Bedouin Slam Proposed JNF Land Swap With State Administration

Bedouin representatives in the Negev are speaking out against an exchange of land between the Jewish National Fund and the Israel Lands Administration that is part of the pending Economic Arrangements Bill, saying that the measure would make it difficult for them to lease or purchase land in the south.

The bill, which supplements the state budget, would formalize the land swap, providing for large tracts of ILA-owned land to be transferred to the JNF in exchange for land in the north and center of the country that the JNF would hand over to the lands administration. The deal is meant to compensate the JNF when land is leased to non-Jews, thereby addressing the discrimination against non-Jews while allowing the JNF to maintain its policy of leasing land only to Jews and ensuring that the amount of Jewish-owned land in Israel remains stable.

"There is no question that this is an attempt to pull the rug from under us, and we will not permit it," said Ibrahim al-Wakili, who heads the regional council of unrecognized Bedouin communities in the Negev. "Such a procedure will eliminate any future arrangement and will either block claims to ownership of land or will put us in a position in which we can't seek to expand existing communities."

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), who met this week with representatives of Bedouin villages in the Negev that do not receive government recognition, said the land exchange could dash prospects of an agreement between the state and the Bedouin that would settle the status of land in unrecognized villages.

The problem, said Khenin, is that the JNF will not lease or sell its land to non-Jews, making large tracts of land unavailable to the Bedouin. The Bedouin have asserted a claim to some of the land, especially in the northern Negev.

Israel Lands Administration director general Yaron Bibi said the land swap is not intended to limit Bedouin communities but to help residents in the center and north of the country, including Arab citizens, receive land that the JNF will give the lands administration as part of the exchange.

Bibi also said a distinction had to be made between government-owned land and land claimed by Bedouin but not by the state. Any land that is not owned by the state is not set to be part of the swap, he said, adding that attempts to create a controversy over the issue were unfortunate.