Green Extremism Threatens Israel's Future in the Negev

Bedouin advocacy organizations and academics, especially from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, are stirring up opposition to Jewish settlement in the Negev for political reasons.

The night the Yom Kippur fast ended in 1946, the settlements known as the "11 Points" were established in the Negev: Urim, Be'eri, Gal-On, Hatzerim, Kfar Darom, Mishmar Hanegev, Nevatim, Nirim, Kedma, Shoval and Tekuma. This operation took place about a year before the UN voted to partition the land, and its goal, in the words of Yosef Weitz - one of the leaders of the state-to-be - was "to strengthen our position in areas that they are plotting to tear away from us." The operation was headed by a future prime minister, Levi Eshkol.

Sixty-four years later, Israel has formal sovereignty over the Negev. Yet the need to settle "areas they are plotting to tear away from us" is almost as great as it was in 1946.

Significant tracts of land in the northern Negev are being taken over by those whose goal is indeed "to tear them away from us": Bedouin who, with no planning and no permits, settle in every part of the Negev suitable for habitation. But the authorities - the police, the legal system and the interior, national infrastructure and environmental protection ministries - have done nothing, aside from setting up an inquiry committee every few years.

And most of these, like the Goldberg Committee, advise the government to retroactively legalize a significant portion of these illegal land grabs, while enforcing the law "from now on."

Every once in a while, mention is also made of the time-tested Zionist method: settlement. But with the old-time settlement movements having lost both their vision and their ability to act, this option has been neglected.

Recently, three new players stepped into this vacuum: the Housing and Construction Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry and the World Zionist Organization's settlement division. They decided to set up 11 new communities - a modern-day 11 Points - between Be'er Sheva and Arad, in the heart of an area where Bedouin squatters have built as far as the eye can see, causing severe damage to nature, the landscape and our heritage in the process.

But opponents promptly assailed the plan from various directions. "This would severely damage the area's open spaces, which include unique habitats," argued Itamar Ben-David, who heads the planning department of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

In theory, that is true. But in practice, these spaces have long since stopped being "open"; very little, if anything, still remains of the tracts that contained those "unique habitats"; and the "mortal blow to the landscape" was dealt long ago.

Yet has anyone ever seen a demonstration by environmental organizations against the "irreversible environmental damage to a region that links two climate zones" that the Bedouin have been perpetrating without let or hindrance?

These organizations also battled a planned new army base in the Negev for the exact same reasons. And before that, they fought the establishment of the so-called "star communities," designed to increase the population along the pre-1967 side of the Green Line, in the eastern Sharon and Emek Hefer regions. One can only imagine what kind of hell the Gush Dan area would be in today had Modi'in, Shoham and other "star communities" not been built to slightly ease the overcrowding on the coastal plain while also strengthening the center of the country with a middle-class population.

But anyone who thinks the environment is the real reason for opposition to new communities in the Negev is being naive. Bedouin advocacy organizations and academics, especially from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, are stirring up opposition to Jewish settlement in the Negev for political reasons.

The establishment of a new community, they claim, costs five times as much as expanding an existing one. That may be. But in 1946, establishing a new community in the Negev cost the chronically cash-strapped Jewish Agency 10 times what it cost to expand an existing kibbutz or moshav. Yes, preserving the nation's lands entails a price - and in 1946, the price was not just in money; it was also in human life.

The argument about "preserving the country's green lung" would be convincing if it were also enforced on the population that in fact damages this lung every day. But instead of taking the lead on enforcement against the Bedouin, the Environmental Protection Ministry has joined the ranks of opponents to the 11 Points, whose very presence would likely drive off those who are currently harming nature and the landscape without hindrance.

The Negev - as the squatters and their supporters, both in Israel and abroad, well know - is Israel's only land reserve for housing future generations. And the squatters are gradually gaining control of this reserve. What a pity that Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan has joined the ranks of those who are trying to prevent the consolidation of Israeli sovereignty in the Negev, for reasons that may be valid in theory, but are false and hypocritical in connection with the 11 Points.