Thabet Abu Rass of Adalah on Bedouin displacement in the Negev, apartheid and Arab-Jewish relations

Dr Thabat Abu Rass

"Can you imagine, a Jewish guy today can live in a city, in a town ... Jewish people can live in farms, in ranches. At the same time they are suggesting, according to the Prawer Plan, only urbanisation for the Bedouins" says Rass. "We are saying Bedouins can be modernised without being urbanised."

Since July 2010 Israeli bulldozers have reduced the village of Al-Araqib in the Negev desert, south Israel, to rubble 64 times. The Bedouin community there have rebuilt their homes every time. According to Dr Thabet Abu Rass, what is happening to this village is a good example of what will take place across the region if the Israeli government implement the Prawer Plan.

The Plan, a controversial bill designed by the Israeli government, could see up to 70,000 Bedouins forcibly removed from their homes in the Negev desert, the demolishing of 'unrecognised villages,' the confiscation of their land and the building of towns for Jewish citizens in their place whilst the Bedouin community themselves are forcibly transferred into urban townships.

Rass, director of the Naqab project at Adalah - the first Arab-run legal centre in Israel and partner of Christian Aid - is in London to discuss the Plan. A large part of Adalah's work is international advocacy; lobbying the government on human rights issues, talking to the international community, human rights groups, NGOs and universities on the issue of Israel-Palestine.

One of the politicians Rass met on this visit is Jack Straw, MP for Blackburn, who recently tried to visit the Negev. Rass is pushing Straw to pressure the Israeli government – who are already worried about international condemnation - not to pass the bill. "There are a lot of indicators that the Israelis are really nervous of international intervention on this issue; they know that there is a kind of a battle, a diplomatic battle between us and the government" says Rass.

There is currently a heated debate taking place among right-wing parties in Israel about how to proceed with the Plan. Though it was approved in June last year, six months later it was frozen. Israeli cabinet minister Benny Begin, in charge of the plan, resigned acknowledging that the Bedouins did not support it, contrary to what was being reported to the outside world.

In December, Dror Almog, who heads the team responsible for resettling the Bedouin community, claimed that 80 percent of Bedouins actually supported the plan and that those who protested against it represented merely a fraction of the community living there. Almog said that most do not speak out because of social pressure and threats.

Now Yair Shamir, the minister of agriculture, has replaced Begin: "he is more extremist than anybody else so far in dealing with this issue," says Rass. Shamir has said that the issue of land should be solved with co-operation with the Bedouins, not through force and so froze the plan for one month, promising to start a dialogue with the Bedouins – something that has been virtually non-existent.

But it was a "major mistake" to limit freezing the plan to one month, points out Rass, who demands stalling the bill for longer and stopping the house demolitions that villages like Al-Araqib has seen. "It's unbelievable, each year over 1,000 houses are demolished by the state of Israel, by the government of Israel. If you want to solve the problem you should try and build trust with the Bedouins and this can come through stopping the demolition of houses" he says.

Representatives of the Israeli government visit the Negev often, says Rass, laying out different options for the Bedouins and putting pressure on them to leave. But they completely disregard their deep connection to the land. "Bedouins can't give their identity and their land is one of the components of Bedouin identity. If you take land from the Bedouins, they will be left with nothing so they are against the Prawer Plan. It's not only the compensation, that's not enough. You are humiliating the Bedouins when you are suggesting money for his land."

Rass grew up in Israel knowing there were certain areas he could not enter, firing or military zones for example, but now for the first time Israel are closing areas and only allowing entry based on ethnicity. "For the first time since the proclamation of the state of Israel, Israel is moving to destroy Bedouin villages and to establish and build on the ruins of those villages Jewish towns. This behaviour around the world is called apartheid."

According to Rass, the Bedouins living in the Negev are in favour of the Israeli government developing the area, but only if it is honest and offers Bedouins equal rights. "We are against uneven development, and this is what's going on right now in the Negev. We are against racist policies, we are against inequality" says Rass; like the issue of transferring these communities into urban townships to 'modernise' them.

"Can you imagine, a Jewish guy today can live in a city, in a town, a Jewish person can live in a Kibbutz or a Moshav - both are small agricultural settlements - Jewish people can live in farms, in ranches. At the same time they are suggesting, according to the Prawer Plan, they are suggesting only urbanisation for the Bedouins" says Rass. "We are saying Bedouins can be modernised without being urbanised."

Those who support the expulsion plan claim that Bedouins have not been permanently in the Negev, and that they have failed to prove ownership of their land; but at the same time, the traditional Bedouin ownership system is not recognised by the Israeli state and therefore they have lost hundreds of cases to protect their land in Israeli courts.

Yet under the British Mandate, the Bedouin land ownership system was recognised. Rass produces a photo of a deed from 1929, written in Arabic under the Mandate, and shows it to me. Next to the certificate it says in English: "My forefathers lived in Al Sira [one of the 'unrecognised' villages] for seven generations before my great-grandfather bought the land from the Al Hasuni Bedouin in 1921."

"The legal argument is unacceptable for us" says Rass. "The Bedouins lived in the Negev before the state of Israel. They didn't immigrate to the state of Israel after the proclamation of the state. So they are not immigrants, they are ancestral, they are indigenous people and they are entitled, according to international law, to transitional justice."

According to Rass, the Prawer Plan is ideologically motivated. Given the current conflict between Hamas and Fatah and the many Arab countries surrounding them that have descended into turmoil, the Israeli government are strong now. This means they feel they are in a position to grab more and more land:

"Israel is very strong now and it's about time to increase Judaisation of the space. 93 and a half per cent of the total Israeli geographical land is defined as a state land and they would still like to increase this figure to more than 93 and a half per cent" he says.

Rass does not believe that the Plan is only bad for the Bedouin community, and for this reason he does not think the government will implement it. "Prawer has the potential to inflame Arab-Jewish relations in Israel so they will be very careful. Criminalising people just because they are sitting on the land is crazy. I know that some people are talking with the government now, Jewish people. They say this way it's not going to work; it's threatening not only the image of Israel, it's threatening some Israelis. It can lead to an intifada."

Rass produces another document by way of example; this time it depicts the day of rage that took place on 30 November last year when demonstrations took place across Palestine, against the Prawer Plan. In Haifa and Houra undercover Israeli police mixed with the crowd, appearing to be taking part in the protest then suddenly pulled their guns. In another photograph, one points his rifle at the head of a fourteen-year-old boy.

"The violence that took place in 30 November can be repeated. It was in Haifa and in Houra in the Negev, next time it's going to be in other places. Another day of anger has already been prepared for the end of February. To cope with this is going to be very difficult."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor