Bedouin Sinai - Reuters - 15.3.12
Bedouin squat over a hilly area overlooking Gaza, in Rafah city, north Sinai in March, 2012. Photo by Reuters
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The "Law for Bedouin Settlement in the Negev," which the Knesset is expected to pass soon, has angered the entire Bedouin population in the south - one-fourth of all the Negev's residents - and threatens to drive them to violence. Although the state dealt harshly with Bedouin in the past by moving them from place to place, confiscating their flocks, destroying their homes and even spraying their crops with poison, its actions never resulted in an uprising, perhaps because these violations were small-scale: a family here, a clan there.

The proposed law, on the other hand, will adversely affect almost all the 200,000 Bedouin in the Negev. It will do so in two ways: by rejecting their claims to ownership of most of their property, and by destroying the homes of some 20,000 families, who will be transferred to undeveloped plots in "authorized" locations. All of this is part of the government's so-called Prawer Plan, upon which the law for settling the Bedouin is based.

Israel has always denied Bedouin their rights to the land they owned before 1948, because they had no official documents from the Ottoman and British periods to prove their ownership. In those periods, however, Bedouin acquired lands under their own tribal law, the law then valid in the desert, which accepted such transactions based on oral guaranty and dispensed with written proof.

In the 1970s, the state seemingly modified its stance, inviting Bedouin to register their ownership claims, which amounted to 240,000 acres in private claims. This procedure was not intended to make their claims legal, but rather to enable the state to acquire their lands through purchase, and that, moreover, at minimal prices, which the Bedouin largely rejected. Over a 40-year period, the Bedouin sold the state only 16 percent of the land they claimed. Their characteristic patience allowed them to sustain the hope that it would ultimately offer them a just compromise that would not deprive them of land they once acquired by law, albeit their own.

To their great dismay, however, the new law enables confiscation of 80 percent of this land, to be used for governmental projects, making it a matter no longer affecting a family here or there, but rather the entire Bedouin community. In addition, the compensation that the state is offering for the remaining 20 percent of the land that the new law acknowledges as Bedouin is again paltry and unlikely to be accepted, leaving the state no choice but to use force to acquire these lands - even if it is for the purpose of settling the Bedouin. Force, however, will not benefit the state, as no Bedouin will agree to build his house on land that another Bedouin still claims.

The destruction of the "illegal" homes of 20,000 Bedouin families will also not help facilitate their resettlement in new places. Nor will it transpire quietly. These homes were erected as an alternative to the tents of the Bedouin after the state forbade them to continue their migratory way of life and told them where to live until a permanent solution was found for them. In the prolonged absence of a solution, each house deemed to be located on "government land" was declared illegal and subject to demolition. However, as no alternative housing was prepared for those living in the illegal homes, not a single developed plot exists today for a Bedouin who wishes to build a permanent home in government-designated locations. Furthermore, it takes five years to plan and establish a town or neighborhood with the infrastructure needed for residential housing.

Despite this standing injustice, the new law threatens, in the first phase, to destroy the homes of 30,000 Bedouin, who are to be transferred to places that the government chooses - about one-third of those ultimately destined to be moved. This means moving them out of homes to which they have become accustomed over the course of a generation and putting them in the desert without a house. These people, moreover, are an educated generation of professionals, teachers and university students.

If someone imagines that such an operation will go down easily, he is mistaken. Indeed, the Israel Police has begun enlisting hundreds of officers to keep the peace while these houses are being demolished, an action scheduled to get under way as early as August. The pictures from these demolition and relocation operations, seen around the world, will make the recent assault by Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner on a Danish peace activist seem like a marginal event.

A proper settlement of the Bedouin is crucial to them and the state alike, but the new law is not the instrument for achieving it. The Netanyahu government would do well to postpone its ratification by the Knesset and devote more serious thought to the problem. Otherwise, conflict with the Negev Bedouin will be our unhappy lot for ages to come.

Dr. Clinton Bailey has studied Bedouin history and culture in the Negev for many years.