Zionism neoliberal style

Attempts to prettify Israel’s land-grabbing policies are not new, but have metamorphosed over time, writes author.

Israeli minister without portfolio Benny
The language of benevolence and goodwill decorates Benny Begin's 16-page report and disguises the Prower Plan's actual intention of displacement as one of "development" [AFP]

In the recently adopted revisions to the Prawer Plan, which would forcibly relocate up to 70,000 Bedouins in the Negev, Israeli Knesset Member Benny Begin attempts to distract attention from the overtly racist tone of the original plan proposed in 2011. Instead of characterising Bedouins, whose impoverished communities are scattered across the vast Negev, as illegal squatters, foreign invaders and land robbers, Begin’s report coolly asserts the mutual advantage the Prawer Plan will have on Jewish and Bedouin communities alike. 

Disregarding the fact that Bedouins have uniformly rejected the Prawer Plan, Begin writes: 

“It is the government’s responsibility to take action in order to enable the Bedouins to extricate themselves from these circumstances and to grant them, and particularly the younger generation the tools necessary to successfully cope with the challenges of the future.” 

The language of benevolence and goodwill decorates Begin’s 16-page report and disguises the Plan’s actual intention of displacement as one of “development”. At least 44,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel will be displaced from their homes if the plan goes forward. 

Attempts to prettify Israel’s land-grabbing policies are not new, but have metamorphosed over time. Once the Jewish National Fund’s tree-planting project greenwashed the expropriation of Palestinian land; today, promises of egalitarian progress through joint industrial zones and a blossoming private sector accompany the Zionist project in the Negev. 

Today’s rhetoric, embodied in Begin’s report, reflects the trend in Israel to “privatise Zionism”, a phrase Neve Gordon and Erez Tzfadia coined in 2007 when writing about the proliferation of private security firms manning checkpoints in the West Bank and demolishing Bedouin villages in the Negev, as well as the increasing presence of real estate moguls developing the land from which Bedouins had been expelled.   

Efforts to Judaise the Negev

In 2009, the Israel Land Administration enacted a law that would privatise historically state-owned land that had been expropriated from Palestinians expelled from their homes in the Nakba of 1948. In an interview in 2010, Shir Hever explained to me that the timing of the above land reform bill, “coincide[d] with the very deep shift within Israel from a republican, strong-state model of an ultra-nationalist welfare state, into a new model of neoliberalism, while still keeping the ultra-nationalism”. 

Zionists’ pursuit of the Negev has a long, if failed, history. Israeli leaders have always regarded the Negev as an alluring, but vexing, frontier – a canvas for “pure Zionism” as Daniel Mattio, chairman of the Chicago Israeli Philanthropic Fund, described it in 2008; and a measure of Zionism’s vitality, as David Ben-Gurion said: “The Negev will be the test of the creative ability and pioneering valour of Israel.” 

In a definitive historical overview of the various efforts to Judaise the Negev, researcher Rebecca Manski explains that the government began to place them in the hands of private firms in 2006. 

That year, the Israeli government allocated $4bn to the private development group, Daroma Idan Hanegev, Ltd, and the American managing consulting giant, McKinsey & Co. 

According to Manski, this massive outsourcing was “unprecedented” and consisted of a two-tiered approach that “involv[ed] the removal of unrecognised Bedouin villages on the one hand, and incorporation and construction of new Jewish towns on the other”. 

“Israeli leaders have always regarded the Negev as an alluring, but vexing, frontier – a canvas for ‘pure Zionism’… and a measure of Zionism’s vitality.”

A couple of years earlier, in 2004, Haim Blumenblat, the CEO of Daroma, joined Ben Gurion University president, Avishay Braverman on a JNF panel discussion at the annual Herzliya Conference, during which they rallied around the JNF’s attempts to revamp stalled efforts to Judaise and “develop” the Negev. 

Blumenblat declared: “We need to build new communities and develop young leadership that can implement this vision.”

Speaking with less tact but decidedly more honesty, Braverman qualified what Blumenblat meant by “vision” and “new communities”: “If Zionism is a motivating force, then it needs to travel south to the Negev, so that Israel does not turn into a Palestinian state. If we follow this model, I believe there will be a breakthrough.” 

The model Braverman refers to takes form in Blumenblat’s “Negev 2015” or “Plan Daroma”, which, according to Daroma’s 2005 slideshow, views private development as the surest way to “improve the quality of life which will attract people and businesses to the area”. The first step toward creating such prosperity is to remove “barriers to economic development (eg, bureaucracy)”. 

Like Begin’s Prawer Plan, “Negev 2015” also presents itself as simply an egalitarian enterprise, promising improved infrastructure in the dilapidated Bedouin townships with more opportunities for businesses and employment for everyone. Meanwhile, the plan dedicates 1.2 billion NIS to Jewish settlements while overseeing the wanton destruction of so-called unrecognised Bedouin communities that have made their home in the Negev for hundreds of years – without the assistance of massive government subsidies. 

So far, the only proposal Daroma and Begin have come up with to relieve unemployment and poverty among the deliberately destabilised population of Bedouins in the Negev is through joint “Jewish-Bedouin” industrial zones. Modelled on the industrial zones, Israel has established inside settlements in the Occupied West Bank, businesses receive ample incentives to establish factories in these zones where exploitation of workers is rampant. 

Factories on occupied land 

Take, for instance, SodaStream, the company that has marketed itself as providing a solution to the extravagant waste produced by bottled water and sodas, while it seeks to downplay its rivalling reputation as a profiteer of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. SodaStream, a prominent target of the BDS campaign, has placed its main factory in illegal settlement Ma’ale Adumim’s industrial park, Mishor Edomim. 

Why did SodaStream establish its flagship factory inside an illegal settlement? According to Peter Wiseburgh, the founder of the company, the decision was not political, but economic. “It was a good deal. Not a political act.” 

To be sure, the Government of Israel lures businesses to set up shop in settlements by offering low rent, tax incentives and a lenient enforcement of environmental and labour protection laws, while presenting these endeavours to the outside world as providing the local population with a “hub for co-existence and a bridge for peace”, in the words of Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin. 

In reality, industrial zones like Mishor Edomim are more accurately described as exploitation zones, where the most vulnerable workers trade their labour for a little cash. Kav LaOved, an Israeli workers’ rights organisation, has consistently reported that SodaStream pays Palestinian workers substandard wages, subjects them to poor working conditions and fires them at any sign of protest. 

Yes, establishing a factory on occupied land provides capitalists very “good deals”, indeed. 

It’s no wonder then that SodaStream accepted a 25 million NIS grant from Israel’s Investment Promotion Centre to build its next plant within Israel’s Green Line, in the Idan Industrial Zone of the Negev, which will function in much the same way as settlement industrial parks like Mishor Edomim. According to the director of the IPC, SodaStream chose the industrial zone in the Negev – over many other options – because of the alluring tax cuts the State of Israel offered it. Doubtless, the promise of reduced “bureaucracy” (read: worker and environmental protections) makes the deal that much sweeter.

As Israel throws billions of dollars into making the Negev a place where “people want to live“, there are tens of thousands of people who live there now and would prefer to remain – without the interference of state-driven, predatory capitalism armed with bulldozers and demolition orders.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco and the West Bank. She is a graduate of Stanford University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CharEsilver