In a stark desert valley just northwest of the city of Dimona in the central
Negev lies the Bedouin village of Qasr a-Sir. It is typical of the scores of
Bedouin settlements scattered throughout the Negev: a sprawling jumble of tin
shacks, cinderblock structures, livestock pens, leantos and refuse dumps. An
urban planner’s nightmare.
It is a common scene throughout the
What was once a striking desert landscape has become an eyesore.
The cause: a lack of planning and infrastructure for the 190,000 Bedouin Arabs
who live in the area.
Roughly half of the Negev Bedouin live in eight
government-built towns and 12 recognized villages. The other half live in
“unrecognized villages” or, as the Israeli authorities refer to them, the
These unrecognized communities, which range from
tiny clusters of tents to ramshackle villages of cinder blocks and tin roofs,
occupy about five percent of the Negev’s three million acres. Not acknowledged
by any authority, their residents have no rights to municipal services, such as
running water, electricity, sewage or garbage collection. Since they do not
officially exist, the authorities have refused to draw up the statutory plans
necessary for legal development, so anything constructed there is illegal and
subject to demolition. Thousands of homes have been destroyed over the years,
only to be rebuilt.
The result is widespread poverty and social neglect,
polygamy, inadequate education, an extremely high birthrate, rampant crime that
includes smuggling, trafficking and car theft, and a profound resentment and
distrust of the state.
But most of the residents refuse to move,
demanding title to the land they claim their ancestors have inhabited for
“I don’t know how to square this third-world reality with
our modern start-up nation state,” says Zvi Hacohen, Rector of Ben-Gurion
University in Beersheba, capital of the Negev.
“We can’t move forward
when half the population is being left behind. If we don’t right these
injustices they will blow up in our faces.”
Now, after decades
of neglect, scores of committees and mountains of plans, the Knesset will soon
be asked to approve a new draft law that aims to resolve the long-simmering
problem and address the decades-long debate over Bedouin land ownership claims.
The “Plan for the regularization of Bedouin settlements in the Negev,” approved
by the Cabinet in September 2011 and officially adopted as a draft law by a
special committee of the Prime Minister’s Office in March, will be debated in
the Knesset after the summer recess.
The draft bill will enshrine as law
a plan that proposes the relocation of up to 40,000 people, two-thirds of the
rural Bedouin population, from unrecognized communities and moving them into
existing villages and towns, offering financial compensation for those who lose
their homes. The government claims that the proposed legislation, drafted by a
committee headed by Ehud Prawer, head of the policy planning division in the
Prime Minister’s Office, will “develop the Negev and help bring economic
development, infrastructure and educational systems to the Bedouin
Critics, including human-rights groups and virtually the
entire Bedouin community, have rejected the Prawer plan outright.
checkered history of the State’s relationship to its Bedouin citizens has
spawned alienation and rage. Since September there have been more than a dozen
protest demonstrations against the proposed law and frustration is
“All it takes is one mistake, hundreds of troops descending on a
village, someone accidentally shooting a child, and the match will be lit that
will become a conflagration,” warns Eli Atzmon, a planning expert who advises
Qasr a-Sir (“Palace of
Mystery”), traditional home of the al-Hawashla tribe, differs from most Bedouin
villages in the Negev. It is recognized by the government, one of 12 Bedouin
communities officially proclaimed as villages in 2003 under a novel scheme to
move the residents from unauthorized clusters into tribally homogeneous towns
under the umbrella of the newly-formed Abu Basma Regional Council. The council
provides incentives for people to move into proper villages by providing public
buildings, roads, water, waste disposal, electricity and other municipal
services. In the center of Qasr a-Sir there are three brand new school
buildings, a community center, administrative center and a health clinic,
grouped together in the only section of the village connected by a paved road.
There is also a proper sign on the highway directing visitors to the community.
But the development stops there, just as it does in all the villages of the Abu
Despite becoming “legal,” the residents of Qasr a-Sir,
like most other Bedouin residents in the Negev, cannot get building permits to
build proper homes. The reason is the unresolved issue of land ownership, the
heart of the decades-long ethnic and civil standoff.
In the 1970s, the
Justice Ministry opened an office for Bedouin to register land
They were promised the possibility of monetary compensation for
land they could no longer use. Some 3,500 people submitted claims and even
received receipts, but never heard further. Many of them are no longer alive,
but their descendants – now numbering approximately 20,000 – still maintain the
One of the claimants is Ibrahim al-Hawashla, head of the Qasr
a-Sir local council, a role he inherited from his father, who was the village
sheikh. Stretched out on a mattress in the lean-to he uses as a hospitality
tent, the 48-year-old school-bus driver pours coffee for visitors. He recalls
having to walk the six kilometers to the nearest elementary school when he was
six. “I was too small to ride a donkey so I had to go on foot. When I got a
little older, I was allowed to ride the donkey back and forth to school,”
The traditional al-Hawashla tribal lands include
most of the area of the present day city of Dimona, but today they must make do
with a small percentage of their original territory.
registered its territorial claims in the 1970s, only to discover the entire area
had been proclaimed a closed military zone. “All of a sudden we started
receiving sacks of official letters telling us that any unregistered structures
were illegal and subject to demolition,” he says. “No one knew what to do.
