North American-Israeli Devorah Brous has been a social activist in Israel for fourteen years. After nine years running Bustan, a social justice and sustainability organization that works with the Bedouin community in the Negev, Brous has returned to live in the United States. She spoke on the phone with Am Johal.
Am Johal: You were in Israel for 14 years altogether. How did you found Bustan and the context in which you came?
Devorah Brous: When I first went to Israel, I went to learn more about my roots and culture, my traditions, to learn about my historical connection with the land of Israel. During the journey, I got very involved with the struggles of the peoples of the land. I did extensive research on land rights. I spent most of my time walking the land and speaking with a vast range of people about what makes the land holy, what makes this parcel of land so different than any other? I queried people from different ethnicities, classes, faiths and traditions, what makes this land such a powerful vortex, that compels one to grab rapaciously at a piece of this land for themselves, and if land for both Jews and Muslims is referred to as God’s land, than why this maddening hunger for ownership, and this need to possess it as their own?
What context did you start Bustan?
I started Bustan with the understanding that there is a need for Jewish and Palestinian people to come together. For years I was engaged in a variety of peace projects that make participants feel good. It took me time to see how these efforts focus more on the people as peacemakers that are ‘making peace’ than the issues, and largely aim to cull photo-ops and band-aid problems by distracting media and funders from core issues. After seven years, I learned that cosmetic dialogue projects are effective at avoiding controversy and assuaging guilt of the participants. I wanted to go beyond the overly cerebral and distractingly dry discourse at conferences that never leads beyond more glossy reports or the occasional catchy bumpersticker. I also felt disillusioned with protests. You leave in the morning to spew venomous rage against the Israeli Occupation and by the afternoon you’re slipping back into the familiar power differential. It’s a form of masturbation — you have the moral high ground over family or neighbors as you return from a protest, you know you’re on the right side of history. But once you return to your comforts without creating anything sustainable aside from pacifying your consciousness as you step out of being a passive bystander — you begin feeling increasingly powerless. Protest in a war zone doesn’t allow for transformation of the crazy asymmetry in conditions. For the most part, it also doesn’t affect the causal roots of conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I felt pulled to engage in processes that are more tangible, believing that small steps can make a big difference. I found myself intrigued with the transformations that can happen when people start and finish projects and organize collaboratively together. I was organizing a Rainbow caravan of 250 people that included Israeli and Palestinian activists. We went from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and crossed over the border to plant several hundred trees in Jordan. During this two-month journey we faced breathtaking peaks and bleak valleys both literally and metaphorically and many of the gaps I experienced in other peace building activities were filled in through experiencing this process. Just after this caravan, I founded BUSTAN in 1999.
Can you describe the way that you worked with the concept of restorative development?
Essentially, we were inspired to peacebuild with two principles in mind, 1) participatory democracy — working with civil society in a way that participants would tangibly benefit from both process and outcome by actively engaging as both students, and as teachers. This was explicitly designed to inspire more of the people to step forward and become involved, instead of a ‘first-track diplomacy’, exclusively engaging polished politicians. 2) Striving to meet a tangible, physical need was our strategy for addressing land rights violations. BUSTAN’s first action was in an unrecognized village to build a playground with recycled materials We worked with the village council’s leadership to create some infrastructure for the children, who, unlike Jewish children, are unable to receive this infrastructure from the Israeli state because the area is not zoned or recognized by the state so it falls outside of state planning processes. The villagers are living in an area that is referred to as unrecognized, in the Negev, outside of the State’s ‘democracy.’ Over the past 40 years, Israel has engaged in the wholesale relocation of its Bedouin citizens from 45 unrecognized villages into smaller a series of urban enclaves, or government-planned townships.
We could sit with a couple of donors and purchase some ready-made red, yellow and blue swing sets, or we could work with lots of different people from the community and build something with materials we could find near the village. We chose the second option and spent one year meeting to plan for an un-plan-able event of some 500 activists, artists, clowns, and educators to engage in the process of pioneering the first festival in an Unrecognized Village. Over three days, we constructed a playground, we worked with Arab and Jewish women who offered a range of workshops on traditional weaving, plant medicine, crafts. We worked with a solar engineer and a permaculture luminary to design a solar oven for the local school, as the village was off the grid. We shared music by the fire, and ate delicious food. Our focus: this is not a top-down process, each person could bring their own strengths, passions, and skills to contribute.
Much of the village was involved in the closing ceremony. It was an opportunity for Jews and Arabs to resist discrimination and reveal a message in a new way.
One year later, the Second Intifada began. BUSTAN shifted its aims to restore the integrity of built or natural environments to challenge discriminatory policy and where possible to facilitate revitalization. After setting up a school, and organizing the green building of a medical clinic to serve 6,000 Bedouin in a village that is overexposed to high levels of pollution and contamination as it is entirely surrounded by industrial and military infrastructure, including the region’s toxic waste incinerator. A team of 22 Arab and Jewish Israeli doctors with the help of some 80 med students who were volunteering, today our clinic is no longer necessary. In December 2006, nine years after the villagers appealed to Israel’s High Court, the Israeli government brought medical care to Wadi el Na’am. Today, these citizens are able to receive government medical care. They are working hard to see where they can be relocated and fairly compensated. Our proactive work to put these issues onto the national agenda was successful. There is still a long way to go.
