More than 50 public figures including Antony Gormley and Brian Eno put names to letter opposing expulsion from historic land
By Harriet Sherwood
Bedouin children walk to school in the Negev desert. Photograph: Karen Robinson
More than 50 public figures in Britain, including high-profile artists, musicians and writers, have put their names to a letter opposing an Israeli plan to forcibly remove up to 70,000 Palestinian Bedouins from their historic desert land â€“ an act condemned by critics as ethnic cleansing.
The letter, published in the Guardian, is part of a day of protest on Saturday in Israel, Palestine and two dozen other countries over an Israeli parliamentary bill that is expected to get final approval by the end of this year.
The eviction and destruction of about 35 â€œunrecognisedâ€ villages in the Negev desert will, the letter says, â€œmean the forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes and land, and systematic discrimination and separationâ€.
The signatories â€“ who include the artist Antony Gormley, the actor Julie Christie, the film director Mike Leigh and the musician Brian Eno â€“ are demanding that the British government holds Israel to account over its human rights record and obligations under international law.
According to Israel, the aims of the Prawer Plan â€“ named after the head of a government commission, Ehud Prawer â€“ are economic development of the Negev desert and the regulation of Palestinian Bedouins living in villages not recognised by the state.
The population of these villages will be removed to designated towns, while plans for new Jewish settlements in the area are enacted.
But Adalah, a human rights and legal centre for Arabs in Israel, says: â€œThe real purpose of the legislation [is] the complete and final severance of the Bedouinâ€™s historical ties to their land.â€
The â€œunrecognisedâ€ villages in the Negev, whose populations range from a few hundred to 2,000, lack basic services such as running water, electricity, landline telephones, roads, high schools and health clinics. Some consist of a few shacks and animal pens made from corrugated iron; others include concrete houses and mosques built without necessary but unobtainable permission.
The Bedouin comprise about 30% of the Negevâ€™s population but their villages take up only 2.5% of the land. Before the state of Israel was created in 1948 they roamed widely across the desert; now, two-thirds of the region has been designated as military training grounds and firing ranges.
Under the Prawer Plan, between 40,000 and 70,000 of the remaining Bedouin â€“ who became Israeli citizens in the 1950s â€“ will be moved into seven over-crowded, impoverished, crime-ridden state-planned towns. The Israeli government says it is an opportunity for Bedouins to live in modern homes, take regular jobs and send their children to mainstream schools. They will be offered compensation to move, it adds.
Miranda Pennell, a film-maker and one of the letterâ€™s signatories, said: â€œCitizenship counts for nothing in Israel if you happen to be an Arab. Tens of thousands of Palestinian Bedouin are being forcibly displaced from their homes and lands. At the same time, there are Israeli government advertisements on the web that promise you funding as a British immigrant to come and live in â€˜vibrant communitiesâ€™ in the Negev â€“ if you are Jewish. This is ethnic cleansing.â€
The actor David Calder said: â€œThe Israeli state not only practices apartheid against the Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories, but it seems they have no hesitation in practicing apartheid on their own citizens â€“ in this instance, the Bedouins. When is the west going to find these actions intolerable?â€