Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Bedouins Have Nowhere to Turn: The 'Wine Route' Is the Idyllic Name for Israel's Theft of Tribal Land

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Bedouins Have Nowhere to Turn: The 'Wine Route' Is the Idyllic Name for Israel's Theft of Tribal Land

Article excerpt

The crowded room felt like a sauna, a natural effect of the scorching sun hitting the tin roof and the lack of a fan or air conditioner to ease the desert heat. Everyone was talking about the "Wine Route," a benign, almost idyllic name for a sinister zoning plan the Israeli government is now implementing.

"It is high time to strategize," one person said. "There is no way to oppose it," another responded.

The meeting's organizer, a coordinator from the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, asked our hosts to speak. One after another, the Bedouin men stood up to relate their personal stories. They all told of the state-sanctioned abuse carried out against their community. Injustice followed injustice to produce a merciless tale of expulsion, violence, repression and deception.

Ali Abu Sheita recounted how his parents had been torn from their tribal land and transferred to a barren region where for years they had had to walk nearly nine miles with their camels and donkeys just to bring water to the village. In the Jewish village nearby, Mr. Abu Sheita continued, pipes delivered water directly to every sink. Halil Al Aseiby pointed to the high-voltage electricity poles just outside the shack, emphasizing the cruel regulation that forbids "unrecognized Bedouins" to connect their homes to the grid. "Even people who need to keep life-saving medicine refrigerated do not receive an exception," he said. Another man waved a demolition order that was pasted on his "illegal" shack April 25. "Any day now," he said, "the bulldozers might arrive."

These Arab Bedouins are Israeli citizens just as I am; their only crime is that they are not Jewish.

Yet the Bedouins are the indigenous population of Israel's arid desert, the Negev. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, approximately 60,000 Bedouins lived in the area, but following the 1948 war only 11,000 or so remained; the rest fled or were expelled to Jordan and Egypt. Under the directives of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, those who remained in Israel were uprooted from the lands they had inhabited and were concentrated in the northeastern part of the Negev, a mostly barren area known as the "enclosure zone," while the more fertile western part of the Negev was reserved for Jewish settlement.

Throughout the 1950s and until the mid-1960s, a considerable portion of their ancestral land was confiscated and registered as state land. In the 1970s, about half the Bedouin population was moved once again by the Israeli government, this time into seven townships. The idea was to concentrate the Bedouin population within a small area that comprises only a very small percentage of their original tribal land, the land from which they had been expelled. These Bedouins had to give up all claims to their ancestral land in order to be granted the dubious privilege of living in these overcrowded townships.

The remaining half of the Bedouin population, which today comprises about 75,000 people, was unwilling to give up their property rights and is now scattered across the Negev in 45 villages that have never been recognized by the state.

We visited one of these villages this past weekend with the Negev Coexistence Forum. No more than 25 minutes from my small but nice, air-conditioned apartment are a series of Bedouin shantytowns. None of the homes in these unrecognized villages are connected to electricity grids, running water, a sewage system or telephone services. There are no paved roads leading to the villages, and as a result, emergency services cannot reach them quickly, while access to health and education is difficult and limited. …

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