Desert divisions

A heated debate can be expected when Knesset reads draft law on the explosive issue of regulating Beduin settlement in the Negev.

Beduin settlement map Negev370 (photo credit: Courtesy, Regavim )
Beduin settlement map Negev370
(photo credit: Courtesy, Regavim )
In the beginning of May, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation reviewed a draft law known as the Prawer-Begin plan, for regulating Beduin settlement in the Negev. The plan brought the never-ending Beduin issue back to the front pages of Israeli newspapers, as a possible “final resolution” to solve the issue.
In an effort to understand the nuances involved, The Jerusalem Post reviewed documents and spoke to people involved in the issue. In essence, the Beduin and their supporters claim that the plan does not give them enough land, while opponents claim it is too generous.
As it stands, the plan passed the committee and now heads to the Knesset for debate. A few last-minute changes were made that gained Bayit Yehudi’s support. Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who belongs to the party, came to an agreement with Bennie Begin, who has been responsible for putting together and promoting the plan. The key point was that a specific map would be drawn up to include exact details delineating any final settlement.
Ari Briggs, the international relations director of Regavim, an NGO that states that it seeks to ensure responsible, legal and accountable use of Israel’s national land, sponsored a tour of the Negev for the Post.
Briggs said Regavim understands there needs to be a compromise in order to come to a final solution to the problem, but that this solution should not threaten the future existence of the state. In regard to the plan on the table, which Regavim opposes, Briggs said he might support it if it is actually implemented – and stops future illegal Beduin settlement expansion.
On our way to the Negev, Briggs commented that he doubts any of the people from the Goldberg Commission – which put together the 2008 report that was the basis for the Prawer-Begin plan – even left the conference room to visit the Negev.
According to an article titled, “Are the Negev Beduin an indigenous people?” by Havatzelet Yahel, Ruth Kark and Seth J. Frantzman, which appeared in the Middle East Quarterly, until the 20th century, the area’s Beduin raised livestock and roamed the Middle Eastern deserts in search of pasture and water.
The article states: “Among the Beduin tribes living in the Negev today, most view themselves as descendants of nomadic tribes from the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, most of them arrived fairly recently, during the late 18th and 19th centuries, from the deserts of Arabia, Transjordan, Sinai and Egypt. Part of this migration occurred in the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Palestine in 1798-1799 and subsequent Egyptian rule under Muhammad Ali and his son Ibrahim Pasha (r. 1831-1841).”
Prof. Kark, of Hebrew University, was called as an expert witness at the trial of the illegal Arab settlement of al- Arakib. In March 2012, Judge Sarah Dovrat of the Beersheba District Court went on to reject the residents’ claim on the property and ruled in favor of the state. The case, while focusing on one Beduin land claim, was a microcosm of the larger issue and the Beduin’s historical claims to the land.
The court rejected the argument of ownership rights going back to Ottoman times, partly basing the decision on aerial photos of the area from the British Mandate period, as well as evidence that the British military had used part of the area – which showed there was no cultivated land there during that period.
Dovrat agreed with Kark’s assessment that according to the historical, geographical and contemporary evidence – which included maps, surveys, and travel logs – that there was no settlement in Arakib before the British Mandate period. In addition, the judge criticized the assessment of Prof. Oren Yiftachel of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who was supporting the Beduin claim, stating he had used sources without reading them and based his research on secondary sources.
Kark told the Post: “The Beduin are a population in need of special attention, in the spheres of education, planning, housing, the promotion of women’s rights, etc. But this does not mean that they should be granted ownership of vast swathes of land which legally they do not own.”
“Based on the studies done with my colleagues, Yahel and Frantzman, they do not fit the criteria of an ‘indigenous people,’” she added.
She explained that based on an indepth, labor-intensive and time-consuming investigation into the matter, utilizing both Ottoman and British maps and documents from archives, “we have documentation of the Beduin themselves saying so before the State of Israel existed, stating that they came from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the Sinai regions.”
Kark pointed out: “If I want to make an addition to my house or build a balcony, I am subjected to a rigorous planning procedure. I must obtain legal documentation and get the proper building license. This should be the case equally for everybody. One cannot accept that there should be a law enforced for Jews, but not for Beduin in this matter.”
Deborah Hyams, a researcher on Israel at Amnesty International in London, told the Post that forced evictions were against international law and that Israel is a party to almost all international conventions relating to the matter. She claimed that the courts were biased against the Beduin and that the legality of the settlements was not the issue, but that “everybody has rights to housing – simply because they are there.”
