Whose land is it, anyway?

The evacuation of Amona raises the question of the government's deferential treatment of the Beduin.

beduin 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
beduin 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The visit of National Union MKs to unrecognized Negev Beduin villages on February 5, four days after the army and police demolished nine illegal houses in the outpost of Amona, has momentarily focused attention on long-festering problems in the south. The MKs' aim was to point out the government's allegedly discriminatory treatment in favor of the Beduin, whose illegal homes are supposedly forgiven, while those of the settlers are not. This allegation is not entirely accurate. According to Ya'ala Livnat, of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, the authorities tore down 240 houses built by Beduin without permits in 2005. She estimated that an annual average of about 200 were demolished in the previous five years. Nevertheless, it is true that the Beduin have built thousands of homes without permits in 45 unrecognized villages as well as some in the seven official, government-authorized towns that have been built for them since 1968. This state of affairs has its roots in Israel's establishment in 1948. The country's founders, including David Ben-Gurion, attached great significance to the Negev, a substantial part of which had originally been assigned to the Palestinian state according to the 1947 Partition Plan but won by Israel in the War of Independence. At the beginning of the fighting, about 70,000 Beduin lived in the Negev, most of them concentrated in the northern part of the district. More than 50,000 of them either fled or were driven out of the country by the army. During the next three or four years, two-thirds of the remaining 12,000 were forced to leave their lands and relocate in the Sayig - essentially two tracts of land, comprising 1.07 million dunams in a triangular area between Beersheba, Dimona and Arad, and 120,000 dunams northwest of Beersheba, in the vicinity of Rahat. Some of the unrecognized villages existed long before the state of Israel was created. When the rest of the Beduin left, they settled according to tribes and extended families throughout the Sayig. The government regarded this as a temporary solution. It considered all of the Negev - including those areas the Beduin had abandoned and those in which they were currently living - to be state-owned land. Nevertheless, throughout the era of the military government, from 1948 until 1966, nothing was done to establish a permanent arrangement. The Beduin continued to live in tents, cultivated some of the land and used some of it for grazing. During these years, the government debated whether to expel them from Israel, or concentrate them in urban communities to free up as much of the land they were occupying as possible for Jewish development. IN 1965, the government decided to build several permanent Beduin settlements. The first, Tel Sheva, a few kilometers northeast of Beersheba, was completed in 1969. The largest of the communities, Rahat, was built two years later. Essentially, these towns were inhabited by Beduin who had no land ownership claims. Most of those who claimed to own land refused to move. Today, the National Security Council estimates that 100,000 Beduin live in the authorized towns and 60,000 in the unrecognized villages, including 23,000 in villages that are in the process of becoming recognized. Even though the state claimed ownership of the entire Negev, it could not totally ignore the Beduin claims. It decided to remove the Beduin from the land in return for compensation. The Beduin had been filing land ownership claims since the 1950s. By 1969, there were 3,000 claims involving 991,000 dunams of land. In 1975, the government approved a land policy recommended by Plia Albeck, head of the Civil Affairs Department of the State Attorney's Office. Albeck reaffirmed the position that all of the land in the Negev belonged to the state but that for "humanitarian reasons and beyond what the law calls for and because we can assume that the High Court won't allow otherwise," the state should compensate the Beduin. Nevertheless, the government and the Beduin have failed to agree to the terms of the compensation, so that only a small fraction of the claims have been resolved. For all intents and purposes, the rest of the land is frozen. The government cannot develop it, while the Beduin continue to live on it with no rights. Even though the government and the army were responsible for moving the Beduin into the Sayig, this gave them neither rights nor standing, because the move was supposed to have been a temporary solution. In 1996, when the Knesset passed the government-initiated Planning and Building Law - which established order in the process of physical planning throughout the country - it deliberately ignored the Beduin (and 40 unrecognized Israeli Arab villages in the north). No statutory planning bodies were established for these communities. Thus, there was no way the Beduin could obtain building permits. The government hoped to use this state of affairs as leverage to pressure the residents of the unrecognized villages into moving to the seven authorized towns. But, according to Livnat and attorney Bani Badrana of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, all the villagers saw in Rahat and the other towns was poverty, unemployment, slums, crimes, drugs and a collapse of Beduin society. The towns were a poor alternative to the villages, where at least the Beduin had their land and could count on subsistence living according to their customs and way of life. In the meantime, the landscape changed. The Beduin graduated from tents to tin shacks to stone and brick housing. As their families expanded, they needed more homes. But according to Livnat, the Beduin also built houses on the land in order to strengthen their claim to it. In part, the illegal construction (all construction is illegal) is now spread out rather than concentrated, as a strategic device to help safeguard the lands the Beduin insist are theirs. Recently, the NSC published a background paper calling for one last concerted drive to reach a settlement with the Beduin which would be generous enough to persuade them to give up the land and move to the existing authorized towns, and to the several more currently in the planning stages. Regarding the recalcitrant Beduin who refuse the settlement, the authors of the paper wrote: "The state has already demonstrated its ability to deal with complex organizational, budgetary and legal challenges in the implementation of the disengagement. We recommend adopting a similar principle regarding the Beduin; that is, to propose well-defined solutions to the dispersed communities, restricted in time and including a financial incentive for entire communities interested in finding a solution. When the deadline is up (for example, two years from the presentation of the proposal), [the government] should carry out a concentrated action to clear the illegal buildings. In other words, if the government evacuated 8,000 citizens living in legal buildings, it can evacuate thousands of citizens living in illegal buildings." As long as the situation remains as it is, the Beduin, who have either lived in the Sayig for perhaps hundreds of years, or were forced to move there by Israel, will continue to subsist without geographical status of any kind, in houses that are a priori illegal structures.