This is IMEMC interviewing Faisal Sawalha from the Regional Council for
the Arab Unrecognized Villages in the Negev. Mr. Sawalha works in
resource development and public relations. Today is Wednesday August
Little is known about the 86,000 Palestinian Bedouins living in the Negev. We have Mr. Sawalha here to tell us a little bit about these Bedouins and the struggles they face on a daily basis and what his council is doing about them.
Q: Mr. Sawalha can you please tell us about the regional council, what it does and when it was started?
A: It was established in 1997 as a preventive organization for the Arab Bedouins in the Negev. The Arab Bedouins of course in the unrecognized villages, in the 45 unrecognized villages in the Negev. The main goal of the regional council is to get recognition of all of the villages and to provide them with services regardless of the land dispute between the residents of these villages and the state. To achieve its goals the regional council carries out different activities and programs. The first and the most important of them is alternative planning. Whenever there is a plan prepared by the government, the regional council objects this plan, proposes an alternative, and sometimes even the regional council goes to the High Court of Justice to introduce changes and amendments to these plans. In addition, it does a lot of lobbying with the Knesset members and with the governmental offices and institutions. The regional council also started last year rebuilding demolished the homes in the villages, which happens almost every week they come and demolish homes. Moreover, we have now a group of lawyers who defend the people in courts and give them counseling. Sometimes the regional council implements different activities, like for example improving the infrastructure of the villages since there are no access roads, no paved access roads. In the winter the roads become so difficult to use. Last year we started with paying attention to education in the villages and we started two educational programs, one for girls, high school girls, to get them into universities and another for school children to help them do their homework.
Q: And so could you also explain to me, have you ever been successful in the courtrooms so far?
A: Yes, we had some success, not complete, but partial. Nine villages out of the 45 ones were recognized in the last four to five years. Although the government says that these villages were established and were not recognized, they said that they were established simply because they want to avoid recognizing the fact that they were there before and they want also to establish to bring other people from other villages to these ones. In addition, we can see that in the past the government and all the government institutions use the term dispersion, they used to say that the Bedouins do not live in the villages, they live in their tents with their tribes. Now they are talking about the unrecognized villages, most of them use this term, which means if they are villages they should be recognized. So there is a problem, there is a change even in the terminology they use.
Q: According to Israeli law, what exactly constitutes a village and could you also talk a little bit about taxes for the Bedouins?
A: According to the Israeli criteria, in each village there must be 500 residents and all of the 45 villages meet this criteria. Regarding the taxes, all the residents in these villages pay taxes just like every other Israeli citizen, but they do not get anything back. They did not get anything back. I mean they do not receive infrastructure services, they have only primary schools in their villages and even these schools are bad quality ones.
Q: Ok, and could you also, I heard a little bit about an Israeli law that was passed last year that ultimately considers the Bedouins invaders of Israel. Could you talk a little bit about this please?
A: This was an amendment to the land law in Israel, which was legislated in the 1960s, and this amendment is called the Expulsion of Invaders, which considers the Bedouins as invaders in their land. In fact, this law gives the Israel Land Authority the mandate, the jurisdiction to enforce this law on the land, which is still under dispute, and there is no land under dispute except the land, which is owned by the Arab citizens of the Negev.
Q: Ok, and could you also tell me about the triangle of land that the Bedouins have been confined to?
A: Yes, immediately after 1948 approximately 90 per cent of the Arabs in the Negev were forced out of the country. The government brought all the Arab residents who remained in the Negev and put them in a triangle between Dimona, Beer Shiva and Arad and they lived under military government from 1948 up to 1966, which means that they were not allowed to leave this area. As a result of this concentration, the Arabs lost their land outside this area since they could not use it and there were different laws legislated by the government saying that if you were not, if any person was not on his land between 1948 and 1950 he lost his land, so many people really remained landless and this also created the problem of internal displacies. The people who were refugees, but inside their country, who remained without a land, who lost everything.
Q: Ok and how does this relate to the Negev Development Plan and what exactly is the council’s alternative plan to this?
A: The Negev Development plan is another attempt done by the government to end the issue of unrecognized villages and evacuate them. The Negev Development Plan mainly talks about bringing more and more Jews to the Negev. We are not against it; we claim that there is enough room in the Negev for everybody. But the problem is that the government tries to or plans new settlements, Jewish settlements exactly where the unrecognized villages are so instead of planning Jewish settlements on them, they can recognize them and let their residents live in dignity as equal citizens. The issue of the Arabs in the Negev Development Plan was left for the security, the National Security Council to deal with, which is really a strange issue to let security institutions deal with the issue of citizens in the country. The National Security Council published its recommendations in the beginning of 2006 and they compare the Arabs in the Negev with the settlers in Gaza, claiming that if the government managed to evacuate the settlers from the Gaza Strip, it should do the same with the Arabs in the Negev. Of course we are against this comparison for different reasons. It’s clear that the settlers, the settlements in Gaza were illegal and they were not on their land but here the indigenous people of the area, I mean the Bedouins are the indigenous people of the area; they live on their land, this is their ancestral land and there is no way to compare them. The National Security Council recommendations say that there must be, the government has to talk and to confront the Bedouins in the unrecognized villages about a solution, but in fact they say that if they do not come to an agreement within two years, this will be implemented forcefully. So there, in fact the community does not have anything to say or to decide on this issue.
Q: Ok well it looks like there are some very overwhelming problems and I was wondering what exactly do you see for the future of the Bedouins in the Negev.
A: We want the government to recognize the villages, to recognize them as agricultural villages, to prevent what happened in the 7 planned towns like Rahat, Lakiyya and so on. The people in these villages lost their traditional way of life and so they suffer now from a high rate of unemployment, crime, poor education, poverty and so on and even these villages are described by the Central Bureau of Statistics in Israel as the most, as the weakest towns in Israel. We do not want this to happen with the 45 unrecognized villages now. We want them to keep their traditional way of life and which means that they would keep their way of livelihood to earn their pride and dignity and I think the regional council together with its allies, both Jewish and Arab organizations in Israel will be able to achieve more success.