Bedouin 'warlords,' 'gangs' rule over Jews in Israel's South - opinion

The government of Israel is a weak and subservient actor in the face of wealthy and violent Bedouin clans and well-entrenched mafia-style gangs.

 REGAVIM CEO Meir Deutsch briefs a Kohelet Forum study tour this week, in the Bedouin town of Lakia in the Negev.  (photo credit: Courtesy Kohelet Forum)
REGAVIM CEO Meir Deutsch briefs a Kohelet Forum study tour this week, in the Bedouin town of Lakia in the Negev.
(photo credit: Courtesy Kohelet Forum)

On a Kohelet Forum study tour of southern Israel this week, I learned that Jewish Israelis rapidly are becoming “dhimmis” in the Negev – conquered, cowed, and powerless people under the “protection” of Bedouin warlords and gangs.

The government of Israel, from its municipal authorities and social service agencies to the Israel Police, have become weak and subservient – if not irrelevant – actors in the face of wealthy and violent Bedouin clans and well-entrenched mafia-style gangs.

The problem in Israel's South and the Bedouin of the Negev

It is hard to overstate the dimensions and urgency of the challenge that Israel faces in the Negev. The Bedouin of the Negev are the fastest growing population in the world, doubling in size every 15 years through mass (and illegal) polygamy, today numbering close to 300,000 people. Bedouin land claims have grown from a few thousands to 40,000 claims in recent years over 750,000 dunams of Negev land.

One-third to one-half of the Bedouin live in “dispersed” areas – 2,000 tiny encampments sprawled uncontrollably and illegally across ever-greater tracts of land in the northern Negev – impinging on plans for proper development of the area. In these Bedouin shanty towns, there are no municipal services including basic water and sewage infrastructure, electricity, or educational facilities. There also is no taxation or policing, of course.

Some Bedouin squatters sit on land allocated for public use, such as the national toxic waste depository at Ramat Hovav, meaning that they are a nuisance to Israel and a danger to their own families.

 IDF FORCES on horseback clash with Bedouin during a protest against forestation, in the Negev village of Sawe al-Atrash, Jan. 13.  (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS) IDF FORCES on horseback clash with Bedouin during a protest against forestation, in the Negev village of Sawe al-Atrash, Jan. 13. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

It’s no surprise, then, that these Bedouin communities suffer from extraordinary high rates of unemployment, poverty, violence against women, and especially criminal activity. Islamic radicalization is on the rise too, leading to increased Bedouin involvement in terrorism against Jewish Israelis.

WHEN I FIRST studied and wrote ten years ago about Israel’s difficulties with the Bedouin, my focus was on Bedouin land claims and how to resolve them amicably and fairly. Indeed, that was the focus of successive Israeli government committees and action plans.

For example, in 2013 the government adopted the “Prawer-Begin” plan, based on the recommendations of a committee chaired by former Supreme Court justice Eliezer Goldberg, and named for a professional team of high-ranking officials headed by Ehud Prawer, and later by MK Benny Begin. Hundreds of meetings with Bedouin leaders were part of the consultative process leading to that point.

Under the plan, some 30,000 of the 100,000 Bedouin who live in squalid and illegal shanty towns (in which there are at least 90,000 illegal structures) were to be relocated and moved at government cost to developed lots in nearby farming, suburban, or urban communities, with compensation of 60 to 100 percent for land claims – even the most unproven and unsubstantiated claims. Other Bedouin encampments were to be “whitewashed.” In fact, 11 rural clusters were recognized de facto as townships (a decision that has proven disastrous).

But under pressure from the usual, professional anti-Israel activists – rabble-rousing Arab MKs, the Islamic Movement, far-left activists in Israel and abroad and some EU officials too – the Bedouin resisted the resettlement plan. (Right-wing activists also opposed the plan, accusing Begin of gifting tens of thousands of dunams of land to the Bedouin without cause.)

So, the Prawer-Begin plan died. It was abandoned, even though it drew support across Israeli political party lines, and even though many brave Bedouin leaders bucked the bullying of militant Israeli Arab leaders to speak-out in favor of the plan.

Later, the cabinet adopted a plan crafted by then-housing minister Uri Ariel to invest NIS 3 billion over five years in upgrading Bedouin communities in the Negev. Ten new industrial areas were to be established in Bedouin areas, and about NIS 700 million was to be invested in improving employment opportunities (including job training programs for Bedouin) and in developing Negev transportation arteries.

