Politics of Access and Denial: Electricity Grid, Solar Panels, and the Naqab Bedouin in Israel

By Esra Bakkalbasioglu
Submitted to Session P4920 (Connection, Contagion, and Calamity: Social Uses and Effects of Infrastructural Networks in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The military rule relocated the Naqab Bedouin in the 1950s. Once military rule got lifted in 1966, the state declared the Bedouin villages “unrecognized.” For the Bedouin, the shift from military to civilian rule was a shift from being ‘dangerous’ to being ‘unrecognized.’ As the villages are not officially recognized, the state institutions refused to provide electricity as well as various other essential infrastructure and services to these localities. While Jewish families migrating to the South from the crowded centers of the country were enjoying services and infrastructure, the Bedouin who had been living in the area for centuries had been denied the basic resources. Bedouin’s access to electricity was conditional. They could get access to electricity is them to drop their land ownership claims and move into high density state-planned Bedouin-only towns to become the new urban proletariat. Tribes refusing to submit to state’s oppressive policies started to use solar panels to produce their own electricity.

Based on ethnographic research conducted in the region in 2014 and 2015, this paper argues that in the Southern Israel, electricity is not only a huge infrastructure system that provides one of the basic resources to the residents. It is also a political mechanism through which the public institutions try to control, tame, and enclave the minority citizens. The same substance became a resistance tool when the Bedouin started to buy solar panels to survive in their villages. Deciding on where the grid will pass, who will get access to it, who will be denied the resource, how much and how consumers will pay for their access, the state agents create new losers and winners as well as new forms of deprivation, dependency, and crime. Yet, none of these categories is one-sided, permanent, or negotiation-free.

Following the electricity which is a quotidian as well as political substance, this paper aims to go beyond the dichotomies of power and resistance and to answer three interrelated questions on the politics of infrastructure. What infrastructure, as well as its lack, means to one who cannot access it? How do the marginalized groups fight discriminatory practices of the state? How do these struggles shape the relation between the state and its minority citizens?