Built on sand

A new government plan tries to solve the problem of Bedouin land rights in the Negev.

Built on sand  (photo credit: MEDAD GELKOFF)
Built on sand
(photo credit: MEDAD GELKOFF)
In a stark desert valley just northwest of the city of Dimona in the central Negev lies the Bedouin village of Qasr a-Sir. It is typical of the scores of Bedouin settlements scattered throughout the Negev: a sprawling jumble of tin shacks, cinderblock structures, livestock pens, leantos and refuse dumps. An urban planner’s nightmare.
It is a common scene throughout the Negev.
What was once a striking desert landscape has become an eyesore. The cause: a lack of planning and infrastructure for the 190,000 Bedouin Arabs who live in the area.
Roughly half of the Negev Bedouin live in eight government-built towns and 12 recognized villages. The other half live in “unrecognized villages” or, as the Israeli authorities refer to them, the “Bedouin dispersion.”
These unrecognized communities, which range from tiny clusters of tents to ramshackle villages of cinder blocks and tin roofs, occupy about five percent of the Negev’s three million acres. Not acknowledged by any authority, their residents have no rights to municipal services, such as running water, electricity, sewage or garbage collection. Since they do not officially exist, the authorities have refused to draw up the statutory plans necessary for legal development, so anything constructed there is illegal and subject to demolition. Thousands of homes have been destroyed over the years, only to be rebuilt.
The result is widespread poverty and social neglect, polygamy, inadequate education, an extremely high birthrate, rampant crime that includes smuggling, trafficking and car theft, and a profound resentment and distrust of the state.
But most of the residents refuse to move, demanding title to the land they claim their ancestors have inhabited for generations.
“I don’t know how to square this third-world reality with our modern start-up nation state,” says Zvi Hacohen, Rector of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, capital of the Negev.
“We can’t move forward when half the population is being left behind. If we don’t right these injustices they will blow up in our faces.”
Draft law
Now, after decades of neglect, scores of committees and mountains of plans, the Knesset will soon be asked to approve a new draft law that aims to resolve the long-simmering problem and address the decades-long debate over Bedouin land ownership claims. The “Plan for the regularization of Bedouin settlements in the Negev,” approved by the Cabinet in September 2011 and officially adopted as a draft law by a special committee of the Prime Minister’s Office in March, will be debated in the Knesset after the summer recess.
The draft bill will enshrine as law a plan that proposes the relocation of up to 40,000 people, two-thirds of the rural Bedouin population, from unrecognized communities and moving them into existing villages and towns, offering financial compensation for those who lose their homes. The government claims that the proposed legislation, drafted by a committee headed by Ehud Prawer, head of the policy planning division in the Prime Minister’s Office, will “develop the Negev and help bring economic development, infrastructure and educational systems to the Bedouin community.”
Critics, including human-rights groups and virtually the entire Bedouin community, have rejected the Prawer plan outright.
The checkered history of the State’s relationship to its Bedouin citizens has spawned alienation and rage. Since September there have been more than a dozen protest demonstrations against the proposed law and frustration is growing.
“All it takes is one mistake, hundreds of troops descending on a village, someone accidentally shooting a child, and the match will be lit that will become a conflagration,” warns Eli Atzmon, a planning expert who advises Bedouin communities.
Tribally homogenous
Qasr a-Sir (“Palace of Mystery”), traditional home of the al-Hawashla tribe, differs from most Bedouin villages in the Negev. It is recognized by the government, one of 12 Bedouin communities officially proclaimed as villages in 2003 under a novel scheme to move the residents from unauthorized clusters into tribally homogeneous towns under the umbrella of the newly-formed Abu Basma Regional Council. The council provides incentives for people to move into proper villages by providing public buildings, roads, water, waste disposal, electricity and other municipal services. In the center of Qasr a-Sir there are three brand new school buildings, a community center, administrative center and a health clinic, grouped together in the only section of the village connected by a paved road. There is also a proper sign on the highway directing visitors to the community. But the development stops there, just as it does in all the villages of the Abu Basma Council.
Despite becoming “legal,” the residents of Qasr a-Sir, like most other Bedouin residents in the Negev, cannot get building permits to build proper homes. The reason is the unresolved issue of land ownership, the heart of the decades-long ethnic and civil standoff.
In the 1970s, the Justice Ministry opened an office for Bedouin to register land claims.
They were promised the possibility of monetary compensation for land they could no longer use. Some 3,500 people submitted claims and even received receipts, but never heard further. Many of them are no longer alive, but their descendants – now numbering approximately 20,000 – still maintain the claims.
