In Box

'The State Doesn't Exist for You'

Israel says it wants to lift its Bedouin citizens out of poverty. But it keeps demolishing their villages.

Sderot, Israel — Awad Abu Freih says that the Israeli government has demolished his village, al-Araqib, some 60 times over the last five years. It needs more land for Jewish people, and so wants the village gone, explains Abu Freih, a middle-aged man with a small, graying beard. "I think this is the reason why, al-Araqib, they destroy it."

Abu Freih is a Bedouin from Israel's Negev Desert. Of the roughly 200,000 Arab Bedouins in the Negev, about 70,000 live in dozens of villages that the Israeli government considers "unrecognized" -- or built illegally. Al-Araqib is one of them: a collection of trailers, tents, and homes made of blue tarp and aluminum. About 300 people live there.

According to Abu Freih and other villagers, the demolitions of al-Araqib follow a pattern: Residents receive an eviction notice setting a date by which they must leave -- usually, they are given a week. Then riot police arrive early in the morning on or around the stated day to remove people from their homes. Often, al-Araqib's residents are herded to the village's small cemetery while bulldozers raze structures. The whole process takes about an hour.

Because the villagers often begin rebuilding within a day, they say police have sometimes confiscated construction materials. But al-Araqib rises again anyway -- residents find ways to re-establish their homes on land that the Jewish National Fund, a development organization that owns about 10 percent of Israel's terrain, wants in order to plant a forest.

"They try to destroy everything," Abu Freih says during an interview in his office. One of 12 children from a poor family in al-Araqib, Abu Freih is now an activist and teacher; he divides his time between his village and the nearby city of Sderot, where he is a chemistry professor. It is "like a cleaning," he continues. "A cleansing of man, a cleansing of trees."

The destruction of al-Araqib is part of a larger, long-term effort by Israel to move the Bedouin from unrecognized villages in order to make way for Jewish settlements and other projects. Israel says it has the right to dismantle structures because the Bedouin are squatting on state-owned land -- though Ami Tesler of the government's Headquarters for Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin insists that, contrary to what Abu Freih and others say, in al-Araqib "there is no building with people that live in it that has been demolished." The Bedouin, however, claim ties to the land stretching back centuries and say that Israel is treating them as second-class citizens.

Yet the situation is even more complex than it appears at first glance. Recent efforts to relocate the Bedouin are part of an unprecedented push to develop the Negev -- and, in theory, to improve the lives of its inhabitants -- after some 60 years of neglect. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, wanted to expel the Bedouin from the country entirely. Today, by contrast, some policymakers say they want to help the Bedouin, compensate them for their land, and integrate them into Israeli society.

But Israel's initial efforts to do this have been clumsy, and its more heavy-handed and coercive tactics have inspired accusations of ethnic cleansing. In November 2013, thousands of Bedouins and their supporters poured into the streets to protest the government. The New York Times described "scenes reminiscent of the Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank" in which "protesters hurled stones at police forces, burned tires and blocked a main road for hours near the Bedouin town of Hura in the Negev. The police used water cannons, tear gas and sound grenades to disperse the demonstrators." Since then, the Bedouin have continued protesting -- outside the prime minister's residence, in villages, and elsewhere in the Negev. In a report released in February, the U.S. State Department called the treatment of the Bedouin one of Israel's "most significant human rights problems": "[T]he Bedouin segment of the Arab population continued to be the most disadvantaged."

Heightened tensions between the Bedouin and the government come at a particularly sensitive time: The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are on life support, and some observers are concerned that if Israel further alienates other members of its Arab population, there could be an increased threat of civil unrest. Yet the destruction of villages continues, and the Bedouin are only growing more and more distrustful of the government. "The state doesn't exist for you," says Amir Abo Kweder, a Bedouin activist from an unrecognized village. "The only time that you see the state is when it comes to demolish houses."


The Bedouin comprise tribes of Arabs that have lived throughout the Middle East for hundreds of years. Historically, they were shepherds and desert guides. But despite their popular reputation as nomads, the Bedouin began living in more or less stationary villages scattered throughout the Negev in the 19th century. When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the Bedouin numbered about 100,000. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, in which many Bedouins sided with Israel's Arab neighbors, most fled or were expelled. By the end of the war, only 11,000 remained in the country.

Over the following decades, Israel concentrated the remaining Bedouins in the Siyag, an area in the Negev's northeastern corner. The government justified the resettlement by citing the demands of an expanding population, the Israeli army's need for new bases, and security concerns created by undocumented population centers. Israel constructed seven townships for the Bedouin between 1969 and 1989; however, these townships were designed more to contain the Bedouin than to address their needs, and many lacked basic industry and infrastructure.

