Paul Pillar

International Protest and the Bedouin of the Negev

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela has been an occasion to recall the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. That struggle combined the efforts of domestic opponents of the apartheid regime with what eventually became an enormous international coalition of opposition that included governments—which imposed sanctions on South Africa—and nongovernmental movements. The breadth of that international opposition contrasted with the relative narrowness and weakness of opposition to some current injustices, including ones involving apartheid practices.

On Thursday, however, opposition to such practices got at least a tentative boost, when the government of Israel announced it was shelving for the moment a plan for mandatory relocation of tens of thousands of Arab Bedouin from their historic homelands in the Negev desert. Many of the Bedouin, who are Israeli citizens and a subset of the larger population of Arab Israelis, have long lived a largely off-the-grid existence in the Negev in what the Israeli government considers “unrecognized” villages. Forcibly relocating them would be a blatant violation of human rights. The Israeli government asserts that the purpose of the move would be to improve the Bedouin's lives by bringing them into a more modern situation. But unfavorable experiences of other Bedouin who had already been brought into “recognized” towns, where they had a similar lack of services and also found it more difficult to live the pastoral life to which they were accustomed, did not make the prospective move popular among those who would be affected. In fact, Bedouin leaders strongly opposed the move. Former minister Benny Begin, a principal architect of the plan, acknowledged when making this week's announcement that he had never consulted with the Bedouin themselves.

The Jericho-based journalist Jonathan Cook describes the relocation plan as—and quotes Israeli leaders as saying the same thing—in effect a continuation of ethnic cleansing that took place during the 1948 war for Israeli independence. The plan to “concentrate,” in Begin's words, the Bedouin would clear land for the construction of new towns open only to Jews. Cook notes that the new Jewish towns would be “dispersed as widely as possible in contravention of Israel’s own national master plan, which requires denser building inside existing communities to protect scarce land resources.”

Two caveats qualify this week's good news about this issue. One is that the shelving of the plan may only be temporary. There is a good chance it will reappear, perhaps in slightly modified form, once world attention has drifted elsewhere. The other is that even this temporary halt was due partly to resistance from elements among the Israeli Right, who thought the plan lacked sufficient detail and was too generous to the Bedouin.

International opposition, however, certainly had something to do with this development. This shows how such opposition, even when short of what came to be mobilized against the South African version of apartheid, can make a difference. In particular, it shows the difference it can make against other aspects of the Israeli version of apartheid, which affects far more Arabs than only the Negev Bedouin.

Much of the international opposition came from Europe; significantly less came from the United States. Many British elites lent their name to the cause. The lesser involvement of Americans no doubt is linked to the well-known role of the Israeli government in American politics. But the difference might also be related to different aspects of national history. Maybe many in Britain, when they hear of Bedouin, think of the ones with whom, and on behalf of whom, T.E Lawrence fought. By contrast, a close parallel to what the Israelis have been planning to do to their Bedouin is what the United States did to its Native Americans: relocating and concentrating an indigenous, semi-nomadic population in a way that largely destroyed its way of life and opened up land for the dominant ethnic group. There is a lot of guilt about that now, but not enough to wipe the slate clean; look at what the football team in the national capital is still named.