Beduin boy on rubble of demolished house 370.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Israeli government announced last Monday it will go ahead with a plan to
settle longstanding land disputes with the country’s Beduin
The plan, which requires relocation of approximately 30,000
people, has drawn intense fire from civil rights groups. As with most legal
issues affecting the State of Israel, rhetorical hyperbole is at full
ACRI-appointed lawyer Rawia Aburabia claims that the state has
“declared war” on the Beduin. In a press release, NGO Adalah calls the
government’s decision “part of an overall racist policy against Palestinian
citizens of Israel.” At the +972 blog Imjad Iraqi writes, “Despite attempts to
disguise the Plan as beneficial for the [Beduin], it aims to concentrate Arab
communities in as little territory as possible and erase the [Beduin’s] claims
to their historical lands. Jewish citizens, of course, will continue to build
new residences without such fears.”
Provocative statements like these
completely overlook the realities of the government’s plan. More than that, they
allege sinister intent to “ethnically cleanse” the Negev. One imagines the
Beduin being tossed out of romantic desert hideaways only to be replaced by
imperialist Jewish settlers carrying Israeli flags.
IN THE spirit of
balanced debate, let me offer a few points of clarification. By all accounts the
Beduin of the Negev are in bad shape. As citizens of Israel they enjoy the same
civil and political rights as every other citizen. However, their communities
are by far the most impoverished in the country. Recent studies estimate that
two-thirds of Beduin live below the poverty line, and in unrecognized villages
the numbers are even higher. Unemployment, low education rates, drug abuse and
crime plague their neighborhoods.
In the meantime, they are Israel’s
fastest-growing population. With a birth rate of 5.5 percent – among the highest
in the world – Israel’s Beduin community doubles in size every 15 years. Viewed
purely from a social welfare perspective, the Beduin present a serious problem
that Israel cannot avoid any longer.
The Negev, meanwhile, is more than
just a desert – it’s the key to Israel’s future. Although it comprises 60% of
the country’s land area, the Negev only supports 8% of its population. Compare
this to Israel’s coastal region, where population density and living costs have
spiraled out of control, and one understands that the Negev simply must be
developed. The recent discovery of natural gas offshore has provided the energy
needed for large-scale desalination and irrigation efforts. Once developed, the
Negev will create unparalleled opportunities for all of Israel’s
Unresolved Beduin land claims gravely threaten this
development. As of 2007, the Beduin had laid claim to approximately 600,000
non-contiguous dunams of state land; irregular bits and pieces of property
scattered across the northern Negev. The problem isn’t that the Beduin make
property claims, it’s that they don’t have evidence to back them up. Failure to
record land holdings under the Ottoman Empire severely limits their ability to
prove title today. Many of them don’t have legal title at all, and instead base
their claims on the fact of continuous squatting. Years of government inaction
and accommodation have allowed unrecognized villages to proliferate on state
land and frustrate any serious attempt to improve the region.
important to point out that these “villages” are typically nothing more than
ramshackle camps inhabited by a few hundred squatters. Photos on the Internet
reveal the true squalor of these places, which from a distance look like heaps
of scrap metal.
Tucked away in distant wadis and hilltops, they lack
running water, electricity and modern sewage. Vermin and disease are constant
realities. Critics condemn the government for failing to provide utilities to
these remote outposts, but few understand just how huge such a public works
project would be. The state wants to aid these Beduin, but doing so on a
systemic level demands truly comprehensive change.
THE STATE’S current
plan is well-calculated, wellintentioned, and arguably quite fair. It calls for
the recognition of most illegal villages and the relocation of some Beduin
(about half of the unlawful residents, or 20% of all Beduin in the Negev) to
nearby development towns. The state has consulted Beduin on the design of these
towns and is custom-building neighborhoods to accommodate their unique
Those who can prove ownership of land until 1979 will receive
new lands to farm; the rest will receive significant monetary compensation. Many
Beduin can, and already do, apply for additional grants and financial assistance
from the state. Last September, the Israeli cabinet approved an NIS 1.2 billion
package to facilitate the entire project.
The fact that right-wing Jewish
groups are furious over the plan is indicative of just how pro-Beduin it really
Whatever one thinks of the plan, Israel is well within its sovereign
rights to launch it. Sovereignty demands that a state be in complete and
exclusive control of all the people and property within its borders.
decades the State of Israel had lost this control in many parts of the
It has tolerated illegal building on state land. It has ignored
tens of thousands of citizens who don’t pay rent or taxes. It has coped with
mounting crime in Beduin areas, driven by crippling poverty. Now, recognizing
their duty to guarantee the welfare of all citizens, Israeli leaders have
finally agreed to make painful and costly decisions.
frequently must choose between two equally unattractive options. In this case,
Israel is choosing aggressive reform over the status quo. The plan is not
perfect and does require tens of thousands of people to leave their homes. For
them we should feel sympathy. However we must also recognize that Israel is
trying to deal with difficult social problems as effectively and delicately as
possible while fully abiding within the rule of law.
For that we should
be commending, not condemning, the government.
The writer is a 2012-2013
Tikvah Fellow in New York City.