Ariel also tried to negotiate quietly with Bedouin leaders, clan by clan and family by family, to encourage their move from wretched to honorable towns; from ramshackle to modern villages; and from anarchic to organized settlements. He didn’t get very far.

Last year, Mansour Abbas of the Islamic Israeli Arab party Ra’am got into the act, and secured tens of billions of shekels from the Israeli government to support Bedouin development, including at-least-temporary electricity hook-up for tens of thousands of illegal structures in squatter camps. Some thought this was a harbinger of hope for more comprehensive long-term arrangements and solutions.

In fact, on the study tour this week, I saw hundreds of government-developed plots of land (with all necessary modern infrastructures in place) ready for home construction in Bedouin towns like Hura – except that they remain empty and unused. You ask yourself: Why?

The sinister forcesruling Israel's Negev

ALAS, THE ANSWER is that in the meantime, far more sinister forces effectively have taken over the Negev, making progress in Bedouin quality of life nearly impossible. As I learned this week from Israeli municipal leaders, from the Regavim Movement (an NGO dedicated to protection of Israel’s national lands and resources), and from Israeli police officers, Bedouin tribal warlords now own the Negev.

Broad clan-based Bedouin criminal gangs control just about anything that moves or wants to move in the Negev. They “regulate” the allocation of plots in every township and on every sand dune, they “own” the large business sectors in the south (including arms smuggling, drug manufacture and trade, trucking, and the “supply” of Palestinian women from Gaza and the West Bank for Bedouin men).

And they prevent any Bedouin from the “dispersed” areas from moving into towns like Hura, especially if you don’t belong to the right Bedouin clan or pay enough to the local Bedouin chieftain.

Most frightening of all, these Bedouin mafiosi run Negev-wide protection rackets, forcing Israeli Jewish residents of the south and their businesses to pay through the nose to ward-off Bedouin violence and destruction.

Even the Israel Electricity Company, Israel Railroads, the Mekorot National Water Company, cellphone companies and health HMOs pay regularly for “protection” of their infrastructures in the south to various “security contractors” that front for the Bedouin warlords. Welcome to Bedouistan.

Why can Israel do nothing about this?

By their own admission, the Israel Police are basically powerless to prevent this. The Police has neither the manpower, the leadership, the institutional culture, nor the mandate to enforce Israeli sovereignty in the south. It can’t even properly police the roads of the Negev where Bedouin warlords wildly race their luxury cars and otherwise cause hundreds of horrible traffic accidents every year.

Similarly, neither the police nor the IDF have any serious master plan to locate and destroy heroin and marijuana plantations in the south or to prevent Bedouin arms and equipment theft from IDF bases. Certainly, no police or army officer dares to fire his weapon at Bedouin robbers and raiders. This would evoke the wrath of Bedouin warlords and of Israeli legal-bureaucratic goody-goodies too.

In short, successive Israeli governments have shied away from cracking down on Bedouin criminal activity and general lawlessness, and now it is almost too late. It is a quarter to midnight.

Is there any hope?

Regavim’s CEO Meir Deutsch has created an impressive team of experts. Together, they have developed a concrete, detailed plan for saving the Negev – for both the State of Israel and the benefit of its Bedouin residents too. It starts with creation of a “Negev 2050” map that outlines areas for Jewish and Bedouin settlement, and areas for agriculture, industry, airport development, and highway and train systems – all on state land.

It involves settlement of land claims, closing of socioeconomic gaps, regulation of all municipalities, and above all – restoring sovereign governance in Israel’s south. This means enforcing the law, including vigorous round-up of all weaponry, aggressive indictment and incarceration of clan mafia leaders, and providing personal security to residents of the Negev. It means overcoming fear to give the Negev a future.

This will require a total Israeli government inter-agency effort, involving the ministries of defense, public security, justice, finance (tax, land, and social service authorities), and the IDF, GSS, and police. (For more on this in the coming months, watch Regavim’s website, and see the work of Dr. Doron Matza of Israel’s Defense and Security Forum.)

Most needed is Israeli leadership with the guts and grit to embark on this difficult task. Might any of the politicians currently running for election care to relate to this urgent challenge?

The writer is a senior fellow at The Kohelet Forum and in the research department of Israel’s Defense and Security Forum (Habithonistim). The views expressed here are his own. His diplomatic, defense, political, and Jewish world columns over the past 25 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com.