Despite the stormy protest Saturday against the Prawer plan for regulating Bedouin settlement in the Negev, the Israeli government is convinced that the demonstrators represent only a small fraction of the Bedouin population. In fact, Dror Almog, who heads the implementation team for resettling the Bedouin, believes that some 80 percent of the residents support the plan and want a final settlement.
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“Between the Bedouin and the state there’s a large, ongoing crisis of confidence that needs to be resolved,” Almog told Haaretz on Sunday. “The demonstrations don’t come from within the Bedouin community, and I’ve even received a letter of apology from one tribal head, seeking forgiveness for the violent incidents. The plan aims to deal with the issue of trust and to regulate the settlement with fairness, respect, sensitivity and cooperation.”
Almog added that Arab MKs are making a manipulative effort to link the situation of the Negev Bedouin with that of the Arabs in the Galilee, the Palestinian conflict and the riots in the Arab world. “The Bedouin are citizens with equal rights and the MKs have chosen to take the route of protest, non-cooperation with the government … agitation and incitement, and have harsh words for those who worked on the program.”
Almog believes that although there is broad support among the Bedouin for the Prawer plan, the majority remains silent because of internal social pressures that at times include threats.
While there was a government train of thought that the Islamic Movement was behind efforts to scuttle the negotiations, the residents refute this, noting the movement was weakened during the most recent local elections.
“This is a very sensitive stage,” said Almog. “The Bedouin opponents believe that every tin shed must be defended, not to preserve the Bedouin society, but rather to create territorial contiguity between Hebron and the Gaza Strip.”
Although it’s difficult to specify how many residents agree to the settlement since the relevant law has yet to be legislated, Almog says there are tribes numbering thousands of people that have expressed their willingness to move to the new regulated areas.
“There are tribes located near Yeruham and Dimona that want to move to a community with a good education system, infrastructure and roads,” he said. “You have to understand that 85 percent of the Bedouin have no land claims. They have become victims of the situation, victims of Arab manipulation.”
Almog added, moreover, that there are wealthy, educated families that do have land claims and realize that the state’s compensation is worth accepting. Despite this, they demonstrate against the plan because they are afraid of how their society will respond. “There is fear in Bedouin society of accepting the law,” he said.
Claims by Arab MKs and Bedouin leaders that they weren’t included in the planning process are baseless, Almog said.
“Benny Begin circulated around the area for an entire year, and we spoke with hundreds, if not thousands of residents,” he said. “There were discussions and revisions until the final document was arrived at. We sat with organizations that oppose the plan, from Adalah and Bimkom on the left, to Regavim on the right. It’s impossible for everyone to be satisfied.”
Atia Al Assam, chairman of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, denies that the majority of Bedouin support the law.
“It’s most unfortunate that the state uses these lies,” he said. “If there is 80 percent, why don’t we hear from them? Twenty percent can not threaten 80 percent. If the majority wanted it, it would say so explicitly, and we don’t hear this.”
He said the vast majority opposes the plan. “Maybe there are a few percent in favor of the law, mostly tribes that have no land and are in need. But no one will accept a plan that destroys his village.”
Asked for an example of Bedouin willing to cooperate with the plan, Almog cites the tribe of Sheikh Odeh Zenon, which comprises more than 2,000 people and is situated on several thousand acres near Yeruham. They are willing to move to a new community slated to be built called Rahma, that will have modern infrastructures.
Assam insists that they are not being offered a new community, but a neighborhood in an existing village. “I don’t believe the state will build the settlement; it will put them in another village,” he said. “If the village residents don’t object, I don’t have a problem with it, what’s good for them is good for all of us. But the state is deceiving the people and not telling them what’s really out there.
“The state should reconsider and talk to the people as equals, and not lie,” said Assam. “They have to change their approach and explain to the residents where they will be living, because most of the people don’t know what will happen to them.”
“You have to understand that this is a very dramatic step,” said Almog. “We must remember that the Prawer plan is only a tool. Afterward we expect years of work and dialogue with the tribes regarding the preferred type of settlement.”