On Monday, August 5, Israeli Minister of Justice and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat met in Washington to officially resume direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for the first time in three years.
For almost six months, US Secretary of State John Kerry has shuttled back and forth between the United States and the Middle East, meeting with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders as well as the Arab League to lay the necessary groundwork for the talks. Traditionally, Israeli leaders have asked for Palestinians to recognize the right to exist of the Jewish state. Palestinian leaders have asked for a freeze on settlement building, the release of all Palestinian prisoners who have been held since before the Oslo Accords and a plan based on the 1967 borders with a sovereign Palestinian state.
On July 19, Secretary Kerry announced that the initial negotiations had been successful and the talks would be resuming as early as the following week in Washington, DC. Although many of the exact details of the plan are being kept strictly confidential, Kerry claims that there are many reasons to remain “optimistic.”
Meanwhile in Palestine…
Less than a week after preliminary negotiations began in Washington, Palestinian activists from around Israel, the West Bank and Gaza organized a “Day of Rage” to protest Israel’s most recent act of discrimination and displacement: the Prawer Plan.
The Prawer Plan – named for Israeli former deputy chairman of the National Security Council Ehud Prawer – is an Israeli government-sponsored plan that, if approved, would resettle up to 70,000 Palestinian Bedouin from 35 unrecognized villages in the Naqab – better known by its Hebrew name, Negev – Desert in southern Israel to government-regulated towns and cities. The current bill being pushed – which passed its first of three Knesset hearings with 43 in favor and 40 against – is the “Law for the Regulation of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev” and will lay the foundation to resettle between 30,000 and 40,000 of the 70,000 Bedouin living in the Naqab Desert.
The 200,000 indigenous Palestinian Bedouin are members of an Arab minority who stayed on their land after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. For centuries, they have practiced an agricultural lifestyle and lived off the land – and are credited with being the first desert farmers. Currently, they comprise about 12 percent of the Arab citizenry of Israel – which is 20 percent of the total Israeli population.
Those in favor of the bill claim that resettlement to the townships proposed in the bill gives the Bedouin the services and economic opportunities that they currently lack.
“The current levels of underdevelopment in the Bedouin community are simply unacceptable,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when asked to comment on the Prawer Plan. Since these Bedouin villages are unrecognized by the state of Israel, they are not eligible for water, electricity, roads or health care services from the state. Although some see this as a neutral Israeli policy, others see it as a means of forcibly encouraging Palestinian Bedouin to give up their ancestral lands for Israeli colonization.
Those who are against the bill see it as a grand scheme for further colonization through the forced displacement of more than 30,000 Bedouin from their ancestral land, and the largest mass displacement since the Nakba – the colloquial word meaning “catastrophe” that refers to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
On August 1, thousands of Palestinians organized protests throughout the West Bank and Israel to voice their opposition to the Prawer Plan. Although the protests were relatively peaceful, the presence of Israeli security forces throughout the West Bank was heightened and at certain sites clashes erupted.
“If this plan goes through, it further reiterates that the Nakba in 1948 never ceased and is still ongoing even in our modern day and age,” Mariam Barghouti, an activist from the West Bankwho protested the Prawer Plan last week, told Truthout. “If the plan is stopped, it would mean that tens of thousands of Palestinians will be able to remain on their land and it would be a victory in terms of countering Israeli ethnic cleansing and colonialism.”
If the plan goes through, it isexpected that this land will be used for new Israeli towns and an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) military base. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Bedouin – who will be resettled and compensated – will be relocated to government-regulated townships and cities. This relocation will take a population that lives on 30 percent of the land and condense them into an urban area that occupies only one percent of the land.
Many testify that this transition to an urban lifestyle is unsuited to the traditional Bedouin lifestyle.
The Prawer Plan was devised, drafted and reviewed without any input from the affected communities.
As it is, the Palestinian Bedouin are the most marginalized minority group living inside of present-day Israel.
Although these Bedouin communities have lived on their lands since the 7th century – and were the only inhabitants of the Naqab Desert until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 – the state of Israel now considers them to be trespassers on state land. With this classification, the Israeli government can legally deny basic infrastructure to these communities, confiscate materials from inside Bedouin homes and issue demolition orders.
Officially it is still in the Knesset, but in many ways the Prawer Plan is already at work. In 2011 – the year that the beginnings of the Prawer Plan were first drafted and discussed – more than 1,000 Bedouin homes were destroyed in the Naqab Desert. A similar number were destroyed the following year, and it is expected to continue – with or without passage of the Prawer Plan.
In consequence, both since and long before the nascence of the Prawer Plan, many of the present-day Palestinian Bedouin have already been forcibly pushed off their land – mostly from previous Israeli plans to deal with what they term the “Bedouin Problem.” While the Bedouin communities in the Naqab Desert have lived off the land for centuries, Israeli resettlement policies have relocated them to townships – like the ones proposed in the Prawer Plan – which have some of the highest rates of unemployment, economic depression and crime in the country.
Those who are critical of the Prawer Plan draw the comparison between these impoverished Israeli townships and Apartheid South Africa’s Bantustans.
Meanwhile in Washington…
Meanwhile in Washington, Secretary Kerry is taking a seat between Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat, arranging them like props for the perfect handshaking photo opportunity. He is explaining the terms and conditions of the negotiations – as if this isn’t something that has been tried and failed many times before – and how the end solution must respect the right of the Jewish state to exist and produce a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.
“We are here today because the Israeli people and the Palestinian people both have leaders willing to heed the call of history, leaders who will stand strong in the face of criticism and are right now for what they know is in their peoples’ best interest,” Kerry stated, with Livni on one side and Erekat on the other, and a backdrop of Israeli, Palestinian and American flags. “Their commitment to making tough choices, frankly, should give us all hope that these negotiations actually have a chance to accomplish something.”
Tough choices. It doesn’t matter that since these borders were created, there have been several Israeli settlements built with more than 350,000 Israeli settlers actively colonizing the West Bank. It doesn’t matter that this steady colonization – which includes monopolizing natural resources in the West Bank and creating an Apartheid-like system of Jewish-only roads, neighborhoods and public transportation – ignores and destroys the hope for two sovereign states living side by side in peace. It doesn’t matter that plans like the Prawer Plan – and its predecessors and inevitable successors – perpetuate inequality, discrimination and displacement.
In Palestine, Policy Analyst Hani Habib has a slightly different take than Kerry.
“The Palestinian street isn’t interested in, and doesn’t think it’s affected by what happens in the peace process,” he said. “The average Palestinian citizen has grown accustomed to years of there being no talks, and is more interested in their own well-being.”