One of the claimants is Ibrahim al-Hawashla, head of the Qasr a-Sir local council, a role he inherited from his father, who was the village sheikh. Stretched out on a mattress in the lean-to he uses as a hospitality tent, the 48-year-old school-bus driver pours coffee for visitors. He recalls having to walk the six kilometers to the nearest elementary school when he was six. “I was too small to ride a donkey so I had to go on foot. When I got a little older, I was allowed to ride the donkey back and forth to school,” al-Hawashla recalls.
The traditional al-Hawashla tribal lands include most of the area of the present day city of Dimona, but today they must make do with a small percentage of their original territory.
Al-Hawashla’s family registered its territorial claims in the 1970s, only to discover the entire area had been proclaimed a closed military zone. “All of a sudden we started receiving sacks of official letters telling us that any unregistered structures were illegal and subject to demolition,” he says. “No one knew what to do. Everyone was scared and people started hiring lawyers. We finally understood that we had to form some sort of public body to fight for our rights.”
The body that emerged was the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages, established in 1997 by residents of 45 shanty towns representing approximately 70,000 people or about half of the total Bedouin population in the Negev at the time.
Partly as a result of the publicity generated by the new organization, Qasr a-Sir became one of 12 previously unrecognized settlements eventually granted government recognition under the Abu Basma plan.
The next step was to plan the newly legalized community.
“We have our own tradition, and we want ed to plan the village according to our own needs,” says al-Hawashla. The Abu Basma Regional Council agreed to turn over the task of planning Qasr a-Sir to Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, a group of planners, geographers and architects, which describes its mission as “strengthening democracy and human rights in the field of planning.” Bimkom completed a blueprint but when the villagers asked for permits to build their houses, they were denied. The Israel Lands Authority (ILA ) demanded that residents sign an agreement giving up ownership claims for any parcels of land in any other location.
No electricity
“Without giving up our claims there’s no building permit, no electricity, not even for the IDF officers who live here,” says Ibrahim al-Hawashla, referring to the many Bedouin residents who serve in the armed forces.
“Without signing the agreement, there’s no deal.” “This is heartbreaking after all our work,” says Nili Baruch, a town planner and head of Bimkom’s Community Planning Department who supervised the Qasr a-Sir project.
“There are other places that have been well planned – on paper – but we have been unable to develop them.”
“There are many reasons for this, including the Bedouins’ own internal disputes. There is this dissonance between the state’s legal system and the traditional system accepted by the Bedouin. Perhaps it would have been better to tailor the law to the Bedouin reality and not the other way around,” she says.
Bedouin Arabs, known historically as nomads with intricate networks of tribal and clan lines, arrived in the Negev in various waves from Saudi Arabia and Sinai in the last 300 years in search of water sources.
By the early 20th century, 96 tribes had settled into their own recognized territories.
For generations, the Bedouin employed an organized, mutually recognized, traditional system of property acquisition. Most did not register their landholdings under the Negev’s previous rulers – the Ottomans and the British – for many reasons, including the fear of being taxed or drafted into the Ottoman army.
During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, most Negev Bedouin fled or were expelled to Jordan, the Sinai or the Gaza Strip. The remaining tribes were forcibly relocated into a restricted zone in the northeastern Negev, known as the syag (“enclosure”).
The State of Israel was able to exploit the lack of official registration to ignore or deny the Bedouins’ ownership claims. “Everyone knows precisely where the traditional territorial borders are – there are maps and aerial photographs,” says Dodik Shoshani, who was the first director of the Bedouin Administration, originally part of the ILA . “But according to the law, this doesn’t hold because most have no documentation.”
“The Bedouin today are sitting on land where the government sent them,” explains Shoshani, who has been closely involved with the Bedouin in various official roles for half a century. “In the 1950s they were sent from place to place, and then told to go back to where they came from. So they went back and set up their tents, and today these are the unrecognized villages.”
Indeed, Bedouin who do take their land claims to court almost always lose, with the court declaring almost every area under dispute as state land.”
In March 2012, in what may be a precedentsetting ruling, the Beersheba District Court rejected claims filed by 17 members of the al-Okbi clan for ownership of 1,000 dunams, or 250 acres, of land in the northern Negev, which the family claim they held for generations until the state confiscated it in 1951. The complex and often bitter legal proceedings went on for more than three years, during which the State and the Bedouin plaintiffs each brought extensive, often arcane, expert testimonies from the country’s most prominent authorities on historical and political geography, each presenting ancient documents, yellowing maps and early 20th century aerial photographs.
Central to the Bedouin case was the issue of Ottoman-era and British Mandate land laws, which, they argued, had granted legal autonomy to local farmers to organize ownership rights over ancestral lands in accordance with Bedouin customary law. This was the reason the land in question was never formally recorded in the Ottoman-era tabu land registry.
Significantly, the area under discussion includes the fiercely contested village of al- Araqib north of Beersheba. The site of an ongoing, often violent, conflict between Bedouin residents and the State, al-Araqib has become an international cause célèbre. The village, which at last count has been bulldozed by the authorities and rebuilt by the residents and their supporters 35 times, has become a symbol of the Bedouin struggle.
