Israeli Bedouin community says planned nature reserve will end way of life

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A plan to set up a new nature reserve east of Haifa on 10,000 dunams is raising strong objections from the area’s Bedouin residents, who say the plan will prohibit them from shepherding their sheep flocks and cultivating their lands as they have been doing for more than 100 years.

The Nature and Parks Authority says the reserve will be “an important wildlife corridor” which will ensure natural assets including numerous flora and fauna species.

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“The plan seeks to preserve the flora and fauna, the scenery and heritage of the region,” recites Fendi Fendi, the secretary of the Bedouin village Ibtin near the Yagur junction, from the plan’s documents. “I don’t understand it. The Bedouin are the scenery and the heritage of the area. How can you say you have to protect nature from us? We know best how to protect this place, and we don’t get in anyone’s way. We are nature.”

On Monday, the objections to the plan will be discussed by Haifa’s Regional Planning and Construction Committee. Another objection stems from the fear that the reservation will reduce even further Ibtin’s chances of future development. The community already suffers from a land and housing shortage.

The Givat Alonim reserve sprawls on some 10,700 dunams between Tivon in the East, Route 70 in the west, the Kishon stream and Route 75 in the southwest and Zippori stream in the north. The authority says it constitutes an important wildlife corridor linking the Carmel to the Galilee, where boars, jackals, foxes, porcupines and other animals have been sighted. The fauna includes Tavor oak trees and “tangled forest dominated by the common oak.”

The plan says that besides preserving the animals, flora and “scenery heritage” of the area, the authority plans to make the area accessible to the public by developing hiking trails, bicycle paths, observation points and other stopping points along the road. Changing the area’s destination from agricultural land to a nature reserve will enable the authority’s inspectors to enforce their authority in it.

As far as the Bedouin are concerned, this is a clear attempt “to close us in a corner and erase our culture,” as one activist put it.

One of the areas near Haifa where a nature reserve is planned to be built, east of Haifa, Israel.Credit: Rami Shllush

Unlike the picture portrayed by the plan, that the reserve area only applies to state lands, apparently it is peppered with privately owned areas.

The organizations Adalah and Bimkom detail almost 30 Bedouin landowners in the region. A large part of the land consists of olive plantations, some of them have animal sheds as well. At the edge of the reserve area, not far from Rekhasim, a Haredi community that is constantly growing, live a few families of the Zabidat tribe. “We have good relations with all the Jews in the area, but we won’t move away from where we were born,” says 87-year-old Ahmed Naif Zabidat.

The Bedouin tribes – Zabidat, Khualed, Tabash, Kabia, Rmihat, Kmirat, Khalf and Suad – settled in the area now called Givat Alonim during the Ottoman era, in search of pasture for their flocks. Over the years they purchased the lands from the original owners, residents of the Shfaram region. They cultivated fields and planted trees, dug water wells and irrigation systems and built huts and houses. At a later stage they allocated an area for cemeteries, which are still active today.

As of the 1970s, the state wanted to concentrate Bedouin society in a small number of communities. Some became local councils and smaller ones were included in regional councils. The open areas continued to serve as pasture and were accessible to all. The house Fendi grew up in, located in the heart of the area designated for the reserve, was destroyed in 1997. The family moved to Ibtin and continues to have a small herd of goats and sheep. For him, taking the flock to pasture is a combination of “tradition, a way of life and psychological therapy combined.”

The crops, olive plantations and sheep herding “reflect the traditional way of life that distinguishes rural society,” the objection to the plan says. The Bedouin population that dwells in the area earmarked for a nature reserve “still sees it as its home in the broad sense of the word. … We, who live in the region, don’t object to nature preservation and to having it accessible to the public,” the head of the Bedouin communities forum Ahed Rahal wrote a few weeks ago to the authority director general Shaul Goldstein. “The opposite is true, as Bedouin our lives are inseparable from nature. Preserving the heritage is preserving our tribal character – as is shepherding. Preventing the shepherding or restricting it is a breach of a basic right.”

The plan’s documents say shepherding is an “inseparable part of the reserve,” but later they note the shepherding “will take place in cycles and enable a three-month delay period.”

Various restrictions will be imposed on the number and sort of animals permitted in the reserve, and bringing tools to look after the flocks will require the authority’s coordination and permission. These words are repeated in other clauses regarding the shepherding. The plan also stipulates that “paths may be blocked or fenced for nature preservation and to limit movement in the reserve.”

87-year-old Ahmed Naif Zabidat.Credit: Rami Shllush

The authority wrote to Rahal that the plan “doesn’t prevent shepherding or harm the shepherding tradition.”

“The authority wants to open the reserve to the general public but ignores our presence in the area and our ties to nature,” says Fendi. “Beyond the harm to our livelihood, it’s also an attempt to erase our culture.”

Rahal says the plan was put together without the Bedouin, which necessarily led to “ignoring our rights, needs and culture.”

Georgraphy Professor Rasam Hamaisi, of Haifa University, says restricting the shepherding will lead to “alienating the Bedouin from their natural environment. Instead of generating a meeting point, the plan sets limits. The planning language must change. It must take into consideration the local population and not impose on it planning from the top in an attempt to rule it and limit it. So it’s important to change the plan so that it takes the private landowners into consideration as well as the Bedouin communities’ potential for expansion.”

One of the houses that were erected in the Bedouin Zabidat tribe, Israel. Credit: Rami Shllush

Lawyer Maisana Morani of Adalah says, “Like the state forestation around the Bedouin communities in the Negev, here too the professional arguments seem to be about nature, values intended to be good for everyone. But in fact, a population that has been cultivating its land for dozens of years and tending its flocks is being pushed cynically aside in the name of the very nature it respects.”

Cesar Yehudkin of Bimkom says, “Traditional agriculture in the wadis has contributed to preventing landslides, as shepherding has contributed to preventing fires. There’s no planning reason to stop these activities today – only so that on paper the area is defined as a nature reserve, clean of human presence.”

The authority said in response that the plan “consists of a separate document of explanation in Arabic,” and that its deposition was “published on posters and newspapers in the Arab language.”

Also, the authority said that for years it was “partner to planning processes and agreed to many concessions that enabled advancing master plans in the Bedouin communities to enable a balance between nature preservation and master plans.”

“The reserve consists of open areas and there is no intention of developing intensive tourism on them. By declaring the area a reserve in the future, the authority will be able to manage it and prevent harming nature and its assets,” the authority said.