Civil Society and Politics March for Negev Bedouin Recognition

Participants in the march for recognition of Israel’s Bedouin villages, which began in the unrecognised village of Wadi Al Nam in the Negev desert in southern Israel and ended with delivery of ‘The Alternative Master Plan for Unrecognised Bedouin Villages’ to the Head of State’s office in Jerusalem, March 2015. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

Participants in the march for recognition of Israel’s Bedouin villages, which began in the unrecognised village of Wadi Al Nam in the Negev desert in southern Israel and ended with delivery of ‘The Alternative Master Plan for Unrecognised Bedouin Villages’ to the Head of State’s office in Jerusalem, March 2015. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

By Silvia Boarini
JERUSALEM, Apr 4 2015 (IPS)

There was a symbolic dimension to a recent four-day march from the periphery of Israel to the corridors of power in Jerusalem to seek recognition for Bedouin villages.

The march, which began in the unrecognised Bedouin village of Wadi Al Nam in the Negev desert in southern Israel, ended on Mar. 29 with delivery of ‘The Alternative Master Plan for Unrecognised Bedouin Villages’ to the Head of State’s office in Jerusalem.

On this occasion, Negev Bedouin community leaders and hundreds of representatives of civil society organisations (CSOs) were joined by Arab and Israeli members of the Knesset from a political society actor, the Joint List, a political alliance of four Arab-dominated parties in Israel – Hadash, the United Arab List, Balad and Ta’al.

The Joint List, headed by Knesset member Ayman Odeh, was born out of Arab civil society’s need for unity and is now very much a player able and willing to gain power and mediate between its constituency and the state.“We are trying to present a different narrative [of Bedouin villages] to the people based on history, on facts, on legal rights and international human rights” – Professor Oren Yiftachel, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

A recent European Commission report mapping CSOs in Israel describes their space for dealing with human and civil rights as shrinking and their contribution to governance often misunderstood or perceived as a threat by state authorities.

In this context, although it may not change the state’s perception of CSOs, a strong partnership with a recognised political society actor such as the Joint List might at least mean that the mobilisation achieved by these organizations at the grassroots level can translate into change at legislative level.

“Because the Joint List is stronger now and we have a common goal, we think we can put more efficient pressure on the parliament and on the government to find a just solution for the people in the unrecognised villages,” Fadi Masamra of the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages (RCUV) told IPS.

RCUV is an elected civil society body that seeks to advance the rights of Bedouins in unrecognised villages,.

The common goal is gaining recognition for some 46 unrecognised Bedouin villages in the Negev which do not exist on any map and do not receive any basic services such as running water or electricity.

In 2011, the Israeli government approved a unilateral plan, known as the Prawer Plan, to “regularise Bedouin settlement” within five years by demolishing these unrecognised villages and forcibly relocating Bedouins to new localities. The plan sparked mass outcry and was eventually shelved in 2013.

Activists take pride in recalling that the Prawer Plan was stopped by people in the streets who demonstrated against it and not by representatives in the Knesset. They say that it this disconnect that both CSOs and the Joint List hope to be able to bridge by working together.

“I am very proud that the Joint List called for this march,” Hanan al Sanah of womens’ empowerment NGO Sidre told IPS as she walked with the marchers. “It shows that their commitment is real and they haven’t forgotten their electoral promise. They are making the issue of recognition more visible and they can build on the mobilisation that has gone on for years within the community.”

CSOs have worked tirelessly in the Negev not only to mobilise Bedouins against the Prawer Plan but also to produce alternative literature, reports and campaigns that challenge the government’s classification of Bedouin presence in the Negev as “illegal”.

By re-framing the issue of recognition around land rights, human rights and equality, they have been able to reach Jewish and international audiences and further shape the public debate.

CSOs have also been using a powerful state tool, that of mapping, to propose a tangible and viable solution in the form of the ‘The Alternative Master Plan for Unrecognised Bedouin Villages’.

The plan was drawn up by a team led by Professor Oren Yiftachel, who teaches political geography, urban planning and public policy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in collaboration with the RCUV and Bimkom, an NGO promoting equality in planning practices.

“We are trying to present a different narrative to the people based on history, on facts, on legal rights and international human rights,” Yiftachel told IPS. “We worked for three years on the Alternative Plan and we have created a different scenario for the future.”

The Alternative Plan draws a different map of the Negev in which unrecognised villages are “legalised” and can access the same development opportunities as their Jewish neighbours.

