Foreign Relations & International Law

Fufi's Story: An Israeli General's Lone Mission in the West Bank

Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, March 2, 2017, 3:55 PM

“We did not achieve the goal,” Fufi says.

I am sitting in a lounge in an upscale Jerusalem hotel in December with an Israeli reserve general named Dov Sedaka, listening as he tells me the story of his two-year effort to negotiate with West Bank Bedouin tribes to get them to move out of squalid migratory camps and into villages with infrastructure and services.

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“We did not achieve the goal,” Fufi says.

I am sitting in a lounge in an upscale Jerusalem hotel in December with an Israeli reserve general named Dov Sedaka, listening as he tells me the story of his two-year effort to negotiate with West Bank Bedouin tribes to get them to move out of squalid migratory camps and into villages with infrastructure and services.

Sedaka may seem, at first glance anyway, like the last person you’d expect to have a passion for improving the lives of West Bank Bedouin. His name follows my weird rule of Israeli male nicknames, for one thing: The more badass someone’s military career has been, the more likely that person is to have some highly-diminutive nickname that sounds like the moniker of a stuffed animal or a Disney character.

Sedaka was a member of Israel’s famed Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, for which he did all sorts of missions he still doesn’t talk about. He also served as the head of the Israeli Civil Administration of the Occupied Territories during the Second Intifada. He’s the real deal. Yet he’s universally known throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories as “Fufi”—and sometimes, when people are being playful, as “General Fufi.”

He is a quiet man, whom I have gotten to know through my work with Academic Exchange, Lawfare’s partner in the Omphalos project and an organization that runs academic missions to Israel. He is a listener, more than a talker—though he often knows a great deal more than do a lot of the people I have seen him listen patiently to. As David Kris recently wrote of him, he “is one of the warmest, most empathic, emotionally sensitive commandos that I’ve ever met.” Fufi is a man of the Left—a fact that is less dissonant in Israel’s reality than it would be in a prominent American military figure.

Traveling in Israel or the Occupied Territories with Fufi is like walking through a city with the mayor. This is not because he’s a gladhander—which he really isn’t—but because everyone seems to know him. He’s as comfortable in Arabic as in Hebrew. To Israelis, he’s a high-ranking former military officer, a fact which puts him at the apex of the social hierarchy of a society at which the military occupies a central position.

Many Palestinians, meanwhile, know him from his days running the Civil Administration, the Israeli government operation that runs government services and regulation in those parts of the territories still under direct Israeli control. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a strangely intimate one. And that means it’s perfectly possible, normal even, for Palestinians to hate the occupation and to consider Israel a mortal enemy yet still be friendly at a personal level with someone like Fufi. The Civil Administration operates under a complex fabric of regulations and rules, but it’s a fabric under which there are lots of discretionary judgments to be made. The people who run it thus have a lot of opportunities make people’s lives and problems easier if they wants to; they can also can make them a lot harder if they want to. One gets the sense that Fufi helped a lot of people in their daily life problems, and that people remember it.

Fufi’s done a lot of peace work over the years. But recently, he’s been focused on the the Bedouin, the nomadic tribal Arabs who live in countries across the region. Fufi cares about the issue a lot and talks about it with evident emotion.

There are several reasons for this. In his capacity as an Israeli officer who helped run an occupation that he hates, he dealt with a Bedouin communities in the West Bank over a long period of time. And that, he says, would be reason enough for. But there’s a personal element too: Fufi also has half-Bedouin grandchildren.

There are about a quarter-million Bedouin living in Israel, for the most part descendants of the 13,000 who remained in Israel after the 1948 War. (Another 63,000 fled to neighboring countries, particularly Jordan and the Sinai.) Most Israeli Bedouin live in the Negev desert, where they represent the poorest and fastest-growing group in Israel. They live in largely unplanned communities with no running water, power, roads, health care or education. Nevertheless, the Bedouin represent one of the populations within Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority that is most engaged with the national institutions of the state, with multiple generations serving with distinction in the Israeli army, often as highly valued trackers. In addition, there are approximately 40,000 Bedouin living in the West Bank, mostly around Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Jericho.