In its ruling, the Beersheba District Court accepted the State’s position that the land belongs to the State and that its purpose is for public use. Without formal registration, the judge stated, the complainants had not proven their ownership rights. One of the petitioners, Nuri el-Okbi, has appealed against the ruling to the Supreme Court.
In the 1970s, the government decided to solve the problem through urbanization. It constructed eight towns around Beersheba and encouraged Bedouin families to move there. Each family was provided with a house on a properly-paved street with electricity, water, schools, and even a local shopping and commercial center. The only condition was that the family must relinquish all claims to traditional grazing lands outside the towns.
The government’s declared intention in building the towns was to provide basic services to the Bedouin population. The other unstated, though generally understood, motive, was to move as many Bedouin as possible into urban locales to prevent them from cultivating or claiming ownership of the lands the state had expropriated in the 1950s, and to encourage them to abandon their traditional livelihood of livestock farming. But half of the Bedouin population refused to take up the offer and remained outside the official housing arrangements.
The Prawer legislation now pending is meant to be the practical implementation of recommendations made by a public committee chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg in 2009. Goldberg’s committee was told that the Bedouin in the unrecognized villages preferred rural settlements where they could practice their way of life, rather than coerced urbanization in already impoverished towns. Though Goldberg did not specifically accept Bedouin land ownership claims, he did acknowledge their historic connection to the land they are living on.
“The Bedouin are legitimate residents of the Negev and not trespassers or squatters,” Goldberg concluded. He recommended that as many of the Bedouin villages as possible be recognized, and that the Bedouin themselves be involved in determining their own future.
While Bedouin leaders did not fully endorse Goldberg’s recommendations, they say he at least listened to everyone, while charging that Prawer’s committee ignored them completely.
Prawer’s deliberations were also dominated by security officials, making it seem as if the Bedouin – many of whom still serve in the IDF – are a security threat rather than full citizens with a legitimate grievance.
Many of Goldberg’s recommendations were scrapped in Prawer’s draft, whose language, opponents claim, is both threatening and confusing.
The proposed law agrees to recognize Bedouin ownership of half the territory currently occupied – about 200,000 dunams or 50,000 acres – under certain stringent conditions, but dismisses recognition of additional villages.
Compensation Under the proposed legislation, certain areas would be cleared immediately, with all structures demolished and all residents evacuated without the necessity of a court injunction.
There are also guidelines for financial compensation for those relocated, and in some cases compensation in the form of alternate plots of land. In addition, the government says that half of the NIS 1 billion ($260 million) budgeted for the five-year plan is earmarked for education, vocational training and women’s empowerment.
According to Prawer, there are 19 sites approved for resettlement. But critics say most of these are not practical because the designated land is disputed by other Bedouin families and the state. In the towns there are scores of vacant plots, but they are claimed by others, so no one else will move there.
“Each piece of land, each parcel, belongs by consensus and understanding, if not by law, to different families and tribes,” explains Eli Atzmon, a former head of the Negev Bedouin Authority, and today an independent consultant on land issues. “There is no vacuum here.
No one will move to a piece of land that is claimed by someone else.”
“The Bedouin land dispute is not a legal problem, although the Justice Ministry is constantly presenting it this way. There is a Bedouin mindset, a culture that government officials don’t seem to understand. No one will move to a piece of land that is claimed by someone else. No law will change this,” he says.
“There are thousands of available plots in the Bedouin towns,” says Dudu Cohen, a former Interior Ministry Southern District Commissioner who now heads the Abu Basma Regional Council. “Why don’t they move in? Because one tribe can’t get along with another.
I’m not proposing to bring in a tribe when I know there’s been friction, but families where there are no long-standing quarrels.”
Critics say that Cohen either does not understand or does not care about the nuances of Bedouin society. “This is governmentimposed class war,” storms Dr. Thabet Abu- Ras, Negev Bedouin Project Director for Adalah, the legal center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. “The authorities are trying We can’t move forward when half the population is being left behind.
If we don’t right these injustices they will blow up in our faces to move in people that were once the black servants or the employees of residents.
What are the social implications of this? Maybe it’s good for human rights, but for the Bedouin, you are ruining their social hierarchy.”
It is also true that most of the eight towns remain some of the country’s most destitute.
Eli Atzmon, the planning consultant, points to Tel Sheva, east of Beersheba, as one of the sorrier examples.
