For Israel, the Naqab desert is an important site for a Zionist political thought to be enacted. Hebracised to “Negev” in 1948, the area would be a zone for Jewish redemption and the conversion of the land into a showcase for Jewish creative excellence. The presence of a centuries old Bedouin community, whose birth rate is one of the highest in the world, represents an existential “demographic threat” to a Jewish majority state, another key pillar of Zionism. For the Bedouins their relationship to the land is profound. The establishment of the state of Israel, and the ensuing Nakba, was an unmitigated catastrophe for them, and one which continues today.
This paper will examine the historic ideational and structural logic which lies behind the Zionist perspective on the Naqab and the manner in which it would be an area for the redemption of Jewish life through labour and the reinvigoration of the desert. This logic will then be applied to Israel’s contemporary designs on the Naqab, particularly as a site for its flourishing cybersecurity industry. By examining this burgeoning sector with Zionism’s structural logic, this essay will be able to present the new threats which the Bedouin face, in the intersection of colonial logic and neoliberal perspectives on the “good citizen” and their place within neoliberal economic structuration. This essay will conclude on the manner in which these developments continue to impact Bedouin communities and how their resistance manifests itself.
The desert in Zionist eyes:
A blazing crucible for redemption through labour
For Zionist thought, expansion into the Naqab is a deeply existential project- fundamentally key to Israel’s security, but also prosperity and national self-esteem. David Ben Gurion, one of Israel’s founding fathers, noted in a 1955 speech:
“It is in the Negev that the people of Israel will be tested – for only with a united effort of volunteering people and a planning and implementing state will we accomplish the great mission of populating the wilderness and bringing it to flourish.”1
In the same speech, Ben-Gurion noted “it is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigour of Israel will be tested and this will be a crucial test”.2 Ben Gurion was a deeply avowed secular Zionist, and seized on the socialist principles, popular within Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, channelling them into a state building project “we call for an independent existence of a working people, at home on the soil and in a creative economy.”3
These romantic and utopian views of Ben Gurion were mirrored by Aharon David Gordon, considered one of the most influential thinkers on the Jewish Labor question in a nascent Jewish state in Palestine. Gordon was some decades older than Ben Gurion, but moved to Palestine, like Ben Gurion, during the Second Aaliyah, with a wave of settlers who viewed Jewish Labour as a condition for redemption from exile.4 Through toiling the desert, the new “Sabra” would be engaged in a total individual and communal revolution, which would be in a constant state of agitation and recreation in Israel.5 For all Palestinians this ethnocentric perspective on labour resulted in the exclusion of Arab labour across British Mandated Palestine, as ethnocentric labour unions spread under the Histadurt, under Ben Gurions direction. By 1948, despite being less than 10% of the population, the nascent Yishuv was in a position, thanks to its organised and disciplined labour, and in effect its paramilitary units, to engage in the forced expulsion of the country’s Palestinian population, and fight on numerous fronts.6
The displacement of the Bedouin: A continuing Nakba
During the Nakba the Bedouin population was reduced to 15-20 percent of its pre-1948 size. In the wake of these events only 19 of the original 95 Bedouin tribes remained, confined to a restricted area in the north-eastern Naqab region, representing on 10% of their historic land.7 The Nakba was followed by a complete topographical overhaul of the Palestinian landscape under Israeli control, with centuries-old villages bulldozed, and Israeli “development towns” built in their place.8 During Ottoman control and in the decades of the British Mandate the Bedouin were not subject to the same models of land registration, following a more traditional form of land ownership.9The establishment of the state of Israel, and the Nakba, was of unprecedented rupturing for centuries of established relationship with the land for the Bedouin. The expansion of Jewish development towns in the Naqab, often where Jewish refugees from Muslim and Arab countries were dumped, grew into large metropolitan cities such as Arad and Dimona, relying on cheap Bedouin labour for their service and construction industries. According to data collected by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, only 0.15 per cent of land expansion on state-owned territory was granted to Arab communities in the 1980s, of which a vast majority was used to build shantytowns for the rapidly urbanising Bedouin community.10 Today, around 220,000 Bedouin live in the Naqab desert and 60,000 in northern and central Israel - comprising 3.5 percent of the country’s total population.11 According to statistics collated by Inter Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, of the 400 localities in Israel, the lowest-ranking local councils are the Bedouin townships of Lakiya, tel-Sheva and al-Batuf, with a socioeconomic status of 1/10 for its citizen’s.12
From the 1950’s – 1990’s the Naqab was considered a backwater to dump new Jewish refugees and immigrants from the Arab and Muslim world. By the 1990’s the idea of a revivalism through labour, and the view of the desert as the area for this project came hurtling back into the Israeli national project, colliding with the market logic of the time to create a new dynamic to the continuing displacement of the Negev Bedouins.
