Countless reports, resolutions and action plans have failed over the years to address the complicated issue of recognizing Bedouin villages in the Negev. It's the new government's job to implement the previous cabinet's plan, and many observers say this is the last chance to solve the problem effectively.
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More than 40 Bedouin villages in the Negev are unrecognized by the state, as well as hundreds of thousands of acres where the Bedouin claim ownership. The state thus has to operate on two tracks: a master plan for these communities and a negotiated settlement for land ownership.
Otherwise, the expansion of unrecognized villages will continue to obstruct development plans, tens of thousands of people will remain living in dire conditions, and the lack of infrastructure and unregulated use of land will damage the environment.
The previous government's plan was crafted by a team led by then-Minister Without Portfolio Benny Begin; it included a bill to regulate land-ownership claims. Two weeks ago, on his last day in office, Begin said it was very likely most Bedouin would join the arrangement. But some human rights groups and Bedouin activists are unwilling to accept the program.
In any case, the town-planning process has been launched by companies working for the Authority for Regulating Bedouin Settlement in the Negev. Areas where new towns will be established (some based on existing communities) have been marked in the district master plan.
According to Begin's staff, fewer than 3,000 families would have to move (excluding residents of the village of Wadi Na'am, who are willing to move). Families would move to sites under 10 kilometers from their current homes, and could move to a new rural community or an expansion of an existing one.
But planning isn't possible without settling the Bedouin's ownership claims to the land. The draft bill to regulate claims is ready. A green light from the Ministerial Committee for Legislation will set the legislative process in motion. Begin says the bill is better for the Bedouin than previous government decisions.
The main change is the decision to compensate families claiming land they don't currently hold. This is because Begin's people couldn't provide an answer for Bedouin who said they couldn't remain on their land because the state had forced them to settle elsewhere. But the bill also leaves the state with 180,000 dunams (nearly 45,000 acres) that it had expropriated for various purposes.
Officials at the Israel Lands Administration have criticized the bill, saying the Negev doesn't contain enough land to provide compensation. Begin, however, says land is available and that the issue will be reviewed again soon with the ILA. A source dealing with the issue said that even if the proposed arrangement stretches the land-allocation options to the limit, the opportunity shouldn't be missed.
The Negev Coexistence Forum, which includes Bedouin activists, says the willingness to recognize villages is limited by the regional master plan, which designates land currently occupied by communities for other purposes.
“The threat of evacuation of tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens remains," the forum said. "We call on the state to commit to a full recognition of every village.”
As for settling ownership claims, the forum argues that the state is offering only partial compensation, unlike cases in which Jewish settlers have been evacuated. Moreover, sometimes the compensation will be in money, not land. The forum also attacks the bill’s stipulation that ownership claims must be settled within five years.
“This condition reveals the true nature of the arrangement, which is not a generous compromise but an acute threat and evidence of the state’s attempts to force oppressive policies of concentrated settlement in the area," the forum said.
Begin said in a report that the government had to set a deadline to create an incentive for claimants to join. This would also prevent reductions in compensation due to the constant increase in the number of heirs that might join claims. According to Begin, there is no way to impose the arrangement on tens of thousands of people, and it's hard to take action against illegal construction in the absence of a framework for legal construction.
“There is no moral or practical foundation for extensive enforcement actions against illegal construction in the absence of master plans that provide a framework for settlement,” Begin told Haaretz before he left his post. “That’s why we must try to reach a situation where ownership claimants agree to be part of the proposed arrangement."
In the report, Begin wrote that “we cannot reconcile ourselves to the reality that the Bedouin live with in the Negev, and changing it will require effort, both by the government and the Bedouin."