A government panel headed by Minister Benny Begin has in recent months been formulating a development program for the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the northern Negev Desert and for the residents' claims of land ownership. This program will have ramifications for the open spaces in the region.

The Bedouin assert that the villages in which they have lived for many years must be granted legal status. But beyond the question of recognition, is the very significant question of how these villages will be developed and laid out in the Negev. Currently, some 45 villages in the northern Negev lack official recognition or legal status. Each is home to between 400 and 6,000 people - in other words, a population of close to 100,000, which is expected to double within the next two decades.

The villages suffer from serious shortages of basic water, sewage and electrical infrastructures, while the dispersal of the existing residential hubs has a serious negative impact on the environment, particularly in terms of garbage and wastewater. Other damage to ecological systems is wrought by nonstop vehicular traffic and the loss of open space to buildings and roads.

At present, government officials agree that the policy of gathering Bedouin into large towns, as was done in the past, must be discontinued and that some of the unrecognized settlements must be recognized as agricultural villages. But there is a fundamental difference of opinion between Bedouin organizations and the panel headed by Begin about the development of Bedouin villages.

The Begin panel, working in coordination with the Housing and Construction Ministry's Bedouin affairs authority, is tasked with proposing a development outline to regularize Bedouin settlement by 2030. At the same time, land ownership issues are supposed to be settled - a precondition for successful village development.

A year ago, Bedouin organizations and NGOs formulated a master plan for the unrecognized villages together with a team headed by Prof. Oren Yiftachel from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. According to this team, the unrecognized villages are already dispersed in a way compatible with the principles of national development approved by the government. "The density of most of the residential sites is similar to the settlement density typical in the Jewish rural sector," the master plan states.

The master plan calls on the government to recognize all the villages and to develop them according to professional development principles like those used nationally, including housing-unit density as determined in national development plans. "The nature of appropriate construction incorporates low-density neighborhoods and open spaces between residential hubs," states the plan. "We intend to create a moderate, gradual process to increase density in the residential areas." Within two decades, promises the plan, the Negev will achieve a balance between the right of the Bedouin to cultural spheres and the need to preserve natural assets and public land.

But planners who were involved in preparing the Be'er Sheva metropolitan zoning plans, which include the northern Negev, and the panel headed by Begin have reached different conclusions about the dispersal of the Bedouin villages. "We cannot accept the current scattering of the residents and leave all of them where they are," said city planner Thelma Duchan, who was appointed by the Interior Ministry about two years ago to look into Bedouin opposition to the zoning plans.

"The great dispersal is liable to thwart the possibility of supplying residents with services at a reasonable level and cost," Duchan added. "It prevents the possibility of creating plots for farming of a reasonable size and interferes with the development of national infrastructures and centers of employment, in addition to destroying open spaces."

'One house per hilltop'

"There is no basis in reality to the recently made claim that we supposedly want to move 70,000 Bedouin to existing towns," said Begin this week. "Our inclination is to work toward a range of Bedouin settlements. The Bedouin will be left where they are to the extent possible.

"At the same time," he added, "we cannot allow one house per hilltop, because this is economically unsustainable. This means construction is going to have to be more dense." According to Begin, a small part of the Bedouin population will have to move from locations where it is claimed villages cannot exist, partly because of environmental concerns. "There is no justification for Bedouin children growing up next to the airstrips of the Nevatim airbase. A settlement such as Wadi al-Na'am, located in an environmentally hazardous area near military industries and the Ramat Hovav industrial zone, cannot be sustained."

Begin agreed there is justification in recognizing some of the settlements as farming villages, but said there is potential for more urban forms of development. He mentioned the great demand for apartments in the Bedouin city of Rahat.

The pertinent question is: Will government officials succeed in developing a zoning process with real inclusion of the Bedouin, and will the Bedouin be willing to accept the need for change in the way their villages develop and, if necessary, move to new and more densely populated neighborhoods that can be supplied with high-level infrastructure?

Bedouin representatives are highly doubtful about the government's intentions, and continue to view the new zoning patterns as a decree of expulsion from their lands. The residents of Wadi al-Na'am have already expressed their opposition to being transferred to a neighborhood in the existing Bedouin town of Segev Shalom, and are demanding recognition of their right to maintain their own village with its rural, agricultural setup.

Meanwhile, Begin promises to continue the process of consulting with the Bedouin, which he has begun in other locations.