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Interview with Rawia abu Rabia of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel

May 25, 2010

Electronic Intifada published my piece today — an in-depth and very moving interview about the continued uprooting and displacement of Palestinian Bedouins inside the Green Line.

Israel denies Palestinians in “unrecognized villages” basic services like water and electricity. (Yotam Ronen/ActiveStills)


Al-Masadiya, al-Garin, Khirbat al-Watan, Bir al-Hamam, Khashem Zana, Sawin, al-Shahabi, Wadi al-Naam and al-Mashash are all Palestinian Bedouin villages facing destruction by bulldozers and cement mixers as Israel’s transportation ministry plans to lengthen its Trans-Israel Highway southward into the Naqab (Negev) desert. This means that more than 3,000 Palestinian Bedouins could be displaced if an injunction filed by Israeli civil rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) doesn’t succeed in the high court.

Spokespeople for Bimkom (Planners for Planning Rights), the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, some of the groups filing the injunction, say that the Israeli government approved the highway construction without consideration for indigenous populations in the Naqab.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reports that the highway extension is part of the Israeli government’s plan for “development” of the Naqab, which also includes the construction of a massive Israeli military training facility at the Southern end.

More than 80,000 indigenous Bedouins live in the Naqab desert region, in dozens of so-called “unrecognized villages” — communities that the state has refused to acknowledge despite the fact that most of them have existed before the State of Israel was established. Moreover, Israeli politicians often refer to the areas as “empty” in order to create support for building new Jewish settlements, removing the indigenous populations in continuation of an ethnic cleansing project that is now more than 62 years old.

On a regular basis, Israeli bulldozers and squads of police invade Palestinian Bedouin villages, carrying out widespread home demolitions and leaving entire communities reduced to rubble. While such Israeli rights violations in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem have generated protest, it is less known that such policies are in place in Israel itself.

Rawia Abu Rabia, a social activist and human rights lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, represents her community and advocates for their human and civil rights as the state continues to discriminate and uproot citizens across the country. Nora Barrows-Friedman interviewed Abu Rabia for KPFA’s Flashpoints Radio on 13 May.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Rawia, can you talk about the current crisis facing the indigenous populations living inside the State of Israel? Explain what these so-called unrecognized villages are, and tell us about the level of institutionalized racism, discrimination and home demolitions right now.

Rawia Abu Rabia: First, we’re talking about the indigenous Bedouin community who are part of the Palestinian people. They are citizens of Israel, although they are not treated as equal citizens. Half of the Bedouin indigenous communities have existed before the establishment of the state, for many centuries, as agricultural workers. They were internally displaced by the State of Israel, starting from the Nakba in 1948, where they were transferred to a certain geographical area. They were restricted from moving from one place to another until 1966, as part of the military regime policy that Palestinian citizens of Israel were subjected to.

Then, the state decided to organize the Bedouins and established seven governmental townships that are among the poorest towns in Israel, forcibly moving the Bedouins into this tight geographical area known for its low agricultural fertility. The purpose was to have as many Bedouins as possible on minimum land. Their ancestral lands were given to new Jewish cities and other urban areas, while they were restricted from returning to their historical villages.

Then, the state started to make different laws in order to take over new areas of Bedouin land. In 1965, Israel’s implementation of the construction and building law, which designed the master plan for Israeli cities and villages, didn’t take into consideration any of the Bedouin villages. By doing that, the state used the law and the legal mechanisms to displace the Bedouins and make them illegal. That’s why today we have about 80,000 Bedouin Palestinian citizens of Israel who live in about 35 villages that the State of Israel refuses to recognize. What I mean by lack of recognition is that the villages don’t appear on official maps. They are denied basic services: running water, electricity, and garbage disposal. People aren’t allowed to build permanent houses, and those who do risk heavy fines and home demolitions.

In 2009, 254 houses were demolished in these villages. The State of Israel and state officials ignore their existence. They are invisible citizens in the eyes of the law. The other half of the Bedouins live in the seven townships that are among the poorest and underdeveloped towns of Israel. The rate of dropout from schools in these villages is almost 60 percent, the rate of unemployment is extremely high and the level of education is very poor … the Bedouins are not entitled to the same rights as the Jewish citizens.

The saddest thing is the institutionalized racism and discrimination that is written into the law. Especially laws related to the land issues — which are designed to criminalize the Bedouins and make them illegal.

NBF: What do the laws actually say; what is written in these laws?

