City Upon the Hill
Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a visionary. One of his dreams was to transform the Negev desert from a desolate and barren space into a flourishing heartland of the Zionist state. Ben Gurion’s vision has indeed been realized, and today the Negev is a blossoming region, dotted with many Jewish communities and thriving farms (and a famous textile factory near Dimona). Yet, the Negev also inhabits around 250,000 Bedouin, a large part of whom live in squalor and poverty, in settlements unrecognized by the state, and on disputed land. It’s not entirely clear how the Bedouin featured in Ben-Gurion’s plans. An educated guess would be – not much.
Israel is now attempting to resolve the land dispute between the Bedouin and the authorities that has been simmering since the foundation of Israel in 1948, by proposing a mechanism for dealing with land ownership claims and compensation. The mechanism also calls for the evacuation of 35 Bedouin villages that are not recognized by the state and the resettlement of the residents into existing or new towns. Over the weekend, thousands of Bedouin and their supporters demonstrated against the government plan, which has yet to be approved. In scenes reminiscent of Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank, the Bedouin were venting their anger and frustration as a marginalized segment of Israeli society.
Population re-settlement and re-location automatically bring up unflattering comparisons to similar historical events, including those undergone by the Jewish people not so long ago. Yet before we get carried away with sweeping accusations, we must keep in mind that the reality on the ground is extremely complicated. The Bedouin have refused past offers by Israel for urban resettlement and land compensation. As nomads, they acquire and cultivate land according to their needs and with total disregard to the accepted law and modern-day circumstances on the ground. Unofficial and unrecognized Bedouin settlements are disconnected from the central power and water grid – and indeed from Israeli society as a whole. The poverty and squalor breed lawlessness, and the crime rates among the Bedouin is extremely high. Israel, as a sovereign state based on the rule of law, is merely attempting to exercise its right to preserve the law.
Screaming blue murder in this case is wrong, just as in the case of dismantling illegal settlements in the West Bank. Citizens expect their government to uphold and enforce the law. A government failing to do so, loses its legitimacy to exist. The same law must apply to all citizens, regardless of political circumstances. The humanitarian and left-wing organizations that can now be heard giving voice to terms such as “apartheid”, “transfer” and “racism” are not only missing the target, they are also belittling the true meaning of these harsh words. No Bedouin is being forcefully expelled, no citizenship is being retracted, and the Bedouin are being offered land of their own. Decrying this program while condoning and advocating the transfer of Jewish settlers from the West Bank is morally twisted. The law is the law, and must be applied unequivocally across the board.
But still, the program as it is outlined today leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, and Israel would do well to reconsider some of its components. The fact that the Bedouin came out by the score to demonstrate against the program, means that its current outline is unaccepted by the general populace and is therefore flawed in essence. The fact that tribal leaders were consulted during the process of drafting the program means that an agreement is possible. Israel should reopen negotiations with the Bedouin leaders and hash out terms that are accepted by the majority of the Bedouin.
The rule of law is a fundamental principle of being a democracy. Priding itself on being the only true democracy in a region that is entirely undemocratic by nature and complexion, Israel must not forget other fundamental democratic principles such as guaranteeing the rights of minorities under its rule and the freedom of expression. If it does not wish to tear its seams, Israeli society must take the Bedouin way of life and culture into consideration. The case of the three Druze soldiers being singled out for additional scrutiny at the entrance of a high-security facility, while their fellow soldiers were allowed in, shows us that Israeli society still has a long way to go before it can claim itself as the Middle East’s “Shining City Upon a Hill”.