Hyams said the land claimed by the Beduin is only around 5 percent of the total Negev land area, adding that the same standards were not being used for Jewish settlement in the area.
Arakib resident Aziz al-Tori told the Post that he was born in the village and now lives with his family in the cemetery, along with 22 other families. He said he sends his six kids to school in Rahat, and claimed that “the government only allows Jews to build while destroying Arab places.”
Asked how long Arakib had existed, he said he did not know exactly, but for a “long time.” Asked if it could be 1,000 years old, he responded, “perhaps.” In the end, the government would cave and agree to reestablish the village, Tori predicted. “I have patience for 20 more years,” he said.
Rawia Aburabia, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, told the Post that the Prawer-Begin plan involves uprooting unrecognized villages, which would lead to the expulsion of around 40,000 Beduin from their homes. Meanwhile, Reuma Schlesinger, of the pro-Beduin NGO Bimkom, told the Post they have spent the past three years working on an alternative plan in coordination with the local Beduin, which would legalize their settlements. She said the government plan is a “disaster” and is based on “discrimination.”
In an interview with Haia Noach, CEO of the Negev Coexistence Forum, which supports the Beduin, the Post asked about the court ruling from 2012, and she said the legal situation was complicated and ongoing.
As for the claim that picture evidence proved the Beduin were not living on the land during the Mandate period, Noach rejected this as “not true,” saying there were photographs from 1945 that showed them living there.
The Post then asked Kark how the NGOs supporting the Beduin could come to such widely different conclusions based on the same evidence. “The people working on behalf of the Beduin from various NGOs did not do serious historical research themselves,” she replied, “which may be partly why they often draw factually erroneous conclusions. Judge Sarah Dovrat, who dealt with the Arakib case and heard all of the evidence, was of the same opinion.”
Briggs also responded to some of the claims. “It is hard to get a better story than looking at Google Earth,” he said, noting that it shows many more than the 45 settlements under discussion. “The NGOs always talk about legalizing 35 settlements with 400 or more residents, but what about the other 2,000?” According to the Interior Ministry, there are in fact an additional 2,000 new, illegal structures built every year, Briggs added. He blamed the pro-Beduin NGOs for the difficulty of reaching a solution, stating they are pushing the people not to compromise.
The current Prawer-Begin plan calls for legalizing 63% of Beduin claimed land, and Regavim is willing to accept a lower figure – as long as all additional illegal settlement expansion is halted. Meanwhile, Regavim’s southern region director Amichai Yogev told the Post that the plan does not call for the relocation of 40,000 Beduin, as some claim.
He said that funds for illegal building are coming from the Gulf states, which funnel money through the northern branch of the Islamic movement in Israel. Moreover, Yogev pointed out that most of the Beduin fail to pay arnona (municipal tax) or other utility bills, adding that it was admitted on Israeli TV that Israeli utility companies pay bribes to the tribes so they will not vandalize state property.
In regard to land percentages, Yogev stated, “They always say the Beduin seek only 5% of the Negev – essentially 13.3 million dunam [about 3.3 million acres] – but almost all of the Negev is reserved military firing zones and nature reserves.”
He went on to note, “Only 2.8 million dunam [about 690,000 acres] or 21% of the Negev is permitted for construction and settlement, so they really want 23% of the area permitted for construction and settlement.”
Yogev then cited estimates that Beduin make up around 25% of the total residents of the Negev, while Jews make up 75%. Yet Jews live on about 40% of the land that is designated for settlement, or about 8.4% of the entire Negev, while the Beduin want 5%. According to this calculation, he said, if you compare them to the Jews, then they should get 2.1% – and not 5%.
According to a 2012 report by Prof. Arnon Soffer of the University of Haifa, titled “Israel: Demography 2012-2030,” the Beduin make up only about 14% of the Muslim population in Israel. By 2030 they will rise to around 23-25%, as they have one of the highest birthrates in the world.
Soffer said the state was late in recognizing the need to respond with a solution to the issue, which initially involved around 13,000 Beduin and grew to 33,000 in the mid-1960s. The paper criticized the Goldberg Report, stating that legalizing 60,000 illegal houses (as of 2011), “whitewashes lawbreaking wholesale, and perpetuates the reality in the South.”
The report went on to state that such a “sweeping recognition” in Israel is “unprecedented,” and that it would allow “settlers of Judea and Samaria” to claim the rights of “hundreds of illegal holdings of their own.” Soffer concluded that Israel is breaking up into demographic “states” and that in addition to the Tel Aviv state, there is a Beduin state coming into being to its south.