What are today some of the issues in the Negev and with the Bedouin particularly? Some newspapers were openly worrying about a Bedouin intifada?
Three major issues are dominant today in the Negev in relation to the land dispute between the 160,000 Bedouin and the Israeli state. One: The state consistently refuses to recognize the land rights of its Bedouin citizens, some 3,300 claims to the land are outstanding. The Israeli government is trying to relocate villages by extinguishing rights. It is a large-scale relocation project. Large scale home demolition operations and other tactics and measures such as the denial of basic services in order to pressure this population to move off of the land and into cities. This requires Bedouin citizens to relinquish their land claims in exchange for a home in an urban township with access to government services, electricity, water, health care and sewerage.
There are about 72,000 Bedouin who are unwilling to accept the government’s offer. Many realize if they move from the rural Negev, some living off the land as shepherds and pastoralists, that if they give up their connection to the land, they will lose access to its resources. (Today, shepherds must go through a bureaucratic maze to obtain heavily restricted permits to graze their livestock.) Many of these families would have to sell off their herds once they move into a government-planned township. This would mean essentially disconnecting from their culture, their traditions, and their roots to the land.
Is there also still home demolitions and spraying of crops by the Israeli government?
Due to Israel’s relocation policy, home demolitions have intensified. One village was demolished for the 10th time recently. The Regional Council of the Unrecognized Villages led efforts to protest, called for negotiations and final settlement, which would recognize land rights and end the measure of house demolitions.
The second disturbing trends that we are noticing today in the Negev is the settlement plan of the Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL) and the Israeli government in partnership with the Or Movement and Daromato settle the Negev. They argue, “Only 8% of the population is living on 60% of the land base of Israel. We need to redeem these lands and to stop further Bedouin encroachment. We need young pioneers to settle Israel’s ‘Last Frontier,’ to preserve Jewish contiguity throughout the land, and break apart the contiguously linked territorial belt between Bedouin communities inside the enclosure zone where Bedouin take up 22% of the Negev.”
The “enclosure zone” where Negev Bedouin live, is a 2% territory of all the Negev. Today there are efforts to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, significant money coming from Canada and the US to support the Blueprint Negev plan to mobilize 25 new Jewish communities, with plans to bring some 500,000 Jews to inhabit the Negev by 2015.
Recently, some people have floated land claims processes such as Canadian and Australian models. Would this be relevant for the Bedouin population or the other unrecognized villages within Israel?
Yes. There is a lot to learn about the strategies and tactics of indigenous peoples to wage their struggle for land and access to resources worldwide. Just now, we spent a good amount of time on our BUSTAN tour with indigenous resisters to learn how they wage their struggle. What seems to me is that many of the nations and the tribes that we encountered are nations that have been uprooted within the last 200years. They have gone through the cycle of dispossession, this is now happening to the Bedouin. They are losing access to their resources and the semi-nomadic agrarian lifestyle. BUSTAN is eager to join forums where grassroots activists and organizers can exchange discourse about strategies that have been effective. The Israeli government is not shy about learning from the US how t build a reservation-like system to contain the Bedouin. . Despite elements of sovereignty, people in North America struggle against the restriction and living in encircled enclaves without equal access to state resources. A reservation might actually provide some element of protection to Bedouin that currently have no sovereignty inside their ‘enclosure zone,’ due to excessive infrastructure — a nuclear site in Dimona, military and industrial zones, residential expansion, and mines, quarries, a prison, and an airport. There is much to learn about how other indigenous peoples have fought and continue to advocate for sovereignty, compensation and rights.
The third prevalent trend today is the Israeli government is trying to ‘solve’ the ‘Bedouin problem’ by creating a new municipality that will ostensibly govern the 11 previously unrecognized villages as they merge into new townships. The problem is, the government-planned townships are widely criticized as a failed experiment. They have the highest rates of unemployment, school dropout, crime, and drug use on Israel’s socio-economic indicators. Large neighborhoods inside the government-planned townships are not connected with sewage systems; they end up serving as nothing more than dormitory communities have.
The cream of the crop manage to get jobs in urban centers, but the majority of people stay at home and accept welfare hand-outs to make more babies. The new municipality has an Arab name, Abu Basma. It is run by Jewish politicians, with some cosmetic Arab leadership inside the municipality. It is conceptually an improvement on the seven government planned townships but we have yet to see if there are ample budgets to provide the villagers the same level of services as the neighboring Jewish towns. There have been six villages over the past 6 years that have been recognized nominally. On the outside, it sounds good. When you speak to different villagers, when you ask them if they are satisfied, most will rant with frustration. The state has begun to grant some services (education) without recognizing these lands where the villages are situated and they could have a school. They could be receiving municipal services. They are recognizing the villagers, but not the village. They are recognizing the access to services, but not on the land between villages. Essentially, the basic premise is that they can get services if they cede rights to the land and give up claims to any land between neighboring villages.
