Monday, December 30, 2013

Sweeping the sand out of the desert: From Verwoerd to Prawer

The Prawer-Begin Plan was shelved. But the idea that you can forcefully transfer an indigenous population and determine where it can legally reside – looks and smells like a plan pulled from the dusty drawer of Hendrik Verwoerd, architect of Apartheid South Africa. And that didn’t work out so well.

Sadly, it was too early to celebrate the downfall of the Prawer-Begin Plan. The victory of suspending the Knesset vote following the the “day of rage” protests on November 30 was short lived. The dark threatening cloud of ethnic cleansing still hovers over the Negev’s Bedouin population. Nevertheless, Prawer’s suspension was the culmination of a grassroots mobilization that took months, years actually, to climax and grab public attention. It was an historical achievement.

The good news is that for the first time, the Jewish Israeli public woke up to the sound of a clear, well articulated and well organized Bedouin-led resistance movement.

The bad news is that it was immediately perceived, particularly by Israeli liberals, as ingratitude and a failure to comply with what the government successfully framed as the most enlightened, generous and historically fair settlement of land disputes in the Negev. Liberman and fellow Jewish supremacists naturally opposed the plan from the very beginning, considering it too generous and predicting its demise from the outset. But it is more interesting to look a closer look at the “enlightened” expressions of disappointment about the Bedouin protests. It is the liberal state of mind that will likely eventually provide the moral justification for forced removals in the near future. Meirav Arlosoroff’s analysis in Haaretz immediately following the day of rage is a case in point.

What is the difference between massive confiscations of Arab land for Jewish settlements in the 1950s and the Prawer Plan today? There’s no difference, according to Arlosoroff. Prawer follows the well-known formula of confiscation, state control over population distribution and forced removals. However, whereas in the 1950s the welfare of Jews was the government’s main concern, today’s plan has only the Bedouin in mind. They better take the hand that reaches out to them, from a government that is finally willing and ready to invest, develop and save them from their backwardness. Arlosoroff is tuned to and emphatic to the Bedouins’ plight: they have a long memory and the wounds of the 1950s are still open, but their resistance is irrational.

Why not leave “dark spots of degradation, backwardness, crime and poverty” when you can actually profit from resettlement? She wonders.

Had the Bedouin read Haaretz, they would have by now recognized the benefits of upgrade-and-exit strategies. Small Bedouin settlements, much like small start-up companies, are for the most part unsustainable. They have to merge or disappear. From her neoliberal standpoint, Prawer’s population-merger plan only makes sense.

But the fact is that the story Arlosoroff tells Haaretz readers about the benevolent government of Israel is simply a lie.

The Prawer plan looks and smells like it was just taken out of Hendrik Verwoerd’s dusty drawer. Verwoerd, the infamous “architect” of apartheid, conceived the idea of forcefully moving populations to government-built designated areas. The idea that the government determines where an entire population can legally reside, delimiting “for its development” a restricted area, and considered legitimate only by a hostile authorities but not by those living under its thumb, is truly a relic of a dark era.

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, it’s worthwhile remembering how this grand apartheid experiment in systematic domestic ethnic cleansing actually ended. It was a catastrophe, and not only for the population; as far as policy makers are concerned it was a grand planning failure as well. According to some estimates, around 8 million people became internal refugees of apartheid, to this day populating some of the largest shanty towns in the world. No tourist arriving at Cape Town International Airport can miss the ubiquitous and huge “squatters camps” along the main highway. The Prawer Plan, in whatever new incarnation it reappears, will doubtlessly have similar results. More