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The Desert of Israeli Democracy

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Posted on Oct 14, 2013
Physicians for Human Rights - Israel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A child stands in an “unrecognized Bedouin village” in the Negev Desert in Israel.

By Max Blumenthal, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

A bearded religious nationalist stepped out of an aluminum-sided synagogue and met us at a group of picnic benches. His name was Af-Shalom and he was in his thirties.  He was not, he said, permitted to speak until a representative from the Or Movement arrived. After a few uncomfortable minutes and half a cigarette, however, he began to hold forth. He sent his children, he told us, to school over the Green Line in the settlement of Susiya, just eight minutes away on an Israelis-only access road. He then added that the Bedouins were “illegals” occupying his God-given land and would continue to take it over unless they were forcibly removed. Just as Af-Shalom was hitting his stride, Moshe, a curt Or Movement representative who refused to give his last name, arrived to escort us out without a comment.

“The World’s Biggest Detention Center”

Only a few kilometers from Umm al-Hiran, in the southern Negev Desert and inside the Green Line, the state of Israel has initiated another ambitious project to “concentrate” an unwanted population. It is the Saharonim detention facility, a vast matrix of watchtowers, concrete blast walls, razor wire, and surveillance cameras that now comprise what the British Independent has described as “the world’s biggest detention center.”

Originally constructed as a prison for Palestinians during the First Intifada, Saharonim was expanded to hold 8,000 Africans who had fled genocide and persecution. Currently, it is home to at least 1,800 African refugees, including women and children, who live in what the Israeli architectural group Bikrom has called “a huge concentration camp with harsh conditions.”

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Like the Bedouins of the Negev’s unrecognized villages, the 60,000 African migrants and asylum seekers who live in Israel have been identified as a demographic threat that must be purged from the body of the Jewish state. In a meeting with his cabinet ministers in May 2012, Netanyahu warned that their numbers could multiply tenfold “and cause the negation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” It was imperative “to physically remove the infiltrators,” the prime minister declared. “We must crack down and mete out tougher punishments.”

In short order, the Knesset amended the Infiltration Prevention Act it had passed in 1954 to prevent Palestinian refugees from ever reuniting with the families and property they were forced to leave behind in Israel. Under the new bill, non-Jewish Africans can be arrested and held without trial for as long as three years. (Israel’s Supreme Court has invalidated the amendment, but the government has made no moves to enforce the ruling, and may not do so.) The bill earmarked funding for the construction of Saharonim and a massive wall along the Israeli-Egyptian border. Arnon Sofer, a longtime Netanyahu advisor, also urged the construction of “sea walls” to guard against future “climate change refugees.”

“We don’t belong to this region,” Sofer explained.

In that single sentence, he distilled the logic of Israel’s system of ethnocracy. The maintenance of the Jewish state demands the engineering of a demographic majority of nonindigenous Jews and their dispersal across historic Palestine through methods of colonial settlement. State planners like Sofer refer to the process as “Judaization.” Because indigenous Palestinians and foreign migrants are not Jews, the state of Israel has legally defined most of them as “infiltrators,” mandating their removal and permanent relocation to various zones of exclusion—from refugee camps across the Arab world to walled-off West Bank Bantustans to the besieged Gaza Strip to state-constructed Bedouin reservations to the desert camp of Saharonim.

As long as the state of Israel holds fast to its demographic imperatives, the non-Jewish outclass must be “concentrated” to make room for exclusively Jewish settlement and economic development. This is not a particularly humane system, to be sure, but it is one that all within the spectrum of Zionist opinion, from the Kahanist right to the J Street left, necessarily support. Indeed, if there is any substantial disagreement between the two seemingly divergent camps, it is over the style of rhetoric they deploy in defense of Israel’s ethnocracy. As the revisionist Zionist ideologue Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote in his famous 1923 “Iron Wall” essay outlining the logic of what would become Israel’s deterrence strategy, “there are no meaningful differences between our ‘militarists’ and our ‘vegetarians.’”

During the Oslo era, the time of hope that prevailed in mid-1990’s Israel, it was the “dovish” Labor Party of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak that began surrounding the Gaza Strip with barricades and electrified fencing while drawing up plans for a wall separating the West Bank from “Israel proper.” (That blueprint was implemented under the prime ministership of Ariel Sharon.)

“Us over here, them over there” was the slogan of Barak’s campaign for reelection in 1999, and of the Peace Now camp supporting a two-state solution at the time. Through the fulfillment of the Labor Party’s separationist policies, the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank have gradually disappeared from Israel’s prosperous coastal center, consolidating cities like Tel Aviv as meccas of European cosmopolitanism—“a villa in the jungle,” as Barak said.

With the post-Oslo political transition that shattered Israel’s “peace camp,” ascendant right-wing parties set out to finish the job that Labor had started. By 2009, when Israel elected the most hawkish government in its history, the country was still full of “infiltrators,” the most visible of whom were those African migrants, deprived of work permits and increasingly forced to sleep in parks in south Tel Aviv. According to a report by the newspaper Haaretz on a brand new Israel Democracy Institute poll on Israeli attitudes, “Arabs no longer top the list of neighbors Israeli Jews would consider undesirable, replaced now by foreign workers. Almost 57% of Jewish respondents said that having foreign workers as neighbors would bother them.”


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