BEERSHEBA - "If we need to be violent to be heard, we will be violent. We will lay down under the bulldozers..."
A few kilometers south of Beersheba, the largest city in the Negev desert, Fahdi, his brothers and dozens of other relatives of his large family are gathered in a corrugated sheet metal hut that smells of tobacco and sweat.
Conversation, as it has been recently, revolves around the so-called "Praver plan." And emotions are running higher than ever: just the night before, the Praver bill had been approved by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in its first reading, moving ever closer to the forced displacement for up to 70,000 Bedouins out of a total of 220,000 currently living in the Negev.
Although the bill is not yet definitively passed (in Israel, it has to be approved three times to be enacted), the government and some small opposition parties appear to have a solid majority to make it law.
"In this country, even dogs are more highly regarded than Bedouins", explains Zaïd, one of Fahdi's cousins. "When we join the army, we are welcomed with open arms, but when we ask for the same rights as the rest of the population, we get nothing but scorn."
During the years following the 1948 establishment of the Jewish state, many Bedouins were "displaced" in order to utilize their land for military training and logistics for Tsahal, the Israeli army.
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Unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev - photo : Physicians for Human Rights
The villages whose inhabitants refused to move were punished by not being recognized by Israel, with many now turned to slums of makeshift housing of sheet metal and tarps with no access to electricity, running water or sewer system.
There are no social or medical services, nor public education provided. Because of the unrecognized status of their villages, these Bedouins don't have identity cards and are not registered at the Bituah Leumi, the Israeli social security. They don't vote, they don't pay taxes and are not eligible for any social services aid.
Some of these hamlets don't even have a name. They are at the end of dusty roads, totally isolated. Children don't go to school, and are left in charge of the goats and the few camels of the tribe. "When we need money, we sell some of our animals", says an old man proudly showing his four wives while drinking very thick black coffee.
A little further south, the five villages and 14,000 members of the Al Azazmeh tribe making up the Wadi el Naama territory are living in more comfortable conditions. But they reside near the giant waste incinerator of Ramat Hovav where toxic vapors pollute the air they breathe.
Nevertheless, these tribes refuse to leave. "We were here before the incinerator, and the state never asked our opinion when it was built," says Mohamad, who scavenges for his living by collecting metal and damaged car pieces.
"Racist and obscene"
Ehoud Praver, a former vice president of the National Security Council, was charged with hammering out an agreement with the tribal heads. But he failed. According to those close to Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the Praver plan was implemented by the government in September 2011 to handle the problem of the unrecognized villages. But after some adjustments made by former government minister Benny Begin, the goverment plans to destroy 35 villages and hamlets, and to "relocate" their inhabitants. Under the plan, the Bedouins affected would receive financial aid in order to buy lands registered at the tabu (the national territories register). Total cost: $330 million.
The problem is that Bedouins don't plan to leave the lands where they've now been living for centuries. "Our house is built on a land that belongs to my parents and that belonged to my grandparents before them," asks Fawzia, a student living in the only decent house - four cement walls - of the unrecognized village of Kasser al Sir. "My grandparents inherited it from their ancestors before the idea to establish a Jewish state was even suggested. Why should we leave?"
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Right to housing - Photo : Physicians for Human Rights
Rather than a resettlement into new housing projects, Bedouin representatives want Israel to recognize the existing villages. They demand decent living conditions and a legal status.
"It would be a much cheaper solution, and would not take a lot of time," argues Dov Khanin, a Congressman. His colleague from the Hadash (the Jewish and Arab progressive party), Ahmed Tibi, considers the Praver plan "racist and obscene."
"We are going to witness the biggest population eviction since the "Nakba," says Tibi, referring to the term "disaster" that Palestinians call the 1948 founding of Israel. "Bedouins are peaceful and discreet people but they will not accept such a decision, they will react. More than their lands, their dignity and their way of life are at stake".