Commentary Magazine


Topic: Negev Desert

Israel-Bashers Let the Bedouin Rot

The Israeli government has waved the white flag. After trying to put through a rational plan for the Negev that would bring some aid and infrastructure to their nation’s most impoverished population, Jerusalem has given up. The announcement was greeted as a victory for Israel-bashers that painted the plan created by the government’s director of planning Ehud Prawer and former Cabinet minister Benny Begin as a racist land grab that stole land from the Bedouin. After violent demonstrations supported by a minority of Bedouin and international protests supported by the cast of usual suspects involved in efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state, the Netanyahu government has understandably cut its losses. With so much else to deal with in terms of the Iranian nuclear threat and the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, what was the point of sticking their necks out on an issue where they were getting killed by both the left and the right?

The demise of the Prawer-Begin plan will be celebrated by the left as setback to Israeli control of the Negev and by the right as the collapse of a plan they saw as a dangerous giveaway of state land since it would have allocated vast tracts of desert territory to the nomads. But the only real losers here are the Bedouin. They are the poorest members of Israeli society and many live in ramshackle shantytowns with no infrastructure or state services. In exchange for giving up some of the area that they claimed, albeit without legal proof of ownership, many would have been left in place and a minority would have been moved to new towns where they could have joined the 21st century. While leftist foes of Israel denounced this as paternalism or colonialism, their victory leaves the Bedouin in the same desperate condition. But then again, like those who pose as friends of the Palestinians, the point of the exercise isn’t to help the Arabs; it’s to hurt Israel.

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The Israeli government has waved the white flag. After trying to put through a rational plan for the Negev that would bring some aid and infrastructure to their nation’s most impoverished population, Jerusalem has given up. The announcement was greeted as a victory for Israel-bashers that painted the plan created by the government’s director of planning Ehud Prawer and former Cabinet minister Benny Begin as a racist land grab that stole land from the Bedouin. After violent demonstrations supported by a minority of Bedouin and international protests supported by the cast of usual suspects involved in efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state, the Netanyahu government has understandably cut its losses. With so much else to deal with in terms of the Iranian nuclear threat and the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, what was the point of sticking their necks out on an issue where they were getting killed by both the left and the right?

The demise of the Prawer-Begin plan will be celebrated by the left as setback to Israeli control of the Negev and by the right as the collapse of a plan they saw as a dangerous giveaway of state land since it would have allocated vast tracts of desert territory to the nomads. But the only real losers here are the Bedouin. They are the poorest members of Israeli society and many live in ramshackle shantytowns with no infrastructure or state services. In exchange for giving up some of the area that they claimed, albeit without legal proof of ownership, many would have been left in place and a minority would have been moved to new towns where they could have joined the 21st century. While leftist foes of Israel denounced this as paternalism or colonialism, their victory leaves the Bedouin in the same desperate condition. But then again, like those who pose as friends of the Palestinians, the point of the exercise isn’t to help the Arabs; it’s to hurt Israel.

Israeli planners will now go back to the drawing boards to try to do something for the Bedouin whose isolation and pre-modern style of life may seem romantic to those in the West but which, in reality, condemns them to lives of grinding poverty and deprivation. It’s possible that the government will now craft an even more generous plan that will give the Bedouin more land as well as the services they need. But the problem here is that virtually any attempt to give them what they require will run afoul of the notion that any attempt to create infrastructure in the Negev will be misinterpreted as a Zionist plot.

Let there be no mistake about the fact that Israel’s leftist foes don’t give a damn about the Bedouin. Bringing water, sewage, electricity and educational services to camps that can stretch out for miles in places throughout the desert is impossible. While most of the existing Bedouin towns can be left in place, the most far-flung need to be consolidated if the people who live there are not going to be left in shacks with no connections to the country’s first-world economy. Connecting them to the grid means some have to move.

Much like the descendants of the 1948 Palestinian refugees, the Bedouin only serve a purpose to Israel-bashers if they can be portrayed as victims of the Zionists. They don’t care that the main purpose of the Prawer-Begin plan was to help the Bedouin. Those who claim to demonstrate on their behalf have done nothing for either group. Indeed, the more miserable their existence, the better they like it. Any deprivation faced by this population is fine, so long as it serves to make the Israelis look like exploiters. The crocodile tears they shed for the Bedouin will be swiftly forgotten as they move on to other issues and Israelis who argued about it will similarly push them to the back of the national agenda.

Just like the Palestinian refugees who have been kept homeless for generations in order to serve as a standing argument against Israel—while an equal number of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands were resettled in Israel or the West—the leftist foes of Israel are content to let the Bedouin rot in ramshackle tents. That’s where they will remain until Israel finally puts forward a new idea that will be, no matter how generous, denounced just as furiously by Israel’s enemies. Those who think the demise of the Prawer-Begin plan is good for the Bedouin are lying.

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Using the Bedouin to Attack Israel

For Israel’s critics, the “day of rage” staged by some Israeli Bedouin is a perfect opportunity to trot out some of their standard cant about the Jewish state stealing Arab land. That was the conceit of a letter signed by many of the British artists and propagandists who can usually be found protesting Israel’s existence or its right to defend itself as well as by a gathering of members of the European Parliament. Others held demonstrations around the world at which sympathy for the Bedouin and contempt for Israel flowed freely. Even some left-wing Jewish groups, like Rabbis for Human Rights, have chimed in with specious comparisons of the government’s actions to Jewish victims of anti-Semitic oppression in Tsarist Russia. But like many of the sins that Israel is charged with by ideological foes, the real story of what is happening with the Bedouin is nothing like the simplistic morality tale of Zionist perfidy that we are hearing.

The Bedouin protests center on an Israeli government plan formulated by former Minister Benny Begin and Udi Prawer, the director of planning in the Prime Minister’s Office, to actually help the poorest segment of the country’s population. The Bedouin are concentrated in the Negev Desert, where they have existed as nomads for generations. A government commission has called for the relocating of some 30,000 of them to new towns where they can receive government services that are impossible to deliver to people roaming the countryside or living in small, scattered shantytowns.

As Haviv Rettig Gur writes, in an excellent analysis of the situation published in the Times of Israel:

Israel has already recognized several of the haphazard tent-cities of the Bedouin “dispersion,” but could not keep doing so indefinitely for the simple reason that the Negev Bedouin are the fastest growing population in the world, according to the Israeli government. They double their population every 15 years, and are expected to reach 300,000 by 2020. There simply isn’t any sustainable way to accommodate such a fast-growing population without municipal planning and multi-story housing.

And nowhere in the EU Parliament’s gathering of Socialists and Democrats could one learn that the Bedouin are being moved just three to five kilometers down the road from their current place of residence, and not out of the country.

While the Israeli Bedouin have legitimate grievances with the government, the notion that they are having their land stolen or being turned into just another group of homeless Palestinian refugees is bunk.

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For Israel’s critics, the “day of rage” staged by some Israeli Bedouin is a perfect opportunity to trot out some of their standard cant about the Jewish state stealing Arab land. That was the conceit of a letter signed by many of the British artists and propagandists who can usually be found protesting Israel’s existence or its right to defend itself as well as by a gathering of members of the European Parliament. Others held demonstrations around the world at which sympathy for the Bedouin and contempt for Israel flowed freely. Even some left-wing Jewish groups, like Rabbis for Human Rights, have chimed in with specious comparisons of the government’s actions to Jewish victims of anti-Semitic oppression in Tsarist Russia. But like many of the sins that Israel is charged with by ideological foes, the real story of what is happening with the Bedouin is nothing like the simplistic morality tale of Zionist perfidy that we are hearing.

The Bedouin protests center on an Israeli government plan formulated by former Minister Benny Begin and Udi Prawer, the director of planning in the Prime Minister’s Office, to actually help the poorest segment of the country’s population. The Bedouin are concentrated in the Negev Desert, where they have existed as nomads for generations. A government commission has called for the relocating of some 30,000 of them to new towns where they can receive government services that are impossible to deliver to people roaming the countryside or living in small, scattered shantytowns.

As Haviv Rettig Gur writes, in an excellent analysis of the situation published in the Times of Israel:

Israel has already recognized several of the haphazard tent-cities of the Bedouin “dispersion,” but could not keep doing so indefinitely for the simple reason that the Negev Bedouin are the fastest growing population in the world, according to the Israeli government. They double their population every 15 years, and are expected to reach 300,000 by 2020. There simply isn’t any sustainable way to accommodate such a fast-growing population without municipal planning and multi-story housing.

And nowhere in the EU Parliament’s gathering of Socialists and Democrats could one learn that the Bedouin are being moved just three to five kilometers down the road from their current place of residence, and not out of the country.

While the Israeli Bedouin have legitimate grievances with the government, the notion that they are having their land stolen or being turned into just another group of homeless Palestinian refugees is bunk.

As Gur notes, there is a disconnect between those purporting to speak on behalf of the Bedouin and most of the members of this group. It should be remembered that although their foreign supporters speak of them as “Palestinians,” the Bedouin are loyal citizens of Israel whose sons serve in the Israel Defense Forces. As is the case in Jordan, the Bedouin and Palestinian Arabs are members of two distinct groups with different histories and identities. The overwhelming majority make no demands about losing land and even the minority that do make such claims have little to back up their claims in the way of proof. Most will not be relocated and some of their towns have been recognized by the government and will receive massive infusions of help to build needed infrastructure.

As Gur and other Israelis who sympathize with the plight of the Bedouin notes, it is entirely possible to argue that those who are being moved from shantytowns with no clean water, sewage, or other amenities to new developments may not be getting enough compensation. There is also the worry that new sites will be inadequate. Certainly, Israel’s history with poorly planned development towns where hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim lands (the truly forgotten refugees) were dumped in the 1950s should worry anyone who contemplates repeating this example with the Bedouin.

But the bottom line here is that if the Bedouin are to receive the government services they need and deserve, many of them are going to have to settle down rather than going on living a nomadic existence that is incompatible with maintaining standards of health, let alone education or opportunity.

The romanticization of nomadic existence in Western literature and imagination helps stoke resentment of Israel’s efforts. But it must be understood that the worst outcome for the Bedouin would be for the Israeli government to simply allow the status quo to continue. If hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are to be afforded a decent standard of living, the creation of towns where the Bedouin will be able to have clean water, decent housing, and schools is an imperative. To assert that all of the desert must be considered an open range across which the Bedouin must be allowed to roam without taking into consideration the rights or the needs of other Israeli citizens or the wellbeing of the Bedouin themselves currently living in unsanitary and not terribly picturesque tent cities is a position rooted neither in law or good public policy.

But Israel’s critics aren’t really interested in the facts here any more than they can be bothered to understand why the Jewish state had to build a security fence to protect its population against Palestinian suicide bombers or why terrorist enclaves in Gaza could not be allowed to go on lobbing missiles into Southern Israeli towns, villages, and farms. Israel isn’t stealing anyone’s land. What it is confronted with in the Negev is the difficult task of administering a situation in which a pre-modern lifestyle is pit against the realities of a modern state and 21st century expectations of how people can live. While its policies may not be perfect, most of those who purport to wish the Bedouin well are, in fact, merely using them as yet another club with which to beat Israel.

The bottom line here is that the protests being held in Europe and the United States on this issue have little to do with the actual grievances of some of the Bedouin or the rights and wrongs of Israeli government actions toward them. It is merely one more excuse for those who believe the Jews have no right to sovereignty in any part of their ancient homeland to lodge false claims of land theft. Though the Bedouin deserve fair treatment, what those who are using this issue want is unfair treatment for Israel.

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