Time to Settle Bedouin Claims

After 63 years of denying the Bedouin of the Negev rights to the land they acquired before 1948 and in accordance with the Bedouin law that then prevailed, Israel is about to give partial recognition to their claims, out of court.

After 63 years of denying the Bedouin of the Negev rights to the land they acquired before 1948 and in accordance with the Bedouin law that then prevailed, Israel is about to give partial recognition to their claims, out of court. The condition is that all those still living in unrecognized locales agree to permanent settlement in government-recognized towns. There are four specific reasons why this initiative must not fail.

• Because, if it fails, 110,000 Bedouin - 55 percent of the Negev Bedouin population - will be left without proper housing, continuing to live in the decrepit shanties they now inhabit, without elementary services, in about 50 "unrecognized" villages and dozens of clusters spread widely between Arad and Mitzpeh Ramon. No alternative housing exists for these people, because ownership of the 25,000 building plots needed for them is claimed by Bedouin with whom successive governments have failed to come to terms.

• Because, if the initiative fails, the question of who owns large tracts of land (the Bedouin or the state ) will remain unresolved. Presently, the Bedouin occupy some 440,000 dunams (110,000 acres ). However, once they are properly housed and given alternative land as partial compensation for what they claim to own, they will have 240,000 dunams, with the balance to be used by the state for development.

• Because, the failure of the initiative will render any peaceable and proper settlement of the Bedouin and resolution of the land disputes impossible. Unless the initiative seems attractive and just to the Bedouin, they will reject it and continue living under substandard conditions rather than submit to what they deem an injustice, while their numbers and the space they need continue to grow. It is worth reflecting on how much easier it would have been for the state to address fairly the original land-ownership claims made by 3,200 Bedouin in the 1970s, than to deal with the 28,000 claims raised by their heirs and their heirs' heirs today.

• Because, in the event that the government's initiative fails, the near future, too, may be fraught with danger. Currently, feelings of discrimination and frustration are high among the Negev Bedouin. In 2007, despite the long neglect of their needs and aspirations, they allowed themselves to hope that the appointment of a committee to recommend a new Bedouin policy, under retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg, might presage a reasonable compromise. The committee met for a year, considering the issues from the viewpoint of the Bedouin as well as the state, but its recommendations were rejected by the government of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who quickly appointed a group to study ways to alter the Goldberg report. This group, which spent the next two years diluting the judge's conclusions, was in itself a great disappointment to the Bedouin. In addition, the Ministry of Justice continued submitting claims in court to prove that the Bedouin had neither rights to land nor to compensation; the government also waged a campaign of destroying "illegal" Bedouin homes, leaving many families without shelter and preventing young couples from marrying.

It is not surprising, then, that the Bedouin are suspicious of the current government's initiative, which was made known to them this week. And the only way to make it succeed is to provide it with two essential components.

The first is equal treatment. The government must stipulate that any claimant to land ownership whose claim was accepted as valid by the Ministry of Justice in the 1970s will receive compensation in land and money - even if his land was registered as state property prior to the deadline set for making claims, he lost his claim through legal proceedings, or he was evacuated from his holdings at some point. These categories comprise one-half of the claimants to ownership, whose support of the initiative is clearly preferable to their rejecting and working against it.

The second component is to adjust the level of cash compensation to what the land would command today on the free market, as determined by a licensed appraiser. This is particularly urgent regarding land needed for housing and public buildings within existing or planned, recognized towns. Without these lands as part of the deal, there will be no Bedouin settlement. In addition, we cannot expect that a claimant will agree to receive NIS 10,000 in compensation for a dunam plot when a similar tract in Rahat, for example, sells for six to eight times that amount.

Raising the levels of cash and land compensation will reduce Bedouin opposition to the initiative to a minimum, thereby assuring the Netanyahu government a historic achievement for the Negev as a whole.

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