Battle in the Negev

In the aftermath of "Day of Rage" protests, a spectrum of groups condemns the Prawer-Begin bill.

Beduin resettlemnt protest IDF 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Beduin resettlemnt protest IDF 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Condemnation of the Prawer-Begin Plan for Beduin resettlement in the Negev, which is currently being debated in the Knesset, has brought unlikely unity among different groups in opposition of the bill, but with a large variance of opinion.
In the aftermath of protests last week, which saw violent clashes at the Hura Junction in the Negev, in east Jerusalem and in Haifa, those in opposition to the Prawer- Begin Plan were split over whether the bill magnified a dispute over land claims that should be settled legally, or if this was part of Israel’s ongoing discrimination not only against Beduin, but against all Arab minorities in the Jewish state.
Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages of the Negev (RCUVN) head Atiyeh al-Asam was one of the organizers of the demonstration at Hura Junction, where protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and burned tires. A police officer was stabbed in the leg, and police responded to the violence with water cannons, tear gas and sound grenades.
Asam, a Beduin himself, is the de facto leader of the unrecognized settlements in the Negev, and said he will continue to urge the Israeli public to stand with the Beduin against the Prawer-Begin Plan, which is a five-year economic development initiative seeking to regulate Beduin settlement in the South and aims for a compromise solution for tens of thousands of Beduin in unrecognized villages, legalizing 63 percent of claimed land. He said if the plan becomes law, which he expects, it will destroy 35 unrecognized villages and displace the approximately 50,000 Beduin he serves. (RCVUN represents residents’ interests.) Yet activists referred to Saturday’s protests as an international “Day of Rage,” and supporters of not only Beduin but also Palestinians protested in Israel, Europe and North America.
Asam asserted, however, that the RCUVN will continue to dispute the bill with the backing of sympathetic NGOs and political parties, and that his organization will continue to appeal to the UN and international governments.
But Ari Briggs, director of international relations for Regavim, said the involvement of Arab radicals in Saturday’s protests is altering the dispute from a “local issue” to a “nationalist issue.” “It’s not [a nationalist issue],” he affirmed.
Regavim is an NGO that seeks to ensure responsible, legal and accountable use of Israel’s national land.
Briggs said that in addition to Beduin, Arabs from elsewhere in Israel – such as those from the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel – appeared at the protests. The biggest concern for Regavim is that such demonstrations would end in a clash, Briggs said.
“You’ll always find the extreme few that will enrage others” to join those types of protests, he added.
Regarding the extent of the conflict between the Beduin and Israel, Briggs affirmed it’s not a “national issue.” He said that “it’s about illegal squatters claiming this is their land.
The government has to put a law in place.”
Despite Regavim’s support for the Prawer Plan, assigning displaced Beduin sizable areas of land, Briggs said the NGO is demanding that former MK Bennie Begin more clearly show how all the resolutions will be enacted and how they expect the makeup of the Negev to change.
Briggs added that Israel is offering billions of dollars to this minority, which is undeveloped economically, to bring them up to the level of the rest of Israeli society.
“None of Israel’s neighbors would ever do this,” said Briggs, citing persecution of Christians in Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Egypt.
Negev resident and journalist Akiva Bigman condemned the Prawer-Begin bill for fomenting Arab nationalism, that he said characterized Saturday’s protests. Bigman covers the Beduin for the Hebrew news website Meida.
He claims the pressure is intensifying because Begin raised the Beduin land claim from a legal matter to a national concern, by drafting the Begin Plan.
“The land claims [comprise] only a legal issue between private people and the state,” Bigman said. “It needs to be resolved in the state [court].”
Begin, according to Bigman, changed a ”private” matter into a “collective” preoccupation of the government to solve the future of the Negev.
“You create a platform for nationalistic argument that attracts radicals from the Islamic Right. You build the platform for nationalistic argument,” said Bigman. “It leads you to deal with nationalist wars between Beduin and Jews.”
Bigman considers last Saturday a “peak [in tension] for the meantime.”
He hopes it will lead to a realization that the Prawer-Begin bill is defective and will instead cause the Beduin’s land claims being resolved legally.
Bigman said that in total, this is a debate about Beduin.
The director of Adalah’s Naqab (Negev) Office, Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, condemned Saturday’s violence, but praised the fact that it publicized the Beduin’s nationalistic fight against the Prawer-Begin bill and the entire Arab population’s struggle for more rights in Israel.
Adalah, which is a humanitarian organization that defends Arab minority rights in Israel, favors development of the Negev, but is against its uneven development that discriminates against the Beduin.
Rass indicated that the Negev comprises 60% of the total area of Israel. He asked why the government is focusing on the 5% of the Negev the Beduin are claiming.
Rass continued to declare that the government’s demolition of Beduin villages to build Jewish settlements is “an early warning about the existence of the Beduin, and an early apartheid.”
“It’s undemocratic,” Rass said. “The government is trying to increase the Judaization of the State of Israel.”
Rabbis For Human Rights president Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who is intimately involved with the Beduin, “eschewed” the protests’ violence.
But he hopes future solidarity between Beduin and other Arabs and Palestinians continue, which he said is often lacking. Ascherman endorsed an alternative plan to the Prawer-Begin bill that RCUVN drafted in coordination with other NGOs, which recognizes Beduin villages and involves Beduin in the development of the Negev.
If the bill becomes law, the government intends to invest NIS 1.2 billion in its development plan, which mainly deals with employment, education, infrastructure and public transportation, said Lirit Serfas, who heads the Strategic Planning Department.
“I regret that some people are trying to focus this issue not from a humanitarian thing, but a national thing,” Serfas said. “What we are focused on and what we want to see is a significant change in the quality of life of the Beduin.
“In order to regulate the villages, we have to resolve the land conflict.”