With their tribal and nomadic lifestyle, the Bedouin frequently lack traditional deeds or claims of ownership to the land they live on. In both the Negev and Area C of the West Bank—the area of full Israeli civil control—they often run afoul of Israeli housing and construction regulations. Over the decades, the Israeli government has tried to regularize property ownership in the Negev and shift the Bedouin population into cities. Roughly half of Israel’s Bedouin population now lives in seven cities built by Israel between 1968 and 1969 (where levels of poverty and crime are extremely high), and in recent years, Israel has also retroactively recognized more than a dozen existing villages—although many more remain unrecognized and subject to demolition. In 2013, the situation of the Negev Bedouin exploded into public view when Israel attempted to implement a particularly comprehensive urbanization and property standardization plan. The “Prawer-Begin” plan included a complex scheme to provide compensation to Bedouin for judicially rejected land claims, and would have (according to its supporters) allowed 80 percent of the Bedouin to remain where they were. After furious protests from the Bedouin and NGOs, the plan was shelved.

In January, the Negev Bedouin were in the news again, when demolitions and protests in the town of Umm Al-Hiran turned violent. One local Bedouin man was killed by police in a car-ramming incident in which a police officer was also killed—though the incident now appears not to have been terrorism. And the leader of the Arab faction within the Knesset—who had joined protests against the demolitions—was lightly injured in the head, either by a policeman’s sponge-tipped bullet or a stone thrown by a demonstrator.

Commentators often frame Israeli government policy toward the Bedouin in simplistic terms. At the time, the Begin-Prawer plan was frequently labeled a “land grab.” And even hard news articles often portray Israel as evicting Bedouin simply to make room for Jewish expansion. David Shulman in the New York Review of Books has been particularly vehement in his depiction of Israeli conduct towards West Bank Bedouin, which he labeled a process of “eviction and appropriation,” and once even, “ethnic cleansing.”

Fufi tells a very different story. Born to a family of Lebanese immigrants to Israel, he grew up in a mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood in Haifa, speaking both Hebrew and Arabic at home. He studied Arabic in high school and at university, where he also made a point of studying Islamic religious thought. So he always had a foot in the world of Palestinian life, he says.

Then his oldest daughter married a man from the Bedouin community. The man is a captain in the army’s reserve forces, but it was still a bit of a scandal in a country where intermarriage between Jews and Arabs remains something of a rarity.

“It was a story in the army and outside,” Fufi remembers with gentle scorn. “The daughter of our brave colonel from Sayeret Matkal special forces married a Bedouin!” And it conditioned the way some Israelis on the political right respond to Fufi to this day. Fufi still remembers being blasted by rightist newspaper in 2001, when he was running the Civil Administration, after he told an army paper, as he paraphrases, that “he hates to see Palestinians standing in line at [Israeli] checkpoints.” He shrugs. On the right, he tells me, this line was quoted as though it were some damning allegation.

When Fufi was asked two years ago to serve as the government’s negotiator with about 1,200 West Bank Bedouin families (roughly 8,000 people) in an effort to get them to settle, the village his daughter’s family lives in was one of the templates in his mind. The town of Beit Zarzir in the North of Israel was built in the 1960s. It’s prosperous. The village is a “modern one” now, Fufi says. The people there defy stereotypes about the community. Fufi was motivated to get involved because he was conscious of the fact that a generation ago, “they also used to live in tents with no infrastructure, and now it’s a flourishing place.”

Fufi had another model in mind as well, a more recent one. In 1999, the Civil Administration built a permanent village for the Bedouin community of Jabbel, near the Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adumim. The new village brought running water, electricity, a mosque, and access to schools and other services and facilities to 190 families.

“If you ask the international left-wing organizations, they will tell you it’s a failure, that we destroyed their way of life,” Fufi says. “I think the opposite. In my opinion, it was a successful project.” Fufi has visited the community repeatedly over the past few years and believes its residents share his view of the Jabbel project.