The Bedouins who wanted to avoid the townships began expanding indigenous villages and creating new ones. The government, however, refused to recognize these villages, and it continues to do so today. "This is not their land," Tesler says. "This is exactly like if you built a shed in Dupont Circle."

The Bedouin disagree: They operate according to a traditional system of land ownership dating back centuries, with individuals and tribes claiming tracts throughout the Negev. They can describe the boundaries of these claims from memory; in some cases, their descriptions are corroborated by deeds from 19th-century Ottoman land reforms and later British surveys. So strong is their respect for these claims that many Bedouins living in unrecognized villages resist moving onto land owned by other Bedouins, including some territory in the townships. This has made governmental development of the Negev challenging, as parts of townships stand empty.

Years of disagreement with the government and the attendant social disenfranchisement have left the Bedouin among Israel's poorest citizens. In 2000, six of the Siyag townships were ranked among the 10 least developed towns in Israel. Birthrates are high, while employment -- though difficult to track precisely -- is very low in some locations. Municipal services like water and sewage management are available only sporadically and often in insufficient quantity.

Conditions are often worse in the unrecognized villages. "You don't have any infrastructure in those villages. You don't have any paved roads. You don't get services in most of the villages like education or electricity," says Kweder, who works for the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. (Full disclosure: I was a volunteer English teacher with the forum from 2009 to 2010, but did not know Kweder.) Many villages have to buy water from private vendors, and connections to public transportation are poor; some villages sit close to the highways, but others can only be reached by driving off road into the desert.

In 2007, as part of a broader effort to develop the Negev -- in order to create more housing and to secure the region -- the government finally began to show more interest in the Bedouin's situation. Although driven in part by goodwill, the government also recognized the potential benefits of better engaging with a swath of its Arab citizens. (Hamas had swept the Palestinian elections the year before.)

The government established a commission, headed by former Supreme Court Judge Eliezer Goldberg, to chart a future for the Negev that would take the Bedouin's welfare into account. The report the commission produced in 2008 recommended recognizing as many villages as possible and developing them where they stood, compensating the Bedouins with land claims for what they would give up, and offering those who needed to move land in newly built or developed villages. The report did not recognize the Bedouin's ownership of land, but it acknowledged their historical connection to the Negev.

This was a significant divergence from the past, and the report was relatively well received in the Bedouin community. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an NGO that works with the Bedouin, called it a "turning point."

But when, under the direction of Ehud Prawer, head of policy planning in the prime minister's office, the government proposed policies based on the report's recommendations, things soured. The 2011 "Prawer Plan" called for relocating up to 35 villages (some 40,000 to 70,000 people), far more than the Bedouin had expected or the Goldberg report seemed to imply. While many of the villages would be re-established locally (some would be moved less than a kilometer), Bedouin activists complained that they had not been consulted in the plan's design. The plan also did not name the exact villages it proposed to move, leaving the matter up to the prime minister's office.

Rafi Barzilay, a consultant to Prawer, defends the plan by describing the difficulty of bringing the Goldberg report "down to earth." "If you say, 'We have to recognize each village as much as we can' … what is the meaning?" he asks. "To recognize each small house on every hill?"

Benny Begin, then a government minister, was tasked with listening to the Bedouin and assuaging their concerns -- but his efforts were seen as lackluster at best, and they were not helped by continued village demolitions. Simultaneously, the Prawer Plan attracted international criticism: In July 2013, Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said it risked "decimating" the Bedouin's "traditional cultural and social life in the name of development."

November's mass protests targeted the Prawer Plan. Begin resigned the following month, and, bowing to pressure, Israel withdrew the plan before the Knesset could vote on it. Yair Shamir, the agriculture minister, is now in charge of reworking the program, and he has pledged to work with the Bedouin. "[They have been] living in poverty, in Third World conditions," Shamir told the Jerusalem Post in January, "and we have to change it."


Yet many Bedouins now fear that a harsher scheme might replace the Prawer Plan, especially if right-wing opponents, who always felt the plan offered the Bedouin too much (estimates suggested compensation could reach $2.4 billion), become more deeply involved in the issue. Ari Briggs of Regavim, a Zionist organization that lobbies to "ensure responsible, legal & accountable use of Israel's national lands" and that the government has consulted on the Negev, says, "I promise them that the next plan that the government comes out with will not be as generous."

