PMO official: Current Beduin situation in Negev unsustainable

Doron Almog is intent on settling Beduin despite the political outcry, says Beduin land claims have not been proven.

Beduin women yelling 370 (photo credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters)
Beduin women yelling 370
(photo credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters)
The outcry from across the political spectrum against the government’s controversial Prawer-Begin plan, which seeks to regulate Arab settlement in the Negev, does not faze Maj.- Gen. (res.) Doron Almog. Like any good military leader, he is focused on carrying out the task before him, which is to implement the modernization, resettlement and legalization of the South’s Beduin communities.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Monday in his office at the Prime Minister’s Office – where he has been in charge of the department that handles Beduin issues since 2012 – Almog went directly to the heart of the issue. Stating bluntly that the courts had not proven Beduin land claims, he said that nevertheless, the government- sponsored plan – which narrowly passed its first reading in the Knesset last month – offered the Beduin a fair compromise to settle the matter once and for all. That compromise involves recognizing around 63 percent of Beduin land claims, offering compensation payments, and providing new, fully-functioning communities.
His role, he said, is to make sure that the government plans for solving the Beduin conflict are implemented.
“Israel has lost governance [in the Beduin sector in the Negev],” he said. “Most do not pay taxes, and around 100,000 are living in illegal villages.”
All together, there are around 200,000 Beduin in the Negev, he said, declaring the current situation “unsustainable.”
Almog denied claims from some NGOs that the government was not working with the Beduin for a solution. The government is not pursuing a unilateral plan, but seeking to cooperate with them, he said, adding that his team was guiding all government activity on the ground and was sending Arabic-speaking mediators to negotiate with the Beduin on the government’s behalf.
He insisted that there were Beduin willing to accept a compromise.
As an example, he pointed out that one tribal leader, who served in the IDF, had come to him with an agreement to bring all of his people to live in one community of 150 hectares (370 acres), instead of the 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) that they had previously occupied.
However, Almog said the Arab political leadership and other NGOs were working against any such compromise solution. These forces want to “make a linkage between the Palestinian conflict and the Beduin conflict,” he said.
His office works together with the Beduin Development Authority, which deals specifically with the land issue and has offices in Beersheba.
Almog says his office is focusing on improving the living standards of the Beduin youth – who are more open to integrating into the state and modernity – by improving employment opportunities, education and transportation, among other initiatives.
The problem of land claims, he said, concerned 35 unrecognized Arab villages. He avoided going into detail about the hundreds of other illegal settlements present in the Negev, stating simply that the Beduin were included in the state’s plans for the area, which took into account that the Beduin population was doubling every 15 years.
Responding to skepticism about the likelihood of the law’s implementation, Almog said that the Beduin were equal citizens, with the accompanying rights and obligations.
The new law calls for a five-year period to settle the land claims and legal processes.
“Enforcement will be used as a last resort,” he said. “The end state of this program” will see the Beduin living legally in “modern communities.”
However, Thabet Abu Rass, the head of the Negev branch of Arab legal rights group Adalah, told the Post on Tuesday that “the current plan being considered is all about imposing a plan on the Beduin, which they never talked to anybody about” when making it.
Only after the plan was finished and “under pressure from us and other NGOs did they appoint [former minister] Bennie Begin to listen to grievances,” he said, arguing that Begin had just marketed the plan the same way that Almog’s mediators were marketing it.
He said Almog’s negotiators were really just pressuring the Beduin to move to one of the recognized Beduin settlements because they had no other options, as their villages would be destroyed.
Regarding a plan to extend Highway 6 as part of the government’s development of the Negev, Rass complained that the planned construction called for destroying several villages.
“Nobody took them [the Beduin] into consideration,” he said. “The issue is that the Israeli government is offering different options to Jewish citizens than to the Beduin. This is the truth.”
He stressed that “we support development and have been screaming [about] this case for many years.” The state had neglected the Beduin for decades, he said, so “why the rush now to solve a sensitive issue in a few years?”
Amichai Yogev, southern regional director of the NGO Regavim – which describes itself as seeking to ensure responsible, legal and accountable use of the country’s land – told the Post on Tuesday that if the Prawer-Begin law passed as it was now, there was no way to know exactly how it would be implemented.
“The plan does not mention which villages will be destroyed and which ones will be legalized,” he said, emphasizing that it seemed Almog and the government would be able to carry out the plan the way they wanted, without specific guidelines.
Yogev thinks a real possibility is that the Beduin will not agree to move, and he said Almog was not willing to say what he would do if the plan did not work out.
“Almog says his plan is the only option available, but there are other options that are a lot better,” he said.
Regarding Rass’s claim that state building favored Jews over Beduin, Yogev claimed this was not true.
“Ask how much money goes to the Beduin and how much to Jews,” he said, noting that billions of shekels were budgeted for the Beduin, yet there was a lack of plans to build new Jewish settlements in the Negev.