By contrast, he remains outraged by the conditions of the Bedouin camps that still line the Jerusalem-Jericho road, where people have no access to basic infrastructure or services. You see these encampments as you drive through the West Bank on modern roads between Israeli cities and settlements and Palestinian towns that are, less prosperous to be sure, but still very much features of a modern world. Don’t think romantic Lawrence of Arabia tent camps with proud nomadic people resplendent in white robes and riding on camels. The encampments are squalid open-air slums made up of temporary shelters, plastic tarps, and tents. Think big piles of garbage. Think open pit fires. Think poverty.

There’s a real debate to be had between modernizers and those would accept the poverty of the Bedouins’ traditional subsistence lifestyle. It is, of course, not illegitimate to prefer poverty and a nomadic lifestyle to a settled life with running water. The Bedouin have a deep cultural bias against a settled lifestyle. And the fact that many of those Bedouin who have settled are now in crime-ridden, impoverished towns with no jobs does not make settlement especially enticing.

And there are other issues that engender the poverty too. Nomads just don't have access to enough open land anymore to sustain their traditional lifestyle, for example. And a nomadic lifestyle is extremely disruptive and difficult for any governments; Israel and the Palestinian Authority have both struggled with the problem amidst a delicate territorial conflict. The Bedouin, after all, don't care all that much if they are in Areas A, B, or C—the various administrative districts of the West Bank which see different levels of Israeli or Palestinian control.

But in Fufi’s view, there’s no future in this life, and people should have access to infrastructure and services. So despite his distaste for the current government, when it asked him to be the government’s liason to these communities to try to get them to settle in villages like the one at Jabbel, he agreed—with three conditions. He wanted a formal appointment; he wanted to do the negotiation in his capacity as a reserve army general; and he refused to take any money for his work.

He also made clear that he wanted nothing to do with a project that was about making land available for Israeli settlements. For Fufi, this was about improving the lives of Bedouin families, not about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He didn’t want to be coopted.

He spent the last two years negotiating with tribes in three areas: along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, around Maaleh Adumim, and in the area surrounding Jericho. “We were willing to pay for a planning and zoning company” to come in and “see what the needs” of the community were, he says. “I tried to convince them that we would build space for more families.”

In November, about a month before Fufi and I sat down in Jerusalem, the talks broke down, and Fufi says he really can’t blame Netanyahu for it. “I would like to,” he says, but in this case, the blame falls on a constellation of other obstacles.

There were, first off, what he terms “internal problems in the families.” Change is hard, and it’s scary. A lot of “Bedouin don’t like the idea” of settling in villages; nomadism is, among other things, a way of life.

Second, Fufi is scathing in his account of the behavior of the Palestinian Authority, the government of the Palestinians. The PA, he says, is “doing zero” to help the Bedouin: “no schools, no services, nothing. But against our efforts they sent delegations to these Bedouin and said in a very blunt way: If you move, we will kill you.”

Similarly, he says, there was a real NIMBYism in Palestinian society about settling Bedouin in locations near Palestinian cities—a NIMBYism that presented as threats to the communities “if you approach our cities.”

There’s a lot of prejudice against Bedouins, and Fufi was appalled at the way some Palestinians talked about them as low-caste, “dirty,” undesirables. “This was very humiliating to me. These are PA citizens.”

The international community was another major obstacle, he notes. The effort was always treated as a secret land grab for settlements by human rights NGOs, the European Union, and a group of lawyers—some Israeli and some Palestinian—worked actively with the communities to stoke opposition to resettlement.

And then there were the Israeli settlers. Even as lots of people believed Fufi’s effort was a land-clearing exercise to make room for settlements, actual settlers didn’t like the idea of building more permanent Palestinian villages which would be recognized as such. They “want to throw the Bedouin out,” Fufi says, not build them permanent towns.

So in November, the discussions went on an indefinite hiatus. Fufi fears that now people will be tempted to resettle the Bedouin communities by force, something he absolutely opposes. He says he hopes to stay involved when negotiations start again. “I don’t know when,” he says. “I hope it will not be too long from now. To me, it’s the only way—speaking to people.”

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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