“This life as a simple citizen and laborer has its benefits not only for the person himself but perhaps also for his country. After all, there is room for only one Prime Minister, but for those who make the desert bloom there is room for hundreds, thousands and even millions” – David Ben Gurion, 1954
Palestinian Member of Knesset (MK) Hana Sweid lifted his voice against the Prawer Plan during a 9 December Knesset Interior Committee meeting. In response to Israel’s planned removal of up to forty-thousand Bedouin from their Naqab lands he protested that, “You want to transfer an entire population.” Likud MK and former IDFA spokesperson Miri Regev responded, “Yes, as the Americans did to the Indians.” The Prawer Plan itself is now defeated though Palestinian removal – here shorthand for the ongoing Nakba – generally continues. Yet Regev’s historical analogy is one of countless examples of Israelis invoking U.S. settler colonialism towards Zionism’s own efforts.
Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben Gurion identified deeply with the U.S. settler colony. He wrote, “We who want to build a new country, amidst desert and desolation, should see how the expelled and persecuted Sons of England established a rich and powerful state, first in the world for its resources and creative powers.” A more recent example is inspired by Las Vegas. Casino City Times reports that “Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval held discussions with Israel’s political leaders about introducing gaming to the Jewish state. […] David Siegel, the Los Angeles-based consul general, said Sandoval brought up gaming when he met with Israel’s leaders.” While nothing specific is yet planned, “Siegel said [Mitzpe Ramon] in the heart of the Negev Desert could be a potential casino site.”
Siegel pointed to the U.S. colonization of Paiute lands as a lesson for Israel noting that “We can benefit from [Las Vegas’] expertise. Gaming could add to our tourism.” Moreover, “Israel could use Nevada’s knowledge of how to ‘build cities in the desert’.” The article concludes with Siegel noting, “It’s amazing how similar we are. We have a natural relationship.”
The American mythology of building Las Vegas in an empty desert is alive and well. The Las Vegas city website calls the indigenous Paiute population mere “explorers” of the area. Like the empty Negev desert Israelis imagine the Naqab to be, Americans view Las Vegas as constructed in a pristine wilderness. Initial American settler encroachment into into Paiute territory led to both armed attacks on the Paiute population and, more significantly, the reintroduction of European pathogens (prior epidemics had periodically decimated the Northern and Southern Paiute populations with pathogens traveling north from Spanish colonists) led to at least a seventy-five percent reduction in the Paiute population.
Due to long-existing trade routes, pilgrimages and other contacts, European settlers did not introduce significant pathogens to Palestinians but health and medicine are still weapons against the indigenous population. It took a High Court ruling to open a medical clinic in ‘Abda, a Bedouin village twenty-six kilometers from Mitzpe Ramon. Even after the court order, the clinic is open on its two scheduled days only if the doctors from Miztpe Ramon run out of Israeli Jews to see. At which point doctors that do not speak Arabic make a trip to ‘Abda for limited hours. Access to the regular clinic in Mitzpe Ramon requires a long trip with no guarantee of service upon arrival nor Arabic translation.
The Prawer Plan was just the latest in Israel’s planned mass Bedouin removal campaigns. Piecemeal removal through house demolition has long been the norm. The goal is to open Naqab lands for settler use while relocating Bedouin folks to urban ghettos like Rahat. The plans are nothing less than the extermination of the Bedouin as a distinct population. As then Minister of Agriculture Moshe Dayan put it in a 1963 interview with Haaretz, “We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat in industry, services, construction and agriculture. […] Indeed, this will be a radical move, which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on… The children would go to school with their hair properly combed. This would be a revolution, and it may be fixed within two generations. Without coercion but with government direction… this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear.” Outside Mitzpe Ramon this is achieved, with plenty of coercion, through demolishing house after house in nearby villages like ‘Abda and Wadi Aricha.
The Paiute removal programs are more broadly analogous to the Prawer Plan and its predecessors but indigenous removal is just one part of settler colonialism. Settlers, be they Americans or Israelis, seek toconstruct settler sovereignty simultaneous with quashing native sovereignty. Constructing Las Vegas is, and has always been, part of the ongoing displacement of Paiute folks from their historical lands and denial of native sovereignty just as constructing Miztpe Ramon is part of the displacement and alienation of Bedouins.
Studying Las Vegas as an exemplar for Mitzpe Ramon’s possible trajectory shows an often ignored connection in the U.S.–Israeli relationship: settler societies recognize each other. It is not coincidence that the U.S., Canada and Australia – as more powerful settler societies – are arguably the three most ardent supporters of Israel today as were their fellow white settler colonies South Africa and Rhodesia yesterday. Together with the UK they form a sort of ‘Settler International’ (a concept currently being described with a nod to John Collins,Lorenzo Veracini and others). Part of the Settler International is studying each other’s settlement enterprises. Zionist mythology continually invokes a history of ‘making the desert bloom’ to describe decades of Palestinian removal. But Zionism did not invent settler colonialism. In invoking Las Vegas as a model, Israel shows that other settler colonies – in how they removed the indigenous populations and built settlements in the emptied lands – offer all kinds of lessons in desert blooming.