Everyone was scared and people started hiring lawyers. We finally understood
that we had to form some sort of public body to fight for our
The body that emerged was the Regional Council for Unrecognized
Villages, established in 1997 by residents of 45 shanty towns representing
approximately 70,000 people or about half of the total Bedouin population in the
Negev at the time.
Partly as a result of the publicity generated by the
new organization, Qasr a-Sir became one of 12 previously unrecognized
settlements eventually granted government recognition under the Abu Basma
The next step was to plan the newly legalized community.
have our own tradition, and we want ed to plan the village according to our own
needs,” says al-Hawashla. The Abu Basma Regional Council agreed to turn over the
task of planning Qasr a-Sir to Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, a group of
planners, geographers and architects, which describes its mission as
“strengthening democracy and human rights in the field of planning.” Bimkom
completed a blueprint but when the villagers asked for permits to build their
houses, they were denied. The Israel Lands Authority (ILA ) demanded that
residents sign an agreement giving up ownership claims for any parcels of land
in any other location.
“Without giving up our claims
there’s no building permit, no electricity, not even for the IDF officers who
live here,” says Ibrahim al-Hawashla, referring to the many Bedouin residents
who serve in the armed forces.
“Without signing the agreement, there’s no
deal.” “This is heartbreaking after all our work,” says Nili Baruch, a town
planner and head of Bimkom’s Community Planning Department who supervised the
Qasr a-Sir project.
“There are other places that have been well planned –
on paper – but we have been unable to develop them.”
“There are many
reasons for this, including the Bedouins’ own internal disputes. There is this
dissonance between the state’s legal system and the traditional system accepted
by the Bedouin. Perhaps it would have been better to tailor the law to the
Bedouin reality and not the other way around,” she says.
known historically as nomads with intricate networks of tribal and clan lines,
arrived in the Negev in various waves from Saudi Arabia and Sinai in the last
300 years in search of water sources.
By the early 20th century, 96
tribes had settled into their own recognized territories.
generations, the Bedouin employed an organized, mutually recognized, traditional
system of property acquisition. Most did not register their landholdings under
the Negev’s previous rulers – the Ottomans and the British – for many reasons,
including the fear of being taxed or drafted into the Ottoman
During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, most Negev Bedouin
fled or were expelled to Jordan, the Sinai or the Gaza Strip. The remaining
tribes were forcibly relocated into a restricted zone in the northeastern Negev,
known as the syag (“enclosure”).
The State of Israel was able to exploit
the lack of official registration to ignore or deny the Bedouins’ ownership
claims. “Everyone knows precisely where the traditional territorial borders are
– there are maps and aerial photographs,” says Dodik Shoshani, who was the first
director of the Bedouin Administration, originally part of the ILA . “But
according to the law, this doesn’t hold because most have no
“The Bedouin today are sitting on land where the
government sent them,” explains Shoshani, who has been closely involved with the
Bedouin in various official roles for half a century. “In the 1950s they were
sent from place to place, and then told to go back to where they came from. So
they went back and set up their tents, and today these are the unrecognized
Indeed, Bedouin who do take their land claims to court almost
always lose, with the court declaring almost every area under dispute as state
In March 2012, in what may be a precedentsetting ruling, the
Beersheba District Court rejected claims filed by 17 members of the al-Okbi clan
for ownership of 1,000 dunams, or 250 acres, of land in the northern Negev,
which the family claim they held for generations until the state confiscated it
in 1951. The complex and often bitter legal proceedings went on for more than
three years, during which the State and the Bedouin plaintiffs each brought
extensive, often arcane, expert testimonies from the country’s most prominent
authorities on historical and political geography, each presenting ancient
documents, yellowing maps and early 20th century aerial
Central to the Bedouin case was the issue of
Ottoman-era and British Mandate land laws, which, they argued, had granted legal
autonomy to local farmers to organize ownership rights over ancestral lands in
accordance with Bedouin customary law. This was the reason the land in question
was never formally recorded in the Ottoman-era tabu land
Significantly, the area under discussion includes the fiercely
contested village of al- Araqib north of Beersheba. The site of an ongoing,
often violent, conflict between Bedouin residents and the State, al-Araqib has
become an international cause célèbre. The village, which at last count has been
bulldozed by the authorities and rebuilt by the residents and their supporters
35 times, has become a symbol of the Bedouin struggle.
