The Agriculture Ministry said it has reached a resettlement agreement with more than half the families of a Beduin tribe illegally living in the Negev.
The agreement, which the ministry called its first breakthrough since the Beduin issue was transferred to it, comes after two years of negotiations and applies to the residents settled near Bir Hadaj, south of Beersheba.
According to the agreement, the tribe of Azzama, made up of 900 families, will be given the option to move to a designated area for resettlement.
The families are each to be given a plot of 0.4 to 0.5 hectares (1 acre), under the condition that they move within 45 days. At the end of this period, residents who refuse to resettle will face enforcement measures.
Agriculture Ministry director- general Rami Cohen told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Monday that negotiations had been ongoing for two years but no agreement was reached until now.
Over the past two months government officials met with the Beduin and convinced 486 Beduin families out of 900 to agree to the deal.
Under the agreement, they can build houses on their plots and develop an agricultural area. They will have to pay 10 percent of the costs and those who agree to move within 45 days will receive a discount, Cohen explained.
Cohen warned that if the government does not move to increase the Beduin’s quality of life, the socioeconomic gap between them and other Israelis will continue to increase.
He said that the government will use both the carrot and the stick. Those who refuse to evacuate from the illegal settlement will be removed and will have their illegal structures destroyed, he warned.
“We are looking for a solution. In the past, the state and the Beduin made mistakes, but in order to solve the problem, we are willing to pay a price,” Cohen said. “It will also show other Beduin that we are serious.”
Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir welcomed the decision and praised the process of participation among the Beduin public that led to the agreement.
Shamir took over responsibility from former minister Benny Begin in January for handling the Beduin land issue for the government.
The Prawer-Begin bill, currently frozen while Shamir studies the complex issue and formulates a solution, is a five-year economic development initiative seeking to regulate Beduin settlement in the Negev. It aims for a compromise solution for tens of thousands of Beduin scattered in unrecognized villages – legalizing 63% of land claims.
Beduin supporters oppose the bill because they say it would result in up to 40,000 Beduin losing their land. Meanwhile, opponents on the Right criticize the bill as being too generous, saying that the state is giving away land for free, land that the Beduin could not prove to be theirs in court.
Ari Briggs, international relations director of Regavim, told the Post, “Regavim is encouraged to see the government progressing in its plans to solve the crisis in the Negev. We understand this is a test case. However, the big test is not whether the government succeeds or not in handing out land for free, it is whether it has the will, courage and conviction to enforce the law effectively when things don’t go as planned.”
Both Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel will need to sign off on the deal before it can be implemented.