ANALYSIS: ISRAEL'S PLAN OF RESETTLING 70,000 ARAB BEDOUINS IN THE NEGEV DESERT

Morning Edition: November 3, 2003

Bedouins Resist Israeli Resettlement Effort



BOB EDWARDS, host:

About 70,000 seminomadic Arab Bedouin live in several dozen villages in the Negev Desert of southern Israel. Most of those villages are unrecognized by the state, meaning they do not receive basic services such as electricity and water. A new government plan aims to resettle the Bedouin in specially built towns that will give them access to services and education, but many Bedouins say they will refuse to leave their traditional homes. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Just outside the village of Atir nestled in the windswept sand dunes of the Negev Desert about two dozen children dismount from a rickety school bus and walk down a dirt path kicking up clouds of dust as they go.

SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN

GRADSTEIN: Most of these children live in crowded tin shanties without electricity. They have no place to do homework and there are no toys to be seen. Forty-eight-year-old Atwa Abulgan(ph) who functions as the village's unofficial mayor says life in Atir is difficult.

Mr. ATWA ABULGAN: (Through Translator) We have no road into the village. Trucks of produce cannot come into our village. We don't have electricity. Electricity goes by our village but not into our village.

GRADSTEIN: Most of the 500 residents here eke out a living either as day laborers in nearby Jewish towns or as shepherds. They live simply, eating mostly bread and vegetables. Many of the children go barefoot. In the winter, it's bitter cold, and in the summer, unbearably hot. There's no medical clinic in the village. Abulgan says he wants the government to provide services to Atir such as water and electricity, like all Israeli citizens receive. Instead, he and others here are fighting Israeli plans to move them from their traditional home. Abulgan's nephew, 27-year-old Raed(ph), a university student in urban planning, says Israel has already forcibly moved the Bedouin once.

RAED: (Through Translator) I was born here in 1976, and my family was thrown off their lands and then put in a Jewish settlement where we used to live. They put their kids through hell over there. And I will not move off this land. I will not be pushed away the same way that they pushed my grandfathers off their land.

GRADSTEIN: Israeli officials say the Bedouin don't own the land they're living on, and over the past decades, they have illegally taken over more and more land. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who owns a large farm in the Negev and has been an outspoken advocate of more Jewish settlement here has crafted a plan to move the Bedouin into seven new towns, several of them already under construction. Yaakov Katz, the Israeli official in charge of implementing the project, says the Bedouin must obey the law.

Mr. YAAKOV KATZ: They will leave. They will leave. The first thing that settlers are supposed to do is to obey law and to get his rights from the government. All that means is they will not. It's the government's land. The use of the land according to the planning is not owned and they're not supposed to stay there.

GRADSTEIN: Katz says several of the new towns are being planned with large agricultural spaces to help the Bedouin preserve their traditional way of life, but many of the Bedouin are skeptical. They say that towns built for them in the 1970s and '80s failed to improve their lives. In those towns now, unemployment is high and crime is skyrocketing. One of those towns is Rahad(ph), a few miles from Atir. This town of 40,000 Bedouin is a bizarre mixture of drab apartment complexes, tents and a few luxury homes. Said Abu Siem(ph) who works for the Ministry of Agriculture says talking about the problems of Rahad would take weeks, but he says it all goes back to decades of Jewish discrimination against the Bedouin.

Mr. SAID ABU SIEM (Ministry of Agriculture): (Through Translator) When it was planned, it was planned with a very negative view of what the Bedouins need, and so the roads were only a few roads and little roads, and today, we're trying to complete what was not done then. For example, some of the neighborhoods still don't have connection to sewage systems.

GRADSTEIN: Abu Siem says schools in the town are sorely lacking, and the dropout rate is one of the highest in the country. He says many of the Bedouin youth are turning to crime. Back in Atir, Atwa Abulgan says he and his neighbors don't have much, but they're still better off than the Bedouin in Rahad. And he says if the government wants him to leave Atir, it will have to drag him out. Linda Gradstein, NPR News.

EDWARDS: It's 11 minutes before the hour.

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