Depriving the Beduin of their land

How Israel treats its Arab minority is a true test of its democracy.

Beduin Village (photo credit: ESTEBAN ALTERMAN)
Beduin Village
(photo credit: ESTEBAN ALTERMAN)
Once again, the fragile relationship between Arabs and Jews in Israel is making headlines. The Prawer-Begin Bill, intended to regulate Beduin settlement in the Negev Desert, passed its first reading in the Knesset June 24, with Arab MKs harshly slamming the proposed law.
The Beduin land issue, including the recognition of Beduin villages, inspired a special meeting of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, the umbrella organization of all Arab leaders and representatives of Arab political parties in Israel, and the announcement of a general strike in the Arab sector, which was held on July 15.
From the point of view of the Beduin community, the land issue is not an issue of real estate; it’s about identity. It’s linked to the continued existence of this unique group of people who have lived in the Negev for hundreds of years – well before a modern Jewish community existed in the area. Even the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate recognized the Beduin as the rightful owners of this land, and refrained from disrupting their traditional lifestyle and land ownership scheme.
Over the last few years, Israel has increased its development of the Negev, which is a positive move. This region, which makes up some 60 percent of Israel’s total area, is home to only about 8 percent of its citizens. The Beduin comprise almost one-third of Negev residents, yet reside on only 2 percent of Negev land; they are currently demanding ownership of 5.5 percent.
The Beduin are in favor of developing the land for the good of all of its inhabitants, but oppose development when it is carried out at their expense. The government has recommended that Beduin be concentrated in specific towns where they would receive basic services. According to government reports, these towns are the poorest in the country and their socioeconomic standing is among the lowest.
The Prawer-Begin plan promotes the forced relocation of the Beduin into urban townships against their will. It also requires that the vast majority of Beduin land be confiscated. This program includes unprecedented clauses that would harm the Beduin and their proprietary rights, as well as Israel’s democratic principles. It requires special criteria for Beduin villages to be recognized, different to the criteria that are currently required for the Jewish rural sector.
Additionally, for the first time in its history, Israel is officially closing off certain territories to a group of citizens, not for security reasons, but according to people’s ethnicity. And to make matters worse, the implementation of such a program would also bring about the demolition of at least 20 Beduin villages and the uprooting of more than 40,000 people.
The Prawer-Begin plan is as vague as it is complex; it comprises 65 sections spread over 85 pages. It does not include maps, nor does it state which villages would be recognized or the final amount of Beduin territory that would be given as compensation. It is rampant with discrimination. Only a year ago, dozens of illegal Jewish farms were approved. And now, the state is planning to uproot the Beduin villages that are hundreds of years old and establish exclusively Jewish towns in their place. The most striking example of this is the planned demolition of the unrecognized Beduin village of Umm el-Hieran, even after the National Committee for Planning and Building recommended in 2010 that it be recognized as an official Beduin village.
According to the Regional Master Plan for the Beersheba Metropolitan Area, a Jewish community called Hiran will be built in place of the soon-to-be demolished Umm el-Hieran. And, as if that isn’t bad enough, a core group of Jewish families has already been formed and is currently living in the Yatir Forest, just five kilometers from the unrecognized village, waiting until they can build their own homes on this spot.
Israel’s attitude toward the security/ demographic situation is especially worrying with respect to Beduin villages in the Negev. Almost all of the individuals involved in the creation and implementation of the Prawer-Begin plan are people with strong military backgrounds, with the exception of Likud Knesset Member Benny Begin who was appointed by the government to hear Beduin reservations about Ehud Prawer’s original plan, to which he made some minor modifications prior to presenting it to the Knesset. Prawer is the former deputy head of the National Security Council. Maj.- Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, the head of the National Security Council, was the first person to alter the plan following opposition amount of compensation that the Beduin would receive, and he made the terms more stringent. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Doron Almog is in charge of implementing the plan and his deputy, Ami Tessler, is a former commander of the IDF’s 8200 Unit. In addition, former police commander Yehuda Bachar is heading the newly formed Authority for the Regulation of Beduin Settlement, which is responsible for coordinating the implementation of the Prawer-Begin Plan.
This impressive group of individuals, all of whom have been involved in security-related fields, conveys the impression, especially among the Beduin, that this is not a civil issue, but a military operation. Media coverage has also been hostile toward the Beduin, and reports are based on discourse and politics of fear. The Beduin are usually shown as having “high reproduction rates and as thieves who want to take over national land.”
Israel claims that the Beduin never held privately owned land in the Negev, and according to Israeli law the Beduin have no legal rights to the land. Regardless, the Beduin land issue is a political/moral issue, not a legal one. No one is disputing the fact that the Beduin controlled this area before the establishment of Israel. British aerial photographs show that in the pre-state years Beduin were engaged in agriculture and had a semi-nomadic lifestyle.
Historical documents also prove that they bought and sold land. It’s interesting to note that Jews who bought land from Beduin have been able to successfully register these lands under their names in the Land Registry, whereas when Beduin or their descendants try to register that same land, their claims are not recognized.
The key component of the proposed law ignores the property rights of a majority of Beduin who owned extensive land in the Negev before 1948. Unlike previous proposals, the new law excludes all land not currently owned by Beduin from the compensation scheme. In other words, more than half of the claimants who were expelled from their land in the western Negev and the Har Hanegev area in the 1950s would not be able to receive land compensation for their claims. Instead of correcting a historic injustice, this new law doubly punishes these citizens; they were punished for the first time when they were expelled from their land, and are being punished again as their claims to their land are being denied. Of course, no one would be willing to accept such an offensive arrangement.
The Prawer-Begin plan is not realistic. It would be extremely difficult to implement not only because of the blatant injustice and discrimination against Beduin, but because it does not take into account the cultural and tribal issues involved. The state is currently proposing that some Beduin live in towns located on land that belong to other tribes.
The plan, if implemented, will bring about a clash between traditional tribal law and civil law. There is no doubt that most of the community feels a stronger allegiance to the former. The Beduin oppose “seizing control” of other tribes’ land and so prefer to live on land under Israeli control – an option that is not available according to the proposed law.
Neither Israel nor the Beduin will benefit from continued discrimination and the exclusion of the Beduin. The land issue can be resolved. It would require canceling the Prawer-Begin Plan and beginning meaningful dialogue with Beduin leaders and landowners, something that has never been done before. The discussion should include alternative plans prepared by Beduin in which their villages would be legally recognized. The Beduin are not asking for anything more than Israel currently offers its Jewish citizens, especially those in the Negev. The Beduin should be offered various settlement options, especially for farming villages, and should be required to meet the same planning criteria to establish new communities in Israel.
Democracy cannot be implemented merely by holding elections, especially when the majority rules tyrannically and the country comprises different communities and cultures. No true democracy can function without granting human rights to minorities; how Israel treats its Arab minority will always be under examination. The new law, if it passes, will join the dozens of other racist laws promoted by the right wing in recent years.
With the passing of the first reading of the Prawer-Begin Bill, the Knesset has turned a corner in Israeli democracy, declared war on the Beduin and jeopardized relations between its Jewish majority and Arab minority. The Negev belongs to all of its inhabitants, Jews and Beduin alike. It is large enough for everyone and all state development plans. What is missing is a courageous and democratic leadership in Israel that would treat its Arab citizens – especially the Beduin community – as equals.
The author is the director of the Negev office of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and a lecturer in political geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.