The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and several other rights groups petitioned the High Court Tuesday to stop the government’s plan to build seven new Jewish towns in the northern Negev, destroying five existing Beduin villages in the process.

The plan is “discriminatory, wasteful and unnecessary,” said ACRI, which filed the petition along with Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality and residents of the five Beduin villages plus several residents of Arad.

The petition refers to a government decision to establish seven agricultural settlements in the area of Mevo’ot Arad in October 2011.

The plan was approved on the basis that it was a continuation of “the Zionist vision to make the desert blossom” and includes among its goals “strengthening organized Jewish settlement.”

The total area of the planned development, approximately 45,000 acres, is described in the notes of the decision as an area almost “empty of population,” containing two Jewish villages, four isolated ranches, and “sparse Bedouin scatterings.”

But ACRI says these “scatterings” are actually five unrecognized villages, home to approximately 8,000 citizens. Three of these villages – Hamra, Sawa and El-Baat – have existed since before the establishment of the State of Israel.

Two others, Atir-Um El-Hiran and Tel Arad – were established in the 1950s, when their inhabitants were moved by security authorities to other locations in the Negev, ACRI said in a press release.

“This is a racist plan. It’s a plan to uproot people from this area, which is simply absurd,” Salim Abu Qi’an, a Beduin activist and resident of Atir-Um El-Hiran, told The Jerusalem Post.

“We don’t have any power. Anyone who wants to force us out can. But we just want to live here in peace, and bring up our kids here.”

Qi’an was glad that the petition had been filed, but he and others in the community do not see it as an issue that can be solved solely on legal grounds. “It will go through a legal process, but this is actually all a political process, not a legal one. This is not really about justice, because what created this plan and what can stop it is a political decision more than anything else.”

The petition notes that according to a 2009 study by the Environmental Protection Ministry, the cost of building a housing unit in a new town is three times that of building one in an existing community.

Rejecting the plan would save NIS 1.4 billion that could then be invested in strengthening existing communities in the area, such as Mitzpe Ramon, Yeruham, Dimona, Arad, Ofakim and Netivot, the petition said.

Indeed, the plan is uniting opponents with very different agendas. Some oppose it on the grounds of discrimination, seeing it as an unacceptable example of the state pushing Beduin off their land, as it has many times before. Others think it is a mistake from an environmental perspective – it will eat up more open space and attract people looking for a suburban lifestyle, adding more cars to the road.

In another argument, critics wonder why the money that would be spent on five new communities is not invested in existing communities that need improvement, or in bringing desperately needed employment to the area.

“This plan doesn’t take into consideration the needs of people in our area. It may be a Zionist plan but is doesn’t aid the development of the Negev overall,” says Batya Roded, a resident of Arad and a geographic researcher at Ben-Gurion University.

“Take this budget and invest it in Arad, Dimona, Yeroham. Instead, they’re trying to privatize open space. It would include destroying houses – which is a environmental injustice and also unfair to the Beduin,” she explained.

“The moment that one sector gets a budget for development and one gets nothing, there’s no chance that the Negev as a whole will enjoy development,” Roded said.

“For that, the government doesn’t need new communities, it needs to bring jobs and industry.”

The leading lawyer for ACRI on the petition, Rawia Aburabia, said that if Israel wants to show it is committed to equality among its citizens, it cannot carry out such a program.

“A country that is committed to equality among its citizens cannot decide to remove Beduin communities in order to establish new communities for Jewish residents,” said Aburabia. “Behind the words ‘vision’ and ‘making a wasteland blossom’ hides a simple truth, which is the continuation of blatant discrimination between Beduin and Jews.”

Bimkom, an organization set up by planning professionals seeking to enhance the link between civil rights, social justice and the planning process in Israel, was also part of the petition.

“In past decades, many resources were invested in the establishment of more and more settlements for Jews only, at the expense of veteran residents of the Negev – Beduin in unrecognized villages who suffer from criminal neglect, and residents of cities and Jewish villages who also suffer from neglect and are desperate for new residents,” said Nili Bruch, city planner at Bimkom. “This plan has no justice and no logic – financially, civilly or environmentally.”

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