In its ruling, the
Beersheba District Court accepted the State’s position that the land belongs to
the State and that its purpose is for public use. Without formal registration,
the judge stated, the complainants had not proven their ownership rights. One of
the petitioners, Nuri el-Okbi, has appealed against the ruling to the Supreme
In the 1970s, the government decided to solve the problem through
urbanization. It constructed eight towns around Beersheba and encouraged Bedouin
families to move there. Each family was provided with a house on a
properly-paved street with electricity, water, schools, and even a local
shopping and commercial center. The only condition was that the family must
relinquish all claims to traditional grazing lands outside the towns.
government’s declared intention in building the towns was to provide basic
services to the Bedouin population. The other unstated, though generally
understood, motive, was to move as many Bedouin as possible into urban locales
to prevent them from cultivating or claiming ownership of the lands the state
had expropriated in the 1950s, and to encourage them to abandon their
traditional livelihood of livestock farming. But half of the Bedouin population
refused to take up the offer and remained outside the official housing
The Prawer legislation now pending is meant to be the
practical implementation of recommendations made by a public committee chaired
by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg in 2009. Goldberg’s committee
was told that the Bedouin in the unrecognized villages preferred rural
settlements where they could practice their way of life, rather than coerced
urbanization in already impoverished towns. Though Goldberg did not specifically
accept Bedouin land ownership claims, he did acknowledge their historic
connection to the land they are living on.
“The Bedouin are legitimate
residents of the Negev and not trespassers or squatters,” Goldberg concluded. He
recommended that as many of the Bedouin villages as possible be recognized, and
that the Bedouin themselves be involved in determining their own
While Bedouin leaders did not fully endorse Goldberg’s
recommendations, they say he at least listened to everyone, while charging that
Prawer’s committee ignored them completely.
Prawer’s deliberations were
also dominated by security officials, making it seem as if the Bedouin – many of
whom still serve in the IDF – are a security threat rather than full citizens
with a legitimate grievance.
Many of Goldberg’s recommendations were
scrapped in Prawer’s draft, whose language, opponents claim, is both threatening
The proposed law agrees to recognize Bedouin ownership of
half the territory currently occupied – about 200,000 dunams or 50,000 acres –
under certain stringent conditions, but dismisses recognition of additional
Compensation Under the proposed legislation, certain areas
would be cleared immediately, with all structures demolished and all residents
evacuated without the necessity of a court injunction.
There are also
guidelines for financial compensation for those relocated, and in some cases
compensation in the form of alternate plots of land. In addition, the government
says that half of the NIS 1 billion ($260 million) budgeted for the five-year
plan is earmarked for education, vocational training and women’s
According to Prawer, there are 19 sites approved for
resettlement. But critics say most of these are not practical because the
designated land is disputed by other Bedouin families and the state. In the
towns there are scores of vacant plots, but they are claimed by others, so no
one else will move there.
“Each piece of land, each parcel, belongs by
consensus and understanding, if not by law, to different families and tribes,”
explains Eli Atzmon, a former head of the Negev Bedouin Authority, and today an
independent consultant on land issues. “There is no vacuum here.
will move to a piece of land that is claimed by someone else.”
Bedouin land dispute is not a legal problem, although the Justice Ministry is
constantly presenting it this way. There is a Bedouin mindset, a culture that
government officials don’t seem to understand. No one will move to a piece of
land that is claimed by someone else. No law will change this,” he
“There are thousands of available plots in the Bedouin towns,” says
Dudu Cohen, a former Interior Ministry Southern District Commissioner who now
heads the Abu Basma Regional Council. “Why don’t they move in? Because one tribe
can’t get along with another.
I’m not proposing to bring in a tribe when
I know there’s been friction, but families where there are no long-standing
Critics say that Cohen either does not understand or does not
care about the nuances of Bedouin society. “This is governmentimposed class
war,” storms Dr. Thabet Abu- Ras, Negev Bedouin Project Director for Adalah, the
legal center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. “The authorities are trying We
can’t move forward when half the population is being left behind.
don’t right these injustices they will blow up in our faces to move in people
that were once the black servants or the employees of residents.
the social implications of this? Maybe it’s good for human rights, but for the
Bedouin, you are ruining their social hierarchy.”
It is also true that
most of the eight towns remain some of the country’s most destitute.
Atzmon, the planning consultant, points to Tel Sheva, east of Beersheba, as one
of the sorrier examples.
