The Lawmaker Fighting for Israel's Bedouin Could Decide New Government's Fate

Saeed Alkharumi was the only member of his party to abstain in a vote on the formation of Naftali Bennett's government. To win his support, the coalition will have to change decades-long polices toward the Bedouin in the Negev

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Saeed Alkharumi during his conversation with Haartez in the Knesset
Saeed Alkharumi during his conversation with Haartez in the KnessetCredit: David Green
David Green
David B. Green

By the evening of June 13, the day of the new government’s swearing-in, there was already speculation that MK Saeed Alkharumi could become a “one-man faction,” as Channel 13 News commentator Raviv Drucker put it, within the inherently fragile coalition. The lawmaker from the United Arab List had abstained from that afternoon’s Knesset confirmation vote for the new government, so that it entered power on the basis of a one-vote majority.

Alkharumi, 49, is from the Bedouin township of Segev Shalom, and openly declares himself the representative of the Negev’s roughly 250,000 Bedouin Arabs – nearly 75 percent of whose voters indeed cast ballots for the UAL. They are the poorest and most neglected slice of Israel’s population, and yet for the religious Zionist parties Yamina and particularly Religious Zionism, which is led by Bezalel Smotrich, they constitute a lawless, pampered Arab minority who threaten Jewish sovereignty in the Negev, no less. Hence, during the long decade-plus of right-wing rule, government policy had focused on uprooting illegal construction and farming by Bedouin.

About 90,000 Negev Bedouin live in one of the area’s 35 unrecognized Bedouin villages, which on account of their “illegal” status lack basic services including sewerage, running water, trash collection and paved roads. (In many cases, conditions are not much better among the 11 villages that achieved official recognition 20 years ago.)

According to Attia Alasam, the chairman of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, more than 12,000 unauthorized structures were razed in the past five years. In fact, says Alasam, in 2020 –which was dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, during which the government committed to freezing most demolitions – the number reached 2,500, “more than any other year.”

Perhaps the cruelest component of the policy is that the Bedouin are compelled to carry out the destruction of their own residences, unless they want to pay the authorities to carry out the job. There are accounts of the charges typically reaching 300,000 shekels (over $90,000), as large teams are called in to undertake and secure demolitions, and each member needs to be paid for a day’s work.

The agreement between UAL and Yesh Atid, the largest party in the coalition, stipulates that within 45 days of the government’s formation – that is, by the end of July – it will have completed the process of official recognition of three unrecognized villages: Rahma, Abdih and Khasim Zannih.

In addition, the agreement specifies the extension, through 2024, of a freeze on house demolitions it says was introduced last year by the Netanyahu government. During this period, according to the agreement, the government will reconsider the terms of the so-called Kaminitz Law, which streamlines the process for condemning and demolishing illegal structures and eliminates the possibility of appealing such orders.

A child stands atop rubble following a house demolition in the NegevCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

But more than two weeks into the tenure of the new government, there are no obvious signs of progress toward recognizing any of the unrecognized communities, including the three mentioned above. More significant, regardless of the new government’s intentions, the bureaucratic machine overseen by the Bedouin Development and Settlement Authority continues to issue demolition orders in the villages and also to plow under crops that it says were sown illegally.

According to Elianne Kremer from the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, which keeps track of the demolitions, in the two weeks since the government was sworn in, 30 demolition orders were issued in the (recognized) village of Bir Hadaj alone. She also notes, for example, that the unrecognized village of Al-Araqib was demolished nine times in the first six months of 2021 alone, during which period “we monitored 13,000 dunams [3,212 acres] of agricultural land being plowed under.”

Similarly, in Rahma, one of the towns slated for recognition, Salha Azazma, a 69-year-old widow in poor health, received an order on June 6 to demolish the temporary shelter she has lived in since her doctor said continued residence in a tent would be life-threatening. Her neighbors in the neighboring Jewish community of Yeruham have petitioned the authorities to rescind the order.

Speaking with Haaretz, Alkharumi was at pains to present himself as part of the UAL team, all of whose members share the same goals. He acknowledged that little progress has been made toward realizing those goals, but implied that he and his colleagues are willing to be patient – to a point.

