Terra Incognita: Equal rights in the Negev for all Israelis

Beduins should not receive preferential treatment because of the government’s historic abandonment of the land.

September 20, 2011 23:49
Police, Beduin Iftar in Negev

Police, Beduin Iftar in Negev_311. (photo credit: Israel Police)

The government recently approved a plan to deal with the complicated issue of Negev Beduin who have been illegally living on hundreds of thousands of dunams of state land and laying claim to them. The government plan envisions the relocation of tens of thousands of Beduin to existing communities, building new Beduin settlements and settling some of the land claims. Parts of the plan have been praised by much of the Israeli media. However, this praise is predicated, generally, on a misunderstanding of what has taken place in the Negev, and misses a major discrimination inherent in settling any of the Beduin land claims.

There are around 160,000 Negev Beduin and the population has historically had one of the highest birth rates in the country. Around half the Beduin population lives in more than 45 “unrecognized” or illegally occupied settlements they have established on state lands. That the Negev is entirely composed of state land is an accident of history. The Negev contains more than half the land area of Israel, about 12 million dunams (3 million acres), and since the time of the Ottoman Land Law of 1858 the entirety of the Negev has been legally defined as state land. Only a tiny percent of that land was turned over to private use, primarily in Beersheba, beginning in 1900.

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During the last years of the British Mandate Zionists set their eyes on the Negev as a potential area of development for the future Jewish state. In 1950s Israeli planners, particularly Polish-born Arieh Sharon, saw the Negev as a tabula rasa upon which an idealized planning regime could be grafted. Their plans called for the establishment of small rural communities (Kibbutzim and Moshavim), populated by Jews from Europe, to be equally spaced throughout the northern Negev. Between them would be larger Development Towns where the Jewish immigrants, mostly from Muslim countries, would live. The result was the creation of Jewish Beersheba and towns like Kiryat Gat and Sderot, and the building of numerous Kibbutzim. The Beduin, who numbered only 19,000 in 1949, were not included in any of these schemes.

Only later, in the 1970s, did the Israeli government begin to build planned communities for the Negev Beduin who had transitioned from a nomadic/seminomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one. What took place next has become a national disgrace. Tens of thousands of Beduin who refused to move to planned communities, such as Rahat, simply occupied state land and began building sprawling settlements on it. They constructed a narrative in which they had lived in these new communities since prior to 1948, a fabricated history that many accept at face value without bothering to check the relevant maps and aerial photos.

NOW THESE Beduin who chose to illegally occupy state land are demanding 800,000 dunams of that land, which most commentators point out is only about six percent of the Negev. But the 6% issue ignores reality. Around 194,000 Jews live in Beersheba on 100,000 dunams of land (.5 dunams per person). At the same time some 70,000 Beduin claim 800,000 dunams of land (11 dunams per person). There seems to be something dreadfully wrong in this equation, namely that Jewish immigrants that the government sent to Beersheba lived in a law-abiding fashion, crammed into apartment buildings, while those who decided to squat on state land are on the cusp of being rewarded.

There is some notion that the culture of the Beduin requires that they should dominate much of the northern Negev by virtue of the fact that they are farmers. But this also doesn’t make sense. The immigrants from Ethiopia who make up a significant minority of the Jewish population in Beersheba also had an agricultural background, yet the government never thought that this meant they should be awarded 11 dunams each and given a shovel to go farm the Negev. Instead the government pursued a strict policy of social engineering, taking Jews from all over the world into the Negev and conditioning them to live in tenement monstrosities built to house immigrants.

The cabinet decision regarding the Negev Beduin who live illegally on state land is a slap in the face, not only for the Jewish community in the Negev, but also for the Beduin who moved to planned communities in the 1970s and 1980s. In October, 2010, Khaled al-Sana, the Beduin council head of Lakiya, a planned community, cut off the water to 4,000 Beduin who had illegally tapped into the town’s line. “I have 10,000 residents in the town, and I have to pay the bills of another 4,000 residents? That just isn't right,” he said. But of course, the Beersheba district court ordered that Lakiya keep providing free water for the squatters, while the law-abiding Beduin paid higher water bills.

THIS STORY is the story of the Negev in general. The Israeli government, especially the court system whose members are partly behind the recent plan, has conspired to disenfranchise and discriminate against all the people who have legally paid taxes and water bills and lived where they were told to in the Negev, by rewarding a tiny minority a hugely disproportionate amount of land. The only way that the government can do justice to the law-abiding Beduin in places like Lakiya and all the other people in places like Beersheba is to provide them the same access to 11 dunams of land each. That means selling off about 15% of the Negev to law-abiding citizens to compensate them for the injustice of awarding the law breakers. Ideally, lawabiding Negev residents should be given the chance to homestead on lands that are not being claimed by the unrecognized Beduin villages. Since the Israeli government has proven in the past 60 years that it is not a good steward of public land, which all Israelis (Beduin and otherwise) deserve an equal right to, it is time to privatize that state land so that it can be defended from further invasions by squatters. The government abandoned the land, the court system enshrined that abandonment and now the cabinet retroactively approves the abandonment. Only a popular outcry by others in the Negev will ensure they are protected. Sadly, history has shown that the majority of the Negev’s residents are unwilling to assert themselves on this issue.

The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.

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