MKs square off over illegal Negev housing

While their normal battleground may be the Knesset's plenum floor, a group of right-wing MKs took their fight to the field Sunday and nearly came to blows with Arab MK Taleb a-Sanaa. The group of National Union MKs had arrived in the Negev for a tour of unrecognized Beduin villages, which they believe should be dismantled before the government turns its attention to illegal outposts such as Amona. The MKs were in the midst of their tour when an argument broke out between them, Sanaa and several local Beduin men. Each side claims that the other provoked the row, and eventually police were called in to separate the two groups. "Sanaa just wanted to provoke us, to stir up trouble," said Barry Rosenburg, a spokesman for the National Union. "What's funny is that his house is built on unrecognized land; it is one of the homes we are contesting." Sanaa could not be reached for comment by press time, but Hussein al-Rafiah, the head of the Negev's Local Council of Unrecognized Beduin Villages, witnessed the fight and claimed that it was the National Union MKs who instigated the argument. "We did not go to Jerusalem, to their homes, and begin to insult them," said Rafiah. "They came to our homes, to our doorsteps, with rhetoric of hate. They told us we shouldn't be there. What would you do? We did not want to let them in to our homes." Rafiah added that he has invited visiting MKs into his home in the past, but the National Union MKs' visit was politically motivated and staged to rouse support for their party ahead of the election. "They came here to turn us into settlers, but we are not settlers," said Rafiah. "You cannot compare us to the settlers. They choose where they can live and we have no choice. We build here illegally because, where else are we going to go?" The National Union, however, said that they were trying to draw public attention to the thousands of illegal buildings in the Negev. "The government says they are concerned with illegal construction," said Rosenburg. "Well, they have thousands of illegal buildings and Amona had nine. Which problem is more serious?" Sliman Abu Zaed, who works as a coordinator at the Forum for Coexistence in the Negev, said more than half of the Beduin in the Negev, roughly 88,000 people, live in unrecognized villages. He claimed the government had "nowhere else to put them." "There are several official Beduin towns, but they are full; you cannot relocate 88,000 people there," said Abu Zaed. "These people don't have anywhere else to go, and they have no one from whom to get official permits." Sunday's argument, said Abu Zaed, only increased tension over the issue. "We work towards better dialogue between communities in the Negev," he said. "What happened Sunday strengthens us further, because we look at the [National Union] MKs and say they are extreme, we are working against that sort of extremism." Prior to the tour, MK Arye Eldad sent a letter to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert requesting that he investigate various complaints of intimidation by Beduin officials against Jewish communities in the Negev. "The Beduin here tell the Israelis that if they don't want to get hurt, if they don't want their cars or homes burned down, they need to pay a certain 'fee,'" said Rosenburg. "It's like the mafia." Rafiah said that Eldad's claims were ridiculous, and Abu Zaed argued that the majority of Beduin in the Negev were interested in peacefully coexisting with their neighbors. "Those MKs came from the political extreme. At this stage there are elections in Israel and these type of extremist parties are trying to make their voices heard at the expense of the weaker sectors of Israeli society," said Abu Zaed.