EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Sweeping the Sand Out of the Desert: From Verwoerd to Prawer

Ethnic cleansing in the Negev

The Prawer-Begin Plan was shelved. But the idea that you can forcefully transfer an indigenous population and determine where it can legally reside — looks and smells like a plan pulled from the dusty drawer of Hendrik Verwoerd, architect of Apartheid South Africa. And that didn’t work out so well.

Sadly, it was too early to celebrate the downfall of the Prawer-Begin Plan. The victory of suspending the Knesset vote following the “day of rage” protests on November 30 was short lived. The dark threatening cloud of ethnic cleansing still hovers over the Negev’s Bedouin population. Nevertheless, Prawer’s suspension was the culmination of a grassroots mobilization that took months, years actually, to climax and grab public attention. It was an historical achievement.

The good news is that for the first time, the Jewish Israeli public woke up to the sound of a clear, well articulated and well organized Bedouin-led resistance movement.

The bad news is that it was immediately perceived, particularly by Israeli liberals, as ingratitude and a failure to comply with what the government successfully framed as the most enlightened, generous and historically fair settlement of land disputes in the Negev. Lieberman and fellow Jewish supremacists naturally opposed the plan from the very beginning, considering it too generous and predicting its demise from the outset. But it is more interesting to look a closer look at the “enlightened” expressions of disappointment about the Bedouin protests. It is the liberal state of mind that will likely eventually provide the moral justification for forced removals in the near future. Meirav Arlosoroff’s analysis in Haaretz immediately following the day of rage is a case in point.

What is the difference between massive confiscations of Arab land for Jewish settlements in the 1950s and the Prawer Plan today? There’s no difference, according to Arlosoroff. Prawer follows the well-known formula of confiscation, state control over population distribution and forced removals. However, whereas in the 1950s the welfare of Jews was the government’s main concern, today’s plan has only the Bedouin in mind. They better take the hand that reaches out to them, from a government that is finally willing and ready to invest, develop and save them from their backwardness. Arlosoroff is tuned to and emphatic to the Bedouins’ plight: they have a long memory and the wounds of the 1950s are still open, but their resistance is irrational.

Why not leave “dark spots of degradation, backwardness, crime and poverty” when you can actually profit from resettlement? She wonders.

Had the Bedouin read Haaretz, they would have by now recognized the benefits of upgrade-and-exit strategies. Small Bedouin settlements, much like small start-up companies, are for the most part unsustainable. They have to merge or disappear. From her neoliberal standpoint, Prawer’s population-merger plan only makes sense.

But the fact is that the story Arlosoroff tells Haaretz readers about the benevolent government of Israel is simply a lie.

The Prawer plan looks and smells like it was just taken out of Hendrik Verwoerd’s dusty drawer. Verwoerd, the infamous “architect” of apartheid, conceived the idea of forcefully moving populations to government-built designated areas. The idea that the government determines where an entire population can legally reside, delimiting “for its development” a restricted area, and considered legitimate only by a hostile authorities but not by those living under its thumb, is truly a relic of a dark era.

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, it’s worthwhile remembering how this grand apartheid experiment in systematic domestic ethnic cleansing actually ended. It was a catastrophe, and not only for the population; as far as policy makers are concerned it was a grand planning failure as well. According to some estimates, around 8 million people became internal refugees of apartheid, to this day populating some of the largest shanty towns in the world. No tourist arriving at Cape Town International Airport can miss the ubiquitous and huge “squatters camps” along the main highway. The Prawer Plan, in whatever new incarnation it reappears, will doubtlessly have similar results.

Contrary to what Arlosoroff claims, the Israeli government, not the Bedouin, is turning its back on history by refusing to recognize the 37 villages in which more than 80,000 out of its 200,000 Arab citizens reside. These are not the small “dark spots” that Arlosoroff depicts.

Activists from Tarabut — an Arab-Jewish grassroots movement that studied the plan and is active resisting Prawer — did the arithmetic: the average number of residents in a so-called unrecognized village in the Be’er Sheva area is 1,740. This number is three times bigger than the average number of the residents (309) of Jewish villages in the same area.

The process of forced Judaization of the Negev has already created a geographical landscape of apartheid eerily familiar to anyone who has ever traveled across South Africa. Since 1997, the 59 so-called “loner’s farms” built by families with friends in high places built, all began when the Israeli government enabled a new breed of pioneers cum start-up professionals to take over huge swaths of land and generously assisted them with infrastructure.

Arlosoroff does not even bother mentioning the desert bloomers with their organic cheeses made from boutique goats. It is apparently irrelevant that for those selling the authentic Zionist experience to the occasional weekend flock of Jacuzzi-dwellers in romantic eco-friendly retreat cabins, the government allowed illegal settlement without permits or master plans. This went on for years until a new law retroactively legalized them wholesale in July 2010.

Meanwhile, the state has been forced to reassess how to go about cleaning and removing the primary environmental hazard affecting the Jewish “loners” – the human Bedouin hazard.

In light of the scandalously heavy handed police response and arbitrarily long arrests of activists participating in the “day of rage,” it is likely that we will witness an escalation in the form of continued systematic destruction of Bedouin dwellings, accompanied by more and more arbitrary arrests and incarcerations targeting not only activists, but the Bedouin population as a whole.

The worst case would be if the state goes through with forced removals combined with forced confinement in government-planned dwellings. They may look less like the restrictions on movement placed on people in the apartheid townships of yore, and more like the “open jails” Israeli already operates for African refugees. We must take into consideration that this is a population, which is perceived as criminal not only by the authorities, but also in the Israeli public conscious.

But even the worse repression will ultimately fail just like the grand experiment in South Africa miserably failed. The human hazard is not going to simply disappear from view. Israel’s land regime produces chronic subversion, from public housing “squatters” to tent city dwellers, to refugees marching in defiance of “open jail.” With Bedouin demanding their human rights and dignity, that subversion will only increase.

A South African apartheid politician once likened the attempt at removing native populations to a Sisyphean task: “like sweeping the water out of the sea with a broom.” In local parlance this resembles a government effort to sweep the sand out of the desert with a broom. The determination to get rid of entire communities at the cost of great human suffering has certainly not disappeared; it may have even intensified after the protest and the “leftist” disappointment that stemmed from it. It is also painstakingly clear that the government’s massive investment is in its sweeping effort and not the Negev’s population itself. But just like in South Africa, destructive and disastrous as it was, this investment is futile and will most likely fail to achieve its goals.

Another English version of this article first appeared in +972.

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