by: Cheryl Hauer, Vice President
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has had it with the European Union’s (EU) flagrant interference in Israel’s internal affairs, and he is certainly not alone among Israeli politicians. The source of this current frustration is the EU’s reaction to Israel’s plans to relocate the illegal Bedouin herding village of Khan al-Ahmar in Judea and Samaria.
Europe has been openly critical of Israel’s plans, going to the extreme of calling the relocation of the village a war crime and hurling accusations of racism and discrimination at the Jewish state.
Despite the fact that such anti-Israel rhetoric is business-as-usual in the European Parliament, Lieberman believes there is perhaps a deeper motive at work here. Israel’s minister of education, Naftali Bennett, agrees. He believes such gross misrepresentations of the current reality are a means to discredit Israel’s Nation-State Law, passed earlier this year. “It is another stick they are using,” Bennett said recently, “to poke Israel in the eye.”
Khan al-Ahmar is a cluster of makeshift shacks erected illegally by the Jahalin Bedouin tribe, housing 28 families. The compound is situated precariously close to the adjacent highway, presenting an imminent safety hazard to its residents, especially the children attending the makeshift school. Furthermore, the village doesn’t adhere to minimal health, electric and fire safety requirements.
The relocation of the village would provide each family with a plot of land, proper water and sewage infrastructure, telecommunications and secure electrical connectivity, not to mention a new safe and modern school. This offer, says the EU, “would severely threaten the viability of a two-state solution and undermine prospects for peace.”
The relationship between the Bedouin and the State of Israel is a complicated one. Nomadic tribal people, the Bedouin arrived in the Negev Desert between the 14th and 18th centuries, having migrated from the Arabian Peninsula. Organized around clans of extended family members, they are Islamic and polygamous. In 1945, under the British Mandate, there were approximately 110,000 Bedouin living in Israel. Today, there are 210,000, 54% of whom are under the age of 16.
Both the Ottoman Turks and later the British paid little attention to the Bedouin, convinced that the desert was uninhabitable and therefore of little value. Neither accepted the Bedouin claims of land ownership, a policy continued by Israel with the advent of the state in 1948.
Despite the core land conflict, Bedouin expert Dr. Clinton Bailey of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem says Israel was the first body to show any real concern for the Bedouin people, granting them citizenship and providing them with education, medical care and access to the social benefits enjoyed by all citizens. In 1968, the Israeli government built the first of seven permanent townships for the Bedouin and by Israel’s own admission, it was a failure. Built with little regard for the needs of the Bedouin people, those who moved in didn’t stay long. However, townships were later built with the input of Bedouin themselves, and today, slightly more than half the population resides in these permanent communities.
Israeli social service programs in these townships have drastically improved life for Bedouin women, with many getting advanced degrees from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Israeli medical care is reducing the soaring Bedouin breast cancer and diabetes rates as well as the Bedouin infant mortality rate, which has been one of the highest in the world. Furthermore, dozens of young Bedouin men join the Israel Defense Forces every year, even though they are not required to do so. Excellent trackers, they are considered some of the army’s most elite soldiers.
Approximately 90,000 Bedouin do, however, still choose to live a more traditional but very difficult lifestyle in 45 unrecognized villages—illegal shanty towns that are not connected to the national electric, sewage or water systems. Kahn al-Ahmar is such an illegal village. Its relocation has been in the works for several years and forms part of Israel’s on-going strategic plan to improve quality of life for thousands of young Bedouin.
None of this, claims Lieberman, has anything to do with Israel’s new Nation-State Law, but the EU has linked the two issues in order to discredit Israel’s attempt to solidify its position as a Jewish state. The new law codifies Israel’s status as a national home of the Jewish people, declaring Jerusalem as its capital and reaffirming Hebrew as the national language—while guaranteeing the status of Arabic. It sets the Hebrew calendar as the national calendar and confirms Shabbat (Sabbath) and other Jewish holidays, while guaranteeing the right of non-Jewish residents to determine their own holidays as well. It confirms the flag, the menorah (seven-branched candelabra) and Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem) as national symbols and states that Israel will endeavor to ensure the safety of all Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora (the Jewish population outside Israel).
In response to international outcry claiming that Israel cannot be both a Jewish state and a democracy, proponents of the law point out that Israel’s constitution and Basic Laws, including the Human Dignity and Liberty Law of 1992 and the Freedom of Occupation Law of 1994, guarantee that Israel’s status as a thriving democracy will continue. The Nation-State Law really changes nothing. It simply confirms positions that Israel has always held and was passed in response to those who would erase the Jewish state from the pages of history.
“True democracy is not about unanimity,” Bennett said. “It is about consensus and debate that considers all views but that ultimately is based on the will of a majority. This is what Zionism truly is. Jewish self-determination: democratic, sovereign and upholding the rule of law in our homeland.” And that includes Israel’s Basic Laws, which guarantee the freedoms and protection of the Bedouin together with all Israeli citizens, Jewish or not.
When Khan al-Ahmar is relocated, Lieberman said, it won’t be because of the Nation-State Law. It will be because Israel has a long history of concern for the Bedouin people and a commitment to provide them with the same health care, quality of life and educational opportunities that their fellow Israeli citizens enjoy. Sorry, EU.
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