“This is a very scientific and detailed solution that fits within state planning and comes from the community, it is not imposed on them. It can make the process easier,” explained RCUV’s Masamra.

Although Yiftachel admits that since it was first presented in 2012 the Alternative Plan has largely been ignored by Knesset commissions, he believes attitudes have shifted and CSOs must continue to push for change.

“After all, a solution is overdue since the future of the unrecognised villages, and of the 100,000 Bedouins living in them, remains uncertain,” he said, adding that “it is important to remember that the state is not a homogeneous body. There are people willing to consider recognition.”

For the CSOs and activists working day in day out in the field, mobilisation remains key. “I would say that the real challenge remains mobilising both the Jewish and the Bedouin community,” Michal Rotem of the Negev Coexistence Forum, a Jewish Arab NGO working in unrecognised villages, told IPS.

“Politicians come and go but it is the NGOs’ role to bring more communities and groups into the struggle and to maintain engagement.”

For Aziz Abu Madegham Al Turi, from the unrecognised village of Al Araqib, working closely with CSOs is important to bring new people to the Negev and come together in actions that reverberate beyond the Negev. “The worse it get gets the more united we become,” he told IPS.

“The state tries to break us up but we connect through different organisations and committees and we find new strength. We come together to support each other.”

Amir Abu Kweider, a prominent activist in the campaign against the Prawer Plan, sees the arrival of the Joint List as an occasion to form new alliances. “We need to intensify efforts to safeguard our rights against racist legislation and reach out to new Israeli audiences,” he told IPS.

In this sense, the march can certainly be judged a success. Tamam Nasra, for example, travelled from the north of Israel to join the march. “Arabs in the South are no different from me, their problems are my problems. Their oppression is my oppression. This is why I heeded (Knesset member) Ayman Odeh’s call,” she told IPS.

Omri Evron, a Joint List voter from Tel Aviv, also joined out of a sense of collective responsibility. “It is not possible that in 2015 in Israel there are people who are effectively not recognised by the state,” he told IPS. “This has to change.”

The positive atmosphere was not dampened even by the knowledge that a new Benjamin Netanyahu government will be sworn in shortly.

“It doesn’t matter if the right wing gets stronger,” stressed Masamra. “If you think that it is not worth struggling then nothing will be changed. We have a responsibility towards our people and this is about human rights, not about who is more powerful.”

Edited by Phil Harris    

Effective War Crimes Inquiry Could Heal Sri Lanka’s Old Wounds

Dawn breaks over a war memorial honouring government forces at Elephant Pass, in northern Sri Lanka. Many feel that the country has a long way to go before the wounds of conflict are healed. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Dawn breaks over a war memorial honouring government forces at Elephant Pass, in northern Sri Lanka. Many feel that the country has a long way to go before the wounds of conflict are healed. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Apr 4 2015 (IPS)

Jessi Joygeswaran seems like your typical 23-year-old young woman. She has an infectious smile and laughs a lot when she talks. Like many other young women anywhere in the world, her life is full of dreams.

“I want to go to university, I want to do a good job,” she tells IPS. She seems sure that she can make her dreams come true.

“Before we can move [forward], we need to accept our shared, horrible past.” — Jessi Joygeswaran, a resident of Sri Lanka’s former war zone.
In fact, Joygeswaran’s life has been anything but ordinary. She grew up in a war zone, and now spends her days thinking as much about such issues as war crimes probes and national reconciliation as she does about her own future.

Hailing from the minority Tamil community, the young woman was born and bred in the Vanni, the vast swath of land in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province that bore the brunt of the island’s 26-year-long civil war that only ended in mid-2009.

In 2006 Joygeswaran, just 14 at the time, had to flee from her ancestral home in the village of Andankulam, in the northwestern Mannar District, when fighting erupted between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eealm (LTTE), a rebel group attempting to carve out a separate state in the Tamil-speaking north and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.

“We were running from bullets and shell-fire for three years,” she recalls. It was April 2009 when she and her family finally escaped the horror. “Death was a possibility every second,” she says, the smile vanishing from her face.

Even after the war ended, the Vanni’s troubles did not. A quarter of a million people who escaped the war were restricted to relief camps that looked and felt more like detention centres, where they remained until late 2010.

Over 400,000 people who had fled the region during various stages of the conflict returned to scenes of devastation, forced to rebuild their lives from scratch while coming to terms with the death or disappearance of thousands of their kin. Homelessness, trauma and fear were the order of the day.

