Netanyahu's Office Promoting Plan to Relocate 30,000 Bedouin

Plan aims to improve living conditions for Bedouins currently living in unrecognized villages lacking necessary infrastructure, which results in severe environmental and other problems.

The government is to consider a plan drafted in the Prime Minister's Office to relocate close to 30,000 Bedouin residents of unrecognized villages in the Negev to expanded areas of existing Negev Bedouin towns such as Rahat, Kseifa and Hura.

The plan would involve transplanting about 40 percent of the 71,000 Bedouin residents in the unrecognized locales. The relocated Bedouin would receive both monetary compensation and alternate land.

Tal Cohen

Unrecognized villages lack necessary infrastructure, as a result of which they suffer from severe environmental and other problems.

The plan was drafted in response to recommendations made by the Goldberg committee, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg. The committee had been established in order to address the issue of large numbers of Negev Bedouin who live in areas that are not officially designated as residential zones. It will be submitted for cabinet approval in the next several weeks.

About 191,000 Bedouin currently live in the Negev, including about 120,000 in recognized communities, the largest of which is Rahat. Another 71,000 live in unrecognized locales. Data from the Prime Minister's Office shows that Bedouin claim ownership of 640,000 dunams of land. (A dunam is about a quarter acre ). Unrecognized Bedouin settlements constitute 2.7 percent of the area of the Negev.

The cost of the relocation plan is estimated at somewhere between NIS 6 billion to NIS 8 billion shekels, including NIS 1.2 billion for economic development in recognized Bedouin communities. In a briefing this week, Eyal Gabbai, the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, and Ehud Prawer, the head of policy planning in the office, told reporters that the existing situation of the Bedouin cannot continue. They said that conditions among the Bedouin continue to deteriorate because their population doubles every 15 years.

Gabbai said that not all the Bedouin demands could be accommodated and enforcement could also not be overly stringent, "but the current situation is impossible."

The plan calls for Bedouin who live or work land on which they claim ownership to receive replacement land of half the area they claim and to be compensated for land which they are not in actual possession of either with cash equivalent to double its value or with construction sites the state promises to develop.

As part of the preparations for the plan, the Prime Minister's Office has not discounted the possibility of establishing new Bedouin towns in areas currently held by some of the Bedouin tribes. Plans are deliberately vague about the most contentious issue with the Bedouin involving how many of the current unrecognized villages will be recognized as new communities and how many will be demolished.

The subject is highly charged, and the state has chosen to leave it for discussions with the Bedouin themselves. One senior source involved in the planning said he expected locations that fall within the master plan for the Be'er Sheva area that have access to public infrastructure and public institutions to become recognized communities.

In addition to the complexities involved in implementing the plan, some details of which remain vague, there are disputes among the Bedouin themselves that could bear on the situation. Many Bedouin leaders, as well as the heads of Jewish localities in the region, are highly opposed to the plan and have threatened immediate legal action to stop if it is approved. This may greatly delay the timetable. The plan provides for full implementation of the project over a five-year period.

The plan also attaches great importance to law enforcement, both by substantially augmenting police forces in the area and through the legal system. The prospect of also setting up new courts to expedite the handling of claims has not been excluded.

As time passes, according to the plan, the amount of compensation offered will be reduced. After a five-year period, land which has not been the subject of the claim process will be registered as belonging to the state.

"The state knows how to enforce [the law] when it wants to. That's what happened at the [unauthorized West Bank Jewish outpost] of Amona, as well as with the Druze on the Carmel and in [the East Jerusalem neighborhood of] Sheikh Jarrah," Gabbai said.

Haaretz has learned that Bedouin representatives and organizations are to meet this weekend at Neveh Shalom to study the plan and to decide how to respond. One leading activist on behalf of the Negev Bedouin, Awad Abu Farih, said the plan was a disaster that would lead to a heated confrontation with the Bedouin residents of the Negev.

Bedouin representatives and human rights organization have sent an urgent letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to his cabinet colleagues arguing that the plan runs contrary to the Goldberg committee recommendations. They say that the committee recommendation was to provide recognition to Bedouin locales wherever possible, while the plan being advocated by the Prime Minister's Office would require the unjustified relocation of about 20,000 to 30,000 Bedouin against their will.