Bedouin settlement, are we missing the point?

This Op-ed, was published in the Jerusalem Post on 9/12/2013. Ari is the International Relations Director of Regavim.

Recently a day of rage in Israel was initiated to protest the Begin Plan, the Governments’ proposal to accommodate Bedouin settlement in the Negev.

DEMONSTRATORS AGAINST Prawer-Begin plan outside Knesset, May 28, 2013

DEMONSTRATORS AGAINST Prawer-Begin plan outside Knesset, May 28, 2013 Photo: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post

To understand why the position of the government and the position of some Bedouin seem so irreconcilable, all we have to do is stand in the shoes of these Bedouin. To do that effectively, some background information is needed:

There are approximately 220,000 Bedouin in the Negev making up 2.8% of Israel’s citizens. About 140,000 of the Bedouin live in the seven towns and cities that were expanded and funded by massive government grants in the 1970’s and 1980’s including Rahat, Laqia, Segev Shalom, Arara, Kissufim, and others. Although only 7,600 Bedouin are registered as living in the newly approved 11 Abu Basma towns, which include towns like Al Sayyid & Bir Hadaj, our research indicates that approximately 40,000 Bedouin live there.

This leaves approximately 40,000 Bedouin living in illegal villages, hamlets, and outposts, on state owned land. These Bedouin (20% of the Bedouin population) occupy approximately 600,000 dunam (150,000 acres) in an area between Beersheba, Arad and Dimona in the Northern Negev.

For the sake of comparison: There are 205,000 residents in the city of Be’er Sheva living on only 34,600 dunams (8,650 acres) of land.

Instead of taking these law breakers to court and then enforcing the resulting court orders to remove them from these illegally occupied locations, the government has proposed the Begin Plan to finally arrange Bedouin settlement in the Negev specifically geared to finding a more than equitable solution for these 40,000 Bedouin. The law is made up of 2 sections, the first intends to resolve Bedouin land claims and the second intending to resolve the illegal Bedouin settlement.

Of the 2700 Bedouin land claims registered in the 1970s, 300 families have claims to over 300,000 dunams (75,000 acres). Those 300 families comprise approximately 15,000 people today (6% of the Bedouin population), most of who are among the 40,000 Bedouin living in the illegal villages, hamlets, and outposts.

The Begin Plan offers to settle 100% of these land claims with a combination of land compensation and monetary compensation. The ratio of land compensation to monetary compensation depends on various factors, such as whether that particular Bedouin is currently domiciled on the land he claims, and whether the claimed land is in the Western or Eastern part of the Northern Negev.

On average, 50-60% of the claim would be paid out as land and the rest as cash (read billions of shekels). In a country where 93% of land is owned by the state and not by Israeli citizens (among which are Israeli Bedouin), such an offer to register these lands in the names of the families is unprecedented and extremely generous. It also immediately establishes, very rare private property rights to a newly privileged sub-class of less than 1% of Israeli citizens whose acreage would be similar to the total of all other private land holdings in Israel.

The second part of the Begin Plan proposes recognising most illegal villages where possible. Where not possible, due to their proximity to highly polluting industries, such as the hazardous waste disposal facilities at Ramat Hovav (Wadi Al-Naem area) or the inability of the State to provide the necessary services, the Begin Plan proposes compensation, gratis, 1 dunam (¼ acre) plots, in a new, nearby, purpose-built neighborhood, plus at least NIS100,000 ($28,000) in compensation for previous residence whether tent, shack or villa.

On paper it looks like a once-in-a-lifetime, very sweet deal, especially in the eyes of the majority of Israelis who will never receive anything like these benefits and rights and are suffering under ever increasing housing prices.

But let us now try to see such an offer through the eyes of a Bedouin male, head of his family unit that includes 3 wives and 20 children. As one of those 40,000 Bedouin living in an illegal village, hamlet, or outpost, he must surely be asking himself

“Why would I accept such compensation when today I already have whatever land I need, I can build where I like, when I like, and when my children grow up they can occupy the next hilltop and set up their own families?”

In his eyes, the offer of a “small” privately owned plot in a legal town where he is restricted by zoning rules and building codes and on which he must pay property taxes and other levies (that he does not today pay on illegally occupied land) leaves him no choice but to oppose this legislation.

But aren’t modern day conveniences of running water, electricity and sanitation enough to convince him to “get legal” and connect to the municipal grid? Wouldn’t he want to have his children attend a nearby school instead of having his children travel by bus for hours each day to and from school? Wouldn’t he want local health clinics to care for the sick nearby, instead of having to travel hours for health care?

Surely these considerations must weigh on those Bedouin living in these illegal villages, but despite all that, a small, vocal minority of these particular Israeli citizens have spoken with their feet and choose to stay where they are and avoid their civic responsibilities to the rule of law and payment of taxes.

So how did we get to a situation where anarchy seems to rule the Negev and a $2.2 billion government plan to reenergize the Negev and specifically help the poorest of its residents seemingly has some of the Bedouin and some other larger Arab segments of Israel’s population up in arms?

Maybe it’s because some of the 20% of Bedouin who live in the sprawl of illegal villages, hamlets and outposts prefer the current situation over proposed solutions and compromises. Maybe it is because they have seen the successful implementation of a well-orchestrated and well-funded campaign supplied by the “usual suspects”, the New Israel Fund and the EU to delegitimize Israel, again.

Maybe, they also understand that this is the last battle they will have to win, using international public opinion as leverage, until the government finally backs down. The Bedouin will then go back to their sprawl of illegal structures and illegally occupied acres of state land and their disdain for the obligations of citizenship, so as to maintain a seemingly “contented” life.

Where does that leave us, the Israeli public? We need to recognize that some Bedouin are unwilling to cooperate with the plan and thus ensure that within the law itself the necessary means are added to deal with a non-cooperative party to the process.

As long as there is no determined law enforcement, and a small number of Bedouin can take what they want, where they want it, no plan will work. When there are no sticks, all the carrots in the world only worsen the problem, broadcast weakness and further postpone a solution.

Only when the Government of Israel is determined to restore the rule of law to the Negev, will this small minority of Bedouin understand they have something to lose, and only then will it be possible to speak of a historic compromise and successful settlement.

The writer works for Regavim, an independent, professional research institute & policy planning think tank. The mission of the Institute is to ensure the responsible, legal & environmentally friendly use of Israel’s national lands and the return of the rule of law to all areas and aspects of the land and its preservation.

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  1. At last an NGO which is really trying to improve peoples lives and not a subversive agency. Great work being initiated by this organisation. I wish it every success.

  2. Regavim’s report highlights two problems. One is that it creates a privileged subclass and the other that it undemines Israel’s legal process. No Jew is allowed to claim title to any piece of land he fancies to squat upon. Quite the opposite, he is turfed off and his house is demolished by the military. If a group is allowed to get away with breaking the law, a signal is given that it can ignore whatever law it chooses. But the time will come when that group goes too far and pulling it into line will then be more difficult. The anti-Zionist groups in Israel must be prosecuted for politicising a social issue and advocating the disrespect for laws and the EU needs to be told to shut up because Israel is doing far more for the local Bedouin than the wealthy “civilised” Western nations are doing for the Romany people who are and shunned underclass throughout Europe.