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Israel's Nomadic Bedouins Struggle to Keep Their Land

They once laid claim to much of the Negev but are being relocated to government settlements

'I was born there where you see the two trees next to the river,'' says Nori El-Okbi with a sadness in his eyes that reflects the anguish of the Israeli Bedouin.

Mr. El-Okbi, who heads the Association for the Support and Defense of Bedouin Rights in Israel, points to a vast green field, now under Israeli ownership, which once housed the settlement where he was born near Beersheba in the Negev.

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The Negev, a largely barren expanse that makes up the southern half of Israel and includes the Negev desert, is home to about 70,000 of the country's 100,000-odd Bedouin but to only 5 percent of the country's Jewish population.

''I was nine years old when the Army came with guns. They shot all the dogs and the donkeys and then interrogated and held members of my family,'' El-Okbi says, pointing to a pile of stones that is all that is left of his home.

''Then they brought the Army trucks and packed all our goods and moved us to Hora [west of Beersheba],'' he says.

El-Okbi's personal story mirrors the dispossession of the nomadic Bedouin tribes who once laid claim to much of the Negev but today are being relocated to crowded government-planned settlements to make way for Jewish settlement.

Following the war that broke out between Israel and the Arab countries after the 1948 declaration of the state of Israel, some Bedouins fled the area around Beersheba and headed for the West Bank.

Those 100,000 or so Bedouin who remained behind in Israel are Israeli citizens and many serve in the Israeli Army. But citizenship has not protected them from a relentless social-engineering program that has stripped them of most of the land they regarded as their birthright and transformed their lifestyle.

''Israel has dispossessed the Bedouin and destroyed their traditional way of life,'' says Clinton Bailey, a scholar of Bedouin culture at Tel Aviv University who has won a human rights award for the advocacy of Bedouin rights. ''Israel passed laws depriving them of any rights to the land they held and empowering the authorities to evict them by force.''

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Today, some 80 percent of the Bedouin have been evicted from their traditional lands. About 50 percent of those have been moved to seven government-planned settlements and the rest are awaiting removal in temporary holding areas.

El-Okbi's organization wages a constant battle through the courts and by appealing to Israeli and international human rights organizations to halt the demolitions and establish the right of the Bedouin to remain in their original settlements.

But it is largely a losing battle obscured by the larger conflict between Arabs and Jews that is being played out in the Middle East.

''In the past three decades, the Bedouin have been transformed from agriculturalists and shepherds into a reservoir of cheap labor,'' El-Okbi says.

''It amounts to ethnic cleansing,'' says El-Okbi, referring to the harassment of the Bedouin by the Israeli authorities.

Bailey says the time has come to redress some of the violations of the Bedouin's civil rights. He also advocates the provision of resources to raise the level of services and economic opportunities in the government-planned settlements.

''In the 1950s, the Negev Bedouin were viewed as a part of the hostile Arab world: Since then they have demonstrated their loyalty and dedication to the state - particularly through large-scale volunteer service in the military,'' Bailey wrote in a recent article in the Jerusalem Report, a weekly news magazine.

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