Bedouin Slam Israel's Land Offer as 'Back-room Deal'

State's offer to settle Bedouin land ownership claims in the Negev in return for the their agreement to relocate from 'unrecognized' villages attacked by rightists claiming it would give them too much land.

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The government Sunday approved an offer to settle Bedouin land ownership claims in the Negev in return for the Bedouin's agreement to relocate from "unrecognized" villages into those established by the state. However, the decision was immediately slammed both by Bedouin activists, who said the proposal did not give them enough land, and by right-wingers, who said the offer gave the Bedouin too much land.

Thabet Abu Ras, head of the Negev department of Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, told Haaretz the proposal was not fundamentally different from the plan drawn up over a year ago by the Prawer Committee, which was roundly criticized by Bedouin groups, and that it would not satisfy the needs of Negev Bedouin despite efforts to portray it as a generous offer.

"We were not presented the proposal as it was submitted to the government, and that in itself is very problematic," Abu Ras said. "As far as we know, it is a complex and cumbersome plan. Eventually the Bedouin will lose most of their lands in return for symbolic recognition of several [unrecognized] villages.

Pini Badash, who heads the Omer regional council and has been fighting a land dispute with local Bedouin for two decades, said the government succumbed to Bedouin pressure. "The government gave them a gift of 100,000 dunams of the Negev. In my opinion not one of the ministers studied the changes in the [original Prawer] proposal. According to the new plan, the Bedouin can receive land in the western Negev where there is no Bedouin settlement, as opposed to the former proposal. This is a message to the Bedouin: The more pressure you apply, the more you'll get."

As this was a decision of great import being made by an outgoing goverment, legal advisers to the government considered this aspect, but concluded that the outgoing government was entitled to pass on this decision because it was completing a step that the current government had begun earlier with the setting up of the Prawer committee. Moreover, the advisers argued that the new government was free to initiate changes in the recommendations. Sources said the reason for the cabinet vote was that Begin is winding up his term in the cabinet and had asked that his panel's recommendations be put to a vote while he was still empowered to oversee it.

However, the Forum for Co-Existence in the Negev stated: "We find it troublesome that a move with such fatal ramifications for such a large group of citizens was carried out in secret, and behind the backs of those citizens whose future is at stake." Bedouin activists argued that the recommendations were voted on before they had been published for public review, nor shown to the Bedouin themselves.

Last weekend, the High Court of Justice dismissed a petition from Regavim, a right wing association, which argued that a caretaker government should not be allowed to vote on such a weighty matter, and that ministers did not have the opportunity to properly study the proposal.

Regavim's petition claimed that plan increased the amount of Negev land to be given to the Bedouin - from 50 percent of their demands, as called for by the Prawer panel, to 63 percent, or 30,000 dunams. Another recommendation, according to the petition, was that the government would be required to prove its ownership of disputed lands, which, Regavim claimed, could cost the state tens of thousands of dunams and tens of millions of shekels.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim Alwakali, chairman of the unrecognized Bedouin villages' council, promised: "We will fight with all our might, within the limitations of the law, for our rights. We demand sensible cooperation. The government's move is improper. We consider this a plan which cannot be implemented, a plan against the Bedouin population. We seek a solution but not one that is completely disconnected from the people. We have rights on the land, and no one is doing us a favor."

The Bedouin township of Bir Hadaj in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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