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Middle East

Israel's Bedouins fight for their way of life

Around 190,000 Bedouins live in Israel's desert - many of them in villages the state does not recognize and intends to demolish. Israel wants to resettle them, but some are fighting back.

Five police cars escort the bus full of tourists, as it reaches the town of Lakiya in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. The passengers, mostly elderly Americans, many living in Jerusalem, are nervous. Why are there police? "We do nothing that could put you in danger," the voice of travel guide Ari Briggs says through the speakers. But you can't stop here. The police have strongly discouraged this and offered an escort for safety. "Lakiya is an absolute no-go area. You should still take a picture."

Tour guide Ari Briggs

Tour guide Ari Briggs: This is our land

Briggs, an Australian clad in an Indiana Jones hat and safari pants, has talked to his clients for the past two hours without interruption. He speaks from the heart: The growing threat of Bedouins who are illegally occupying Israeli land in the Negev. And how his organization Regavim is struggling to settle a Jewish majority here: "It is our land." All of Israel's governments have neglected the area shamefully, he complains.

The travelers, who have paid for a field trip to a place "without God and the law" to experience the danger of "illegal settlers," now pull out their cameras. What they snap pictures of is only the edge of town, but it's depressing enough: garbage lies along the streets, dilapidated houses, between them a school. "Lakiya was built by Israel for 35,000 Bedouins, but in reality only about 7,000 live here," Briggs says. A lot of money has since been thrown out the window, he says. "Everything is collapsing." Throughout the day, the Australian, who immigrated to Israel a decade ago, talks a lot about a future desert in bloom with Israelis and Bedouins side by side. But there's a lot Briggs doesn't say.

Villages without infrastructure

An estimated 190,000 Bedouins live in the Negev - officially, they are all citizens of Israel. However, 70,000 of them live in around 45 "unrecognized" villages. Many of these existed long before the creation of Israel in 1948, but because the state unilaterally declared about 95 percent of the Negev to be its property, the Bedouins' ownership rights are not worth much. In the villages there is no water and sewage system, no electricity, to say nothing of schools or public transport. Those who live here cannot go to vote or apply for a building permit, as there is no administration. Everything that the government makes possible for the settlements in the West Bank - providing a complete infrastructure, no matter where - is turned down with a shrug for the Bedouins.

Village sign with second sign showing bulldozer

'Illegal' villages face the constant threat of demolition

Instead, the residents expect that their homes could be destroyed at any time. For example, al-Sira: Here the family of Khalil Alamour has lived for seven generations; a house and a piece of land belong to his family. "We have documents that prove it," says the 47-year-old. But the Israeli authorities do not care, he said. Marshals repeatedly came to the village and posted demolition permits on the front doors. "So we end up in court on a regular basis." Alamour, who attended university despite enormous social barriers, does not understand the attitude of the government. "We are not enemies of the state, we want to be integrated." But this integration, he says, cannot ignore the traditions and values ​​of the Bedouin and be implemented without their cooperation.

Poverty and urban violence

Alamour refers to a goal pursued by Israel since the 1960s: the resettlement and urbanization of the Bedouin in the barren north of the Negev. In 2011, the Knesset approved the Prawer Plan, which, however, still requires ratification. It says that the 10 largest settlements will be recognized but the rest will be destroyed and the population rehoused - most likely in the seven towns the state built for this purpose in 1968-89.

Lakiya is one of these. Here, there is pure poverty: violence and crime are rife; unemployment is the highest in the country; the educational level the lowest. "Bedouin and towns are not friends," Alamour said, explaining the catastrophic conditions. While they no longer live in tents, his people still have strong agrarian and herding roots. His suggestion: "Let us keep the last 5 percent of the country that we still have, and we make the best of it - for the good of all."

After a long bus ride with short stops - always at a safe distance from the Bedouin villages - Briggs announces a "conciliatory end" to the trip - a visit to a Jewish farmer who lives here - despite the Bedouins. "How reassuring that there are also Jews here," a woman says, earning loud applause.

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