Many Bedouins are also closing ranks, worried that the government will try to cut deals with some individuals while evicting others, creating an arbitrary settlement structure even as it continues to demolish villages. (In early April, the Agriculture Ministry reached an agreement with a single tribe, in which several hundred families would move onto plots of land given to them by the government or face enforcement measures.) This fear has reinforced the sense that protecting land is a collective cause, and Bedouins willing to compromise on their own could risk alienation from their community. "I can't give you land for money, because after that I will be shamed," Abu Freih says. "Nobody will respect me if I sell my land."

Tesler says his office is willing to work with the Bedouin to find a "fair solution," but routinely encounters resistance. "This is the tragedy of the Bedouins. Simple as that," he says.

For the current stalemate to end once and for all, the government and the Bedouin will likely have to reach a comprehensive, inclusive accord about villages to be recognized and those to be moved, as well as the exact terms of compensation for land claims. It is a tall order, but until it happens, the cycle of village demolitions will likely continue: Places like al-Araqib will be rebuilt as many times as they are torn down. (Two months after an initial interview, Abu Freih says there has been "more demolition" of his village.)

Some observers are also concerned about the recurrence or worsening of violence, like that which occurred during November's protests. A few have gone so far as to say that the Bedouin and their supporters could instigate a "third intifada." Palestinian flags often fly at Bedouin protests, and Arab political leaders, along with many Bedouins, now speak of land and demolitions in the framework of Israel's long-standing conflict with its Arab population.

Abu Freih, however, worries mostly that the current impasse will become a de facto permanent arrangement -- one that, through the destruction of villages, risks detaching the Bedouin from their history. He says his people have asked the government why it tears down al-Araqib.

"And they said, 'This is the law, we have a strategic plan to settle Jews here, and maybe you will die. But your sons will forget the place; they'll forget everything.'"

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

In Box

Putin's Empire of the Mind

How Russia's president morphed from realist to ideologue -- and what he'll do next.

A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of Russian imperialism.

When Vladimir Putin first came to power in 1999, he talked ideologically but acted rationally. He listened to a range of opinions, from liberal economist Alexei Kudrin to political fixer Vladislav Surkov -- people willing to tell him hard truths and question groupthink. He may have regarded the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century, but he knew he couldn't re-create it. Perhaps the best metaphor is that while he brought back the Soviet national anthem, it had new words. There was no thought of returning Russia to the failed Soviet model of the planned economy. And as a self-professed believer who always wears his baptismal cross, Putin encouraged the once-suppressed Russian Orthodox Church.

He was a Russian patriot, but he also was willing to cooperate with the West when it suited his interests. One of the first leaders to offer his condolences after the 9/11 attacks, Putin shared Russian intelligence on al Qaeda with the United States. He did not hesitate to protect Russia's interests against the West -- in 2008 Putin undercut any thought of NATO expansion into Georgia by launching a war against its vehemently pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili -- but Putin's challenges were carefully calibrated to minimize repercussions while maximizing gains. He shut off gas to Ukraine, unleashed hackers on Estonia, and, yes, sent troops into Georgia, but he made sure that the costs of asserting regional hegemony were limited, bearable, and short term.

But that was the old Putin. Today, the West faces a rather different Russian leader.

After all, the annexation of Crimea, by any rational calculation, did not make sense. Russia already had immense influence on the peninsula, but without the need to subsidize it, as Ukraine had. (Russia has already pledged $1.5 billion to support Crimea.) The Russian Black Sea Fleet's position in the Crimean seaport of Sevastopol was secure until 2042. Any invasion would anger the West and force it to support whatever government took the place of Viktor Yanukovych's administration in Kiev, regardless of its composition or constitutionality.

In Putin's actions at home as well, the Russian president is eschewing the pragmatism that marked his first administration. Instead of being the arbiter, brokering a consensus among various clans and interests, today's Putin is increasingly autocratic. His circle of allies and advisors has shrunk to those who only share his exact ideas. Sober technocrats such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu played seemingly no role in the decision-making over Crimea and were expected simply to execute the orders from the top.

This has become one of the new themes of Russian politics: the conflation of loyalty to the Kremlin with patriotism. It says much that dissidents at home, from journalists failing to toe the official line to protesters on the streets, are castigated either as outright "foreign agents" (every movement, charity, or organization accepting foreign money must register itself as such) or else as unknowing victims and vectors of external contamination -- contamination, that is, from the West, whose cosmopolitanism and immorality Putin has come to see as an increasing threat to Russia's identity. As a result, Putin's relationship with Russia's elite -- now often foreign-educated, usually well-traveled, and always interested in economic prospects abroad -- has become tortuous. Having provided members of the elite with opportunities during his first presidency, Putin not only mistrusts the elite now, but sees it as unpatriotic. Some $420 billion has flowed out of Russia since 2008, and in 2013, Putin decried those who were "determined to steal and remove capital and who did not link their future to that of the country, the place where they earned their money." In response, he launched a program of "de-offshorization" that has prompted major Russian telecom, metals, and truck-manufacturing companies to announce their return to Russia. And Alexander Bastrykin, the powerful head of the Investigative Committee and one of Putin's closest acolytes, promised a crackdown on schemes designed to transfer money out of the country.

