Israeli Government Begins Legalizing Thousands of Negev Bedouin Homes

But residents are reluctant to cooperate with plan, fearing they will lose their claim to ownership of the land

Zafrir Rinat
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The Bedouin township of Bir Hadaj in the Negev.
The Bedouin township of Bir Hadaj in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Zafrir Rinat

The government has begun legalizing thousands of illegally built housing units in towns in the Negev as a first step in addressing the dire conditions of the community. In some cases, the government has also offered to build muchneeded infrastructure. However, many residents are not in a hurry to accept the offer, which does not include recognition of their claims to ownership of the land.

Over 100,000 Bedouin live in the Negev, many of them in illegal structures either built at the outskirts of legal towns or in unrecognized communities. Some Bedouin have made claims of ownership for large amounts of land and want legalization to be tied to acceptance of these claims.

The result of this impasse has been serious neglect of basic infrastructure and severe environmental problems. Residents of unrecognized communities sometimes live near high voltage power lines or quarries. Waste and sewage frequently flow in open areas, causing health hazards. A number of commissions have been established over the past decade to propose laws that would compensate Bedouin with land claims. Recently the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry, which is responsible for the Bedouin Development Authority, decided to change direction and not deal with the issue of land ownership for now.

Instead, as part of its five-year plan, the government is offering the residents what it calls an “arrangement in place,” a euphemism for legalizing illegal construction.

As it winds up the first year of the plan, the Bedouin Authority has focused on providing a solution for the natural growth in legal, recognized Bedouin towns. To do so, it has begun legalizing thousands of housing units in these communities. In many cases, the authority does so by approving master plans for the town that include groups of illegally built homes on the edge of legal communities.

Yair Maayan, director of the authority, admits that in the past the government did not adequately address the needs of Bedouin even in legal communities, and did not sell enough housing units there. As a result, the Bedouin began to build illegally, he said.

The authority sends its planners, accompanied by social advisers, to survey the homes and to speak with the families. They offer to grant building permits and finance the development costs of the plots to provide infrastructure such as water and electricity, at a cost of up to 200,000 shekels ($57,000) per plot. Another method is to approve building plans that would increase the density of housing units from two units per dunam (a quarter acre) to four units.

The work to build infrastructure has started in a number of communities in the past few months.

But Maayan admits that this has not been a great success so far because only a few people have joined the Authority’s projects. Planning the scattered groups of homes separately rather than as part of an overall master plan, lowers the quality of the planning, but at least it provides a solution for the residents, says the Development Authority.

The situation is even more complicated when it comes to the unrecognized communities. Here the Authority is partly continuing with its attempts to move these residents to the recognized towns, while at the same time working to establish a number of new, legal communities. One of the main areas where the Authority is trying to do this is in the Bedouin encampments near the Neot Hovav Industrial Area south of Be’er Sheva, where it is trying to move out thousands of residents to other communities.

The government is also continuing to offer the Bedouin money for giving up their claims to the land. So far most have rejected this offer. Maayan believes residents will begin to accept it once they see the government is guaranteeing the legal status of their homes and providing proper infrastructure.

The authority notes that its budget has been increased, enabling it to expand operations significantly.

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