Israel’s cybersecurity economy and the new digital settler
By the mid 2000’s the Naqab was being eyed by the Israeli government, business and property sectors as a region for economic and settlement expansion.13 In 2005 the “Daroma” association submitted “Negev 2015” plan – the first comprehensive strategy for investment in the desert.14 This project contained a national strategic element, and an economic development element – a dualism which blended Israel’s crystallising neoliberal economic model with its established settler colonial designs on historic Palestine. The central crux of the “Negev 2015” plan was to attract some 200,000 new residents to the area through high calibre transport infrastructure and attractive housing whilst invigorating middle class community options.15 “Negev 2015” planners wanted to attract a certain model of Israeli to planned development towns – they would be economically mobile and Jewish – a move which would assist in rolling back the demographic threat posed by the Bedouin population.16 In order to bring in the optimum “class of people” specialised military bases would be developed and constructed in order to ensure that a diversified military sector could expand and the Zionist project could be solidified with a modern 21st century twist. This would be accomplished by the transferring of IDF cybersecurity bases to the South from which a high tech cluster could be formed, attracting well salaried professionals to take up and advance the cybersecurity sector.
By 2013 the IDF’s cybersecurity division in the desert was well established. Various other sectors linked to this trade emerged such as, the Ben Gurion University’s graduate program in cybersecurity projections, all contributing to estimates that within the next ten years there will be 20,000 to 30,000 cyber related jobs in Beersheba.17 The jewel in the crown is the CyberSpark industrial, a sprawling industrial park, which already caters to the needs of Deutsche Telekom, IBM and Lockheed Martin. CyberSpark is set to have two more complexes, comprising of 27 buildings in the coming year. In December 2015 Israel poured 100 million NIS18 into its Kidma programme, a project designed in 2012 to boost Israel’s cybersecurity competitiveness, and develop security fields.19 The fact that this project has been expanded indicates the important role this sector plays for Israel’s economic future.
The expansion of development towns and the cyber security hub in Beersheba is a modern twist on Ben Gurion’s aforementioned perspective on the desert – it was to be an area of technological achievement and a showcase for Jewish intellectual thought. The neoliberal age has quantified citizenship, and imprinted onto it a social good, in which the citizen is more productive, the closer their status is to the professional class (employees of international finance and IT companies). Jewish labour now accords special privileges within this; the continuing project of emancipation for Israel now has a new front, connected to the logic of the current socioeconomic global system. If the mobile professional Israeli class represents the zenith of Israeli society, then it is the Bedouin who represent the opposite of this. Living in either impoverished shanty towns or in unrecognised villages, these communities stand directly in the line of fire of the new Israeli projects of development in the Naqab.20
Resistance in the Naqab from 1948 and onwards
As noted, the primary experience of the Bedouin in the Negev since 1948 has been displacement. This has continued into the twenty-first century. Perhaps the most perilous episode for the Naqab Bedouins of the past decade has been the Prawer Plan of 2012.21 This plan was developed by Likud Knesset Member, Benny Begin during Netanyahu’s third administration, through which the Israeli state was slated to take over 250,000 dunams, resulting in around 40,000 people losing their homes from such a plan.22 The plan was shelved after sustained, grassroots resistance by Bedouin communities. In alliance with Palestinians across all of historic Palestine, they managed to build a broad based coalition of resistance, utilising traditional methods developed within the Naqab, and bringing in Palestinian methods of resistance from across the country.23 Indeed, Bedouin resistance to displacement is as old as Israel itself. Communities which were swept over the border after the Nakba often re-entered from Egypt and Jordan, itself an act of resistance perceived so dangerous, that the IDF reintroduced a shoot to kill policy.24
