Bedouin feel the squeeze as Israel resettles the Negev desert

Thousands displaced from ancient homeland

The Israeli government has an offer for Jabir Abu Kaf. It will recognise a small patch of parched land as his own, provided he agrees to get off it and sell it to the state. Otherwise, Mr Abu Kaf will continue to be classified as a squatter in the desert his family roamed for generations, and to live in perpetual fear of being "civilised".
It is no idle threat. To reinforce the tenuous nature of life in Tel Al-Mileh and dozens of other "illegal" bedouin villages across the Negev desert, Israel's interior ministry sent in a crew to demolish the local mosque earlier this month.

It was, the government said, built without a permit. So is every home in every one of the villages.

"This land was my father's land and my grandfather's land. The government says it will recognise this land as mine if I agree to sell it to the state, but not if we want to do anything else with it," Mr Abu Kaf said. "The state wants to eradicate the bedouin and confiscate their land, they want to establish a Jewish settlement here. So they are saying we don't have any papers to prove we own the desert and we don't have planning permission to build homes we have had here since before the state of Israel existed.

'Civilising' force

The Negev desert is Israel's next frontier. It accounts for about half the country's land but is home to less than one in 10 of the population. That makes it an ideal site for new settlements to accommodate some of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants the government expects in the coming years.

And the government has an eye on the Negev as a convenient alternative for Jewish settlers from Gaza and the West Bank if the day comes when they have to clear out in favour of a Palestinian state.

But Mr Abu Kaf and tens of thousands of other Arabs in the Negev are in the way. They say they have first claim to much of the land the government wants, and have steadfastly resisted attempts to get them off it. The destruction of Al-Mileh's mosque has thrown down a gauntlet that threatens to bring long-running grievances to a head.

The fledgling Jewish state had great plans for the Negev 50 years ago, but they did not include the bedouin. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said the Arabs should be herded into the north of the Negev "in order not to disturb development plans" to give the land to Jewish settlers. The former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir talked of "civilising" the bedouin. In 1963, Moshe Dayan, one of Israel's most renowned war heroes, imagined that "this phenomenon of the bedouin will disappear".

"We should transform the bedouin into an urban proletariat," he said. "This will be a radical move which means that the bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. The children would go to school with their hair properly combed."

Five years ago, Ariel Sharon, then the interior minister, declared that the bedouin had disappeared and the Negev was empty "but for a few goats and sheep" which he promised "to deal with".

The campaign to clear the desert of all bedouin is continued today by the Jewish Agency for Israel which spearheads the government's efforts to bring another million Jews to Israel by 2010.

"We need the Negev for the next generation of Jewish immigrants. In the Negev you can get land for pennies," said Shai Hermesh, the treasurer of the Jewish Agency and head of its effort to create a "Zionist majority" in the desert. "The trouble with the bedouin is they're still on the edge between tradition and civilisation. A big part of the bedouin don't want to live in cities. They say their mothers and grandmothers want to live with the sheep around them. It is not in Israel's interest to have more Palestinians in the Negev."

About half of the Negev's 140,000 bedouin have been cajoled or enticed out of the desert and into seven "recognised villages" or development towns that are little better than sprawling urban dumps. But the 70,000 or so bedouin who remain in the Negev say they are determined not to budge, not least because many of those who agreed to be resettled now regret it.

"This is our land and if we leave it we will lose it," Mr Abu Kaf said. "The seven recognised villages are a bad example. They have no services, there is a severe shortage of land. People who live in them regret moving."

Unemployment among the bedouin in the development towns is the highest in Israel. Their desperation has fuelled crime, and that has further alienated the bedouin from the Jewish population.

The resettled Arabs can only lease, not own, the land their houses stand on. And while neighbouring Jewish settlements are heavily subsidised and provided with quality services, the bedouin crammed into the seven towns lack proper sewage, roads and sometimes even homes.

Mosque destroyed

But the situation is little better for those who remain in the desert. To pressure the bedouin off the land, the government refuses to provide water, electricity, roads, or schools to the "illegal" villages.

In addition, the residents cannot vote, have to travel miles to health clinics and are denied welfare programmes available to other Israelis.

Human rights lawyers have gone to court to try to force the government to provide an education to bedouin children wherever they live. In a move to prevent further expansion, even to take account of natural growth from expanding families, any new construction, such as Tel Al-Mileh's mosque, is deemed illegal and vulnerable to demolition.

The destruction of the mosque has transformed bitterness into anger. Tel Al-Mileh's elders gathered in the community hall last week to vent their fury.

"Does the state want us to stop praying?" Mr Abu Kaf said. "This is not a factory for weapons, it's a mosque. It's not wrong, so we should ask the state, are we also Israeli citizens with equal rights, including the right to worship?"

One of the village's religious leaders, Sami Abu Freh, sounded a more ominous note. "That mosque is the house of God, so it doesn't belong to them. It's not theirs to destroy. This is a dangerous thing for them to do because it is making things extreme between people. If they can destroy a mosque maybe someone will burn a synagogue," he said.