JERUSALEM — As Israel approved minor changes Sunday to a plan that is expected to forcibly displace tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens, local residents and human rights groups worry that vague language, a lack of transparency and inequalities in planning procedures will soon lead to serious violations of Bedouin rights.
“The Begin Plan seeks to restrict the Bedouin to a specific area and to implement this policy forcefully,” said Rawia Abu Rabia, an attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
“If it is carried out in its current format, such steps will uproot dozens of villages and displace tens of thousands of Bedouin residents, dispossessing them from their property and historical right to their lands.”
Israeli Minister Benny Begin presented his revisions to Israel’s “Law for the Regulation of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev” on Sunday, after months of public consultations with Bedouin citizens and organizations at the behest of the Israeli government.
These revisions were made to a previous Israeli government proposal known as the “Prawer Plan.”
Passed almost unanimously by the Israeli Cabinet, Begin recommended recognizing Bedouin villages “as much as possible” in the Negev. The changes, according to the government, will also allow Bedouin to apply to receive compensation for land in the entire Negev region — as opposed to only in certain areas, as was previously proposed — within a five-year claims period.
The plan also reportedly “significantly strengthens enforcement authorities in the field.
Criticism across the political spectrum
According to Abu Rabia, Begin’s changes remain vague and cosmetic, at best. For example, which Bedouin villages, and exactly how many residents, will be evicted remains unspecified. Estimates range from 30 to 70 thousand Bedouin citizens being displaced
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the revised plan on Sunday, however.
“The goal of this historic decision is to put an end to the spread of illegal building by Negev Bedouin and lead to the better integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society,” he said in a statement.
“All governments avoided dealing with this issue, but this brave decision will facilitate the continued development and prosperity of the Negev, for the benefit of all its residents,” Netanyahu continued.
Despite these assurances, right-wing groups also condemned Begin’s changes, arguing that it offers too much to the Bedouin at the expense of the state’s Jewish citizens.
Right-wing Israeli group Regavim unsuccessfully petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to delay voting on the changes until the newly elected Israeli government is set up next month.
According to pro-settler Israeli news website Arutz Sheva, a Regavim spokesperson said, “the government tried to hide the fact that the decision awards an extra 50,000 dunams of land to the Bedouin, and will greatly compromise the ability of the state to administer the Negev.”
Bedouin communities neglected
Today, some 200,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel currently live in the Negev, the country’s southern desert region, where they constitute approximately 30% of the area’s total population.
About half the Bedouin community lives in 35 so-called “unrecognized” villages. Israel considers these communities illegal, despite the fact that many have existed since before the foundation of the state in 1948. The villages do not appear on official maps and lack basic services like water, paved roads and electricity.
The other half of the Negev Bedouin lives in government-planned townships. These towns lack basic infrastructure, transportation, school and health facilities, and suffer from widespread unemployment, poverty and high rates of violence. Israel’s Bedouin townships annually rank in the lowest socioeconomic bracket in the country.
After pursuing a policy of Bedouin urbanization for decades, Israel appointed former Supreme Court judge Eliezer Goldberg to look into “Bedouin settlement” issues in the Negev in 2008. In his report, Goldberg suggested that the state legalize most of the unrecognized Bedouin villages and treat the Bedouin as equal citizens.
Shortly thereafter, a new committee — headed by Ehud Prawer, Director of Planning Policy in the Prime Minister’s office — was formed to implement Goldberg’s findings. The Prawer Plan, as it became known, suggested forcibly evicting 40% of the Bedouin community — at least 30,000 people — from their homes and placing them in urban townships.
The Israeli Cabinet approved the Prawer Plan in its original form in September 2011, and in January 2012, approved the “Law for the Regulation of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev” to implement it.
This law — which will now incorporate Minister Begin’s recommendations — is expected to advance to the Knesset for approval when the new Israeli government takes office in February.
Recognition 'most practical solution'
Currently, unrecognized Bedouin villages cover only 2.7% of the total land in the Negev; together, all the Bedouin communities in the Negev account for five percent of the area.
“The only development policy which will work in the Naqab is the policy which will include the recognition of all the unrecognized villages [that] meet the official criteria,” said Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, the director of the Naqab (Negev) office of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
He explained that to be recognized as a village in Israel, a community must have at least 300 residents, or 40 families. Most Bedouin villages in the Negev meet this requirement.
“I believe the state is gearing toward clashes and violence with its Bedouin citizens. It is the right time to ask Netanyahu, the future prime minister, to stop the plan and open a dialogue with the Bedouin,” Abu Ras said.
According to Israeli professor Oren Yiftachel, while Begin’s recommendations provide minor improvements to the original Prawer Plan, the Israeli legislation — which would designate land the Bedouin claim as part of their ancestral territory as state land — remains problematic.
“The government has chosen a mixed-bag, half-and-half solution. The whole thing is a big question mark,” Yiftachel explained. “[The law] will be opposed by most of the Bedouin because there is no justification, no legal backing and no need to nationalize the land in order to recognize the localities.”
Yiftachel helped formulate an alternative master plan for the unrecognized Bedouin villages in September 2011 in coordination with the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages and Israeli urban planning group Bimkom.
This alternative plan pushes for legalizing all the unrecognized Bedouin communities in the Negev, since they meet the state’s criteria for recognition.
“Our plan is still not only the most just, but it’s the most practical solution,” Yiftachel said. “To recognize all the villages and all the claims, subject to the claims being genuine, is better not only for the Bedouin, but also for the proper, rational and sound development of the Negev [and] for the Jews as well.”
Jillian Kestler-D'Amours is a Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. She is a regular contributor to Inter Press Service news agency, Al Jazeera English and Free Speech Radio News. Follow her on Twitter: @jilldamours.