In Israel, Democracy Is Delayed for Bedouin

It is hard to break free from the idea that there are those in the Interior Ministry who don't want there to be elections in Abu Basma.

Last week, 27 local authorities held elections; it was democracy in action. Only in one regional council did the Interior Ministry cancel the basic right to choose and be chosen: the Abu Basma council in the northern Negev, which is run by Jewish officials, as it has been since its establishment a decade ago - even though the council governs a population consisting entirely of Bedouin residents.

This is not the first time the elections in Abu Basma have been canceled, but as opposed to previous times, this year the decision was made only a month and a half before the date of the election. It is hard to break free from the idea that there are those in the Interior Ministry who don't want there to be elections in Abu Basma.

The election that was supposed to take place last week in Abu Basma was forced on the Interior Ministry by a High Court of Justice ruling almost two years ago, in a suit filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Adalah legal advocacy group for Arabs in Israel. "Only an extreme and exceptional event would justify another postponement," wrote the president of the Supreme Court at the time, Dorit Beinisch.

But no such exceptional event has occurred since then, except for a cabinet decision to promote the implementation of the Prawer report advocating the relocation of tens of thousands of Bedouin from unrecognized villages into existing towns recognized by the state, a plan to which many representatives of the Bedouin community and various advocacy groups object. It can be assumed that an elected Bedouin leadership in Abu Basma would treat the report rather differently than the appointed government officials do.

The Interior Ministry's decision to cancel the election in Abu Basma - and the machinations here leave no doubt that it is, but of course, nothing more than the apolitical move its proponents claim it is - is based on an interim report by the inquiry committee on setting municipal borders, headed by Eran Razin, an associate professor of geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The committee recommended in August that the Abu Basma council be divided into two smaller appointed councils, a move that circumvents the need for an election for another four years.

The report states that "the possibility of a split" had been raised at the time the Abu Basma regional council was first established, but, in what appears to be a glimmer of honesty, the report asks: "Why was it not done at an earlier stage and why was the matter transferred to the examination of the borders committee only a few months before the date set in the High Court of Justice ruling for elections?" The report offers a response of sorts to its own question, saying: "We cannot answer that."

The Interior Ministry quickly adopted the recommendation to split the council and defer the election. In a survey of the objections to holding the election that were raised in the committee sessions, the report makes such claims as: "In a Bedouin regional council it is expected that those elected will in the main advance the interests of their own communities and the tribes they belong to." Also, the report states: "An elected council will find it difficult to raise funds from the central government." It is worth taking a moment to process these statements. Do the heads of Jewish local authorities not advance the interests of their own communities? Is that not the basic principle behind municipal elections? And if the difficulty of securing funds from the central government is a function of the community's ethnicity, why exactly do Jewish towns have such a hard time?

Razin's committee is still operating, but it has already completed its primary task: guaranteeing the continuation of the Jewish governance of Abu Basma for a few more years. In September, Thabet Abu Ras, the head of Adalah's branch in the Negev, appeared before the committee, where he criticized the timing of the decision to split the council. "Some of the things you have said, how can I put it, I understand you," Razin told Abu Ras during the meeting.

"But we do not live in a utopian world, and to come and bang your head against the wall will not bring us to any positive result. The committee appointed by a government ministry will not put out a protest document that completely negates state policy," said Razin, referring to the election deferral. "Don't expect that from us."

In this so-called apolitical world, the Bedouin are left with no recourse but to bang their heads against the wall.