Analysis |

Millions of Acres for Israeli Jews, Next to Nothing for the Bedouin

The government is building nine new Jewish communities and an ultra-Orthodox city to increase the Jewish presence in the south, but this won’t help if the 150,000 Bedouin in unrecognized villages remain neglected

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Unrecognized Bedouin communities in the south.
Unrecognized Bedouin communities in the south. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

On its website, Kibbutz Shoval in the south boasts that 600 people live there, surrounded by their 20,000 dunams (4,940 acres) of crops. Kibbutz Mefalsim to the west has a population of 860 and touts its 14,500 dunams of crops. And let’s not forget the Sycamore Farm, home to only one family, the descendants of Ariel Sharon. It proudly mentions its 7,000 dunams.

Nearly 200 moshav and kibbutz agricultural communities dot the broad Negev region in the south. Each has on average about 500 residents and possesses between 8,000 and 20,000 dunams – the vast majority of them for agriculture. This week the government approved the establishment another four Jewish communal settlements in the Ramat Arad region in the northern Negev.

These are communities of 200 to 300 families that of course have admission committees to ensure that “families that aren’t like us” won’t destroy the wonderful communal fabric.

In the near future, the government also plans to approve five more Jewish communities along Route 25 that runs through the northern Negev. So, all told, nine new Jewish communities will join the nearly 200 already in the region, while the planned ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, town of Kasif is set to house 100,000 Haredim.

About 300,000 Bedouin also live in the Negev, half of them in 18 recognized communities. The rest live in unrecognized villages; that is, tin shacks without water, electricity, communications or sewage, and almost no health or education services.

So that the Israeli government won’t be suspected of discrimination, God forbid, it also plans a Bedouin community in Ramat Arad, joining the three Bedouin locales approved a few months ago. Over 20 communities for about 300,000 Bedouin are planned in the south, on an area covering 165,000 dunams, including the city of Rahat. This compares with the millions of dunams at the disposal of Jewish communities in the Negev.

In the name of Ben-Gurion

On Monday, Haaretz’s business section, TheMarker, asked the Agriculture Ministry how many agricultural areas were at the disposal of the Bedouin in the Negev, and what water quotas they received. “Define Negev” was the response.

There’s a reason the Agriculture Ministry is evading a reply – the millions of dunams belonging to the Jewish communities in the Negev are of course mainly agricultural land.

The Bedouin, however, are rarely allocated agricultural land, and when they are, they don’t receive water quotas. According to figures obtained by TheMarker, the Bedouin have a few hundred dunams of agricultural land; that is, next to nothing.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. “Taking over the land is of tremendous strategic importance to the strengthening of governability in the Negev.” Credit: Moti Milrod

“This is one of the most exciting and historic decisions we have made in all my years in Israeli government,” Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said this week after the approval of five new communities – four Jewish, one Bedouin – for Ramat Arad.

She called this the realization of David Ben-Gurion’s vision. “Settling the Negev and taking over the land is of tremendous strategic importance to the strengthening of governability in the Negev,” she said.

Despite Shaked’s reliance on Ben-Gurion, during the cabinet’s deliberations no one concealed the main motivation for approving the five new communities: blocking the spread of the Bedouin community in the Negev.

“You don’t understand that where there’s no agriculture and no settlement, others take it [the land],” Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel said. Outside the cabinet, people expressed themselves even more freely. On Army Radio, the mayor of Negev town Yeruham, Tal Ohana, said the new communities were needed “to protect Route 25.”

Of course, 2022 isn't 1948, when the pre-state Jewish community had to send armored convoys to break through to besieged communities. Israel has controlled all the Negev and its roads for 74 years.

Nonetheless, the tower-and-stockade mentality still reigns in the cabinet and the media: We have to fight the Bedouin and redeem the Negev from them, we have to protect the roads via Jewish settlement. The State of Israel is still waging a war for the conquest of the Negev, but this time it’s conquering it from its own citizens.

And this is how it looks: the building of nine new Jewish communities – almost recreating the operation to establish 11 kibbutzim in a single night in 1946 – to prove that the Jews are here to stay. These communities are designed to provide a defensive wall that will surround the Bedouin on all sides.

The Finance Ministry estimates that building these small and prestigious communities will cost 700 million to 800 million shekels ($250 million) more than constructing a similar number of residential units in the nearby city of Arad.

Bedouin demonstrating outside the Prime Minister's Office in January.Credit: Emil Salman

Even if we ignore this high cost, and even if we don’t argue about what these communities of private houses are doing to strengthen Arad, Yeruham or Dimona, we can’t avoid the question of how the Jewish defensive wall will help ensure the ability to travel in the Negev safely. Or in short: In what way does it solve the problem of the scattered unrecognized Bedouin villages?

While the state is building nine Jewish communities out of nothing, with about 500 people in each, about 150,000 Bedouin live in the unrecognized communities. The single Bedouin community approved by the government isn’t a new one like the nine Jewish communities, it’s only an unrecognized village being recognized. There are at least another 10 to 15 similar unrecognized villages. Even though the government ignores them, they’re there.

The state’s few efforts to settle the Bedouin, the four new communities that were offered to them, all came with a draconian condition: a minimum of 500 families; that is, about 3,000 to 5,000 people in each community and a maximum of 2,000 to 3,000 dunams.

While the Jews are receiving luxury communities of private houses for a maximum of 500 people, or agricultural communities with a similar number of people and about 10,000 dunams of agricultural land, the Bedouin must crowd into communities of thousands of people with almost no agricultural land.

Discrimination? A different land policy for Jews and Bedouin? Every answer is correct, and with it the explanation for why Israel is unable to solve the problem of the unrecognized Bedouin villages. Why should the problem be solved when the offers to the Bedouin raise a stench of discrimination?

Awaiting an ultra-Orthodox city with woes

If there was any chance of finding a proper solution to settle the Negev Bedouin, the decision to build Kasif changed the game.

Kasif was supposed to be a Bedouin city, a solution for all the unrecognized villages of the eastern Negev that must be evacuated. After all, Bedouin currently live near the Sde Barir phosphate mine, in army firing zones and on land of the Nevatim air force base. About 20,000 Bedouin will have to move from these places.

But the state is instead bringing in ultra-Orthodox Jews despite the distance from all sources of employment, which will definitely turn Kasif into a Haredi ghetto of the unemployed – and eliminate the option of developing the mine or solving the problem at Nevatim.

A man on horseback looking down on unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

These facts were placed before the government: either Kasif or Sde Barir, either Haredim who could also live near Kiryat Gat in the south or 20,000 Bedouin who have no other place to live.

Well, there was another place, Ramat Arad, the place where they’re building four new Jewish communities, with admission committees that will ensure that not a single Bedouin (or Jew from the wrong ethnic group) is accepted.

So you build nine new Jewish communities, sweep 150,000 Bedouin under the rug, and then you’re surprised about chaos in the Negev and Route 25 needing protection.

The Agriculture Ministry replied: “As a rule, agricultural land is allocated by the Israel Land Authority to agricultural communities in the form of plots based on the recommendation of the agriculture minister.

“According to our data, the cultivated area in the southern region is about 1,275,000 dunams. According to estimates, there are about 200,000 dunams of unregulated agricultural land in the areas of Bedouin settlement in the Negev. Water for agriculture is allocated based on regulations that set a water quota according to regions.

“The regulations also spell out the conditions for receiving an allocation at an agricultural rate, including a connection to the land and the keeping of accounts.”

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