Beduin housing crisis in Israel's south

From the state’s perspective, Beduin homes are illegally built, and it is not their land.

A VIEW of Umm Al-Hiran, the Beduin village in the southern Negev Desert demolished by police (photo credit: REUTERS)
A VIEW of Umm Al-Hiran, the Beduin village in the southern Negev Desert demolished by police
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In July the Israeli authorities demolished structures in the Beduin community of Arakib for the 115th time since 2010. It has become a monthly occurrence.
In May, after the 113th demolition, Sayyah al-Turi, a resident, told Ma’an News Agency that the bulldozing “will not scare us or stop us from rebuilding our homes and holding on to our lands.”
From the state’s perspective, the homes are illegally built, and it is not their land.
Arakib is a symbol of the much large conflict in the Negev between tens of thousands of Beduin who live in houses and communities unrecognized by the state and local authorities.
“Israel has grappled with the issue of Beduin settlement in the Negev since the foundation of the state,” writes Regavim in a new booklet it has put out, which discusses a “plan for regulating Beduin settlement in the Negev.”
Published in January 2017 by the NGO, which bills itself as “preventing illegal seizure of state lands and to preserve the rules of proper management in all aspects of Israel’s land policy,” the 71-page document presents maps and plans for voluntary and “forced evacuation” of residents to move them to “recognized settlements.”
“I think those kinds of plans are not something new,” says Sana Ibn Bari, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who leads a unit defending rights of Beduin. “The government will have to change its approach toward the community and allow it to live differently. The community wants to grow and succeed, and maybe we will surprise them,” she says.
Whatever plans are brought with what seem like simple solutions will not work in the end. “Eventually, the solution will be somewhere in between, with people who are willing to discuss and not willing to push people into those kinds of solutions. I don’t take it too seriously,” she says.
What is serious, she says, is relations with the community.
“The government can build new neighborhoods or settlements, but that doesn’t mean the residents will be willing to evacuate.
If they want to declare war against the Arab Beduin community, they can do that, but nothing will move; we will be talking on the same issues [in the future].”
In late June I took a tour of the Negev with Regavim as it outlined its plan. Everything is rooted in history. By 1950 there were around 14,000 Beduin in Negev, many having been expelled or having fled during the 1948 war. Under the military rule Arabs were subjected to until 1966, the Beduin were concentrated in an area called the Siyag, northeast of Beersheba, which constitutes about 8% of the Negev. Beduin did not fit into the planning model that was popular in the 1950s. Unlike new Jewish immigrants who ended up in crowded development towns or kibbutz and moshav settlements, the Beduin were left on the margins.
“After 1966 the military rule ended, and the Beduin went to Beersheba and made their [land] claims,” says Amichai Yogev, the southern district coordinator for Regavim.
Eventually, 3,220 land claims to 78,000 hectares were made in the northern Negev. According to Ahmed Amara, in a paper published by the Institute for Palestine Studies in 2013, only 12% of the claims were settled by 2008.
A commission headed by justice Eliezer Goldberg was appointed in 2007 and suggested a formula for settling claims in which Beduin would get 20% in land and portions of the rest in compensation.
When Beduin went to court, they lost their cases because they could not prove land ownership, because they lacked documents from the British or Ottoman periods.
Alongside the plethora of land claims, the government began building seven planned towns for Beduin in the 1970s. Thousands of Beduin moved to Rahat, Segev Shalom, Lakiya, Hura and other new towns.
Regavim says that today there are around 240,000 Beduin, of whom 45,000 live in unrecognized villages, while ACRI says there are around 250,000 Beduin, of whom 100,000 live in unrecognized communities. The population doubles every 20 years.
Regavim claims that 5,000 structures are built illegally every year. Amara asserted in his 2013 paper that the population of Beduin was only 27,460 in 1970, and the number of unrecognized structures grew from around 1,000 in 1966 to 42,500 in 2007.
