The Bedouin Are Not Israel's Enemy

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Participants in the march for Bedouin rights walk pass the Knesset, March 29, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

The “awakening march” conducted by Knesset members from the Joint List headed by Ayman Odeh from the unrecognized villages in the Negev to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem must not end in a still, small voice. The dozens of unrecognized villages that are home to some 60,000 Bedouin are a Mark of Cain on a state that prides itself on its democratic nature and equal rights for all citizens.

Since its establishment, Israel has forged an alliance with the Bedouin community, whose young men serve in the Israel Defense Forces and die in the defense of their state. But even were it not for their military service, the Bedouin deserve to enjoy the rights conferred by citizenship, including the right to water, education, health care and housing. Most of these rights are withheld from the inhabitants of the scattered Bedouin habitation clusters, on the grounds that they are illegally squatting on state land and cannot have basic services until their habitation status is sorted out.

On the face of it, the state is right in demanding the regularization of the Bedouin settlement, so that they can benefit from regular community services. The state claims it is difficult to reach agreements with the scattered Bedouin, due to disputes within the community over property ownership, their rejection of proposals for compensation and their desire to maintain their traditional way of life, which is very different from an urban lifestyle. But all this cannot excuse the neglect of the citizens living in unrecognized communities and the racist paternalism toward them.

Many state-appointed panels have deliberated at length, in an effort to solve the problem. The latest proposal was drafted by Ehud Prawer, amended slightly by a team headed by Benny Begin and approved by the Knesset in a first reading in 2013. This bill met with overwhelming resistance from the Bedouin as well as civil rights organizations, mainly because it does not recognize Bedouin land ownership and rests entirely on the principle of going “beyond the letter of the law.” In addition, the practical implication of the bill is the forced displacement of tens of thousands of Bedouin, without fair compensation.

These proposals are influenced by unacceptable, ultranationalist political thinking, which views the Bedouin as invaders seeking to seize control of the Negev and holds that the state must fence off their living space, by force if necessary. The government must reexamine the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, taking into consideration the historical rights of this population. It must recognize these rights, consider the proposals of the Joint List and above all, replace the attitude viewing the Bedouin as a hostile population with one that welcomes them into Israeli society.

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