“Tel Sheva has existed for 40
years and just look at it,” exclaims Atzmon, pulling up an aerial photo of the
town on his computer screen. “Except for the main road, there are no proper
roads. There are just open areas filled with trash and garbage. These are areas
claimed by Bedouin families living elsewhere. The place is like a jungle at
night, with drug dealers and stolen car chop shops. Who would want to move
here?” The government could turn Tel Sheva into a model town, Atzmon suggests,
if it was willing to spend the money to fix it up and reach agreement on the
“If you wanted to resettle even one Bedouin tomorrow,
there’s not a single place or plot that’s ready,” argues Clinton Bailey, a
historian and anthropologist who has followed the issue closely over several
decades. “Unless we settle land ownership claims with the Bedouin for a price
they can use in the free market, and lay down infrastructure so we can move
people in, there’s no point in talking about anything. You can’t just move a
family overnight and stick them on another piece of land with nothing around.
That is cruel, and the country won’t get away with it.”
Abu Basma Council
head Dudu Cohen insists that the government is limited because of the lack of
available land. “You look at the map of greater Beersheba and you’d think there
is a lot of open land, but there isn’t” says Cohen, spreading out a large map on
“You can see where the trans-Israel highway will go, where the
train tracks go, the airfield that already exists, nature preserves, forests and
industrial zones. There are no available spaces that haven’t been previously
zoned,” he says, noting that some of the villages are near gas lines, military
bases, power plants and toxic landfills – areas obviously inappropriate for
habitation. “The Prawer proposal sets down certain criteria for who can set up a
settlement and where.
You can’t settle anywhere you want in the country,”
But critics say the obstacles preventing Bedouin settlement
suddenly disappear when Jewish communities are planned. “It is absolutely untrue
that these villages cannot be accommodated and cannot be recognized,” insists
Nili Baruch of Bimkom.
“When the government wants to set up Jewish
settlements wherever they want, they have no problem doing it. It is so
These people live here, they’ve lived here since before Dimona
and Arad. There is no doubt that from the point of view of planning it is
absolutely possible – it is simply a matter of priorities.”
No one doubts
what those priorities are.
In October 2011, the Cabinet approved the
construction of 10 new Jewish communities in the desert area around the city of
Arad. To the dismay of environmental groups and the horrified exasperation of
Bedouin rights advocates, the government stated that it had decided to approve
the plans “in order to attract a new population to the Negev by increasing the
housing supply in the area.”
“A Jewish Israeli can live anywhere he
wants,” says Abu-Ras of Adalah. “Why can’t the Bedouin also live in rural
communities? Kibbutz Revivim has only 300 people, Kerem Shalom and Shomriya only
have 100 people. All that is needed are the basics: running water, paved
As the land claims have piled up, so have the plans to
solve the incendiary dilemma of Bedouin housing. In 2011, a team of city
planners, architects, geographers and legal experts launched an alternative
master plan commissioned by the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages. It
proposes allowing most of the 35 unrecognized villages to remain, providing them
with basic infrastructure and development, and suggests ways of preserving both
traditional Bedouin village organization and open space. Ben-Gurion University
professor Oren Yiftachel, one of the drafters of this proposal, complains that
his team tried repeatedly to meet with the Prawer committee but were only able
to present their ideas three days before the draft law went to the government.
“Obviously, it had no impact,” sighs Yiftachel.
The Association for Civil
Rights in Israel has proposed its own alternative plan. Bedouin MK Talab El-Sana
has formed a Knesset lobby to try to derail the proposed law.
far from public view, a highpowered group of academic experts, Bedouin leaders
and former civil servants began holding quiet consultations at the Joe Alon
Bedouin Museum in the Lahav Forest. They drafted yet another set of proposals,
which they discussed in a series of off-record meetings with Knesset Members and
senior government officials, including Benyamin Begin, the minister appointed to
coordinate the legislative process. Begin’s role is to invite comments on the
bill from concerned parties and to recommend amendments to the Cabinet
“Our plan is drafted in a way that will not insult
or threaten the Bedouin, unlike the Prawer Plan,” says Clinton Bailey, one of
the Joe Alon initiators. He says the proposal Regional Council for Unrecognized
Villages proposal is unworkable. “It is more extreme in its land demands than
any government will go,” he says. “We believe that everyone can be accommodated
in the 19 currently approved or existing settlements, but only after more
preparation for alternative housing,” he says.
For his part, Begin may be
sympathetic to the arguments of the Prawer bill’s opponents, but he has no
formal authority to change anything. “This hearing process is unprecedented in
its being active and vigorous,” Begin tells The Jerusalem Report. “More than a
hundred such meetings with Bedouin families and leaders will have taken place by
the end of the process, and I believe that my recommendations will be seriously
and positively considered.”
Begin insists that the draft law is following
the Goldberg Committee’s central recommendation that unrecognized Bedouin
villages will be approved to the extent possible.
“The detailed planning
will be carried out with the full participation of the Bedouin communities, and
hence the detailed results cannot be realistically specified at present,” Begin
promises. “More than 15,000 Bedouins need improved housing, in a variety of
settlement forms, but have no claims for land. This should be easier to