This existence as resistance model, has manifested itself in recent decades through the rebuilding of unrecognised villages, often after being demolished for the tenth time, or more. Throughout the 1990’s new models emerged, there was an expansion of human rights based organisations which resulted in the proliferation of organisations. Collaborative efforts between sympathetic Jewish Israeli lawyers and Bedouin community leaders emerged to protest the displacement of the Bedouin through Israel’s courts.25 This has been an important and indispensable tool in providing these communities with the language to channel their grievances not only to domestic human rights mechanisms, but also on the international level. This has happened with an assortment of Negev Bedouin civil society organisations submitting shadow reports critiquing Israel’s compliance with the International Covenant on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,26 and the International Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.
In addition to this, the establishment of the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages has put forward alternative development plans in the region, many of them were rejected, but it indicates the dynamism of Bedouin resistance.27 In the realm of party politics the United Arab list, a Palestinian Israeli political party established in 1996 to win seats in the Israeli Knesset. Often a marginalised force, the need to meet a higher threshold in the 2015 elections forced the United Arab list to join together with Ba’lad, Hadash and Ta’al, the three other Palestinian/Arab political parties, in order to contest that election. The results were an unprecedented victory for Palestinian parties, as they won 13 seats, becoming a major political force.28 Despite comments that their union would descend into factionalism, due to ideological differences, the Joint Arab List has managed to maintain a strong position on issues facing all Palestinians in Israel, from education and citizenship status rights, to leading demonstrations for unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Naqab. All of these varying resistance strategies are highly institutionalised and formed over years of interconnectivity throughout Palestinian communities within Israel, however more recently, youth, organising along informal routes.
According to a report by the Negev Coexistence Forum, 982 structures were demolished in 2015, making the number at 2,452 structures demolished in Bedouin communities in the Negev between 2013 to 2015.29 The project to domesticize the desert for the redemption of Jewishness through labour is an age old tradition of Zionist political thought. This tradition has adapted to the new labour/market realities of Israel’s political economy, with a highly mobile technocratic class set to move to the Naqab in the coming decades to develop a cybersecurity industry. As the twenty-first century progresses and cold geopolitical wars warm, the lucrativeness of this industry is set to intensify, with project growth for 2020 being USD 170 billion. The Naqab is a frontline for a war of ideas and values, on the one side is the rapacious and exclusivist Zionist project, on the other is the communal based resistance of the Naqab Bedouin – the result of this war will set the pace for Israeli colonial practices for the coming decades.
Nick Rodrigo is a Research Associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies and is pursuing his PhD in Sociology at the Graduate Center, CUNY in New York. He has worked in policy analysis on the Middle East in South Africa, as well as in the field of human rights for both Palestinian and Iranian human rights organisations. His writing has been published by Middle East Monitor and The New Arab.
1 Ben Gurion, D., (1955) “The Significance of the Negev”, quoted in http://www.haluzasmartcity.org/smartcityen-inspired_by_ben_gurion_-inspired_by_ben_gurion_
3 Avineri, S. (1981). The Making of Modern Zionism: The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State. New York: Basic Books, Inc: 198-216.
4 Ibid: 153.
5 Ibid: 156.
6 Badarne, M. (2006). Seperate and Unequal: The History of Arab Labour in pre-1948 Palestine and Israel. Sawt el-Amel.
7 Zuabi, R. (2012). Land and labor in the Negev: Palestinian Bedouin citizens of Israel. Stanford Journal. Retrieved from http://web.stanford.edu/group/journal/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Zuabi_SocSci_2012.pdf: 101.
