price

 

The stakes are high. The government wants the huge land reservoir of the Negev - two-thirds of Israel's total territory -for Jewish immigration over the coming decades, and possibly for settlers evacuated from the West Bank and Gaza if peace ever arrives.

 

In 2002 the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) announced plans to start building settlements to bring 350,000 Jewish immigrants to the Galilee and the Negev the first time the WZO has funded settlements outside the occupied Palestinian territories in 26 years.

 

The beduin, with one of the highest fertility rates in the world and a semi-nomadic way of life, are seen as posing a severe threat to these ambitions.

 

If the beduin can be forced out of their villages, their place will be taken by 14 exclusive Jewish settlements and dozens more private farmsteads, modelled on Sharon's own huge agricultural estate in the Negev, known as Sycamore Ranch.

 

Ethnic cleansing

 

"The plan is little more than ethnic cleansing," said Abu Kaff, who lives in one of the 45 threatened villages, Umbatin. "The government says it cannot build the infrastructure for our communities because they are remote and then replaces them with even more scattered Jewish settlements."

 

"Come on friends, get a stick and beat any beduin criminal until he leaves”

Tzachi Hanegbi,
Israli minister of public security

In fact, even though the beduin comprise a quarter of the population in the Negev, they control only two per cent of its land.

 

Nonetheless, government ministers and officials accuse the beduin of "invading state lands" by refusing to be moved from their historic villages. Sharon himself gave a speech shortly before he became prime minister in which he said: "The beduin are eating away at the last land reserve of the state."

 

Another minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, was recently rebuked by the attorney general for inciteful comments he made in August to a Jewish community concerning their beduin neighbours: "Come on friends, get a stick and beat any beduin criminal until he leaves.”

 

The first stage of the transfer of land from the beduin to Jews began last month with the establishment of a settlement on the lands of the Ughbi tribe near the town of Rahat.

 

Fifteen caravans were hastily erected under the cover of night on 19 January under the personal direction of the rightwing housing minister Effi Eitam. The settlement of Givot Bar will eventually house 150 families.

 

Bitter battle

 

"Now Israel says they have no historic rights to the land on which they were forcibly resettled. It wants to make them refugees yet again"

Maha Qupty,
lobby group the Regional Council

The Ughbi tribe were evacuated from the land in 1951 for a temporary six-month period under orders from the Israeli army and told to resettle some 25km away. They have been waging a futile battle in the Israeli courts to be allowed to return ever since.

 

"There are plenty of government lands in the Negev where settlements can be built, so why do the Jews have to settle on lands that are claimed by the Ughbi tribe?" said Talib al-Sana, an Arab member of the Knesset who lives in

the Negev.

 

Refused permission to return to their lands, the Ughbi tribe has been living in one of the 45 villages unrecognised by the state. In these villages some of the worst social conditions anywhere in either Israel or the West Bank and Gaza can be found.

 

The government justifies the gross discrimination on the grounds that the beduin are "invading state lands", a view accepted by the Israeli courts. But that is a gross simplification, says Maha Qupty, a spokeswoman for a lobby group for the unrecognised villages known as the Regional Council .

 

"In the 1950s, after the foundation of the Israeli state, the army forced all the beduin tribes to move off their lands, usually using emergency evacuation orders, and settled them in an area close to Beer Sheva," she says.

 

"Now it says they have no historic rights to the land on which they were forcibly resettled. It wants to make them refugees yet again."

 

While progress has been allowed to reach all other areas of the Negev, however remote, the rural beduin have been kept in a condition probably recognisable to their grandparents.

 

They are denied access to all public utilities, including electricity, water, sewerage and telephones. They must generate their own electricity and have to buy and transport water from standpipes often several miles away.

 

Metal homes

 

Most of the villages also have no schools or health care, even though several have as many as 5000 inhabitants.

 

"I don't differentiate between myself and my crops. When they come and spray the crops, my feeling is that when they finish spraying my crops they'll start spraying me and my children"

Shaikh Sayyah al-Turi,
beduin

Because there is no municipality to apply to for construction permits, all building work is by definition illegal.

 

Most of the unrecognised villagers are therefore forced to live in tents or metal shacks that offer little protection from the desert heat or night-time cold.

 

Those who dare to build a permanent structure soon find it demolished, and are then billed for the work of the wrecking crews.

 

Until now only their homes had been declared illegal.

 

But allied to the Negev plan is a new law which classifies any beduin living in an unrecognised village as a "trespasser" on state lands and liable to up to two years in jail.

 

In Araqib, the tribesmen sit in their communal tent drinking strong coffee and contemplating the cost of being defined as a trespasser.

 

Last month they lost 260 acres of crops to the government spraying. Each acre would have produced more than 1500kg of flour, says Abu Darim.

 

To buy enough flour for the whole village's needs on the open market would cost them some $200,000, a sum no one in the village can even consider paying.

 

But it is not just about money, says another tribal leader, Shaikh Sayyah al-Turi: "I don't differentiate between myself and my crops. When they come and spray the crops, my feeling is that when they finish spraying my crops they'll start spraying me and my children."