RAR: First of all, the laws related to land issues are discriminatory. For example, since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 until today, hundreds of Jewish cities and agricultural settlements were established, while no Palestinian villages or cities were established except for the seven townships that I mentioned. Another example is the issue that this area in which the Bedouins are concentrated, is basically the only place that Bedouins can live. If a Bedouin wants to live in another place, he will face all sorts of discriminatory mechanisms, such as criteria to be accepted to live in certain towns in Israel.

I mentioned this construction and building law from 1965, the Master Plan, that didn’t include any of the Bedouin villages. So by the law, the Bedouin villages are illegal. Today, in many Palestinian villages in Israel, when people want to build homes or expand their villages, they don’t get permits from the planning authorities to do so. By doing that, they are deprived from the basic right of housing and the state doesn’t provide any alternative.

Even when the homes are demolished in the unrecognized villages, no compensation or alternative housing is provided by the state, even though, according to international law, such an alternative should be provided.

There are other laws, such as the citizenship law, [that are discriminatory]. If you are a Palestinian Israeli citizen and want to marry a Palestinian from the occupied territories or another Arab country, your spouse will not get [Israeli] citizenship. He is deprived; while if you are a Jewish Israeli, and you want to marry a foreigner from a country abroad, he can move into the process of citizenship. There is also the law of return, which is a law that says that anyone who has a mother who is Jewish can come to Israel and get Israeli citizenship, while Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 — refugees, as we all know — cannot return. They cannot get any rights, and their properties and land are declared as “absentee property” even when the people who own these lands are not absent — they’re still alive.

NBF: In April 2010, the Bedouin village of Twail abu Jarwal in the Naqab was demolished for the fortieth time in the last few years. Tell us about these kinds of actions by the Israeli government, and what happens to people during these home demolitions.

RAR: We’re talking about home demolitions — but the “homes” we’re talking about are very poor shacks and tents that are being destroyed. And these are young communities. About 70 percent of the Bedouin community is below 18 years old. These bulldozers come into these poor places, these shacks and tents, and demolish them. The purpose is meant to pressure the Bedouins into leaving their land, so the state can take control over their land.

There are other mechanisms used to take over land as well, such as the Jewish National Fund — which recently planted trees on the land of the al-Araqid tribe. These are other forms and mechanisms to take over more and more land, and to pressure people to leave their land. The Bedouins know this, and based on the bitter experience of the Palestinian people, they know that the only way that they can have a chance to keep their land is to physically stay on their land — sumoud (steadfastness). [Israel's policies are] a very aggressive way to push people off their land without any consideration of international law, or of the declaration of the rights of indigenous people, et cetera. This actually pushes people to be hostile, and to lose any trust in the Israeli authorities; legal or otherwise. People become bitter when they see this discrimination alive, in front of them; when they see the bulldozers come and destroy their homes without any compensation or alternative, nothing.

NBF: Walk us through one of these Bedouin villages. Talk about the kinds of conditions that Bedouins are living in right now as they face home demolitions, and what kinds of services people are prevented from accessing as villagers in these communities.

RAR: Most of the unrecognized Bedouin villages lack health services and other services as well. If they want to access services in the nearest Jewish city or elsewhere, they first have to walk for miles to get to the main road. And then they have to find transportation, since there is no public transportation within these villages. The few services, the few clinics that we have in some of the villages, are results of petitions to the supreme court. None of the villages are connected to electricity at all. So when a bulldozer comes and destroys houses during the winter time — we’re talking about the desert, which is very cold at night — you can imagine that they will be left with no ways to find heating or other protection, other solutions.

NBF: We’ve been following the story of the Palestinian “unrecognized” village of Dhammash, outside of Lydd near the Ben Gurion Airport, 20 minutes from Tel Aviv. The people there are in and out of the high court, hoping to get another injunction to prevent the bulldozers from demolishing 13 homes there. Can you talk about what’s happening to communities like this, which are inside more urban areas around the state, Palestinians who are forced into displacement as the Jewish communities grow and expand?

RAR: I think that the issue of the Bedouins is not disconnected from the issues of other Palestinian communities living inside Israel. This is part of the daily situation we all face as Palestinian Israeli citizens who are treated as second-class citizens or worse. The land is the main resource that has been denied to the Palestinians.

