Hundreds protested in front of the offices of the Bedouin Development Agency in Be’er Sheva on Thursday, calling for the authority’s closure and an end to the policy of demolishing buildings in Bedouin communities in the Negev.
The protesters called for the recognition of unauthorized Bedouin communities and called home demolitions “a crime against citizens.”
Relations between the authority and Bedouin residents have grown increasingly tense over issues such as the forestation of areas the Bedouin claim ownership of, and the failed negotiations over the status of lands in the town of Bir Hadaj.
Negotiations to legalize Bir Hadaj, officially recognized as a town in 2003, have been deadlocked; the Bedouin town has some 2,000 residents. A few months ago, Bedouin Development Authority Director Yair Maayan said the families who arrived in Bir Hadaj in the 1990s had been offered 5-dunam (1.25 acre) plots of land, while those who arrived later were offered plots half the size.
However, Maayan subsequently said the offer was no longer on the table because residents had not responded to it.
The state has also begun reforestation north of the Bedouin town of Tel Sheva, just outside of Be’er Sheva – which the Bedouin say is their property. The state is reportedly planting forests in a number of locations around the Negev in order to prevent illegal Bedouin communities from taking over the land.
The demonstrators are also protesting the very existence of the Bedouin Development Authority. They say the authority, which serves as the liaison between government ministries and local governments, is a discriminatory organization and has a paternalistic attitude toward the Bedouin.
The authority is responsible for the planning of Bedouin communities and policies concerning construction in the towns.
Negotiations between the residents of Umm al-Hiran and the authority also failed in January, leading to an incident in which police officers who came to the town to protect forces carrying out demolitions ended up fatally shooting a local resident, Yakub Abu al-Kiyan. After he was shot while driving, Kiyan’s car ran over and killed a police officer, Sgt. Erez Levi.
The demolition policy has gathered speed in recent years. Data from the Public Security Ministry shows that about 1,000 illegal structures are demolished every year, many of them just tin shacks.
The authority has received a budget of some 1 billion shekels ($280 million) for developing construction land in Bedouin communities since Maayan assumed the post a year ago. The authority has plans to develop 25,000 plots for construction over the next five years, of which about 3,500 have been sold so far, said Maayan.
The Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry has abandoned its former policy of trying to legalize unrecognized Bedouin villages, and instead is now focusing on finding solutions for recognized towns with a housing shortage – and not on property ownership, said Maayan.