“You can’t have a new government continuing with the old policy, as if nothing has changed, while at the same time you’re saying to the residents, come, let’s talk. If they want to talk and to build a system of trust, they have to, first of all, freeze the demolitions in the unrecognized villages, and initiate a dialogue with the residents. In the meantime, that’s not happening, but I hope that in the coming month, it will.”

But Alkharum denied accusations that he is a "loose cannon," saying that if the government collapses it won’t be because he brought it down. If those priorities are not dealt with, he insisted, “all of the UAL will be out, and not just Saeed Alkharumi. It’s a matter of principle for UAL, very much so.” Nonetheless, he said he is convinced that “there are formulas that can satisfy all of the sides.”

An unrecognized village in the Negev Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Alkharumi’s willingness to be patient may also be linked to his party’s apparent decision to give him the chairmanship of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee: “It’s not final yet, but there have been discussions,” he confirmed to Haaretz. The committee deals with, among other things, matters of zoning and building, citizenship and local government.

In the meantime, Alkharumi finds himself under attack from Regavim, a far-right organization that is dedicated to the cause of Jewish settlement in every part of the Land of Israel, but seems especially fixated on the threat they believe the Bedouin pose to Israeli sovereignty in the Negev.

This week, Regavim distributed an article that appeared in the Hebrew-language daily Maariv on June 26 accusing the UAL legislator of intervening on behalf of his mother and other family members to prevent their eviction from land in Alkharumi’s hometown of Segev Shalom. The writer, Kalman Liebskind, gave no evidence that any laws were broken, nor did he say whether Alkharumi had acted on behalf of relatives at the expense of other Bedouin from Segev Shalom, or whether they were part of a larger group whose eviction he was trying to avert.

Alkharumi, who brought up the article in his conversation with Haaretz, noted that the Bedouin Development and Settlement Authority continues to be staffed and operated by people appointed years ago by Uri Ariel, the former agriculture minister from what is today the Religious Zionism party.

“All of the officials are religious Zionists, Uri Ariel’s people. And they will do everything to make sure the policy doesn’t change.” This includes, he says, “arranging to have published, via their mouthpieces in the media, that I was taking care of my family, a claim that is completely contradictory to the facts, and [former Economy] Minister Amir Peretz can confirm that, as can his director general, David Leffler, and all the people that I was in touch with.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and MK Mansour Abbas shaking hands in the Knesset Credit: Noam Moskovitz

According to Alkharumi, who has a tendency to refer to himself in the third person, it was also no coincidence that, “on the day that the government was approved and sworn in there was an unprecedented distribution of eviction orders and of house demolitions in all of the Negev, and in particular at Bir Hadaj, [many of whose residents are from] my tribe, in order to pressure Saeed  not to support the new government, or to bring it down.”

Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit organization, explains that even when the government shifts its policy, implementation is another matter. According to Abu Rass, “No matter what the government decides, it’s the bureaucracy in the Negev that’s the problem. Even if the government decides on recognition of a particular village, you still need a committee [connected to the] security apparatus to approve it. And the committee for preservation of agricultural land in open areas also has veto rights.”

But Abu Rass agrees with Alkharumi that the religious extreme right – the Religious Zionism party – is trying very hard to foil the government headed by Naftali Bennett’s Yamina. He says that Regavim, the nonprofit founded by Religious Zionism leader Smotrich, “is working around the clock – not to stop the illegal construction, but rather to remove this government from power.”

Abu Rass thinks that if UAL and its coalition partners can agree on a freeze on demolitions – a six-month period during which “the Bedouin will not build anything … and the state won’t destroy a single house,” this will give them time to negotiate long-term plans for resolving issues related to the Bedouin. What is needed are trust and good faith, values that have been in deep freeze in Israeli politics for some time.

Abu Rass warns that, “The Bedouin are watching [UAL chairman] Mansour Abbas, to see what he does. They want a success now. If they don’t have a success, things will get complicated.”

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