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The last of the Negev Bedouins

August 14th, 2020
topic:Political violence
by:Ithamar Handelman-Smith
located in:Israel
tags:Bedouin, indigenous rights, Israel, land rights

"Who wants to feed a Bedouin?" This is what Israeli actor and children’s television star, Roy Oz, known professionally as Roy Boy, asked his children in a video recently posted on TikTok. The video, deemed racist and condemned by the Israeli left, right and centre, angered the Bedouin community, which suffers from ongoing discrimination in Israel.

Filmed in 2015 but made public for the first time on 11 July 2020, the video shows Roy Oz feeding Bedouin children from his car like animals in a zoo. 

In the video, Oz, or Roy Boy the Jungle Boy as he is known in Israel, is holding the camera and addresses his daughters, asking, “We are going to feed Bedouins, who wants to feed a Bedouin?” as he pulls out a cookie. “Don’t you want to feed the Bedouin?” he continues before giving the cookie to one of the Bedouin children gathered outside the car. 

After the video went viral, Oz apologised and his show was taken off the air. But this incident is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem. Just a month before the Roy Boy incident, Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right Israeli lawmaker, likened the birth rate among Bedouin women in the Negev desert to a “bomb” that Israel needs to defuse.

Smotrich made the remark during a tour of the Negev desert with fellow members of the national-religious opposition party Yamina. Although he is technically in the opposition, Smotrich voiced what many in the Israeli government think but do not dare to say publicly, at least not quite yet. 

The hostile concept of forestation 

The Jewish National Fund (known in Hebrew as Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, or in its initials KKL-JNF) - a private, non-profit charity that was created at the turn of the twentieth century in order to buy and develop land for the Zionist movement - is currently extending the Yatir Forest, and is planting vast numbers of trees in the northern Negev, a desert that covers more than half of Israel. 

The organisation says it is doing essential work to prevent desertification and to assist in the rehabilitation of the ecosystem. However, environmental protection specialists contend that the forestation causes serious and irreparable damage to nature and the area’s landscape. 

"The Yatir area is one of the last remnants of an area of plants and animals typical to the edge of the desert," Yoav Perlman, an ecologist with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel had said once in an interview. "All the animals that developed there got used to an environment in which there are only shrubs. When trees are planted there, birds of prey like shrikes or kestrels come in and finish off the local animals. Everything that's special about the area is hit." 

This disregard for the negative environmental impact of the forestation is, according to its critics, stems from a desire to prevent what the state of Israel has deemed “illegal Bedouin construction or grazing.” 

FairPlanet spoke with Sliman Abu-Obied (62), a Bedouin activist who works in the tourism industry. Husband to Ruba, father of eight children and grandfather of twelve, Abu-Obied lives in Laqiya, a Bedouin town in the northern Negev on the edge of the Lahav forest, part of the larger Yatir forest which had also been planted by KKL-JNF.

FairPlanet: Is Laqiya a recognised settlement?

Abu-Obied: “Laqiya was founded together with six other towns and villages in the 1980’s, as part of a government plan to settle the Bedouins of the Negev. The idea behind the plan was to stop what they called our ‘nomadic’ way of life, which is a bit of a false concept as we always used to roam and graze the same land that was traditionally divided between the four big tribes of the Negev’s Bedouin.”

What was the role of KKL-JNF in this plan?

“KKL-JNF is supposed to be a private body, funded by rich Zionist Jews worldwide, who undertook to buy lands in Israel and to plant trees there. The fact is that they are encouraged and supported by the Israeli government. Together they push the Bedouins from their lands because every time they plant a tree it means less land for us to graze or use for our agriculture. They claim that the KKL goal is just ‘forestation’ but ‘forestation’ is just a codename for a policy that aims to take the land from the Bedouins. It cannot be that you will put trees over people. It is unbearable for us and we oppose it and struggle to stop it.”

Do the Jewish Israeli Kibbutzim and villages suffer from it as well?

“No. it is never on their lands. They have water supply for their agriculture while we do not, and so on. 

“You have to understand how it works and who decides every aspect of our lives: the ‘administration for the development of the Bedouins’, which is a very nice name but what they really do is ruin our lives rather than develop them.”

Is it a governmental body? 

“Yes. This administration is working like a state within a state and although it claims to work for us and our so-called development, they only think of what’s best for the state. We don’t need to be administered by a special body. We were living here for centuries and we were always alright. We lived under the Turkish Empire, the British mandate and our lives were fine, and we didn’t need any special administration. Not to mention that their main activity is to destroy our houses and our unrecognised villages. So how come someone who is supposed to be in charge of my development only ruins my house? Everything that is happening with the building permits, the constant attempts to drive us from our lands and concentrate us in the small towns they’ve built for us, all that is the doings of this administration. All they try to do is to take our lands from us. The state declared lately that they have invested a budget of 10 billion shekels (about $3 billion) for the next five years, but the truth is that 99 per cent goes to this administration in order to destroy our houses and villages.”

