Israel's Plan for the Bedouin: Land Grab or Historic Opportunity?

Negev Bedouin should look at the benefits of the Prawer-Begin plan.

During the 1950s, as the newly independent State of Israel was establishing itself, the state carried out massive evacuations of Arab villages, expropriating their lands and gathering their inhabitants into larger Arab communities. In some cases, 90% of a village's territory was expropriated, all for the purpose of creating Jewish communities to "Judaize" the Galilee in the north and to expand Jewish settlement in the western Negev.

For most Israeli Jews, these historical events are long-forgotten faits accompli, but for Israel's Arab citizens they are a still-bleeding wound. The response to anyone who challenges Israel's Arab intelligentsia over their resistance to national service will be: “We’ve contributed much more to the state than any Jew, all our land was taken from us.”

Even 60 years later the national conflict between Arabs and Jews continues to simmer under the surface, most notably in the struggle for control over land. This can be seen in the fact that only four of the 91 local planning and building committees that serve specific communities are in Arab communities. The state no longer expropriates Arab lands, and it tries not to drive Arabs from their villages, but it still makes sure to retain control over national land and not, heaven forbid, permit it to fall into Arab hands.

This is the background for the demonstrations Saturday night in Haifa, Jaffa and the Negev against the plan to evacuate unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev - mistakenly called the Prawer plan, which was superseded by the Begin plan. Involving as it does the forced removal of Bedouin from their homes and a massive reordering of the land of the Negev Bedouin, this ambitious proposal contains all the ingredients that could easily deteriorate into a rerun of the first Land Day, held in 1976 to mark the loss of Arab lands in the Galilee.

As in the 1950s, the state is again evicting Arabs from their homes in order to concentrate them in larger, more densely populated villages. Once again there are accusations of wholesale land expropriations, as the state rejects the ownership claims of 3,000 Bedouin, based as they are on the argument that “We’ve always lived here.”

But this isn't the 1950s, and not only because the state's legal arguments have become much more sophisticated. The Bedouin claims aren’t recognized because they lack land titles; the state argues that it is accommodating them “beyond the letter of the law.”

It's not the '50s mainly because the Begin plan, despite the destruction of villages, the forced relocations and the rejection of some of the Bedouin land ownership claims, nonetheless offers many benefits for the Bedouin, mainly because it goes along with a program for developing and upgrading Bedouin communities in the Negev.

Israel’s most disadvantaged community

This benevolence can be doubted, of course. Anyone who has been to any of the recognized Bedouin villages in the Negev could argue that it's a stretch to call them "communities." They, too, are just clusters of shacks scattered over the desert, with little in the way of roads or infrastructure for water, electricity, sewage or communications. In fact, about the only difference between the "recognized" shantytowns and the unrecognized ones is that the former boast a center, consisting of a single street with a clinic, a school and sometimes a community center.

Around 210,000 Bedouin live in the Negev. They are undoubtedly Israel’s weakest, poorest, most wretched and marginalized population group. About 120,000 live in recognized communities, whether in relatively organized towns such as Rahat or in those clusters of ramshackle huts. The remaining 80,000 live in Third-World shacks scattered around the Negev. All Israeli Bedouin communities are dead last on the socioeconomic ladder, centers of poverty, neglect and crime.

In this light, the suspicion of the Bedouin toward government proposals is understandable. They can't understand why the state is only now offering to develop their communities in the Negev, and why the proposal is being linked to their claims on the land.

Give the plan a chance

Nevertheless, the plan does constitute an invaluable opportunity. The state’s willingness to spend significant amounts to develop Bedouin communities, in exchange for settling the land dispute, should not be rejected out of hand. The state is committed to spending NIS 2.5 billion to on improvements to the new, or newly expanded, Bedouin communities, including for the construction of industrial parks that will provide jobs.

Moreover, the plan offers an entree to genuine change. The fight over land claims has in effect blocked the development of Bedouin communities. Government unwillingness to build roads is not the only reason for their paucity in the recognized Bedouin villages. Competing land ownership claims - dozens, if not hundreds of them - make zoning and development impossible. Solving this issue will sweep away a substantive restraint to development in this communities.

Then there's the relocation issue. While it may sound like a repeat of the “internal deportations" of the 1950s, but in fact the state can plausibly argue that it’s a necessary step toward providing the Bedouin with decent communities.

“We can't lay thousands of kilometers of pipes to reach every group of shacks in the middle of the desert,” explains former minister without portfolio Benny Begin, who is still promoting the legislation in the Knesset on behalf of the government. “If we want to improve the situation of the Bedouin, we must concentrate them in reasonably-sized communities, big enough to have a school and with everyone within walking distance so that even the youngest children can attend.” Begin was hinting at one of the plan's major conditions, that small communities be evacuated and only larger ones receive official recognition.

Begin held a comprehensive public hearing for the Bedouin after the Prawer plan was published, and afterward introduced two major changes. These were 100% compensation for every recognized ownership claim (instead of 50% under the Prawer plan), and the recognition of ownership claims made by Bedouin who were removed from the western Negev in the evacuations of the 1950s.

Right-wing figures accused Begin of handing thousands of dunams of land to the Bedouin as a gift in the total absence of legal support for their claims. Many believe this opposition prevented Begin from being reelected in the last election.

At the same time, many Bedouin oppose even the amended proposal because it still calls for relocated around 30,000 Bedouin from villages considered too small. In addition, many existing homes in recognized communities slated to absorb new residents will have to be razed and rebuilt to accommodate higher population density.

A house for every Bedouin

Begin points out that only 15% of Negev Bedouin lay claim to land, and says the 85% who don’t will benefit from the right, stipulated in the plan, to have their own homes in either a newly or already recognized community. That, in addition to the massive state spending that is envisioned.

In other words, the plan promises a major boost to the standard of living and quality of life of Negev Bedouin, if the stumbling block in the form of ownership claims can be removed. Just 2% of the Bedouin are responsible for half of these claims, by the way.

So is the Begin plan merely a clever, tarted up version of the expulsions and expropriations of the 1950s? Presumably it is not, and in any event it probably doesn't much matter. Israel's Bedouin population is in such wretched shape that such an historic opportunity mustn’t be missed. Perhaps poetic justice will not be realized, but in terms of their daily life this could be the breakthrough the community so desperately needs.

Reuters