The new five-year plan for the socioeconomic development of the Negev Bedouin, the brainchild of Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, has been marketed for months as wonderful news for the region. It’s marked by an investment of 3 billion shekels ($787 million) to advance the country’s most neglected people, even within Arab society. It could have been really impressive news if the huge sums didn’t conceal other intentions.
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After all, “the biggest ever plan of its kind,” as it has been dubbed in the media, stirs a lot of suspicion among many people. Their main suspicion concerns the target population: 100,000 people living in 35 unrecognized locales – 40 percent of the Negev Bedouin. They’re suspicious because the five-year plan will apply only to the recognized locales and doesn’t refer to the tens of thousands of people living in unrecognized villages. Why invest billions of shekels in half the community and ignore the other half?
In general, the decision to dedicate a plan to the Negev Bedouin is peculiar because they could have been included in Plan 992, which allocates budgets to Arab local councils as a whole. Equally peculiar is the decision to make the agriculture minister the intermediary between the ministries responsible for the budgets and the local councils in the Negev.
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Putting all authority into the minister’s hands makes him all-powerful in his relationship with the Arab councils in the Negev and worsens the suspicion that he’ll exploit his authority against the people of both the recognized and unrecognized locales. Moreover, the current five-year plan makes the investment in the Bedouin community contingent on its relocating to recognized towns. The direction is clear: forcing planning solutions on the Arab community as a whole and on the Bedouin in particular.
To better understand the government’s intentions, we must examine the five-year plan in the context of other statements by the Agriculture Ministry. For example, the ministry has announced a plan to build 25,000 housing units in recognized locales, funded by the five-year plan. It has also declared it would push new legislation based on the 2013 Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, known as the Prawer Plan.
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Have they forgotten that the Prawer Plan ignited one of the biggest protest waves in Bedouin society in recent years? Have they forgotten that the government shelved that proposal because of the huge opposition? Now once again there’s the threat that the bill will pass in the Knesset. Do they believe that this time it will happen quietly?
Still, there are some welcome elements; for example, the expected investment in education, employment and infrastructure. (Though it’s doubtful these sums will narrow the huge gaps between the Bedouin and other Israelis that the government created and deepened over decades.)
All the same, it’s impossible to ignore that this large investment is being made amid tremendous efforts to empty the Negev of Bedouin. As the government boasts about the passage of the five-year plan, it fights the residents of the unrecognized villages in the courts and every other possible arena. The state is still denying their right to the land, their planning needs, their economic and social woes, their way of life and the need to find a just and agreed-on solution to their problems.
Any initiative that will make development of the locales contingent on depopulating and razing the unrecognized villages will produce a failed solution and further worsen the Arab community’s feelings toward the state. The policy of “imposed solutions” worsens the oppression felt by the women and men living in the Negev who have already seen a number of committees determine their fate and draw conclusions divorced from suitable solutions. Amid these failures, the state might have been expected to draw conclusions that would lead to cooperation with Arab society and agreed-on, implementable plans.
Just last week tens of thousands of Arabs protested the massive demolition of homes in Kalansua near Netanya, and now the government is gearing up to approve a plan with the concealed aim of depopulating the unrecognized villages. It’s clear that this program will lead to the destruction of entire villages in the Negev.
There will be no socioeconomic development for the Bedouin as long as the state imposes solutions on which there is no agreement and, more importantly, as long as it sees the Bedouin as trespassers. Any measure that ignores the existence of the Negev’s unrecognized inhabitants is doomed to failure.
Sanaa Ibn Bari is an attorney at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.