As for the planting of the Yatir and Lahav forests, what is their effect on your lives?

“Look, these plantings have reached our houses now. In Laqiya trees were actually planted on some private land on the doorstep of people’s houses. From the West Bank to here, they have taken people’s grazing land and our own traditional plantations and planted forests. Although it used to be our land we are not allowed there. It is supposed to be the lands of the state but in order for us not to use it the state says ‘oh no, this belongs to the KKL-JNF, not us’, as if it’s their private land now and therefore we cannot use it. This system of forestation started many years ago but in the past decade it has been intensified. Everyday there is more and more trees and less land for us. We don’t gain anything from these trees. We can’t enter forests with our cattle and we can’t grow anything there. In certain places you are not even allowed to enter on foot.”

KKL-JNF has made wide-ranging claims for the environmental benefits of the Yatir Forest, saying it is “holding back the desert,” recharging soils with moisture, preventing floods in Be’er Sheva, and fighting climate change by capturing carbon dioxide from the air. However, this showcase forestation project also has its share of critics, with some Israeli ecologists saying that, whatever the benefits, the collateral damage is too great. The trees, the ecologists say, are obliterating grasslands that contain rare endemic species. 

The Yatir forest, some experts say, is an example of the ecological damage that can occur when large-scale forestation projects are undertaken in places that have not had forests in recent times.

Is it really happening all the time? 

“Yes. Two months ago, near Tel Sheva, they started planting on private land. The tractors came and flattened the land in order to prepare for planting. People from our community came to oppose it. They demonstrated and were arrested quite brutally. You have to understand that we have our own committee for the rights of the unrecognised villages. This committee is funded by the New Israeli Fund and other bodies who care for civil rights and is  run by the Bedouins themselves. Unfortunately, it is unrecognised by the Israeli government and therefore has no real power in stopping these kinds of things from happening."

Bygone era: The Bedouin traditional way of life 

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, during the Ottoman rule and the British Mandate for Palestine, the Negev Bedouin underwent a process of forced sedentism, which accelerated after the founding of Israel. Abu-Obied is not too sentimental about it all.

In a way, then, the Bedouin’s traditional way of life cannot exist in modern-day Israel?

“Look, I don’t think that the Bedouin should stay the way he lived 100 years ago just like the Jew doesn’t live the way he did 100 years ago. The whole world used to live like Bedouin once and it’s ok, we moved on and the world has changed, but Bedouin is a certain way of life and we want to preserve some aspects of it. Some of the Bedouins in Sinai or in south mount Hebron are happy with the old way of life and it’s nice, but we are different. 

“Here we progressed but far-right Israelis run our lives from Tel Aviv or elsewhere. All the war that the state has declared on our towns and our building sites, all the house demolitions, are run by far-right politicians like Smotrich and Bennet. They were in charge of the Bedouin. The politicians who represent the most bigoted, racist, anti-Arabic and Anti-Bedouin approach in Israeli politics; they were the ones who took over the administration here just in order to drive us from our lands. 

“We know where our land is. Each tribe knows it for years, but then the state comes and says ‘no, this is our land now’. They claim that they do it for us, for our progression, but it is all one big lie. We are 30 per cent of the Negev population. Our contribution to society here is massive. We are doctors, nurses, and so on. They try to portray us as criminals but they never understand our circumstances and our situation. The state treats us as if we are the enemy. They are trying to break us, to concentrate us in those small towns and lock us there. They want to put as many Bedouin as they can on less land. Basically, to put us in camps while the Jewish people get to live in this new concept, a single-man’s farm. We have about one hundred of those now.”

What are the single-man farms? 

“A Jewish person comes from the north, he finds the land he wants, with the help of the state, of course, and with a lot of financial and other forms of support, takes a massive land of up to 3,000 dunam (300,000 sqm) and he builds rooms for tourists, olive or date plantations, and so on. On this massive land live one man and his wife. If they gave us these lands and let us graze them and grow our crops, we would have less unemployment, less crime and better economy for everyone. If the state of Israel left us to our own devices and let us run our communities by ourselves, our lives would have been much better.”  

Article written by:
ithamar handelman smith
Ithamar Handelman-Smith
Author
Israel
Made public for the first time on 11 July 2020, the video shows Roy Oz feeding Bedouin children from his car like animals in a zoo.
This incident is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem.
Just a month before the Roy Boy incident, Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right Israeli lawmaker, likened the birth rate among Bedouin women in the Negev desert to a “bomb” that Israel needs to defuse.