Nowhere ready
“Tel Sheva has existed for 40 years and just look at it,” exclaims Atzmon, pulling up an aerial photo of the town on his computer screen. “Except for the main road, there are no proper roads. There are just open areas filled with trash and garbage. These are areas claimed by Bedouin families living elsewhere. The place is like a jungle at night, with drug dealers and stolen car chop shops. Who would want to move here?” The government could turn Tel Sheva into a model town, Atzmon suggests, if it was willing to spend the money to fix it up and reach agreement on the unoccupied areas.
“If you wanted to resettle even one Bedouin tomorrow, there’s not a single place or plot that’s ready,” argues Clinton Bailey, a historian and anthropologist who has followed the issue closely over several decades. “Unless we settle land ownership claims with the Bedouin for a price they can use in the free market, and lay down infrastructure so we can move people in, there’s no point in talking about anything. You can’t just move a family overnight and stick them on another piece of land with nothing around. That is cruel, and the country won’t get away with it.”
Abu Basma Council head Dudu Cohen insists that the government is limited because of the lack of available land. “You look at the map of greater Beersheba and you’d think there is a lot of open land, but there isn’t” says Cohen, spreading out a large map on his desk.
“You can see where the trans-Israel highway will go, where the train tracks go, the airfield that already exists, nature preserves, forests and industrial zones. There are no available spaces that haven’t been previously zoned,” he says, noting that some of the villages are near gas lines, military bases, power plants and toxic landfills – areas obviously inappropriate for habitation. “The Prawer proposal sets down certain criteria for who can set up a settlement and where.
You can’t settle anywhere you want in the country,” he says.
But critics say the obstacles preventing Bedouin settlement suddenly disappear when Jewish communities are planned. “It is absolutely untrue that these villages cannot be accommodated and cannot be recognized,” insists Nili Baruch of Bimkom.
“When the government wants to set up Jewish settlements wherever they want, they have no problem doing it. It is so enraging.
These people live here, they’ve lived here since before Dimona and Arad. There is no doubt that from the point of view of planning it is absolutely possible – it is simply a matter of priorities.”
No one doubts what those priorities are.
In October 2011, the Cabinet approved the construction of 10 new Jewish communities in the desert area around the city of Arad. To the dismay of environmental groups and the horrified exasperation of Bedouin rights advocates, the government stated that it had decided to approve the plans “in order to attract a new population to the Negev by increasing the housing supply in the area.”
“A Jewish Israeli can live anywhere he wants,” says Abu-Ras of Adalah. “Why can’t the Bedouin also live in rural communities? Kibbutz Revivim has only 300 people, Kerem Shalom and Shomriya only have 100 people. All that is needed are the basics: running water, paved roads.”
As the land claims have piled up, so have the plans to solve the incendiary dilemma of Bedouin housing. In 2011, a team of city planners, architects, geographers and legal experts launched an alternative master plan commissioned by the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages. It proposes allowing most of the 35 unrecognized villages to remain, providing them with basic infrastructure and development, and suggests ways of preserving both traditional Bedouin village organization and open space. Ben-Gurion University professor Oren Yiftachel, one of the drafters of this proposal, complains that his team tried repeatedly to meet with the Prawer committee but were only able to present their ideas three days before the draft law went to the government. “Obviously, it had no impact,” sighs Yiftachel.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has proposed its own alternative plan. Bedouin MK Talab El-Sana has formed a Knesset lobby to try to derail the proposed law.
Meanwhile, far from public view, a highpowered group of academic experts, Bedouin leaders and former civil servants began holding quiet consultations at the Joe Alon Bedouin Museum in the Lahav Forest. They drafted yet another set of proposals, which they discussed in a series of off-record meetings with Knesset Members and senior government officials, including Benyamin Begin, the minister appointed to coordinate the legislative process. Begin’s role is to invite comments on the bill from concerned parties and to recommend amendments to the Cabinet legislation committee.
“Our plan is drafted in a way that will not insult or threaten the Bedouin, unlike the Prawer Plan,” says Clinton Bailey, one of the Joe Alon initiators. He says the proposal Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages proposal is unworkable. “It is more extreme in its land demands than any government will go,” he says. “We believe that everyone can be accommodated in the 19 currently approved or existing settlements, but only after more preparation for alternative housing,” he says.
For his part, Begin may be sympathetic to the arguments of the Prawer bill’s opponents, but he has no formal authority to change anything. “This hearing process is unprecedented in its being active and vigorous,” Begin tells The Jerusalem Report. “More than a hundred such meetings with Bedouin families and leaders will have taken place by the end of the process, and I believe that my recommendations will be seriously and positively considered.”
Begin insists that the draft law is following the Goldberg Committee’s central recommendation that unrecognized Bedouin villages will be approved to the extent possible.
“The detailed planning will be carried out with the full participation of the Bedouin communities, and hence the detailed results cannot be realistically specified at present,” Begin promises. “More than 15,000 Bedouins need improved housing, in a variety of settlement forms, but have no claims for land. This should be easier to solve.”