Israel is marketing this relocation project as getting a piece of the desert for one’s own possession, helping “redeem” the, desert to make it bloom to use Israel’s first PM David Ben-Gurion’s words.
Recently, a beautiful village named Um el Hiran was uprooted. There was solidarity and more media coverage than ever before. Groups like ICAHD did some rebuilding, and many organizations that Bustan works with were involved in bringing this issue out to their own constituencies. There are families that live 2km away from this village in single-family ranches, with access to 800km of land, on an organic farm practicing agriculture in the desert, inside homes which have been torn to the ground in order to convey a powerful message that this land belongs to the Jewish state. Riyad Abul Giyan, on BUSTAN’s Negev Unplugged Tour, a story he told captures the irony of what is going on in this region that is invisible to the international community. He has served in the Israeli army for six years, when he received a call to reserve duty, he also received a notice on the same day that his house was up for demolition. The next day his home was demolished and got a second notice that it was time to serve for his reserve duty. He told us, “I don’t understand what the Israeli government expects from their Bedouin citizens. They expect us to fill the same obligations as citizens of the state but do not give us the same rights as citizens.” His village was uprooted to create a new Jewish community, to be called Hiran. Today, the JNF is fundraising for the construction of villages like Hiran. Will the new residents of Hiran know the story of the history of this parcel of land when they immigrate to the Holy Land, and settle the Negev “wasteland” in the middle of the desert in order to make it come alive? Will they learn that this land was not adjudicated in a court of law, those who will settle in the future? Will they learn what has happened to the Bedouin who have inhabited the region for over four hundred years?
What are some of the issues with oil shale extraction in the Negev?
BUSTAN works to raise awareness that 72,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel don’t have access to the power grid in Israel. Israel’s energy policy is becoming increasingly exclusive. We see four different processes in the Negev, 1) the construction of a shale oil refinery an extremely expensive technology, that requires the extraction ofkerogen from rock highly water-intensive process, this is being toted as Israel’s new Green Alternative. Secondly, the privatization of the Israeli Electric Company, several of the turbines have already been sold off in Haifa and Ashdod. There is little discussion of privatization, there is continued destruction of the public system and people are being forced to live off the grid. Thirdly, plans to create a nuclear power plant are moving forward. Lastly, natural gas is being developed, slightly less expensive than coal that is imported from as far away as Australia to Israel. But all of this will require significant resources. We’re concerned about what needs to happen in order to provide access to energy for Israel’s 72,000 Bedouin citizens in the unrecognized villages.
There is a human rights problem across the Middle East, including in Israel. How are the UN, the US and EU interacting in Israel related to human rights?
I happen to agree with the criticism that Israel should not be singled out as the only country perpetrating egregious human rights violations, but where I’m coming from is that Israel should be held to a standard, irregardless of the human rights violations committed in other countries in this region. Violations are happening inside Israel, and inside the occupied Palestinian Territories. It is grossly unacceptable. The UN is role has been substantial in terms of having an impact. Policies are passed around the decorate the back pages of newspapers but don’t percolate in to the roots of the power structure of Israel’s military, Israel’s government, so I wish the UN Special Rapporteur could do more, that the framework for international human rights should be respected. Any pressure from the US, from the Jewish allies and groups, generally tend to nullify the scathing criticism that comes from European countries, it levels out the playing field, and nothing is achieved for those who need their rights protected. People seem to be wholly cynical about the formal peace process that is upcoming.
Mainstream Israeli society seems to look down on civil society due to the criticism it levels at the state. Even the peace movement seems to be split between its enabling, moderate and more critical elements?
A simplistic answer would be that the mainstream of Israel is the backbone of the IDF. It is a country where the population for the most part is serving in the military or is in the reserves. There is a growing movement to resist, or refuse to serve, but for the most part, Israelis are supportive of a military approach. The Israeli mainstream believes that Arabs only understand the language of power, the peace movement always has been a marginalized force and has been a movement of limited influence through the mainstream. It seems that this time in Israel’s history, the country’s politics will not be strongly influenced by the peace movement. For the most part, there are many peace movements, until the various peace movements are able to coalesce, they will remain peripheral, not be a strong force to be reckoned with compared to the mainstream apparatus of the state that has taken such a hawkish position.
We ask the international community to pressure the Israeli government to negotiate with Bedouin leadership from the RCUV (Regional Committee of Unrecognized Villages), and to recognize agricultural villages with fair access to the State’s resources. Israel must strive to be a real democracy, and not an ethnocracy for its Jewish majority.
On two fronts, Bedouin are seemingly trapped. From one side, they are staving off pressures from rapacious development and the State’s land grab, and from the other side, they’re faced with economic pressures from the global industrial machine to urbanize in order to have public resources. BUSTAN is continuing to challenge disputes over resources, with a proactive and novel approach- promoting stewardship and sustainable resource use across the ethnic divide as a way to challenge strident wars over ownership. Bedouin are yet another threatened indigenous community in need of strong solidarity from the international community.