Beduin land claims

For 10 years the government has ignored the Negev, seeing the issue as too large to confront.

A VIEW of Umm Al-Hiran, the Beduin village in the southern Negev Desert demolished by police (photo credit: REUTERS)
A VIEW of Umm Al-Hiran, the Beduin village in the southern Negev Desert demolished by police
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In late July the Negev Beduin community of al-Arakib was demolished for the 116th time. It is one recurrent symbol of the state’s attempt to prevent illegal housing construction in the Negev, particularly on state lands. The low-level conflict between the state and the Beduin is one that has gone on for decades and sees no end in sight. At Umm al-Hiran the state is still trying to evict Beduin so that a new planned community can be built in its place.
Construction Minister Yoav Gallant said in April that “the takeover by Beduin of large areas of the Negev creates chaos in the South of the country.” He claimed that “the State of Israel has to guide the settlement in the Negev from the vantage point of preventing a Beduin takeover of the Negev.”
Sana Ibn-Bari, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last month, said that “the government will have to change its approach toward the community and allow it to live differently. The community wants to grow and succeed.”
These competing views of the Beduin are at the heart of almost 60 years of Negev policy that have resulted in a slowly building crisis that could lead to catastrophe. Beduin citizens are not only among the country’s most impoverished, but also have one of the highest birth rates.
This means the Beduin population doubles every 20 years or so. Today there are some 250,000 Beduin living in the Negev, between 50,000 and 100,000 living in unrecognized communities. The rest live in seven planned towns and another dozen recognized communities.
However, according to the NGO Regavim, which seeks to protect state lands, the Beduin build some 5,000 illegal structures each year. Pro-Beduin activists would argue that they have to build illegally, because the state has failed to plan new towns or provide any solutions to their growth.
In 2007 a government commission headed by then-Supreme Court justice Eliezer Goldberg was appointed to find a plan to resolve the issues in the Negev. For some reason, the plan to implement the commission’s recommendations – which would have involved settling claims with the Beduin that entailed moving tens of thousands of people into new communities – was never carried out. Ten years later, the government has developed no new initiatives, only the concept of “preventing takeover.”
Adalah and groups that support the Beduin have argued over the years that the government should recognize the dozens of unrecognized communities. It should halt home demolitions and “engage in meaningful dialogue with the Arab Beduin community.” It should also “invest in greater health, education and employment opportunities.”
One of the hurdles the government faces in any kind of dialogue is that Beduin politicians from the Negev are among the most vociferous critics of Israel. MK Taleb Abu Arar (Joint List) said during the recent Temple Mount crisis that “the Israeli government is defiling the mosques... the Jews have no rights whatsoever to this mosque.” He was also quoted as saying the “third intifada started today.”
This leaves the government in a bind. Any attempt to enforce the law in the Negev is met with opposition by pro-Beduin activists, who argue the Beduin are indigenous and that large swaths of the Negev, up to 80,000 hectares (200,000 acres), belong to the Beduin.
From the state’s point of view, this is state land, and the courts have ruled in almost every case it has brought against Beduin claimants. However, this logic has resulted in not seeing the forest for the trees. The government wins court cases and demolishes illegal structures, but the number of structures being built illegally grows every year.
The fact that almost 100,000 people live in unrecognized communities, around 15% of the population of the Negev, is unprecedented. There is no evidence that the local or state authorities have any plan to keep up with the growth of the Beduin community in terms of providing services, let alone planning new communities.
Yet the government has seen fit to invest years in litigation and planning a new Jewish community at Hiran. For 10 years the government has ignored the Negev, seeing the issue as too large to confront and one that could result in a difficult standoff with the Beduin.
It’s time for the state to take a new approach, one that blends empathy and understanding with an attempt to sketch a map of new Beduin communities and legalized housing that will prevent further erosion of the state’s interests.