Any chance to fly in a small airplane should never be passed up. This is especially true for flying over the desert.
On Wednesday June 28th I spent forty minutes flying around the outskirts of Beersheba with a pilot and two members of the NGO Regavim.
They were in the Negev discussing a new “plan for regulating Beduin settlement in the Negev.” In their new plan they argue that the Israeli government has “avoided dealing directly and systematically with Beduin claims of ownership” and that “illegal construction in the Beduin encampments continues at an ever-increasing rate.”
Their basic message is that the Israeli government should find a way to consolidate Beduin communities of tens of thousands of people who live outside recognized towns.
Driving around Lakiya and other Beduin communities the Regavim members point out new construction and new neighborhoods and also the failure of municipalities to build decent infrastructure. Roads are potholed and dirt roads connect planned areas with other neighborhoods that, the activists say are illegal or build on state land.
Flying over all this brings into stark contrast what the maps only tell you in nice little colorful hypotheticals.
Taking off from an airstrip near Beersheba the Cessna 172 Skyhawk lumbers into the air, skirting route 25 and heading over the Jewish community of Eshel HaNasi. Trying to hear over the cacophony of the engine and the beauty of the desert laid our below, one of the Regavim members explained that we can see Rahat, which was founded in 1972 as a large planned town to settle Beduin.
In the old days of Soviet and socialist-inspired planning in Israel every community in the Negev was planned and segregated between little communal kibbutzim and moshavim, large Jewish towns such as Beersheba and Beduin towns like Rahat. But here underneath the little Cessna is an example of the Frankenstein of planning. You plan a town for 30,000 people and it grows to 60,000 like Rahat has, but no one bothers to invest in the needs of the 60,000.
Rahat is a supposedly good example of how Israel can regulate settlement, although to anyone looking at it, or driving through it, it’s hardly a success story. After Rahat the plane veers over Lehavim and Laqiya, the first a Jewish town founded in 1983 and the latter a Beduin town founded in 1982 with 11,000 residents today. Again the contrasts are clear between a more affluent Jewish area with better planning and what has happened to Lakiya when it grew beyond its original plans.
Soda Stream has a factory near here as well, visible from the air. There are expanses of desert and dunes and trees. Then the pilot flies east of Beersheba over an area called Nevatim. Here is where Israel’s greatest challenge of the Negev is most clear.
Hundreds of little Beduin homesteads, farms, corrals with animals, tin sheds, even buses converted into storage rooms. Tens of thousands of people living on dirt roads without basic services. The Regavim plan would see many of these places moved to existing communities or a planned town, but history has taught Israel that such plans rarely work. The small Beduin community of Al-Araqeeb which lost a court case to the government has been demolished more than 112 times. Flying over it all it seems like 100 Al-Araqeebs.
Opponents of Regavim view their organization as right wing, while pro-Beduin voices argue that the state should recognize Beduin land claims of some 600,000 dunams of land, rather than moving people. It is just a small amount of the Negev, they argue. An aerial tour belies some of these stories and brings them into stark contrast.
The debate in the media and press and on maps and at Knesset meetings is all very interesting, but seeing it from the air or on the ground shows the real challenge. Whatever the government decides and the activists on both sides are able to convince people of may be one thing, but the actual day that bulldozers come or someone tries to get families to move will show if anything will change.
Whether the Beduin communities are “unrecognized, illegal, informal, townships” or their claims “indigenous rights” or not, is often immaterial to what actually happens on the ground.
There is a Yiddish proverb that says “man plans, God laughs.” It’s quite relevant here.