A NIS 3 billion government plan aims to treat Beduin as citizens with equal rights and to better the status of Negev Beduin townships after years of neglect by the state, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
But Beduin rights activists say its implementation would displace a large number of Beduin from their ancestral lands, in violation of international law.
The five-year plan, known as Homesh, is intended by the government to be a major step toward relocating more than 60,000 Beduin from some 40 unrecognized villages and what the state says are 1,690 “accumulations” of habitations that it considers illegal to nine townships.
“We want to finish with all the dispersion within eight years,” Ariel said.
The plan is based on offering housing and better conditions in the townships, on the one hand, while heightening enforcement, namely the threat and reality of house demolitions, on the other, Ariel indicated.
“There is zero tolerance for illegal housing. The days of the wild South when everyone grabs what he wants are over.”
Ariel said that the townships today are all in the lowest category in terms of their socioeconomic situation. We want to close the gaps and have Beduin children grow up like mine and yours with equal rights.”
According to the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Negev Beduin, which is part of the Agriculture Ministry, infant mortality among the Negev Beduin is three times as high as in Jewish communities, while life expectancy is eight years lower.
There is a 35% school dropout rate, and only 30% of children aged between three and four have an educational framework.
Average income is one-third of nearby Jewish communities, and the township’s municipalities lack infrastructure and lag way behind in providing basic services.
The plan will focus on education, employment, infrastructure and strengthening local authorities, the authority said. Ariel has put a lot of emphasis into the development of industrial zones, with one of them in Rahat offering unprecedented work opportunities for Beduin women, he said.
“We are going to build up the industrial zones in a substantial way,” he said.
Plans call for 35,000 housing units to be built in the townships. Many of those are intended for people currently residing in habitations considered illegal and in “the dispersion.”
Ariel said the idea is to show people from “the dispersion” that they have a lot to which they can move, that there is a school and a health clinic, and that all basic needs can be met. He calls this “the points of attraction.”
At the same time, there is the threat of demolition if the resident of “the dispersion” does not move.
“We show the person a place and push hard so that there will be a solution” in the township. “We show them what we have to offer – and there is what to offer: a house where the children don’t get electrocuted; a house without disasters, and not one without water and electricity; a fixed place.”
Ariel continued: “There is never a situation where we tell them to go and they have nowhere to go to. We know that you can’t tell a person to go and you destroy his home, without his having a place to go to. Then he will go set his tent up on the next hill. What we do is say there is a lot in this area that you can go to.”
Ariel was clear that the unrecognized villages, which Beduin rights activists say in some cases existed before 1948, would be considered illegal. “What is legal is what the state has recognized. They can call it whatever they want,” he said.
Ariel said he tells the Beduin he is not doing them any favors by improving conditions.
“I’m obliged to give them everything I give any Israeli citizen – roads, water, electricity, schools, clubs, cleanliness. What you get in Jerusalem they deserve to get in Rahat. The problem is that over the years they didn’t receive it. Why? I don’t want to speak of the past. But they have to be equal citizens. What you deserve, they deserve.
“But it’s not just rights. There has to be equality in obligations, obligations to obey the law. I drive at 80 [kph], you drive at 80 [kph]; they have to drive at 80 [kph]. I build according to municipal plan; they have to also. There is no other way.”
Asked why it would be necessary to relocate so many people, when there are vast empty spaces in the Negev, Ariel replied: “There is a law of planning and building that defines where you can live and what you need to get a building license. It’s a law that applies to me, you and the Beduin. All must be equal before the law. They can’t violate the law and have the state say I didn’t see it.”
Sana Ibn Bari, who handles Beduin rights for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said of Ariel’s plans: “Since the 1970s the government has been promoting the townships as if they solve everything, while failing to recognize its role in this poor, undeveloped model. Now it wants to put the residents of the unrecognized villages in the townships. It will make things even worse there.
“The Beduin population does not want to move to townships. They have been fighting to stay on their ancestral lands and they won’t give that connection up. It is illegal under international law to displace an entire community.”