An Israeli government plan to relocate thousands of Bedouin citizens to what it has dubbed a new township in the southern Negev desert is a betrayal, a lawyer representing the Bedouin villagers has said.
Sanaa Ibn Bari, a laywer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said the residents of Wadi al-Naam – a so-called “unrecognised” Bedouin village in southern Israel – are strongly opposed to the newly approved plan.
“We are basically back to square one, where the government is, in a chronic way, suggesting the same solution over and over without implementing the needs of [the] Wadi al-Naam community,” Ibn Bari told Al Jazeera.
The Israeli government’s housing cabinet recently voted in favour of moving 7,000 residents of Wadi al-Naam into the new community, which will cover about 6,000 dunams (1,500 acres) of land, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported. Israel’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Uri Ariel, who oversees Bedouin settlement issues, said the plan was made in cooperation with the residents of Wadi al-Naam and that they were happy with it, according to the report.
But Ibn Bari said the residents “feel very much betrayed by [the decision] because it has not been made with their consent in any kind of way”.
Home to approximately 13,000 residents, Wadi al-Naam is the largest of approximately 35 so-called “unrecognised” Bedouin villages in southern Israel.
Being unrecognised by the state means the villages do not appear on official maps, are not hooked up to the local power grid or water and sewage systems, and most often lack paved roads, clinics, schools and other services. The Israeli authorities also regularly demolish houses in the villages.
Wadi al-Naam sits in close proximity to the Ramat Hovav industrial area, the country’s largest chemical manufacturing site, and borders a military zone. High-voltage power lines also cut above the village from a nearby power station.
But despite these challenges, the residents have resisted the government’s efforts to move them into Segev Shalom, a Bedouin township about 15km from Wadi al-Naam.
In 2014, the state issued a proposal to relocate the village to an area in the southern part of the township. Wadi al-Naam residents launched a Supreme Court challenge to that plan, and their case is still before the court, which last year asked them to present their own planning alternatives. The residents have insisted on living in an agricultural village that will allow them to maintain a traditional way of life.
“For many long years, we have negotiated with the authorities. Again and again, we said we are flexible and willing to negotiate on everything, other than Segev Shalom. We seek to form a farming community that will suit our lives as Bedouins,” Labad Abu-Afash, a member of the village’s local committee, said in 2014.
The National Planning and Building Council later recommended that the government build a town for the villagers independent of Segev Shalom, and come to all decisions only after negotiating with them.
Ibn Bari said the state’s recent plan, therefore, came “as a shock to us because it basically … contradicts the recommendations of the planning authorities and also it’s more or less a slap in the face [to] the Supreme Court that was [overseeing] the process”.
She said the proposed relocation area “will be like a neighbourhood inside Segev Shalom”, which the residents have objected to.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter.
Michal Rotem, of the Negev Coexistence Forum, a Negev-based group working for Bedouin rights, said the numbers make it clear that the village will not be rural in the state’s proposed location.
“It will be like a town … For sure, there will not be a place for people to cultivate or have their herds,” Rotem told Al Jazeera, noting that the state’s aim is to concentrate the people of Wadi al-Naam on the smallest amount of land possible.
“At the end [of the day], it will be, I guess, exactly what the state wanted in the first place: just concentrating the village on [a smaller] amount of land and making it an urban settlement within a couple of years,” she said.
Before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Bedouin in the Negev totalled between 65,000 and 90,000 people. Most had developed a “largely sedentary way of life“, grazing herds of animals and cultivating crops while living in specific villages with traditional land ownership agreements.
. They’re like dormitory towns. Nothing has been done to make them attractive.”]
After the war, about 10,000 Bedouin, representing only 19 of the original 95 Bedouin tribes in the area, remained in Israel. Those who stayed were subjected to military rule, like other Palestinian citizens of the state, until 1966.
Several tribes were also moved off their lands to an area in the northern Negev called the Siyag, which was known for its low agricultural yield. The residents of Wadi al-Naam were moved to their current location in the 1950s, Ibn Bari said.
Then, in the late 1960s, the Israeli government began building townships with the goal of urbanising Bedouin citizens. Today, about half the total Bedouin population in the Negev – which totals more than 160,000 people – live in seven Bedouin townships: Segev Shalom (also known as Sgib al-Salaam), Lakiya, Hura, Rahat, Tel Sheva, Arara BaNegev and Kseife.
The Bedouin towns are annually among the poorest in Israel and suffer from high poverty rates, few employment opportunities, a lack of infrastructure, and weak education and health services.
“Nothing has changed – and that’s the problem,” said Ismael Abu Saad, a Bedouin professor at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva and an expert on Bedouin society in the Negev. “The option of urbanisation failed … There’s nothing there [in the townships]. They’re like dormitory towns. Nothing has been done to make them attractive.”
Abu Saad told Al Jazeera that urbanisation stripped the Bedouin of their traditional livelihoods and turned them into unskilled labourers. Given these conditions, Abu Saad, who lives in Lakiya himself, said Bedouin citizens in unrecognised villages have no real incentive to move into the townships.
“Why should [they] move into the towns and move into poverty, move into an unclear future there? It’s like a prison, you know. You move there [and] there is no way out,” he said.
Ibn Bari said the residents of Wadi al-Naam would submit official objections to the state’s plans for relocation to the Supreme Court this week.
Meanwhile, she criticised Israel for not giving the Bedouin community more options to choose a type of community that can meet their daily needs.
“If you were a Jewish citizen in the south, you could pick your way of life. You could choose to live in a township. You could choose to live in a town, in a kibbutz [communal village], in a moshav [agricultural village], in a farm,” she said.
“But when a Bedouin resident is only [proposing] the idea of an agricultural village, it is dismissed. And the government keeps proposing the same solution of an urban way of life.”