A new proposal to allow for the building of legally planned Bedouin villages over or in place of existing ones has won the support of a state body, though not the Bedouin themselves.

This week a National Planning and Building Council subcommittee authorized a master plan for the Beer Sheva metropolitan area and accepted a number of recommendations to enlarge the area designated for legal Bedouin construction to include 12 additional residential sites, which could allow for permitted building. Representatives of Bedouin organizations claim this offer does not include any swift and practical mechanism for founding settlements, nor an overarching solution for the area.

The recommendations are part of an Interior Ministry-commissioned report by attorney Thalma Duchan who was tasked with investigating objections to the Beer Sheva master plan.

The plan was supposed to provide a solution for the Bedouin population residing in scores of unrecognized villages.

Not surprisingly, Duchan devoted much of her report to grappling with the problem of unrecognized villages and the data she presents shows some 55,000 illegal structures across the bedouin landscape, about a quarter of them permanent.

In recent years the rate of construction has hit 4,000 buildings annually, far outpacing the thousand or so buildings demolished per year.

The result is dozens of villages scattered over vast areas of the Negev lacking even basic services. There are difficulties in bringing them in line with accepted planning procedures, partly because in many places there are ownership claims by Bedouin; Duchan notes that the Bedouin are prevented from settling on land which another Bedouin has claimed ownership of, thereby making sustainable platting of land nearly impossible.

The metropolitan plan proposed regulating Bedouin settlement by locating areas to be zoned "integrated rural agricultural." Duchan agreed with the Bedouin objections to the metropolitan plan on the grounds that it addresses only a small minority of villages.

She proposed a number of central principles for the regulation of Bedouin settlement.

In her view, the principles of the Goldberg Committee report, which concluded the government should legalize Bedouin construction, should be implemented. A prime ministerial committee on the matter is due to release a plan for instituting the ideas soon.

Start from scratch

Duchan says it is impossible to found new settlements using existing residential sites and says the population needs to be more densely grouped. One reason is the scale of the area over which the present sites are scattered - which is too big for essential services to cover. That said, Duchan agrees that Bedouin land allocation should try to preserve existing structures and retain the social fabric between residents in the villages.

The form of settlement should be adapted to the character of social grouping, and she suggests founding rural villages centered around sheep herding and small farms. Where it's impossible to build a settlement over an existing site, Duchan proposes resettling the residents elsewhere as a group.

Following these principles, Duchan proposed re-zoning the area as "integrated rural agricultural" to allow planning regulation of 12 additional Bedouin sites to be made into settlements. This would be in addition to the 16 new settlements already included in this area.

Duchan also concluded, though, that the additional 14 settlements which the Bedouin sought to categorize as permanent should not be allowed.

Reasons given include: proximity to areas required for other uses, the unauthorized settlement being in a military shooting zone or excessive proximity to environmental hazards.

Bedouin opposition

Duchan's recommendations drew harsh criticism from the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages, a non-profit Bedouin organization formed to promote village recognition.

The RCUV claimed that Duchan has recommended an option for future recognition, whereas she should have recognized the sites right away and extended recognition to other sites.

They believe she was mistaken in calling for the transfer of whole communities to other locations.

"The villages should be marked on the map, and if the planning bodies have concerns, they should get out on the ground and plan the villages that will be developed out of these sites, in cooperation with the residents," said Said Abu Samur of the RCUV. "It is clear to us that planning principles will require allocation of land for public buildings, denser settlement and even giving up some of the structures. People will agree to such solutions and there is already the successful precedent of the village Qasr al-Sir which completed planning processes."

Abu Samur also takes issue with the connection Duchan draws between planning and ownership claims. "If you tie planning to the question of ownership, it means blocking the authorization of the villages. You can plan the village and if you need land the residents will be willing to make concessions in the matter."

Planners for Planning Rights, another non-profit organization, praised Duchan for recognizing Bedouin rights to live in a wide variety of settlement types and noted that her report was a positive departure.

However, they also noted that there are instances where previous planning for Negev land which was never implemented could be given up in order to enable new villages to be founded.

They also warned against repeating any attempt at population transfer, which failed in the past because it ignored people's connections to their traditional lands.