8 Rodrigo, N. (2016). In the pipeline: Native Americans and Israel’s Bedouins uprooted. The New Arab. Retrieved from https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2016/10/14/in-the-pipeline-native-americans-and-israels-bedouins-uprooted
9 Abu-Ras, T. (2006). Adalah’s newsletter. Retrieved from https://www.adalah.org/uploads/oldfiles/newsletter/eng/apr06/ar2.pd
10 Pappe, I. (2011). The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel. Yale University Press.
11 Inter Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.iataskforce.org/issues/view/2
13 Swirski, S. (2007). Current Plans for Developing the Negev: A Critical Perspective. Adva Center: Information on Equality and Social Justice in Israel, Tel Aviv.
16 White, B. (2011). Bedouin transfer plan shows Israel’s racism. Al Jazeera English. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/09/2011912151231223454.html
17 Mali , K. (2016). Israel’s desert city of Beersheba is becoming an Oasis of cybertech . Chetechgraph. Retrieved from https://thetechgraph.com/2016/03/20/israels-desert-city-beersheba-becoming-oasis-cybertech/
18 Rebak, G. (2015). Israel slams down NIS 100M for KIDMA 2.0 cybersecurity program. Geektime. Retrieved from http://www.geektime.com/2015/12/22/israel-slams-down-nis-100m-for-kidma-2-0-cybersecurity-program/
19 Mitzer, D. (March 20 2016). Israel’s desert city of Beersheba is turning into a cybertech oasis. www.techcrunch.com.
20 Gadzo, M. (2016). Arab Bedouins expelled for second time to make way for new Jewish community. Mondoweiss. Retrieved from http://mondoweiss.net/2016/12/bedouins-expelled-community/#sthash.2Tf2sD1O.dpuf
21 Press Office of the PM of Israel. Cabinet Approves Plan to Provide for the Status of Communities in, and the Economic Development of, the Bedouin Sector in the Negev. Retrieved from http://www.pmo.gov.il/English/MediaCenter/Spokesman/Pages/spokenegev110911.asp
22 Sheizaf, N. (2013). Report: 40,000 Bedouin will be evicted from homes under Prawer Plan. +972. Retrieved from http://972mag.com/report-40000-bedouin-will-be-evicted-from-homes-under-prawer-plan/83238/
23 H, B. (2013). Thousands Protest Prawer Plan in Global “Day of Rage”. Palestine Monitor. Retrieved from http://www.palestinemonitor.org/details.php?id=qwhj0za5753ydbtz2pp89
24 Landau, I. (2013). The historical truth about Bedouin expulsion from the Negev. +972. Retrieved from http://972mag.com/the-historical-truth-about-bedouin-expulsion-from-the-negev/78404/
25 Yiftachel, O. (2003). Bedouin Arabs and the Israeli settler state: Land policies and indigenous resistance. In D. Champage, & I. Abu-Saad (Eds.), The Future of Indigenous Peoples: Strategies for Survival and Development (pp. 21-47). Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, UCL.
26 The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. (2006 ). The Arab-Bedouins of the Naqab a shadow report submitted to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
27 Abu-Saad, I. (2005). Forced sedentarisation, land rights and indigenous resistance: The Bedouin in the Negev. In N. Masalha (Ed.), Catastophe Remembered: Palestine, Israel and the Internal Refugees (pp. 113-141). London: Zed Books
28 Agencies. (2015). Israel’s third largest bloc is the Arab-led Joint List. Middle East Eye. Retrieved from http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/israel-s-third-largest-bloc-arab-led-joint-list-1748285209
29 Fargeon, B., & Rotem, M. (2016). Enforcing Distress: House Demolition policy in the Bedouin Community in the Negev. Negev Coexistance Forum For Civil Equality. Retrieved from http://www.dukium.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/HDR_2016_ENG-1.pdf