Israel suspends controversial Beduin resettlement plan

Opposition to bill, seeking to regulate Beduin settlement in the South, grew among MKs who had previously supported it.

Beduin resettlemnt protest IDF 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Beduin resettlemnt protest IDF 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Former Likud minister Bennie Begin announced on Thursday the government decision to suspend the government- backed Beduin resettlement bill, pleasing opponents of the reform on the Left and Right.
“We did our best, but sometimes you have to accept reality,” Begin said at a press conference at city hall in Tel Aviv.
“Right- and left-wing activists, Jews and Arabs, have tried to take advantage of Beduin desperation to inflame the atmosphere to boiling point for their own political gain,” he said.
Begin said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accepted his recommendation to remove the bill from consideration.
Netanyahu responded to the announcement by thanking Begin for his efforts.
The prime minister had agreed to “carry out the development plan for Beduin settlements in the coming years,” Begin said, suggesting that the plan would be revised rather than shelved.
Earlier this week, opposition to the Prawer-Begin bill grew among Knesset members who had previously supported the legislation, leading to Thursday’s announcement.
On Tuesday, Begin, who helped put together the plan and earlier had been guiding the legislation through the Knesset, said the Beduin never agreed to his plan and never saw it.
Begin’s comments upset coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud Beytenu), who told reporters on Monday that he and others had been misled about the bill, and that major changes needed to be made to it. Levin said that he and other members of the coalition voted for the bill on its first reading believing that the Beduin agreed to the plan.
The Prawer-Begin bill is a five-year economic development initiative seeking to regulate Beduin settlement in the South. It aims for a compromise solution for tens of thousands of Beduin scattered in unrecognized villages throughout the Negev, legalizing 63 percent of claimed land.
Beduin supporters oppose the bill because they say the legislation would result in up to 40,000 Beduin losing their land.
Opponents on the Right criticize the bill as too generous, saying the state would be giving away land for free that Beduin could not prove to be theirs in court.
At the press conference, Begin said the Beduin were the “most deprived group in Israel” and that the problem needed to be solved quickly.
“I myself met with 600 of them,” and listened to them, he said.
Beduin Israelis and their supporters have staged protests, sometimes violent, across the country to demonstrate their vehement opposition to the bill.
“We cannot allow a hostile takeover of the legislation or allow it to be hijacked or distorted,” Begin said, describing his proposal to delay implementation as “the lesser evil.”
Coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud Beytenu) said that a new plan would be drawn up to deal with the issue.
“After a long struggle, the Prawer plan, which in its current form is essentially flawed – was blocked – and that is a good thing,” he said.
A large number of lawmakers weighed in on the announcement.
MK Michal Roisin (Meretz) said, “I breathe a sigh of relief with the Negev Beduin and Jews alike.” Now is the time to invest money that the state hoped to use in dispossessing the Beduin from their homes in order to supply their communities with basic water, electricity and other basic services, she said.
MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) welcomed the announcement and said “it is needed to bury the dangerous Prawer plan and start a deep discussion with the owners of the land and the local leaders in the Negev.”
MK Zvulun Kalfa (Bayit Yehudi) said that the legislation that was under consideration would not solve the problem and that a different outline was needed.
The bill lacked a map showing what things would look like after full implementation of the reform.
Most of the bill deals with land claims, but it does not discuss how it would regulate or create settlements or infrastructure, education and health services.
Ronen Shoval, founder and head of the Zionist NGO Im Tirtzu, said the failure of the government to pass the legislation demonstrated a lack of the ability of the State of Israel to govern itself.
“Israeli democracy yielded to the violence and the dictates of foreign countries” meddling in the internal affairs of the country and using nongovernmental organizations for delegitimization, Shoval said.
Regavim – the NGO which describes itself as seeking to ensure responsible, legal and accountable use of the country’s land –  stated that this opportunity must be seized by the government to change and improve the Prawer-Begin plan.
“The land of Israel is the most important and scarce resource of the State of Israel and we have to treat that dear resource responsibly.
“The violence and the threats of the Arab MKs and a small minority of Beduin against this unprecedented and extremely generous plan of former minister Begin, proves once again that giving free gifts, sends a message of weakness and enlarges their appetite,” stated Regavim.
Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) attorney Rawia Aburabia responded by stating, “The government now has an opportunity to conduct real and honest dialogue with the Negev Beduin community and its representatives. The Negev Beduin seek a solution to the problem of the unrecognized villages, and a future in Israel as citizens with equal rights.”
“We applaud the withdrawal of the misguided Prawer-Begin plan, which would have expelled 30-40,000 Bedouin Israelis from their homes in the Negev,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
"As the 800 rabbis and cantors who wrote to Prime Minister Netanyahu in opposition of this plan attest, such forced displacement contradicts both Jewish property law and human rights law, as well as the moral values of the Jewish tradition. We urge Prime Minister Netanyahu to work in partnership with Bedouin communities to develop a new plan that supports the economic and cultural flourishing of these communities."
Lahav Harkov and Reuters contributed to this report.