The Beduin view

The government must not relocate the Negev Beduin without providing for a better economic and social future.

The Beduin are particularly enraged at having been excluded (photo credit: FLASH 90)
The Beduin are particularly enraged at having been excluded
(photo credit: FLASH 90)
The violent demonstrations by the Negev Beduin in late November were an authentic expression of their deep discomfort with the proposed “Law for Beduin Settlement in the Negev.” The so-called “Prawer Bill,” (named for Ehud Prawer, the government official who headed the committee that drafted it), is expected to come up for ratification in the Knesset soon. The Beduin, who constitute one-third of all the Negev’s residents, oppose it for three main reasons.
For one, they see the bill as yet another attempt by the state to relocate them without providing for a better economic and social future. The half of their estimated 200,000 population living outside the governmentally “recognized” Beduin towns fear being uprooted from familiar homes and surroundings, only to end up in unfamiliar places without social guidance, effective schooling, vocational training and specific economic horizons – needs that the Prawer Bill fails to address.
Although its preamble makes a perfunctory allusion to these needs, nowhere does the bill mention how much of the 1.2 billion shekels ($340 million) earmarked for Beduin resettlement will actually be devoted to economic development, social welfare and education. One finds no detailed socioeconomic plan with indications of where the money for each item will come from.
These omissions exacerbate already existing mistrust of the government’s intentions.
After all, the Negev Beduin have witnessed the bitter experience of Rahat city and the six recognized towns that were established in the 1960s and 1970s, and which remain at the very bottom of the nation’s socioeconomic index.
Not a day goes by without new accounts of their failure: high unemployment, economic stagnation, social problems that stem from unpreparedness for urban living, and, worst of all, a rampant crime rate among the youth resulting from poor schooling and a lack of jobs.
According to the State Comptroller’s Report in 2002, the state is responsible for this disaster, owing to its unwillingness to provide adequate planning and sufficient funds. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Beduin refuse to believe the vague “promises” in the Prawer Bill that things will be different in their upcoming new towns, and that a huge budget exists for their social betterment.
The second cause of Beduin opposition to the proposed law is indignation at not having been consulted during the planning stages of a bill that dramatically affects their lives. Their participation was specifically recommended in Supreme Court Judge Eliezer Goldberg’s 2008 report on Beduin land claims, which the Prawer Committee was set up to implement.
Goldberg stressed that the “Beduin, as residents and citizens of the state, are not transparent, but have status and rights.” Prawer, however, did not consult with them until his committee’s plan had already been accepted as government policy in September 2011. After that, although then-deputy prime minister Benny Begin held talks with some Beduin leaders, they did not produce any significant changes in the draft of the bill.
The Beduin are particularly enraged at having been excluded from the planning process for the transfer of thousands of their families to new areas designated by the government and the concomitant destruction of the homes in which they have been living for more than a generation. The Beduin bought these pre-fabricated homes as an alternative to their tents after the state forbade them to continue their migratory lifestyle and told them where to stay, pending a permanent solution. In the interim, in an incredible display of bureaucratic arbitrariness, each house was declared illegal for being on “government land” and its residents were denied the most basic amenities: running water, electricity, and sewage.Moreover, despite the fact that the government has prepared no alternative housing plots for these Beduin families for at least a decade, they have been prohibited, on pain of demolition, from improving their dwellings by making them permanent or from setting up new cabins for their married children. Finally, after all this injustice and indignity, the Prawer Bill now threatens to displace them, without having consulted them over the plans or even having told them where they will be moved.
The third source of Beduin opposition to the bill is its rejection of 80 percent of their land ownership claims. Israel has always denied Beduin their rights to the land they acquired before 1948, because they had no official documents from the Ottoman and British Mandatory periods to prove their ownership.
In these periods, however, Beduin acquired land under their own tribal law – the only law then valid in the desert – which accepted land transactions on the basis of oral guaranty rather than written proofs.
In the 1970s, the state ostensibly modified its stance, inviting Beduin to register their private ownership claims, which amounted to 240,000 acres. This procedure, however, was not intended to legalize their claims, but rather to enable the state to acquire their lands through purchase, and at negligible prices that the Beduin largely rejected. Over a 40-year period, they sold the state only 16% of the land they claimed. Their characteristic patience enabled them to sustain the hope that the state would ultimately offer them a just compromise that would not divest them of land they had acquired by law, albeit their own.
To their dismay, however, the Prawer Bill enables confiscation of 80% of this land, much of it on arbitrary grounds that discriminate between various Beduin claimants. In addition, the compensation the bill offers for the remaining 20% of the land is again paltry: between a quarter and half the value of these lands on the free market.
Although some of these lands are earmarked for the Beduin resettlement, roughly two thirds (25,000 out of 40,000 acres) may not be available for that designated purpose, if the ownership claimants reject the proffered compensation. To meet this contingency, the Prawer Bill provides for confiscation of the land in question – forgetting, however, that, according to Beduin custom, no one will agree to live on land claimed by someone else without his permission.
The Prawer Committee need not to have resorted to “law enforcement” in this case, had it adopted Justice Goldberg’s recommendation that Beduin land claims be resolved in civil, rather than legal fashion – that is, without the need to show written proof of ownership.
Instead, the government could have come to an agreement with the claimants recognizing their claims to ownership with the proviso that they make housing plots available to landless Beduin who need them. Such a step would not only have eased Beduin resettlement, but also reduced the overall amount of compensation that the government would have had to pay, thus enabling it to compensate other claimants whose rights the Prawer Bill rejects.
The above notwithstanding, the government could still dispel much opposition to the Prawer Bill. It would need to produce detailed plans for economic development that ensure employment, social services that help Beduin adjust to living in towns and educational facilities that guarantee their children a productive future in the modern world. It would also need to expand options for settlement and recognize land rights to a larger degree. Such amendments to the Prawer Bill would go far toward convincing Beduin that their welfare is a government goal.
If such an approach is pursued in consultation with responsible Beduin representatives, and if monies are allocated with an eye to justice and fairness, Israel could still avoid a conflict with the Beduin that might otherwise plague the Negev for ages to come.
Dr. Clinton Bailey is the author of several books on Beduin history and culture, including “Beduin Law from Sinai and the Negev: Justice without Government”