Outsourcing Zionism

Neve Gordon and Erez Tzfadia

The electricity in these towers bypasses the tin shacks of Wadi al-Nam, an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev desert, near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.

For less than $4 an hour, several Jewish teenagers removed furniture, clothes, kitchenware and toys from homes and loaded the items onto trucks. As they worked diligently alongside the many policemen who had come to secure the destruction of 30 houses in two unrecognized Bedouin villages, Bedouin teenagers stood watching their homes being emptied. When all the belongings had been removed, Israeli bulldozers rapidly destroyed the homes. All those present – Jews and Bedouins – were Israeli citizens.

Bedouins are the indigenous people who live in the Israeli desert of Negev. Before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, approximately 70,000 Bedouins lived in the area. Following the 1948 war, only 12,000 or so remained. The rest fled or were expelled to Jordan and Egypt. 

Under the directives of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, the state uprooted those Bedouins who remained on their lands, and pushed them to the northeastern part of the Negev (a mostly barren area) known as the Sayag” zone. The government reserved the more fertile western part of the Negev for Jewish settlement. 

Throughout the 50s and until the mid-’60s, the Israeli government confiscated a considerable portion of Bedouin ancestral lands and registered them as state land. In the 70s, the government again moved about half the Bedouin population, this time into seven townships. The remaining half of the Bedouin population was unwilling to give up its property rights and is now scattered across the Negev in 45 villages that have never been recognized by the state. The current population of Bedouins has grown to about 75,000 in the townships and a similar number in the unrecognized villages.

Israel makes life in these unrecognized villages unbearable. For so-called illegal construction, the Israeli government demolishes houses and imposes criminal sanctions. Moreover, the state does not connect these villages to electricity grids, running water, sewage system, or telephone services. There are no paved roads leading to the Bedouin villages. As a result, emergency services cannot reach them quickly, and access to other basic services – such as health, education and welfare – is difficult and limited.

After witnessing the recent demolitions, a Bedouin activist asked one of the Jewish teenagers why he had agreed to participate in the eviction. Without hesitating, the teenager replied: I am a Zionist and what we are doing here today is Zionism.”

The teenager was not wrong. And yet he was probably too young to recognize that even though Zionism’s major goals have not changed, the methods deployed to realize them have been undergoing a radical transformation. 

While over the past two decades, the state itself performed the task of Judiazing space, today the government is outsourcing more and more of its responsibilities to private firms. The teenager was hired by a personnel agency, which was employed by the government to expel Bedouins from their homes in order to establish two new Jewish villages. (Incidentally, their establishment is part of a larger plan that includes the construction of about 30 new Jewish settlements in the Israeli Negev, the seizure of Bedouin land for military needs, and the creation of dozens of single-family farms on land that Bedouins have inhabited since Israel relocated them to the region.)

The process of privatizing Zionism has been slow. For more than five decades, the state was the sole agent responsible for all planning of new villages, towns and cities. Private contractors only carried out the construction. Today, land from which the government is expelling the Bedouins is sold at rock-bottom prices to real-estate moguls, who are then responsible not only for constructing Jewish villages and towns, but also for planning them. 

The state gives the Jewish farmers large plots of land and connects them to basic infrastructure like water and electricity, and, in return, expects them to be part of an apparatus whose role is to contract and restrict Bedouin movement and development and to help the security forces keep an eye on the Negev’s indigenous population.

If one drives a few kilometers further and crosses the Green Line into the Occupied Palestinian Territories, one may notice that Israel is also privatizing military checkpoints.

In the past year, the state has handed over the management of at least five checkpoints to corporate warriors – working for such companies as Notari Zion (Guardians of Zion), Shmira Ubitahon (Guarding and Security) and Modi’in Ezrachi (Civil Intelligence). But the difference between Israel Defense Force soldiers and hired guns is that the latter operate within the gray areas of the law. They are Israel’s Blackwater. 

As this privatizing continues, the checkpoints in the West Bank, which have already earned notoriety under the management of the Israeli military, will surely become sites of more misery for Palestinians trying to pass through them.

In the early 80s, the Israeli government allowed private contractors to appropriate land within the Occupied Territories and sell it at great profits, while the military created settler militias to help it police the Palestinian inhabitants. These civilian militias were given military-issue personnel carriers, weapons and communications equipment and were asked to patrol around their settlements, which, in practice, often meant policing nearby Palestinian villages.

Zionism’s privatization does not symbolize a strategic change but a tactical one. The state has been shedding some of its responsibility. The use of teenagers to evict Bedouins from their homes is not only a reflection of this insidious process of privatization, but also the corrosion of moral responsibility.

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