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Is Israel turning its Bedouin citizens into a stateless people?

Israel has been systematically revoking citizenship from its Bedouin citizens without as much as telling them. Is this a harbinger of things to come?

Bedouin women collect their belongings from the ruins of their demolished homes in the village of Umm al-Hiran, Negev desert, January 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Bedouin women collect their belongings from the ruins of their demolished homes in the village of Umm al-Hiran, Negev desert, January 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In Israel’s relentless war against its Arab citizens, there are few things that one can still reasonably claim to be surprised by. Jack Khoury’s article in Haaretz a few weeks ago, however, did just that. Khoury revealed how the Israeli Interior Ministry has been revoking citizenship from hundreds of Bedouin in the Negev. Bedouin citizens would arrive at the Ministry to handle some bureaucratic procedure — such as applying for a new passport — and would leave with a new status: non-citizen resident whose presence in the country is now dependent on the good will of the regime.

It turns out this has been happening for years.

“I have been working on this for nearly two years,” says MK Aida Touma-Sliman of the Joint List. “I have submitted many parliamentary questions and have had correspondences with the Interior Ministry. They claim that this policy was applied to 2,600 people — I think it’s a far greater number. I believe that this is going to be one of the central struggles of the Arab public in the coming years.”

In a hearing held by the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee at the request of Touma-Sliman, representatives of the Interior Ministry confirmed the existence of the following policy: when Bedouin citizens come to the ministry’s offices, clerks check the population registry for records of their parents and grandparents between 1948 and 1952. Khoury explains the significance of these years:

Between the founding of the state in 1948 and the passage of the Citizenship Law in 1952, many Arabs could not register with the population authority since their communities were governed by a military administration. This included areas in the Negev which had a high concentration of Bedouin residents after 1948. In many cases, checking the records of an individual’s grandparents entails looking at their citizenship during the British Mandate – a time when Israeli citizenship did not even exist.

Bargaining chips in the hands of the state

Bedouins collect their belongings from the ruins of their demolished homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, January 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Bedouins collect their belongings from the ruins of their demolished homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, January 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Joint List MK Juma’a Azbarga, a Bedouin from the village of Lakiya in the Negev, has trouble understanding the “mistake”: “A clerk at the Interior Ministry should not have the authority to revoke someone’s citizenship. A mistake affecting 2,600 people? This is a well-planned mistake. This is policy.”

“I believe this is part of a process happening beneath the surface,” Azbarga continue. “They want to slowly reach a critical mass of citizenship-less people in order to make it easier when they come to transfer us. The name of the game is demography; the Bedouin make up 34 percent of the population in the Negev. In the eyes of the state, that’s a threat.”

“The state established a network for Bedouin settlement. We are not settlers — we are the natives here. So they put pressure to force the Bedouin to move to areas without infrastructure or sources of income — a forced urbanization and ghettoization of an agrarian society. We have enough land in the Negev for everyone. The Bedouin claim less than six percent of the land as their own, but they want to concentrate us in 1.5 percent of the territory. For the state it is ideology, for us it is a war for survival.”

Aida Touma-Sliman and Ayman Odeh speak at the Hebrew launch event for the Joint List, February 11. (photo: Activestills.org)

Aida Touma-Sliman and Ayman Odeh speak at the Hebrew launch event for the Joint List, February 11. (photo: Activestills.org)

Touma-Sliman agrees that behind the policy lie sinister intentions:

“I have a feeling that they are testing the water, that this is a kind of trial balloon. Had it gone undetected they would have expanded the policy to unacceptable numbers. That is why they are focusing on unrecognized villages. The state says this policy has affected 2,600 people — 60 of whom have had their citizenship revoked. That’s rubbish. I have personally met more than 60. Not everyone is aware that their status has been changed, and even those who do know and submit a citizenship request do not often gain citizenship for a number of reasons – having a criminal background, not knowing the language, etc. The most egregious part is that according to Israeli law only the High Court can revoke citizenship, even if it is granted by mistake. In the Negev, every low-level clerk can do that.

“The political ramifications can be extremely dangerous — a group of people who are targeted for dispossession, whose villages are targeted for demolition, and whose citizenship is now being revoked. This can be a strong bargaining chip for the state when it comes to an ‘arrangement of Bedouin settlement,’ as it will weaken the residents’ position.”