These efforts are representative of a broader reconsolidation that requires the West to stay out of Russia's politics and that prevents its ideas and values from perverting Putin's country. In this context, Yanukovych's ouster from the Ukrainian presidency was the inevitable catalyst for a decisive expression of a new imperialism. From the Kremlin's perspective, a Western-influenced and -supported opposition movement in Kiev rose up and toppled a legitimate leader who preferred Russia over the European Union, in the process threatening the liberties and prospects of the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine's east.

Perhaps the world should have paid more attention when Putin made 2014 Russia's "Year of Culture." This was to be when the country celebrated its unique identity -- a year of "emphasis on our cultural roots, patriotism, values, and ethics." It was nothing less than a recipe for a new Russian exceptionalism, one that Putin himself would craft and impose. Seen in those terms, the turmoil in Ukraine did not merely allow him to step in -- it demanded it.

The imperialism that has sprung from Putin's revived emphasis on Russian identity cannot neatly be compared with either its tsarist or its Soviet forebears. The tsarist empire was driven by an expansionist logic that would gladly push Russia's boundaries as far as they could stretch. Although multiethnic, there was no question that ethnic Russians were the imperial race and that others -- with a few exceptions, such as the Baltic German aristocrats on whom Tsar Nicholas I relied -- were second-class subjects. This was Russkii, ethnic Russian, not Rossiiskii, Russian by citizenship. By contrast, Soviet imperialism embodied, at least in theory, a political ideology greater than any one people or culture and a rhetoric of internationalism and evangelism.

Putin has spent considerable effort in forging a new Rossiiskii state nationalism. Absent is the visceral anti-Semitism of the Russian Empire, and the widespread racism and hostility visible within much of Russian society is not reflected in government policy. Nor does the president seem interested in expanding direct Russian rule (as opposed to political authority) or in exporting any particular political philosophy to non-Russians. At the same time, Putin thinks that "the [ethnic] Russian people are, without a doubt, the backbone, the fundament, the cement of the multinational Russian people." In other words, though ethnic Russians do not rule the state, they do provide the foundations for the "Russian civilization" on which it is based.

Putin's reference to Russia as a "civilization" signals itself a return to the time-honored belief that there is something unique about Russia rooted not only in ethnic identity but in culture and history -- a belief that began when the country became the chief stronghold of Eastern Orthodoxy after the fall of Constantinople. As he put it in his 2012 state-of-the-federation address: "In order to revive national consciousness, we need to link historical eras and get back to understanding the simple truth that Russia did not begin in 1917, or even in 1991, but, rather, that we have a common, continuous history spanning over 1,000 years and we must rely on it to find inner strength and purpose in our national development."

Putin's conception of what it means to be Russian combines the stern-jawed heroics of the Soviet defenders of Stalingrad with the exuberant loyalty of the tsar's own Cossacks, while excluding the humanism of Andrei Sakharov and the ascetic moralism of Leo Tolstoy. It is a version of Russian history and philosophy cherry-picked to support Putin's notion of national exceptionalism. In fact, he recently assigned regional governors homework, writings by three prominent 19th- and 20th-century intellectuals: Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov, and Ivan Ilyin. These three, whom Putin often cites, exemplify and justify his belief in Russia's singular place in history. They romanticize the necessity of obedience to the strong ruler -- whether managing the boyars or defending the people from cultural corruption -- and the role of the Orthodox Church in defending the Russian soul and ideal.

In this, Putin is directly drawing on a classic Russian dichotomy between autocracy and anarchy, as well as on the country's experiences during the 1990s, when there was no strong, consistent central rule and the country was beset by rebellion, gangsterism, poverty, and geopolitical irrelevance. In his 2013 state-of-the-federation speech, Putin made the connection between authoritarianism and social order, admitting, "Of course, this is a conservative position. But speaking in the words of Nikolai Berdyaev, the point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward, but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state."

