From Israel to Essex: Travellers not welcome

Traditionally nomadic communities face state-led discrimination and violent attempts to abolish their way of life.

Caravan burns at Dale Farm
Traveller communities such as Dale Farm are often destroyed with the full backing of state authorities [GALLO/GETTY]

Travel anywhere in the Middle East, and you are likely to be greeted with the words: Ahlan wa sahlan wa marhaban. Literally translated, the phrase means “Welcome to this flat piece of ground”, a throwback to a time when Arab culture was traditionally more nomadic in nature, and visitors may have had a long, perilous journey before reaching friends on the plain.

But the romantic image of the wandering traveller is a far cry from the daily reality experienced by travelling communities. From east to west, theirs is a life more often filled with discrimination, violence and oppression carried out by state authorities attempting to force them to conform with the urban lifestyle.

“It was an experience I’ll never forget; police attacking people, beating people, Tasering people,” said Pearl, a member of the Dale Farm community.

She is one of a group of more than 200 Irish Travellers who were forced from their own land near Basildon in Essex, south east England, in a series of violent evictions reported to have cost up to £18m ($29m).

The isolation of their community, established in the 1970s, has eerie parallels with the experiences of the Bedouin residents of the Negev, who have faced frequent threats from Israeli state officials since that country’s founding – with “unrecognised” villages denied infrastructure services and occasionally simply bulldozed.

Dale Farm is a former scrap yard, sold by Basildon Council to members of the Irish Traveller community when their nomadic life was effectively outlawed by Britain’s 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which repealed previous legal safeguards to Traveller rights. At its peak, Dale farm was home to some 1,000 people.

The 1994 law abolished councils’ duty to provide sites for Travellers, thus drastically restricting places where the nomadic community were able to camp on their travels.

A solidarity activist at Dale Farm holds a crucifix as a barricade burns [GALLO/GETTY]

Local authorities then encouraged Traveller communities to buy land to fill the gap in provision: Dale Farm was just one site purchased under this policy. But the Dale Farm community did not expect what they described as arbitrary prejudice shown by the Conservative-led Basildon Council, which repeatedly refused them planning permission to park their trailers and mobile homes and build small homes on the site, claiming the polluted former scrap yard was protected countryside, “green belt” land.

During the eviction, a Catholic chapel on site – named after St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers – was reportedly destroyed by the bailiff company, Constant & Co. Local priest Fr Dan Mason was at Dale Farm on the day.

“I was on the site … to visit my parishioners and see how they were doing. It was very traumatic,” he told the Independent Catholic News.

“One woman was injured. They told me she was pushed against a wall and kicked. She sustained a back injury. That’s what I was told. She was taken to hospital but they couldn’t take her because there were no beds. It’s all completely surreal. I know that site so well. The families are so hospitable. We sat in a caravan having a cup of tea. It felt surreal. Seeing riot police everywhere, helicopters, protesters – it looked like a war zone.”

“We sat in a caravan having a cup of tea. It felt surreal. Seeing riot police everywhere, helicopters, protesters – it looked like a war zone.”

– Parish priest Fr Dan Mason

John Baron, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Basildon and a former merchant banker, defended the clearing of the site as an enforcement of planning law.

“Don’t forget, these are families which have broken the law,” he told the BBC. “We cannot have this in this country … If we were to allow these travellers to simply stay, having broken all the laws, what sort of message does that send out to everybody else? Everybody would say: ‘Well, if they can get away with it, why can’t we get away with it?’ And we’d have chaos.”

During the eviction, the Labour party’s Richard Howitt, Member of the European Parliament for the East of England, was not allowed to observe the proceedings, saying Basildon Council ordered its security staff to forcibly remove him from the media compound adjacent to Dale Farm. He had been invited by regional television, with the written permission of the police, and had properly informed Basildon Council in advance; he has lodged a formal complaint about the Council’s actions and the assault on his person.

The MEP had previously offered to help mediate between Travellers and the council, as had church groups and state organisations. Even the United Nations condemned the planned action, “expressing its deep regret at the insistence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland authorities to proceed with the eviction of Gypsy and Traveller Families at the Dale Farm in Essex before identifying and providing culturally appropriate accommodation”.

Destroying the homes of some 86 families without providing “culturally appropriate accommodation” runs counter to international law, said Amnesty International. Meanwhile, two alternate sites were identified by Britain’s Homes and Communities agency, yet Basildon Council decided to push on with the Dale Farm clearance before planning permission on those sites was to be considered.

Residents at Dale farm said they had nowhere else to go when they were evicted [GALLO/GETTY]

The publicised eviction had attracted a number of solidarity activists to the site. They helped residents construct barricades and chained themselves to hastily constructed scaffolding towers.

“The first thing that happened, riot police broke through the fence [and were] using Tasers before their feet were even on the ground,” an activist named Jenny told a meeting at London’s Anarchist Bookfair a week after the eviction.

“People who were attached to the tower were unlocked by a very brutal ‘climbing team’ and the electricity was cut off, including to the house of a man on a ventilator… Some of the people locked on [to the gate and tower] were still there after 24 hours. The locks were removed very unsafely – it was done behind screens after getting rid of the media. People were laid into while they were still in the lock-ons.”

The following day, the travellers decided it was time to go. Jenny said: “They did not want to see anyone else hurt. They decided to leave with dignity and asked us to walk out with them… We left in dignity and solidarity.”

Cllr Tony Ball, Leader of Basildon Council, told press: “This is very encouraging, to see the travellers and their supporters leaving Dale Farm in a peaceful and dignified manner, something that I have always urged and called for.

“Sadly, this could have been achieved many years ago and without the scenes of violence which we have witnessed over the last 48 hours and the accompanying expense to the tax payer.”

Residents, witnesses and activists claim the eviction was carried out unlawfully and that, despite the legal battle fought by the residents, guidelines issued by the High Court were not followed by the police or by the bailiffs – who are now reportedly rendering the site uninhabitable, piling rubble and refuse on the community-owned land. The company devotes an entire section of its website to the removal of Travellers, noting that “Court proceedings involve delay” and promising “a fast alternative course of action”.

International context

The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted  [PDF] that “Travellers and Gypsies already face considerable discrimination and hostility in wider society and… and this could be worsened by actions taken by authorities in the current situation”.

Indeed, a 2008 report [PDF] by Human Rights First notes that some of the discrimination is seemingly endorsed by officials:

[In Italy] Thousands of Roma were driven from their homes in 2007 when mobs attacked, beating residents and burning Roma settlements to the ground, as police reportedly did not intervene in several cases to protect the victims. Some Italian political leaders encouraged a national clamour for Roma to be expelled from cities and deported.

Violent incidents have also been reported in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, the Russian Federation, Serbia, and Slovakia.

The same report also noted inflammatory racist official statements made by the prefect of Rome, Carlo Mosca, in declaring his intent to sign expulsion orders without hesitation. “The hard line is necessary,” he said, “to deal with these beasts”.

“Security pacts” were signed by the mayors of Rome and Milan, which “envisaged the forced eviction of up to 10,000 Romani people” from the two cities, disregarding EU migration rules.

In the Czech Republic, Liana Janáèková, a member of the country’s senate and a town mayor, said that problems of Romani settlement could be resolved with “dynamite”, that Roma had too many children, and that they should be “held behind an electric fence”.

Yet it is in Israel where the nomadic way of life has been most greatly criminalised under the pretence of “helping” travelling communities become more “civilised”.

Khalil al-Amour is a 46-year-old maths teacher from al-Sira, one of the 45 “unrecognised” Bedouin villages in the Negev desert, southern Israel.

“They [Israeli officials] placed demolition orders on all the homes in my village in 2006,” he told Al Jazeera. “There are about 70 families and there about 500 people in al-Sira.”

Israeli border guards were deployed as bulldozers demolished the al-Arakib Bedouin village [GALLO/GETTY]

Their homes have not yet been demolished (unlike other Bedouin villages), and are fighting their case through the court system. But their community remains without any of the state services that connect nearby villages, such as being connected to the electricity grid or having paved roads.

“People have been using generators for many years,” he said. “Now I am trying to encourage more and more families to use solar systems and solar panels – which [are] very expensive. On the other hand, the fuel used for these generators is very expensive too.”

There are some 80,000 Bedouin living in the “unrecognised” villages.

Their community has always been semi-nomadic; seasonally roaming with their herds in search of grazing pastures and returning to their home villages each year.

But when Israel passed its planning and development laws in 1965, it excluded the Bedouin villages of the Negev, “even though the Bedouin were an indigenous population and had been living there for centuries”, said Doni Remba, co-director of the Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice in Israel.

His campaign, a project of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the Jewish Alliance for Change, points out that, in addition to not having any infrastructure services, the Bedouin live under constant threat of enforced expulsion, as Israeli officials “rely on a basically discriminatory law”.

“The most recent instance of this has been the series of demolitions which has occurred in the Negev Bedouin village of al-Arakib,” Remba told Al Jazeera.

“In that case, the Israeli government sent in as many as 1,300 paramilitary police to violently expel more than 300 men, women and children. The village has been rebuilt and demolished nearly 30 times over the past year and a half alone.”

A Bedouin woman sits on the rubble of her al-Arakib home, destroyed by Israeli bulldozers [GALLO/GETTY]

What’s more, plans are afoot which Israeli officials claim will be a comprehensive resolution on the status of the Bedouin across the entire Negev.

“The Praver Plan [named after former Netanyahu aide Ehud Praver] involves demolishing 20 unrecognised villages and expelling as many as 20-40,000 of the residents if they do not accept a rather meagre and inadequate offer of compensation,” said Remba.

The plan’s goal, he said, was to concentrate the entire Bedouin community into the seven government-recognised Bedouin “townships” in the region, which are currently home to around 100,000 people – who had also been forced from their land, he added.

“Because the government has discriminated against them and neglected them so egregiously, the Bedouin are Israel’s single most economically disadvantaged population on every socio-economic parameter.

