Fencing Out the Bedouin

Last week saw a major development on the road to the creation of a new and previously nonexistent status in Israel - owners of private farms.

Last week saw a major development on the road to the creation of a new and previously nonexistent status in Israel - owners of private farms. The fomenter of this development was none other than a high-ranking planning institution, which is supposed to serve as the guardian of the state's lands for the good of the public at large.

The Planning and Building Commission of the Southern District decided last week to recommend to the national commission that it approve a project called the "Wine Route in Ramat Hanegev." The project entails a change in the existing district master plan and has the goal of creating tourism and leisure centers along the road that passes through the center of the Negev to the Ramon Crater.

These centers will operate within the framework of up to 35 agricultural farms that are effectively owned by individuals. The idea is to create a chain of farms on which up to three residential units can be built and whose occupants will manage extensive tourism and farming areas. True, they will be subordinate to local master plans with respect to building, but the district plan gives them abundant opportunities to develop the territory by means of B&Bs, restaurants, stores and vineyards.

There are already a few dozen individual settlement sites in the country, but they have not yet been granted full legal status. The decision of the district commission is the first instance in which a major planning institution has validated this form of settlement on a large scale.

The establishment of individual farms is in complete contradiction to the decision, four years ago, by the National Planning and Building Commission that such settlements can only be established in the Negev, and even then only in exceptional cases. That decision was based on the awareness that Israel has extremely limited reserves of open areas, and therefore instead of establishing new communities or individual settlements, existing sites should be strengthened.

The establishment of individual settlements entails the additional dispersal of infrastructure such as roads, power lines and sewage facilities. They constitute another disruption to the continuity of natural territories in favor of human presence - a disruption that is necessary and desirable if the site serves a large number of people or an entire community.

This is also a socially invalid initiative because it enables individuals to gain control of the public space. They can fence off wide tracts of land and prevent others from entering; and with time, they start to behave as though the site is their property - even though they did not purchase the land. The case of Sycamore Ranch, which belongs to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is a prime example of this.

However, none of this bothers the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council, which is pushing for the establishment of these individual farms. It has the full backing of the government of Israel, which decided some six months ago to promote such settlement in the Negev and Galilee. The Prime Minister's Office recently made clear that it expects the national council to fall in line with this decision, and thereby to ignore any professional and planning considerations.

Shmuel Riffman, the head of the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council, argued that the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is being anti-Zionist in its opposition to the new farms, though it has done nothing to block illegal settlements by Bedouin.

The Bedouin are in fact the authorities' major motivation in encouraging individual settlements. Instead of dealing with the problem of Bedouin construction by means of a combination of forceful and systematic enforcement of the law and providing just and fair housing solutions, the government is encouraging "contradictory" construction that is supposed to block the Bedouin expansion by seizing state land.

The result is that the government is generating more feelings of frustration among the Bedouin, who live without basic infrastructure facilities throughout the Negev and can only watch as a lone Jewish settler has infrastructure placed at his disposal with the aid of the state even before he gets the planning authorizations, and all for the explicit goal of blocking them.

It should be noted that the majority of the individual settlers do not consider themselves emissaries in the struggle against the Bedouin. However, their readiness to take advantage of this form of settlement - for which one of the main justifications is the desire to hem in the Bedouin - makes them accomplices to the government's initiative.