That Bedouin communities, in both Israel and the Occupied Territories, face strikingly similar challenges, underscores the inadequacy of the two state “solution”. The Israeli Knesset is set to pass legislation this week to displace 40,000 Negev Bedouins within Israel. Called the Prawer Plan, this is part of Tel Aviv’s latest attempt to displace Bedouins on both sides of the Green Line that separates Israel from the Occupied Territories. The Israeli government’s policy tries to make Bedouins, whether citizens of Israel or subjects of military occupation, effectively invisible.
Two years before Israel was established in 1948, there were as many as 95,000 Bedouins in the desert region called the Negev. By 1953, there were only about 11,000. The new Israeli state had relocated many to smaller tracts of land within a designated area of the Negev. Others fled to the West Bank. Over the next sixty years, the militarisation of the border between Israel and the West Bank cemented the physical and legal separation of these two Bedouin communities. Today, however, both communities face similar challenges.
In Israel and the West Bank, Bedouins encounter administrative barriers that make everyday life exasperating. Bedouin villagers must deal with complicated zoning procedures, disputed land claims, and an active policy of demolishing Bedouin homes. This is because Israel’s land policy tries to shrink Bedouin land. In Israel proper, the Prawer Plan forcibly transfers Bedouins into urban townships away from their land. Since Israel won’t formally recognise the Bedouins’ right to stay on the land on which they live, everything – including getting enough water to drink – has been a struggle. The Prawer Plan will be a tragic end to Bedouin communities’ valiant struggle.
Under current Israeli military law, if a Bedouin resident in the West Bank needs to repair a leaky pipe, or build a water cistern, she/he has to get official permission from the Israeli military, (known paradoxically as the Civil Administration). The bureaucracy repeatedly denies permission for projects as minor as pipe repairs, to laying down new pipes.
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By contrast, Israelis in settlements build homes with plenty of running water. In fact, Israeli settlers in the West Bank get as much water as they like (369 liters per day per person), and 24 times more water than their neighbouring Bedouin villages who consume 15 liters per day per person. And, for however little water they get, Bedouins end up paying as much as 4 times more than their Jewish counterparts. The Israeli military also demolishes Bedouin homes and water structures. In 2011, 82 water structures were demolished. There are thousands of demolition orders still pending. As a result, Bedouins have to travel several kilometres to transport their own water in tankers. This is an expensive enterprise: They have to rent a tractor, and the tankers themselves are small.
In Israel, comparable state planning objectives constrain and frustrate Bedouins’ access to water in areas like the Negev. For the past few years, Israel has been reorganising the Negev to accommodate expanding military and housing needs, to make way for the Prawer Plan.
Under the plan, Israel will forcibly relocate and urbanise the Bedouins, and expropriate their land for state development purposes. In preparation for the plan, the Israeli state has created strict requirements for recognising Bedouin villages and for permitting construction. Those requirements leave 35 villages, with some 70,000 people, unrecognised by Israel. The Israeli Water Authority does not provide direct water connections for those who live in these unrecognised villages. Families living in these areas have to pay for their own water pipes or rely on their own tankers, just as Bedouins do in the West Bank. And, they end up paying much higher rates than neighbouring Jewish Israelis. In one case, in the Bedouin village of Beer M’shash, a family paid almost 13 times more for its water than nearby Jewish neighbourhoods.
Green Line is irrelevant
When it comes to basic rights such as access to water, the Bedouin citizens of Israel are treated no better than Bedouins living under Israeli military occupation. Ultimately, the Green Line is not a border the Israeli state respects. When the Israeli Civil Administration destroys water cisterns in the West Bank, it violates Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Similarly, the Israeli government violates human rights law, when it conditions the right to water on the state’s planning objectives inside its own territory.
The different legal regimes do not produce a significant difference in Israel’s policies. If Israel were bound to the different legal norms governing the West Bank and the Negev, one would expect that Bedouins who are citizens of Israel would be treated categorically differently than Bedouins under military law. While Oslo is based on the assumption that Israel will abide by territorial limits, in reality, Israel’s behaviour is not different across territory, but across populations. If the Bedouins, on both sides of Green Line are to see any improvement in their quality of life, a meaningful solution must account for the reality of Israeli discrimination towards Palestinians, whether citizens or non-citizens.
Zohra Ahmed is a lawyer based in New York. She travelled to the Negev and the West Bank in April 2013 with a group of law students from Fordham Law School, and conducted an investigation into Bedouin communities’ access to water.