Analysis |

Israel's Far-right Minister’s Brave pro-Bedouin Revolution

10 billion shekel plan by Uri Ariel, in conjunction with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, calls for 25,000 housing units on state land to be given away – and that’s just for starters.

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Children from the unrecognized Bedouin town of Alsra, in the Negev.
Children from the unrecognized Bedouin town of Alsra, in the Negev.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The last two weeks have not been easy for Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel. The drone incident – in which Ariel spontaneously gifted Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev a drone belonging to the Volcani Institute – cast a shadow over his image and turned him into a laughingstock in the media and on social networks.

Everyone is taking it in turns to kick Ariel and portray him in a ridiculous light. Except this does a big injustice to someone who should be lauded as one of the bravest ministers in the current government.

If Ariel’s plans flesh out, we will probably be indebted to him for changing the face of Israel for generations to come. In conjunction with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the agriculture minister is making bold decisions that are liable to draw much criticism. This time, though, the criticism will not be of the mocking variety, but rather based on extreme ideology coming from the heart of the population with which Ariel most identifies – the extreme right.

Ariel, with Kahlon’s surprising support, is championing a five-year plan to develop the Bedouin community in Israel. The ambitious program would cost 3 billion shekels ($778 million) a year from the state budget and another 10 billion shekels from the Israel Land Authority, in an attempt to once and for all settle the Bedouin land dispute.

Over the past five years, the Netanyahu government has twice tried to resolve Bedouin land ownership claims – and failed both times. Both rightists and the Bedouin community scornfully rejected the Prawer Plan, which aimed to relocate nearly 30,000 Bedouin to recognized communities in the Negev. Consequently, former minister Benny Begin formulated an alternative plan that improved on Prawer and recognized Bedouin land ownership lawsuits.

However, this plan failed, too. This time, extremists in Likud torpedoed Begin’s bill. (Ariel, by the way, was among the plan’s opponents.) Begin – normally a moderate and pleasant man – called the dissenters “misery profiteers, cynics, pyromaniacs and primary cowards.”

Those same misery profiteers are likely to pounce once more in the wake of Ariel’s plan, which is much bolder than simply reaching a compromise with the Bedouin to settle their land claims.

He would bypass the lawsuits, stop the negotiations over which claims the state will recognize and how much compensation it will pay, and instead offer a comprehensive land solution in which the state would provide lands at its own expense.

Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel meeting Bedouin parents at a high school in Hura, January 2015.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Bedouin Development Authority’s new plan involves building no fewer than 25,000 housing units for the Bedouin community over the next five years. All of them will be built on state lands and transferred to the Bedouin, either at a deep discount (to residents of the recognized Bedouin towns) or for free (to Bedouin living on lands not recognized as legal by the state).

5,000 units a year

The comprehensive plan calls for state approval for the Bedouin to build 120,000 housing units – equivalent to all the construction in Israel over a two-year period. Five thousand units will be constructed every year during the first five-year stage, 12 times the current rate of legally built homes in the Bedouin community.

The projected cost of all this is 10 billion shekels, with 5 billion coming from the Israel Land Authority (for developing and releasing its lands), and the remainder from payments made by Bedouin living in recognized towns to cover the remainder of the cost of development and construction of the housing units themselves.

One billion shekels has been set aside in the 2017-2018 budget, but the more the Bedouin Development Authority can increase the number of planned units (up to 25,000), the more the budget will increase.

These housing units will be built in 10 Bedouin towns – outlying towns that were supposed to be legalized but weren’t because of the dispute over ownership claims.

Ariel’s main decision has been to stop holding the Bedouin hostage to settling their ownership claims, and simply promoting development of Bedouin society and its communities, at the state’s expense.

Bedouin Development Authority officials believe that massive building would provide a housing solution for about half the residents of outlying Bedouin areas: 30,000 to 40,000 out of 80,000 living in unrecognized villages. They are also promising retroactive building permits for between 10,000 to 30,000 illegal units out of the 70,000-odd homes the Bedouin built in the region. The state hopes the Bedouin will demolish their ramshackle tin shacks following the plan, and instead build a legal structure with proper links to infrastructure and government services.

The government hopes that through these moves it will regain the faith of Bedouin society, which has been alienated after decades of bitter land disputes and criminal neglect by the state.

Bedouin villages fill the bottom ranks on Israel’s socioeconomic scale, according to Central Bureau of Statistics data – lower than both the ultra-Orthodox community and other Israeli Arabs. The statistics are horrifying: unemployment rates running at 38%; a high school dropout rate of 40%, and only 2% sitting the highest-level math matriculation exam.

Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel (center) visiting a Bedouin school in Hura in 2015. High school dropout rates among Bedouin are 40%.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Bedouin society is so depressed that its tin shacks being cut off from water, electricity and sewage is just the beginning of its woes. It is the reason that, alongside the building push, Ariel and Kahlon are promoting a special five-year, 3-billion-shekel socioeconomic plan (which is as well as the separate five-year plan for Israeli-Arab society).

About half that sum would come at the expense of the Israeli Arab plan, for which 9.5 billion shekels have been allocated, and the other half would be budgeted separately. The plan includes 300 million shekels for building classrooms; 150 million shekels for preventing Bedouin youth from dropping out of school; 100 million shekels for building public facilities; 50 million shekels for building commercial centers and small places of employment within the towns (in order for Bedouin women to be able to work without leaving their towns); 60 million shekels for scholarships to institutions of higher education; 75 million shekels for buttressing the welfare system; an undefined sum for establishing a Bedouin academic college (which still requires approval by the Council for Higher Education), that would allow the Bedouin to study in Israel rather than Hebron; and 500 million shekels for strengthening the local Bedouin authorities.

The final sum will reflect the planned change in the balance of Bedouin communities, and would also include recognizing the Bedouin living in the unrecognized communities, as well as the state taking a more active role with the Bedouin authorities.

The goal is to allow the authorities to improve services to residents. Currently, residents of the Bedouin towns barely receive any services from their local authority, which helps explain the lack of faith and lack of desire among the Bedouin to abandon the unrecognized villages and move into authorized towns.

Ethiopian standards of service

The misery profiteers are likely to voice their disapproval of these sums. However, it is hard to discern a good reason for them to complain. The demands that Likud ministers habitually raise as a condition for the allocation of funds to Arab society in general, and the Bedouin in particular, are not a problem in this instance. The call to regulate illegal construction is part of the plan, and demands to volunteer for national service and increase police enforcement in the communities are also welcomed within Bedouin society.

It is reasonable to assume that the misery profiteers will still find a new excuse to fight this bold plan. But the intense distress of Bedouin society cannot leave anyone indifferent. Even a right-wing extremist like Ariel, who fought with all his might against Begin’s plan, changed his mind when he was exposed to the depth of neglect that spreads across Bedouin society.

The time has come for the misery profiteers to tour the scattered Bedouin communities, too. Then they might recognize that a population group that lives within Israel’s borders – but enjoys the level of service offered in Ethiopia – is a blemish we can no longer ignore.

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