Unfit to Print: The Long Journey of African Refugees

Some news is not fit to print, but you may find it online. Today the Times ran a short item in the World Briefing section of its print edition. It is titled “Israel: Migrants Protest New Law,” and it contains fewer than 100 words, a very brief account.

It’s also a very ho-hum story. The migrants (asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan) are dismayed by a new law that allows for their indefinite detention. About 200 of them protested outside the prime minister’s office and marched to parliament. With some background about the law, that’s the end of the story.

But the real story didn’t begin there and didn’t end there. The Africans had walked out of their open prison in the Negev Desert two days before, making their way on foot to Beer Sheva, in the midst of bitter cold. They arrived in Jerusalem by bus, held their protest, and then they were hauled back to prison, this time to a closed facility.

The online story by Isabel Kershner is nearly seven times the length of the printed piece. It describes the shoddy footwear of the marchers, their journey, the placards they held and their re-arrest in Jerusalem. It quotes an asylum seeker who asks, “How can a refugee be in prison for two years?” and it quotes Prime Minister Netanyahu, who refers to the refugees as “infiltrators.”

At the bottom of the online piece a brief notice states, “A version of this article appears in print on December 18, 2013 on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Israel: Migrants Protest New Law.’”

You would think that a Times editor would be quick to print the full story, for it involves drama, pathos and serious concerns about racism and unequal treatment. It has drawn the attention of Israeli and international activists, and it has been covered elsewhere in greater detail, especially in the Israeli press.

But the usual standards often don’t apply when the news involves Israel, and sometime before the print edition went to bed, a decision was made: readers of the Times print edition were deemed unworthy of knowing the full story.

B.E.

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A Good Deal for the Bedouin?

Jodi Rudoren reports in the Times today that the Israeli government has withdrawn plans to resettle tens of thousands of Bedouin in the Negev. It was opposition from Arab and Jewish Israelis, international activists and rightwing members of the Knesset that doomed the proposal, at least for now.

To hear her tell it, the loss of the “Prawer Plan” is a setback for the Negev Bedouin, who are citizens of Israel. It “would have resolved the Bedouins’ long-contested land ownership claims.” It would have moved them from “ramshackle communities built without permits” to townships. It would have provided them with “badly needed infrastructure” and with “schools, health clinics, job training and other services.”

Israel undertook Prawer, she writes, not to ethnically cleanse the Negev as its critics claim, but to “redevelop the sprawling desert and move two huge military bases there.” Officials have no choice but to crowd the Bedouin into smaller enclaves “because their tents, tin shacks and other illegal structure are scattered over many miles.”

There are several difficulties with this scenario: Bedouin villages are without electricity and social services because Israel denies them these necessities by failing to “recognize” their communities. Their homes are illegal because Israel balks at giving them permits. And many Bedouin live in permanent homes of concrete, not in tin shacks and tents.

Moreover, the Bedouin, who were farming and raising their herds in the Negev long before the State of Israel came into being, are now confined to less than five percent of its area.

And this is how Israel is “developing” the desert as it rids the land of its indigenous population: it destroys the villagers’ olive and fruit trees and replaces them with “green zones.” It also moves Jewish settlers into the area.

The Negev Bedouin village of El Araqib is a case in point. In 2010 the Israeli authorities sprayed the village orchards, killing 4,500 trees and replacing them with fast growing pine and eucalyptus. Bulldozers destroyed the village houses, and all that remains is the century-old cemetery.

The residents of El Araqib have returned more than 50 times to erect tents on their former village, and each time the bulldozers have torn them down. Bedouin villagers elsewhere in the Negev remain in place, clinging to their homes.

Oren Yiftachel, professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told a group of us earlier this year that the remaining Bedouin “hang onto the land against the authorities” because “they know that if they leave the land, quick smart, it will be registered under a Jewish name.”

T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights group, notes that Israel “has established more than 100 new exclusively Jewish communities in the Beer Sheva District of the Negev with an average population of only 300 residents. In contrast, the 45 Negev Bedouin villages and agricultural communities, each have between 400 and 4,800 residents and remain unrecognized, even though they meet the indicated criteria required of new Jewish communities.”

What can you call this but ethnic cleansing?

Oren Yiftachel and T’ruah are excluded from the Times story, but readers can find fuller information by visiting the T’ruah website and outside news sources.

Israeli news outlets give a fuller view of the situation than the Times. In Haaretz, readers can find stories about anti-Bedouin rhetoric and the struggle of one village to survive. In 972 Magazine you can find several stories about the Prawer plan here.

B.E.