If the situation is so well known, why hasn’t a compromise been reached? The problem for the state is that it has always been acting about 20 years too late. It took until the 1970s to even look at land claims and provide Beduin with basic services that it was providing to other citizens.
The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality notes that in 1999 Israel recognized 11 new Beduin villages. “This was allegedly a fundamental change, after years in which the only settlement option for the Beduin community was forced urbanization,” its website states.
Again, the realization that Beduin needed new rural communities came 20 years after it should have been obvious. Now Israel is almost 20 years from the 1999 decision, and groups like Regavim and ACRI are asking the public and politicians to look once again at a compromise.
The Goldberg report and the team led by Ehud Prawer that was supposed to implement it were scrapped after an internal row in the leading Likud Party, in which Bennie Begin tried to smooth over Beduin opposition to it.
In many ways, the situation today is hobbled by all these past efforts, from the Ottoman land law that courts still look at, to British Mandate law, to the 1950s and Goldberg, Prawer and Begin recommendations.
Begin declined a request to speak about the plan’s 2013 failure.
In the tour with Regavim, which involved flying around areas north and east of Beersheba, the challenge appeared stark. Looking down on Jewish Lehavim (6,000 residents, 200 hectares), which was founded in 1983, and Beduin Rahat (70,000 residents, 1,900 hectares), which was founded in 1972, there is a contrast between lush streets and concentric circles of roads, and poverty and urban sprawl. East of Beersheba, in an area named Nevatim after a nearby air base, hundreds of small Beduin farmsteads scatter the landscape, using a multiplicity of items for housing and animal corrals. Dirt roads access them, and there is no official electric or water provision or education system that one can see.
Regavim’s plan presents a map that “indicates clusters of illegal encampments with colored illustrations of the estimated number of residents of each areas, as well as permanent settlements in which they are to be resettled.” It has been encouraging MKs to take the aerial tour. But aren’t the hundreds of little communities all similar to Arakib? Despite claims by officials in 2013 that 80% of Beduin had agreed to resettlement, there is no evidence of that on the ground.
Ibn Bari points to the case of Wadi Na’am, which petitioned in 2014 to cancel a plan to move the residents to what she calls the “township” of Segev Shalom. “After years of court dates, we got into negotiation with the government, and they allowed [that] the plan would be to build an independent settlement from Segev Shalom.” There are around 7,000 residents of Wadi Na’am, and it is considered one of the largest unrecognized communities.
Part of the problem is mind-set and linguistics. “They refer to us as a problem all the time,” she says.
There is also hypocrisy on the part of the government. Ibn Bari points to the case of Umm al-Hiran, where Beduin were told to relocate to Hura.
“They said it was an environmentally sensitive [area].” A few years later it was revealed that a Jewish community would be built in place of the Beduin one. She says that reveals the real intention is to concentrate Beduin in existing towns. “There is no kind of course to negotiate to allow them to live differently.... The discrimination only worsens the relationship between the residents and any government authority.”
Yogev says the main issue is having a rule of law. “The country must understand that there is a law.” He maintains that the home demolitions work. “People do understand it, eventually.”
He argues that people living in unrecognized communities will be helped by moving. “I want people to have a legal and normal place and a community, and [if someone hits someone else with his car], he has an address to go to. I want him to have education and receive [all] that.”
Asked why that can’t be provided in the unrecognized community, he counters: “One thousand seven hundred schools for each little community? The land is state land, and we don’t have so much.”
Others say that the Negev has hundreds of thousands of hectares of open land, but Regavim argues the state has to be thinking in terms of hundreds of years from now.
The reality on the ground is that there is little prospect for change; the processes set in place decades ago continue. The Beduin community grows. People leave crowded towns to live in unrecognized communities.
Services in the towns are among the worst in the country, as is tax collection, and outside the towns they are nonexistent. The state is involved in a cycle of demolitions but doesn’t see the forest for the trees. The odd thing is that both sides use the same statistics and background to illustrate two opposing points. Both sides want a compromise that ends with legal communities that receive services.
How to get there is the question.