The suspicion that this is policy rather than a mistake takes another twist when considering the bizarre story of Attorney Fawzi Abu Taha’s client. A 19 year old who went to the Interior Ministry to obtain passport before his flight abroad where he was going to study medicine. There, as you may have guessed, he was told that he does not have citizenship, and that he may submit an application to gain citizenship.

A man from the Zanoun family sits on the ruins of his house a few hours after it was demolished by the Israeli Land Administration, in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi Al Na'am, Negev Desert, May 18, 2014. The family of seven people was living in the house demolished for being illegaly built. Wadi Al-Na’am is the largest unrecognized village in Israel, with about 13,000 inhabitants, most of its inhabitants are internally displaced. The village is not connected to electricity and its inhabitants are subjected to Israel's house demolition policy. (Keren Manor/Activestills)

A man from the Zanoun family sits on the ruins of his house a few hours after it was demolished by the Israeli Land Administration, in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi Al Na’am, Negev Desert, May 18, 2014. (Keren Manor/Activestills)

“They told him to state that he is asking for a passport so he can go study in order to speed up the process,” says Abu Taha. It turned out that doing so only doomed his request to failure, since the desire to study abroad didn’t help prove his intention to make Israel his place of permanent residence. “This is the first time I have heard about intentions for the future as a reason for denying citizenship,” says Abu Taha. “Perhaps you want to prevent him from leaving the country as long as he is alive,” he wrote in the appeal.

In the appeal, Abu Taha included statements by the young man and his family members, according to which they have no intention of putting down roots anywhere else. Moreover, the man told the Interior Ministry that he no longer intends to study medicine abroad, and that all he wants is his citizenship. But the Interior Ministry went one step further: now they are proposing he sign up to study at a university in Israel in order to prove that he is not planning, God forbid, to go abroad for school. Not only must he endure a delay of months, but must also pay tuition so that the Ministry can be convinced that this young Bedouin, who was born here along with the rest of his family, is planning on making Israel his permanent home.

Where are you from, dear minister?

Salim Aldanfiri says that this is not a new story. Aldanfiri, 49, is from the village of Bir Hadaj, a Bedouin village recognized by the state, yet which suffers from almost non existing infrastructure. Twenty years ago he went to the Interior Ministry to obtain a passport and left status-less.

“This story has been going on for more than 20 years. Every time they tell me to submit another request or another document, and every time they come back and deny my request and ask for more documents, and  another few months go by. In the end I gave up. If I want to go abroad, I’ll just do it with a laissez-passer.

Salim Aldanfiri had his citizenship revoked decades ago. 'I don't understand why the state treats us as enemies.' (Maya Avis)

Salim Aldanfiri had his citizenship revoked decades ago. ‘I don’t understand why the state treats us as enemies.’ (Maya Avis)

“What is happening now in the Negev is frightening. I think that all Bedouin need to worry about the extremists in power. When the Bedouin Development Authority hands out agricultural land, it does so only to citizens of the state. If they want to expel us, it will be easy to do so if we don’t have citizenship. In the past we could have a dialogue with the ministers, but now Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Uri Ariel comes and asks where I’m from. This is a disgrace.”

Unwanted traitors

The fact that Bir Hadaj is a recognized village is no guarantee for justice and equality. “We are a recognized agricultural community, but while Jewish agricultural towns receive eight acres for building and 17 for agriculture, while we get barely an acre for building and agriculture.”

Throughout our conversation, Salim makes sure to mention Bedouin loyalty to the State of Israel. “None of the tribes here have ever opposed the state. My father helped take apart the British’s train infrastructure, all my brothers served in the army, as did my children. I don’t understand why the state treats us as enemies.” He pulls out an old membership card, showing that he once belonged to an organization that promoted Bedouin enlistment in the IDF.

“Now we are neither here, nor there,” he says. “Inside the state we are not citizens, outside we are considered traitors. We are in limbo. The Bedouin always believed that we must give what is needed to the state. My tribe, al-Azazma, never demanded the return of the land the state took from us. But today it’s changing; army service feels shameful. If once I could convinced eight out of 10 young people to enlist, today I can barely find one.”

“I still have hope that moderate Jews will wake up and take action, because you can’t keep pushing people into the corner. Young people are coming back from the army and find a pile of sand where their home once stood. In the end, everyone will pay the price — that goes for us and the state.”

This post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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