A new government – a new era?

All of that changed this past January when Sri Lanka voted in a new president, Maithripala Sirisena, ousting the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose defeat of the LTTE enabled him to exercise an iron grip over the country.

On Jan. 8, for the first time in her life, Joygeswaran voted alongside her countrymen. Despite all past discrimination against her minority community, she is completely invested in the new national government.

“We voted for justice and peace for all,” she asserts. It is a humble aspiration, but one shared by a majority of people in this island nation of 20 million, where generations of bloodshed resulting in a death toll of between 80,000 and 100,000 had many doubting that the country would ever return to a state of normalcy.

The first 60 days of the new government have been a mixed bag, especially for northern Tamils. Travel restrictions and a suffocating military presence – with members of the armed forces overseeing virtually every aspect of daily life – have eased; but there is still limited progress on more delicate issues, like a comprehensive inquiry into wartime abuses.

The last days of the war could have resulted in a civilian death toll of about 40,000, according to an advisory panel set up by the United Nations Secretary-General – a figure hotly disputed by the previous government.

A new book by the respected research body, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), titled ‘Palmyra Fallen’, says the figure could be as high 100,000.

Both government forces and the LTTE have been accused of human rights violations during the last bouts of fighting.

Three resolutions put forth at the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) have sought an international investigation into the end of the war. The Rajapaksa government, determined not to allow “foreign interference” in what it called a purely domestic issue, set up its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) but its recommendations have largely been left on paper.

There is an ongoing commission on disappearances, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has begun an island-wide survey on families of the missing.

But not one of these measures has led to a single prosecution or judicial complaint against the perpetrators.

Balancing local efforts with international standards

Sirisena’s government has promised a fresh probe, with international inputs. The new foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, has been traveling the globe since assuming office, trying to convince the international community to allow Sri Lanka some breathing room in which to push through an indigenous, credible reconciliation process.

So far his charms seem to be working. The United States, United Kingdom and other western nations agreed to postpone the release of a U.N. Human Rights Council investigation report into wartime human rights abuses. It was due in March and now will be unveiled in September.

The government announced on Mar. 18 that it was considering lifting proscriptions issued on Tamil diaspora groups, in a move that many feel is aimed at garnering the support of moderate Tamils around the world. While no official figures exist, Sri Lanka’s Tamil diaspora is believed to number close to 700,000.

“The government of President Sirisena is seriously committed to expediting the reconciliation process. In doing so, the Sri Lankan diaspora whether it be Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, has am extremely important role to play,” Samaraweera told Parliament on Mar. 18.

Despite this nod to the diaspora, government officials have made clear that the mechanism for investigating possible war crimes committed by both sides must be a robust, national initiative, without foreign interference.

“Any charges […] against our security forces have to be investigated, [but] it has to be handled by the local mechanism, that is what we have always stated,” Power and Energy Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka told the Foreign Correspondents Association in February.

But it will take some muscle to convince the international community that Sri Lanka is capable of initiating a successful probe with the power to go from theory to practice.

“This is why Amnesty International (AI) and other organisations have urged the Sri Lankan authorities to cooperate with the U.N. and take advantage of international expertise in the development of a credible, effective and truly independent mechanism – one that will not be vulnerable to the kinds of threats and political pressures that have obstructed previous efforts,” David Griffiths, AI’s deputy Asia Pacific director tells IPS.

AI and several other international organisations also favour the setting up of a special tribunal to try any human rights violators.

Among other unresolved issues are allegations that the armed forces conducted summary executions of surrendered LTTE cadres, as well as possible incidents of sexual abuse of persons in captivity. The LTTE has been accused of using civilians as human shields, as well as for conscripting children into its ranks, among other things.

“It is important for everyone concerned and for Sri Lanka’s future that all allegations of crimes under international law are fully investigated and, where sufficient admissible evidence exists, those suspected of the crimes are prosecuted in genuine proceedings before independent and impartial courts that comply with international standards for fair trial.  Victims must be provided with full and effective reparation to address the harm they have suffered,” Griffiths says.

Already some positive changes have occurred under the new government. Ruki Fernando, a researcher with the Colombo-based rights group INFORM, tells IPS that the appointment of a civilian governor to Jaffna, replacing a former military officer, as well as the government’s releasing of lands acquired by the military, bode well for the future.

“I am cautiously optimistic, but it is a long road ahead,” he says.

In Joygeswaran’s words: “Before we can move [forward], we need to accept our shared, horrible past.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida