Send Bulldozers to the Negev

Bulldozers and surveying instruments must now be deployed across the Negev - this time not to destroy, but to start anew through development and cooperation.

It's never easy being a Bedouin in the Negev, but these days it's especially hard. One week the minority affairs minister asks your forgiveness for the injustice done to you in the state's creation, and the next the government says your community is hostile to the state, whose sons desecrated the national park at Avdat. One day the government sings your praises as a brave tracker in the "people's army," and the next it destroys the home you were forced to build without a permit.

Tens of thousands of Bedouin who live in unrecognized villages in the Negev are perceived by a large portion of the Jewish population and by the establishment as enemies of the state, as people who control state land while enlisting in the Palestinian national movement. The Bedouin, however, see the state as systematically discriminating against them, ignoring their rights to the land and forcing them to live without basic necessities like running water and electricity.

Life in unrecognized villages has serious developmental and environmental consequences. The Bedouin are vulnerable to health-threatening hazards. For their part, the Bedouin regularly harm the terrain through overgrazing and dispersed construction in what's called the "restricted area" in the northern Negev. The state has learned that its ability to develop communities and infrastructure has become inconsequential in light of the vast and unsupervised Bedouin construction.

This reality is no longer a ticking time bomb, but a day-to-day, violent struggle over land ownership - a struggle in which fear and bitterness grow continuously on both sides. More than once this conflict has been played out in the Bedouin's damaging of public and private property.

There is no doubt the government bears considerable responsibility for this conflict, and must advance a program to change the status quo. The government has acknowledged as much and established a committee to deal with Bedouin settlement, headed by retired Supreme Court justice Eliezer Goldberg. But the panel's findings received cursory mention in the press and were virtually forgotten.

The Goldberg Committee described its mission clearly: "The Bedouin are both inhabitants and citizens of the state, and as such are not invisible, nor ineligible for standing and rights. We must listen to their claims and consider their needs, and they must be included in procedures to determine their future. Their forced transfer to the restricted area after the creation of the state must not be ignored - even if they illegally expanded the borders of that area over the years."

The government's immediate, perhaps urgent, mission is to accelerate implementation of the Goldberg Committee's recommendations, which include solutions to conflicts between the Bedouin and the state over land ownership, such as some form of recognition of ownership on the basis of historical ties and the granting of compensation for some of the ownership claims. The recommendations also include a development program allowing for the creation of new Bedouin communities and legalizing some illegal construction, as long as it is located within the borders of certain locales. At the same time, the law must be firmly upheld for those who refuse to abide by the new arrangements.

This process demands dialogue among all the interested parties and a combination of both generous compromise and firmness in enforcing orderly development and construction programs. The process needs to be jump-started by speeding up the creation of the Bedouin communities already decided upon and by augmenting spending on education and health care.

Bulldozers and surveying instruments must now be deployed across the Negev - this time not to destroy, but to start anew through development and cooperation.