North American-Israeli Devorah Brous has been a social activist in Israel for fourteen years. After nine years running, BUSTAN, a social justice and sustainability organization which works with the Bedouin community in the Negev, Brous has returned to live in the United States. She spoke on the phone with Am Johal.
Am Johal: You were in Israel for 14 years altogether. How did you found BUSTAN?
Devorah Brous: When I first went to Israel, I went to learn more about my roots and culture, my traditions, to learn about my historical connection with the land of Israel. During the journey, I got very involved with the struggles of the peoples of the land. I did extensive research on land rights. I spent most of my time walking the land and speaking with a vast range of people about what makes the land holy, what makes this parcel of land so different than any other?
In what context did you start BUSTAN?
I started Bustan with the understanding that there is a need for Jewish and Palestinian people to come together. For years I was engaged in a variety of peace projects that make participants feel good. It took me time to see how these efforts focus more on the people as peacemakers that are 'making peace' than the issues, and largely aim to cull photo-ops and band-aid problems by distracting media and funders from core issues.
After seven years, I learned that cosmetic dialogue projects are effective at avoiding controversy and assuaging the guilt of the participants. I wanted to go beyond the overly cerebral and distractingly dry discourse at conferences that never leads beyond more glossy reports or the occasional catchy bumper sticker. I also felt disillusioned with protests. You leave in the morning to spew venomous rage against the Israeli occupation and by the afternoon youâe(TM)re slipping back into the familiar power differential. It's a form of masturbation âe" you have the moral high ground over family or neighbors as you return from a protest, you know you're on the right side of history. But once you return to your comforts without creating anything sustainable aside from pacifying your consciousness as you step out of being a passive bystander âe" you begin feeling increasingly powerless. Protest in a war zone doesn't allow for transformation of the crazy asymmetry in conditions. For the most part, it also doesn't affect the causal roots of conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
I felt pulled to engage in processes that are more tangible, believing that small steps can make a big difference. I found myself intrigued with the transformations that can happen when people start and finish projects and organize collaboratively together. I was organizing a Rainbow caravan of 250 people that included Israeli and Palestinian activists. We went from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and crossed over the border to plant several hundred trees in Jordan. During this two-month journey we faced breathtaking peaks and bleak valleys both literally and metaphorically and many of the gaps I experienced in other peacebuilding activities were filled in through experiencing this process. Just after this caravan, I founded BUSTAN in 1999.
What are some of the issues today in the Negev and with the Bedouin in particular? Some newspapers were openly worrying about a Bedouin intifada?
Three major issues are dominant today in the Negev in relation to the land dispute between the 160 000 Bedouin and the Israeli state. One is that the state consistently refuses to recognize the land rights of its Bedouin citizens, some 3300 claims to the land are outstanding. The Israeli government is trying to relocate villages by extinguishing rights. It is a large-scale relocation project. Large scale home demolition operations and other tactics and measures such as the denial of basic services in order to pressure this population to move off of the land and into cities. This requires Bedouin citizens to relinquish their land claims in exchange for a home in an urban township with access to government services, electricity, water, health care and sewerage.
There are about 72 000 Bedouin who are unwilling to accept the governmentâe(TM)s offer. Many realize if they move from the rural Negev, some living off the land as shepherds and pastoralists, that if they give up their connection to the land, they will lose access to its resources. Many of these families would have to sell off their herds once they move into a government planned township. This would mean essentially disconnecting from their culture, their traditions, and their roots to the land.
Recently, some people have floated land claims processes such as Canadian and Australian models. Would this be relevant for the Bedouin population or the other unrecognized villages within Israel?
Yes. There is a lot to learn about the strategies and tactics of indigenous peoples to wage their struggle for land and access to resources worldwide. Just now, we spent a good amount of time on our BUSTAN tour with indigenous resisters to learn how they wage their struggle. What seems to me is that many of the nations and the tribes that we encountered are nations that have been uprooted within the last 200 years. They have gone through the cycle of dispossession, and this is now happening to the Bedouin. They are losing access to their resources and the semi-nomadic agrarian lifestyle.
BUSTAN is eager to join forums where grassroots activists and organizers can exchange discourse about strategies that have been effective. The Israeli government is not shy about learning from the U.S. how to build a reservation-like system to contain the Bedouin. Despite elements of sovereignty, people in North America struggle against the restriction and living in encircled enclaves without equal access to state resources. A reservation might actually provide some element of protection to Bedouin that currently have no sovereignty inside their 'enclosure zone,' due to excessive infrastructure âe" a nuclear site in Dimona, military and industrial zones, residential expansion, and mines, quarries, a prison, and an airport. There is much to learn about how other indigenous peoples have fought and continue to advocate for sovereignty, compensation and rights.
There is a human rights problem across the Middle East, including in Israel. How are the UN, the US and EU interacting in Israel related to human rights?
I happen to agree with the criticism that Israel should not be singled out as the only country perpetrating egregious human rights violations, but where Iâe(TM)m coming from is that Israel should be held to a standard, irregardless of the human rights violations committed in other countries in this region. Violations are happening inside Israel, and inside the occupied Palestinian Territories. It is grossly unacceptable. Policies are passed around that decorate the back pages of newspapers but donâe(TM)t percolate in to the roots of the power structure of Israelâe(TM)s military, Israelâe(TM)s government. So I wish the UN Special Rapporteur could do more, that the framework for international human rights could be respected.
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