by Wafa Eben-BeriFebruary 05, 2020
On the heels of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010-12, an Arabic Bedouin youth-led nonviolent movement for minority rights and recognition emerged in southern Israel, in a desert region called the Negev. It was called Al Hrak al-Shababe (“the youth movement”).
The movement began as a series of nonviolent protests against the Israeli government’s 2011 Prawer plan to impose a system of land property rights in the Negev. The plan was shelved in 2013 amid protests and pressure from civil society and leadership, but Al Hrak al-Shababe later grew beyond this narrow scope. It went on to challenge the authority of traditional tribal, religious, and political elites, and to bridge vertiginous divides in a deeply conflicted region.
The movement gained traction largely thanks to its strategy of putting solidarity and unity first. In fact, Al Hrak al-Shababe’s list of accomplishments—both concrete and abstract—is compelling. It includes blurring the borders of patriarchal order in Bedouin society, upsetting Israeli internal power relations, and forging an alternative indigenous leadership—one deeply committed to existing societal values but imbuing them with liberal ones. In other words, alongside successfully thwarting the Prawer plan, the movement also took the approach of re-examining its internal inequalities as a necessary step to resisting external discrimination and oppression (a process referred to as “transformative resistance”).
This blog post is based on Master’s thesis research I conducted at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev from 2016 to 2018. The study was based on eight semi-structured interviews with the founding young activists of the movement. What this research uniquely contributes is a focus on the youths’ internal and strategic approaches, primarily:
It is my hope that this research helps to enlighten activists and indigenous peoples in the world who, because of internal divisions, repression, or other obstacles, are struggling to develop and advance their movement’s vision for the future.
Al Hrak al-Shababe was a movement for minority rights and representation. Its working model was one of a grassroots community engaged in a variety of nonviolent actions, in particular parallel institution building. Core task teams led full-time, organized community work, while an expanded core of volunteers participated part-time according to their availability.
The movement's mission teams were divided as follows:
Facing up against the Prawer plan and many types of repression (namely denial of social services), Al Hrak al-Shababe had a considerable number of achievements at different levels of society. The movement built an alternative leadership structure to the Bedouin community in Israel, and transformed traditional Bedouin leadership that for a long time commanded political resistance in the region. Young activists in the movement were engaged in direct dialogue with all layers of the Bedouin community, including those who were previously invisible and excluded from political discourse in society, like women, young people, and children.
The activists interviewed said that these changes happened through bottom-up grassroots organizing. They believed in the power of the people—not traditional leadership—to bring about change. They wanted the people—both men and women—who were directly affected by injustice to head up the resistance. Messaging and storytelling (during village visits) were also used to create strong bonds between people in the community.
This internal transformation had outward-looking impacts as well, as the international image of Bedouin resistance was reinforced. At its heart, the movement aimed for inclusion and solidarity in hopes of creating a cross-border voice.
These unity-building approaches made the Al Hrak al-Shababe movement somewhat unique compared to other movements in the region. Instead of limiting its following to members of the Bedouin society in the Negev, Al Hrak al-Shababe expanded its appeal to include the Israeli public, the Palestinian public, and others around the world. It did so through direct contact with Hebrew, Arabic, and English-speaking peoples to simultaneously organize demonstrations throughout Israel and around the world. The demonstrations of these diverse groups against the Prawer plan were unprecedented in the region’s history of protest and resistance.
Even those in the international community who were reluctant to identify with Palestinian society in general, and the Bedouin society in particular, joined the protest to demand justice, equality, and recognition for the Bedouin community. Perhaps this is because the movement acted in solidarity with other stakeholders, rather than as a single institution seeking official recognition from entities such as the United Nations. This fundamental difference of approach was crucial.
Solidarity transcended Israeli borders too. The movement succeeded in reuniting the Palestinian narrative after those in power sought to divide its people into a “Bedouin sector” and an “Arab sector.” By joining together in protest, and engaging in such activities as distributing leaflets in several languages, the people expressed their opposition to fragmented Palestinian discourse and disavowed the longstanding mechanisms used by the Israeli establishment to keep them separate.
Having challenged internal power relations, the movement changed the perception of Bedouin society in the eyes of both Palestinians and the establishment. In the process, it also challenged traditional geographical and ethnic divisions, introduced new horizons to the people and provided new ways to reach them, and rewritten the Negev narrative to challenge class separation in Palestinian and Bedouin society.
Wafa Eben-Beri is a social activist and currently an Obama Foundation scholar at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago (USA). She is the former Head of Government Policy at the Economic Development Authority for Minorities in the Ministry for Social Equality in Israel.Read More