“Even the government-approved towns, though they are ‘legal’ and not subject to demolition… rank as the seven most socio-economically disadvantaged communities in all of Israel, and that’s on unemployment, on poverty, crime, education, even on infant mortality rates.

“The infant mortality rate [in Bedouin villages] is four times that of neighbouring Jewish communities, just a mile or two away – and it’s all because of the extreme discrimination in living conditions.

– Doni Remba of Bedouin-Jewish Justice

“The infant mortality rate is four times that of neighbouring Jewish communities, just a mile or two away – and it’s all because of the extreme discrimination in living conditions.”

The Israeli government intends to “erase” the Bedouin villages and replace them with Jewish communities, “to control the land… tied to the goal of what Prime Minister Netanyahu has called ‘maintaining the Jewish majority in the Negev’,” Remba told Al Jazeera.

As in the case of the Dale Farm residents, officials say that the relocation will “help” residents comply with planning laws. But, while praising his new plan, even Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu noted the Bedouin had been neglected in the land on which they had lived for generations.

“After years in which needs were insufficiently met, this government decided to take matters in hand and bring about a long-term solution of the issue,” he said.

“Our state is leaping towards the future, and you need to be part of this future… This is an historic opportunity that must not be missed.

– Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel

“The plan will allow the Bedouin, for the first time, to realise their assets and turn them from dead capital into living capital – to receive ownership of the land, which will allow for home construction according to law and for the development of enterprises and employment. This will jump the population forward and provide it with economic independence.

“Our state is leaping towards the future and you need to be part of this future. We want to help you reach economic independence. This plan is designed to bring about development and prosperity. This is an historic opportunity that must not be missed.”

This sort of rhetoric does not please many Bedouin, however.

“The problem with the plan is that it is going to uproot all of us from our ancestral land and relocate us into the poorest towns and cities,” said al-Amour.

“We are going to be uprooted; we are going to lose our traditions, our life, our culture our values.

– Khalil al-Amour, resident of al-Sira

“We are going to be uprooted; we are going to lose our traditions, our life, our culture, our values – and going to these cities – this is the antithesis of our being, as Bedouin. That is why we oppose the plan. The Jewish people here have the right to choose where they want to live. They can live in a city, they can live in a village, they can live in a moshav, in a kibbutz. The Bedouin people have to be only in cities now. It is ridiculous, it is unbelievable.”

Ridiculous, perhaps, but not unbelievable. In fact, many Bedouin and their supporters say the Praver Plan is merely a continuation of state policy that has been ongoing for decades.

In 1963, then-minister of agriculture Moshe Dayan showed his contempt for the Bedouin and their way of life, telling Haaretz:

“We must turn the Bedouin into urban labourers … It means that the Bedouin will no longer live on his land with his flocks but will become an urbanite who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children will get used to a father who wears pants, without a dagger, and who does not pick out their nits in public. They will go to school, their hair combed and parted. This will be a revolution, but it can be achieved in two generations. Not by coercion, but with direction from the state. This reality that is known as the Bedouin will disappear.”

Ongoing campaign

Al-Amour, the Bedouin leader in al-Sira, has been a teacher for 28 years, and is also a lecturer in computer network systems, holds a masters degree in education administration and has just finished his second year of studying law.

He told Al Jazeera that he would keep fighting for his community, and would never leave his nomadic lifestyle behind.

“I will be always moving, to represent my community and my people.

– Khalil al-Amour, resident of al-Sira

“I will be travelling to Geneva and I will attend the meeting of the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and then after that will be going to Berne and meet supporters in Lausanne. I will be always moving, to represent my community and my people.”

Indeed, he – and the thousands like him – have supporters across the globe.

New York-based Doni Remba said that discrimination against Bedouin must end.

“If we believe that Israel is a democracy, as it is claiming to be, that is the minimum that it owes its Bedouin citizens – to give them the same rights and opportunities that it gives to its Jewish citizens.

“[The Praver plan] is a violation of Israel’s basic democratic values, and its commitment to equality – and I see it as a violation of basic Jewish moral values.

– Doni Remba, of Bedouin-Jewish Justice

“That was what Israel promised in its declaration of independence – to develop the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants… [the Praver Plan] is a violation of Israel’s basic democratic values, and its commitment to equality – and I see it as a violation of basic Jewish moral values.

“I also think it’s extremely bad and inflames relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel – and that can’t lead to a good end.”

Back in Essex, outside Dale Farm, former residents paid tribute to their supporters and called for continued solidarity with travelling communities, as the bailiff company continued to destroy their homes:

“They’re doing things they are not supposed to do,” said one resident named Clem. “They are smashing everything up, the bailiffs are making a big mess in the middle of the site. The residents are crying. But when you came to Dale Farm you came to support a cause, because you knew what was happening was wrong. I love you with all my heart. No-one ever stood up for Travellers before, you made history.”

Pearl concluded: “I love every activist in the world, without them the world would be a hard, wicked place.”

Follow James Brownsell and Pennie Quinton on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell and @penrosequinton

Source: Al Jazeera