THIS IS THE CENTER OF PUTIN'S IMPERIAL VISION: The pragmatic political fixer of the 2000s now genuinely believes that Russian culture is both exceptional and threatened and that he is the man to save it. He does not see himself as aggressively expanding an empire so much as defending a civilization against the "chaotic darkness" that will ensue if he allows Russia to be politically encircled abroad and culturally colonized by Western values at home.

This notion of an empire built on the basis of a civilization is crucial to understanding Putin. There are neighboring countries, such as those in the South Caucasus, that he believes ought to recognize that they are part of Russia's sphere of influence, its defensive perimeter, and its economic hinterland. But, he stops short of wanting forcefully to bring them under direct dominion because they are not ethnically Russian. Even when Moscow separated the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008, for example, it set them up as independent puppet states; it did not annex them into the Russian Federation.

Putin does insist, however, that Moscow is the protector of Russians worldwide. Where there are Russians and Russian-speakers and where Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox faith hold or held sway, these are nash -- "ours." Despite his mission to "gather the Russian lands" like the 15th-century's Prince Ivan the Great, this does not necessarily mean occupying Crimea today, Donetsk in eastern Ukraine tomorrow, and Russian-settled northern Kazakhstan the day after, but it helps define what he thinks is Russia's birthright. In his defense of the annexation of Crimea, he said that the Soviet Union's collapse left "the Russian nation … one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders."

Crimea, after all, is historically, ethnically, and culturally Russian, which is why, after its residents voted in favor of annexation, Putin approvingly noted that "after a long, difficult, exhausting voyage, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their native harbor, to their native shores, to their port of permanent registration -- to Russia." By contrast, the case to reach out to Transnistria in Moldova, for example, or even eastern Ukraine, is less clear. The Transnistrian Russians are relatively new colonists, arriving after World War II, and eastern Ukraine has Russian cities, but also a Catholic, Ukrainian countryside.

Putin is putting as much effort into defending his vision of "Russian civilization" at home as abroad, and he has drawn a direct connection between the two. In the past, he was a patriot, a Russian Orthodox believer, and a social conservative, but he saw the difference between his own views and state policy and was little interested in enforcing a social agenda. Indeed, he warned in 1999 that "a state ideology blessed and supported by the state … [means] practically no room for intellectual and spiritual freedom, ideological pluralism, and freedom of the press -- that is, for political freedom."

But what he once merely frowned upon, Putin now wants to ban. The conservative backlash, with laws against gay "propaganda," the heavy-handed prosecution of members of punk band Pussy Riot after their "blasphemous" performance in a church, and renewed state control of the media, all speak to a new moral agenda -- a nationalist and culturally isolationist one. Just as Putin has been trying to "de-offshorize" the Russian elite, he is now launching what could be called a "moral de-offshorization." His more recent pronouncements have been full of warnings about the "destruction of traditional values," threatening the moral degradation of Russian society.

The Russian Orthodox Church thus comes increasingly to the fore as a symbol and bastion of these traditional values and all that they mean for the new imperialism. Russian Orthodoxy was never an especially evangelical faith, concentrating on survival and purity over expansion, and much the same could be said of Putin's worldview. In Putin's previous presidency, the church was supportive, but just one of many of his allies. Now, though, from the pulpit to television news programs, the church is one of the most consistent and visible supporters of Putin's state-building project. When interviewed on the subject of Crimea, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, one of Putin's cassocked cheerleaders, asserted that the church has long believed that "the Russian people are a divided nation on its historical territory, which has the right to be reunited in a single public body."

IN 1999, SOON BEFORE HE BECAME ACTING PRESIDENT, Putin released a personal manifesto in which he admitted that Soviet communism was "a road to a blind alley, which is far away from the mainstream of civilization." Now, he is looking for exit ramps from that mainstream. Speaking in 2013 at the Valdai International Discussion Club, he warned against "mechanically copying other countries' experiences" because "the question of finding and strengthening national identity really is fundamental for Russia." It is a quest that he has taken upon himself in the name of personal and national greatness: A people with a destiny cannot be allowed to let him, themselves, their country, and their mission down.

All this helps explain the difficulty that Western governments have in understanding and dealing with him, especially this most aggressively cerebral U.S. administration. It seems that much is lost in translation between the Kremlin and the White House. Putin is not a lunatic or even a fanatic. Instead, just as there are believers who become pragmatists in office, he has made the unusual reverse journey. Putin has come to see his role and Russia's destiny as great, unique, and inextricably connected. Even if this is merely an empire of, and in, his mind -- with hazy boundaries and dubious intellectual underpinnings -- this is the construct with which the rest of the world will have to deal, so long as Putin remains in the Kremlin.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj