Israeli desert plan would uproot 30,000 Bedouin
AL-ARAKIB, Israel (Reuters) - Bulldozed by Israel more than two dozen times, a village known by Bedouin Arabs as Al-Arakib is one of many ramshackle desert communities whose names have never appeared on any official map.
If Israel's parliament adopts proposed new legislation, it never will.
The plan to demolish more Bedouin homes in the southern Negev region and move 30,000 people to government-authorized villages connected to power and water lines has been hailed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a "historic opportunity" to improve Bedouin lives.
But Israeli Arab leaders, who have long complained about discrimination against their community in the Jewish state, call it "ethnic cleansing," and aim to thwart the project with protests, a general strike and appeals to the United Nations to intervene.
"I will never leave here, I intend to stay until I die," said Abu-Madyam, 46, a farmer from al-Arakib.
He and his family of nine live in a makeshift plastic-sided shack in a cemetery near the ruins of their wooden home, razed by Israeli authorities last year.
The project is the most ambitious attempt in decades by the government to resettle Negev Bedouin and free up land in the largely open spaces of southern Israel for development and construction of military bases to replace facilities in the crowded center of the country.
Some Israelis argue the Bedouin have grown too dominant in the Negev, a geographic area wedged between Hamas Islamist-ruled Gaza and the occupied West Bank where Palestinians want a state, and that they pose a possible security risk.
The area being restructured also abuts Israel's largest Negev city of Beersheba and is near several military bases.
For decades, Israeli governments have tried to attract Jewish Israelis to move to the Negev, offering mortgage and tax breaks, but the region has fewer opportunities for employment than in the heavily populated center of the country.
Only 20 percent of Israel's Jewish population lives in the Negev, which covers more than 60 percent of the nation's land area. Bedouin villages take up two percent of Negev land.
This month, Netanyahu sat down with Bedouin mayors at his office to urge them to accept the plan, which could take at least five years to implement at a cost of more than 1 billion shekels ($300 million) once legislation due to be introduced shortly becomes law.
"Our state is leaping toward the future and you need to be part of this future. We want to help you reach economic independence. This plan is designed to bring about development and prosperity," Netanyahu told the Bedouin officials.
Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel's population of seven million, 200,000 of them Bedouin citizens.
Most of Israel's Bedouin, who predominate in the desert area that accounts for two-thirds of its territory, are descendants of nomadic tribes that had wandered across the Middle East from Biblical times.
Half of the Bedouin live in towns and villages recognized as formal communities by the government. Others live rough, in tents and shacks on patches of desert.
"If everyone sat exactly where they felt their place was, then it wouldn't be possible to develop anything," said Yisrael Scop, a senior official at the Israel Lands Authority, which would bear responsibility for carrying out the Negev plan.
Some new villages will be built for displaced Bedouin, Scop told Reuters in an interview. He said about 60,000 acres would be affected, with 30,000 Bedouin called upon to abandon their homes in return for monetary compensation.
Another 2,000 Bedouin who have claims against Israel for past relocation would have their cases settled under the new project.
"We cannot have such a large population living in unorganized settlement," Scop said.
Bedouin leaders in the Negev say Israel has long discriminated against their communities, denying them public funds and services, in a bid to make their inhabitants leave.
Many of them were built, the officials said, because Israel had failed in the past to offer other housing options.
In a 2008 report on Israel's policy toward Bedouin in the Negev, Human Rights Watch said the government "appears intent on maximizing its control over Negev land and increasing the Jewish population in the area for strategic, economic and demographic reasons."
"The state implements forced evictions, home demolitions and other punitive measures disproportionately against Bedouin as compared with actions taken regarding structures owned by Jewish Israelis that do not conform to planning law," the New York-based group said.
Khalil Alamour, a 42-year-old schoolteacher, plans to head to Geneva this month to a meeting of a U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as part of a delegation to protest against the resettlement project.
His village of Al-Sira, home to 500 Bedouin, has long been tagged by Israel for demolition. It is located near an airbase.
"I always thought we could be a bridge to peace but this has not happened because we don't feel involved," Alamour said about the Bedouin, some of whom serve as volunteers in Israel's military. Unlike Jewish men and women in Israel, members of its Arab minority are exempt from conscription at the age of 18.
Alamour called the Negev plan "a second Nakba," the Arabic word for "catastrophe" that Palestinians use to describe the displacement of hundreds of thousands of them in fighting over Israel's establishment in 1948.
"We've been around for so many years, yet they treat us as little more than numbers on a map. It's shameful," he said.
Like most unauthorized Bedouin villages, Al-Sira is not hooked up to Israel's electricity grid. Alamour and his neighbors have installed their own solar panels to generate electricity, supplementing the supply with power generators.
They have run their own pipes to hook up with a regional grid to provide running water for their homes.
In the ruins of al-Arakib, Abu-Madyam vowed to hang on to land which he said was once covered by lush grapevines and bought by his grandparents more than a century ago.
"I will seek justice until my last day. I don't have any objections to Jews living here, too, but why must I give up my own rights?" he said.
(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall)
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