For instance, in Jaffa, which a mixed city of Jews and Palestinians, we see how Jaffa is developing for the Jewish citizens while the Palestinian citizens are kicked out of their neighborhoods. This is the issue of the Naqab with the Bedouins, it’s the issue of the mixed towns of Jaffa or Lydd, and it’s also the issue in the Galilee, where there are many home demolition orders as well. This is the same cause. This is the feeling of the Palestinian citizens of Israel — we were displaced in 1948, and in 1967, and the process of internal displacement is still happening all the time. Especially now, with the right-wing government that is following these racist policies and pushing Palestinian Israeli citizens more and more out of their villages, and are being delegitimized as a people.

I think this is what links the whole cause. It’s the cause of being Palestinian, and being a Palestinian Israeli citizen who is being treated in an unequal way.

NBF: You met the Special Rapporteur for Indigenous People at the United Nations in New York recently, tell us what went on in the meeting and what the UN is doing to address the critical needs for the Palestinian and Bedouin communities inside Israel.

RAR: Yes, I had a meeting with the Special Rapporteur, Professor James Anaya, and I explained to him the situation of the Bedouins in the Naqab and the internal displacement, the home demolitions, and the decision of the Israeli government to triple the home demolition orders for Bedouin villages, and he’s very much concerned with the situation of the Palestinian Bedouins in the Naqab. He mentioned that he will follow up with the situation. I urged him to come and visit these villages and see for himself. I could sit there and describe this to him, but the best thing is if he could come and see the demolitions that are taking place, the actions that are taking place to push people away from their land and houses. I hope he accepts the invitation and comes and visit. But he said that in the meantime, he said he will follow up the issues that I have raised with the Israeli government.

NBF: Talk about your work as a lawyer for these communities. What is it like representing their concerns as the state pretty much goes ahead and continues to de-populate, displace and discriminate on a daily basis?

RAR: As a lawyer for human rights, working at the Association for Civil Rights, I face challenges all the time. On the one hand, I face discrimination as a Bedouin citizen of Israel — when I came back from the UN on El-Al airlines, I faced a huge humiliation because I’m an Arab. But on the other hand, the only effective tool that I can use to advocate for my people is the legal tool. It’s a challenge all the time, because you have to be optimistic. My biggest dilemma is, how can I advocate for equality within a discriminatory reality? This is a big challenge — because sometimes, the supreme court makes good decisions, but sometimes, because of some discriminatory laws, it could make a decision that is not the best for my people … And I believe in the international mechanisms as well, that we have to use these to put pressure on Israel to change its policies towards the Bedouins.

People, sometimes, are very frustrated with the situation, especially when they see that the legal system is not equal … people think that the legal system is supposed to provide answers, but not in all cases. That’s the situation. We have to promote equality in an unequal reality. We don’t have any other options — we have to continue in this way.

NBF: Israeli politicians regularly describe the state as a moral democracy for all of its citizens, but it’s clear that it’s a democracy only for a preferred ethnicity, or a preferred religion. What can you say about what democracy looks like in historic Palestine today, and what’s your response to how Israeli leaders represent their policies?

RAR: Like Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi said, “Israel is a democratic state for the Jews, and a Jewish state for the Arabs.” This describes the situation … And others, like professor Oren Yiftachel, who said that it’s actually an ethnocracy, it’s not democracy. We could argue whether it is a democratic and Jewish state or not. Israel doesn’t have a constitution. It doesn’t have a separation between religion and the state. It has problematic issues related to violations of women’s rights because of a lack of separation between religious laws and the state. So, it’s a very problematic democracy. And we are also witnessing harassment of human rights activists and organizations that are the last refuge for a democracy. They are the only voice that talk about human rights violations that are taking place in the so-called democratic state.

NBF: You’re referring to your colleague, Ameer Makhoul of Ittijah – Union of Arab Community-Based Associations and others in the last few weeks who have been detained, prevented from leaving the country. And Makhoul’s story was under gag order in the Israeli media. What more can you say about this crackdown on Palestinian civil rights activists and organizations, who are trying to represent the interests of the indigenous populations there?

RAR: I think the gag orders are problematic and they’re happening more often. It’s very concerning, as Israel wants to see itself as a democracy. A democratic state is not supposed to let things happen in the dark. We’re very much concerned with these gag orders being issues easily. Actually, Adalah [the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel] and the Association for Civil Rights are asking the courts to remove these gag orders. And people know about these cases already. It’s a globalized world; people are reading about what’s happening on the Internet, they hear about it anyway, so [the gag orders] are kind of absurd.

But I think this is also part of the steps that are being taken against Palestinian leaders in order to silence them as they advocate for their cause. We’re doing our work according to the legal system, and this is a way to silence these voices.

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