Israel's image of 'democracy'
the Negev, an area targeted for so-called 'development', lies the
Israel that its government does not want to be
Tuesday 8 September 2009
A struggle over land, home demolitions, and an Israeli government
working with Jewish agencies to "develop" the land for the benefit
of one group at the expense of another. It could be a picture of
the illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, but in fact,
it's inside Israel – in the Negev.
The Negev, or al-Naqab in Arabic, is an area that since the
inception of the state has been targeted by Israeli governments,
along with agencies like the Jewish National Fund (JNF), for
This investment in the country's periphery is characterised by
systematic discrimination against the Negev's Bedouin population,
many of whom live in "unrecognised" villages
or townships. Recent
developments bring these policies into sharper focus, as well as
pointing to fundamental problems with Israel's image as "the Middle
East's only democracy".
First, three vital clinics serving Bedouin women and children have
been shut down, with the result that the nearest
equivalent facilities are now hours away. The official reason is a
shortage of staff, but this does not sit well with the
severity of the health problem among these Bedouin children, where the
infant mortality rate is more than three times higher than in the
Israeli Jewish community.
Second, in mid-November the Knesset passed an amendment to prevent
around 25,000 Bedouins from voting for their mayor and regional
councillors. Elections had already been postponed for two years,
but now the law means "that as long as the minister of interior
deems the residents not ready for elections, the elections will be
Finally, six weeks ago, lawyers acting on behalf of the Bedouins
who live in the unrecognised village of Umm al-Hieran appealed
against a previous court decision ordering the eviction of the
Ironically, this village had been established by the Israeli
military in the 1950s as part of a wider-scale forced relocation of
Bedouins from territory intended for Jewish settlement. Now they
are once again being targeted for removal, labelled "intruders", to
make way for the planned creation of a Jewish town, Hiran.
Meanwhile, there have been reports about a Bedouin "mini-intifada"
in the Negev, with Israeli military personnel targeted on the roads
near a key base. Such fears are not new: a Haaretz article in 2004
predicted that a "Bedouin intifada" was "on the way" – a conclusion
supposedly shared by senior government and military leaders.
What then, is the wider context? As a Human Rights Watch report put
it last year, "the state's motives for these discriminatory,
exclusionary and punitive policies can be elicited from policy
documents and official rhetoric". The Israeli state's aim:
"maximising its control over Negev land and increasing the Jewish
population in the area for strategic, economic and demographic
reasons". Professor Oren Yifatchel of Ben-Gurion University has put
it bluntly: "the government wants to de-Arabise the land".
This is the common thread that runs through Israel's approach to
the Negev since 1948: from physical expulsions and the legislation
used to exclude communities from official recognition, through to
budget allocations, creating Bedouin townships, and the flipside of
"development" – demolitions.
In 2003, then-PM Ariel Sharon announced a new initiative calling
"for the establishment of some 30 new towns" in the Galilee and
Negev. One of the PM's advisers at the time, Uzi Keren, told a
radio station that it was important to locate the new towns in "the
places that are important to the state, that is, for Jewish
settlement", in order to "strengthen settlement in areas sparse in
One of the groups helping the state is the Jewish Agency for
Israel. A few years ago, the organisation's foreign media liaison
officer was quoted on the JTA news website as describing the goal
of the joint venture with the Israeli government as "a Jewish
majority in all parts of Israel".
Another key organisation involved is the Jewish National Fund. Its
UK website, for example, talks about how "the future of Israel lies
in the Negev" and says the goal of the "major initiative" known as
"Blueprint Negev" is to "revitalise Israel's southern
In January, the chief executive of JNF in the US, Russell Robinson,
expressed his concern that "if we don't get 500,000 people to move
to the Negev in the next five years, we're going to lose it". To
what – or who – went unsaid. In 2005, Robinson was clearer about
the consequences of the JNF's "project to remake" the demographics:
"such an influx" of Jews would mean "a certain amount of
displacement" for the Bedouin.
Robinson actually tried to present this as helping tackle Bedouin
unemployment. With their slick focus on "environmentally friendly"
initiatives and helping the disadvantaged Arabs, groups like the
JNF do their best to make sure that scenes like this go
This is the Israel that its government and propagandists do not
want to be seen, the Israel where non-Jews are a demographic
"threat", and the state works with agencies (often funded by
western donors) to "secure" a Jewish majority. It is the reality
behind the myth of Israel as the region's only democracy, and away
from the weekly twists and turns of the peace process, such
policies shed light on the root problem preventing a resolution of
the conflict just as well as, or better than, the number of housing
units in Gilo.