Israeli cabinet ministers agreed Monday after a heated debate to back a controversial plan for resettling the Bedouin who live in the Negev Desert.
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The Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved the Begin Law to resolve land-use issues related to the population, after Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel managed to reach a series of compromises with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former minister Benny Begin on that matter to win the support of the Habayit Hayehudi party.
The committee's vote had been postponed two weeks to allow Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi to study the issue.
As part of the draft legislation, some 20,000 to 30,000 Bedouin are to be relocated to officially recognized towns in the Negev including Rahat, Khura and Ksayfe.
Those who are moved are to receive financial compensation as well as new plots of land. The plan is estimated to cost the state NIS 6.8 billion.
Among the concessions Habayit Hayehudi won were the inclusion in the plan of a detailed zoning map of the lands earmarked for the Bedouin and the creation of a ministerial committee headed by Netanyahu to supervise its implementation based on biannual reports.
Public Security Minister Yizhak Aharonovich of Yisrael Beiteinu nearly scuttled the plan by demanding the hiring of hundreds of additional police officers to enforce it.
It was ultimately decided that the bill would not be voted on its second and third readings in the Knesset until a deal is reached with the Finance Ministry on adding 250 officers to the police force, in addition to the 200 new positions already approved. If such a deal cannot be reached, the bill will be returned to the committee.
Bedouin leaders harshly criticized the plan, calling it immoral and impractical. "This is a step that harms the basic rights of the Bedouin. Instead of the state contributing to the Bedouin population, it is acting against it," said Rahat Mayor Sheikh Faiz Abu Seheban. "I call on all human rights organizations to oppose the decision, since it damages the social framework in the Negev."
"The plan will under no circumstances be carried out; the Bedouin population will not give up its land," said Hussein Al-Rafia, the former head of the regional council of unrecognized Bedouin communities. "I think the state needs to sit with the Bedouin population and solve the problem once and for all. They have not sat with us seriously."
Originally known as the Prawer Plan, because it was based on the proposal of a team headed by Ehud Prawer, the head of policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office – a version of the plan was approved by the cabinet in September 2012 along with a NIS 1.2 billion economic development program for recognized Bedouin communities in the Negev.
Benny Begin was charged with listening to Bedouin complaints regarding the plan and incorporating them into draft legislation.
The state has struggled with what to do with the Negev Bedouin for nearly 60 years. The previous cabinet approved the Law for the Regulation of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev after the national election in January 2012, but the move drew heavy criticism.
In 2008, the government formed the Goldberg Committee, led by former High Court judge Eliezer Goldberg, to organize Bedouin settlement in the Negev. Based on the committee's report, which marked the State of Israel’s first attempt to formally hear Bedouin grievances, the government drafted a legal memorandum on organizing Bedouin settlement.
At the heart of the Bedouin question is the ownership of land the Bedouins say they purchased before the establishment of the State of Israel. The agreements were verbal and never registered in the official Land Registry, and Israeli law does not recognize land claims without some form of written proof of purchase or ownership.
The Begin Law as approved by the cabinet calls for communities and employment centers for the Bedouin to be established along three main routes: the Rahat-Be'er Sheva road, the Shoket junction-Tel Arad road and the Be'er Sheva-Dimona road. The boundaries of the communities are to be drawn with regard to existing farming patterns and the government's allocation of land. Relocated Bedouin who can prove they owned land until 1979 are to be given alternative land, while others are to receive monetary compensation.
The plan also provides for recognition of some unrecognized communities in areas that the regional master plan for the greater Be'er Sheva area has already designated as residential. Some 70,000 Bedouin currently live in unrecognized villages in the Negev.