Last week, some of Britain’s leading newspapers carried a shocking advertisement, announcing that the property rights of thousands of people are going to be swept aside in the name of progress. As a result of government policy, families who have lived in particular localities for generations are going to be uprooted and resettled. Whole communities are facing destruction. It is all very well — one communal spokesperson is reported to have said — that compensation will be paid, and that relocated families are being promised a quality of life at least as good as if not better than that they currently enjoy. The point is (the spokesperson charged) that this is as near to ethnic cleansing as makes little if any difference.
If true — and there is a kernel of truth in what I’ve just described — this story would not only be shocking. The fact that the legislature of a supposedly democratic country could even contemplate such a scenario would itself be deeply troubling. What kind of a democracy could possibly formulate such a policy?
At the end of this column I’m going to tell you. First I want to share with you some facts about the completely artificial outrage that has been generated about Israel’s plans for the Bedouin of the Negev desert.
So much pseudo-sentimental mush has been written about this matter that even I have found it difficult to separate the lies from the half-lies and both the half-lies and the total lies from the unvarnished truth. But, on 29 November, the much-respected Maariv journalist Ben-Dror Yemini came to my rescue. Writing in the Times of Israel, Yemini set out the bare facts, and for what follows I am much indebted to him:
The outrage currently being expressed over the so-called Begin Plan concerns not all Bedouin, but just the Al-Qian tribe, whose members were some time ago transferred to Umm al-Hiran, in the Yatir region of the Negev, at their own request, following a falling-out with other Bedouin. Adjacent to the Al-Qian settlement the state constructed a purpose-built Bedouin township, called Hura, complete with gas, electricity, running water, paved roads and so on. Each Al-Qian family
is entitled to receive — free — almost one dunam of land in Hura.
Al-Qian families who have squatted on land to which they have no legal title will nonetheless each receive an ex-gratia payment. Of the 4,000 or so Al-Qian Bedouin so affected, three-quarters have actually already moved to Hura of their own volition. So the international frenzy currently being whipped up concerns only a thousand or so individuals, who are indeed destined to be evicted from their present habitations and relocated at Hura. I should add that the accusation that these evictions are being sanctioned so that a “Jewish” town (Hiran) can be built is wholly false. Hiran is not a “Jewish” town (less still a “religious Jewish” town). Anyone — any Bedouin — who wants to buy land in Hiran is fully entitled to do so. This applies not only to the Al-Qian but to the many other Negev Bedouin for whom the Begin Plan makes provision.
We have in this country encountered numerous examples of the sensitivities that are quite understandably aroused when communities that have historically lived and enjoyed a nomadic lifestyle find themselves at odds with local and national governments of essentially urban (or at least urbanised) industrial societies. Think, for example, of the violent confrontations that took place two years ago at Dale Farm, Essex.
Think of the “travellers” forcibly evicted from their illegal homes at that site. Think of the motley array of anti-government pressure groups that (so to speak) eagerly hitched their political wagons to the protests of the travellers. No one can say that the evictions were enjoyable. But they were necessary. The Dale Farm travellers were left with nothing. The Al-Qian Bedouin, by contrast, are being treated with extraordinary generosity.
Now let me return to the story alluded to earlier — that the legislature of a so-called democracy is going to forcibly uproot and resettle families who have lived in their communities for generations. I was of course referring to the Bill currently before the UK parliament to authorise the building of the high-speed rail link between Birmingham and London.