BORDERLINE VIEWS: Beduin land rights and the Prawer Committee recommendations

Like so much else in the Israel-Arab and Israel-Palestine arena, the enflamed conflict with the Beduin is a lose-lose situation.

beduin protest 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
beduin protest 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I live in Metar, a township of almost 10,000 inhabitants in the Northern Negev, just three kilometers south of the southern extremity of the West Bank. My house is on the edge of the community and from my window I see the houses of the neighbouring Beduin township, Houra.
Since I am a light sleeper I am invariably awake when, at approximately 4 a.m. every morning, the muezzein call the faithful to prayer, reminding me that I live in an area where Jews and Arabs share the limited space, albeit in completely segregated communities.
Over the past weekend, there were different noises coming from across the hill. These were the sounds of the demonstration against the decision by the government to go ahead with the implementation of the recommendations of the Prawer Committee concerning the future of Beduin settlement in the region.
The demonstration in Houra was one of the largest and, by all accounts, most violent of those which took place throughout the country – from Haifa in the north to Houra in the south – this past weekend. On the other side of Metar is another Beduin township, Laqiya, and beyond Laqiya, on the main Tel Aviv-Beersheva highway lies the town of Rahat, the largest of all the Beduin towns, which has become a sort of capital city for the approximately 200,000 Beduin who reside in this region.
Houra, Laqiya and Rahat were three of the seven Beduin townships created by the government of Israel aimed at moving the Beduin out of the encampments and the traditional tent communities into a more fixed, western lifestyle. Using the arguments of westernization and modernization, previous governments succeeded in relocating approximately half of the Beduin into these townships, providing services that any municipality provides to its inhabitants – schools, electricity, public services, albeit at a much lower level and quality than that enjoyed by their Jewish neighbors.
Following the implementation of the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt, the Beduin were moved away from those areas in close proximity to the border between the two states, and concentrated in a triangle between Beersheva, Arad and the Green Line. The government has made continuous efforts to persuade the remaining Beduin to relocate into the fixed communities, but to no avail.
As the younger Beduin adults have become more educated and politically aware, and as the community has undergone rapid demographic growth, the numbers remaining in the “unrecognized” villages has increased, dispersing throughout the region in a diversity of encampents, villages and hamlets – none of which are formally recognized by the state and which therefore lack all forms of public and municipal services.
Among the Beduin community the Prawer recommendations are seen as just another attempt by the government to force them off their ancestral lands for political reasons. They argue that the Jewish state is not prepared to recognize the indigenous rights of land ownership for those communities on the “Arab” side of the political equation, and that the socio-economic arguments which are used to justify the governments’ policies are but an excuse for more sinister political objectives.
Among the Israeli Right, including much of the present government, the Prawer Committee does not go far enough in that it allows too many of the existing communities to remain in situ and to become formally recognized by the state. They argue that all of the illegal settlements, set up without the necessary planning permits and licences, should be forcefully removed and that a strategic regional plan for the Beduin should be implemented which would necessitate the concentration of the Beduin community in a relatively small number of large townships, all established according to the planning and zoning laws of the state.
They further argue that these lands do not belong to the Beduin, that the Beduin have no proof of ownership and that the state must prevent the continued “creeping annexation” of state lands by the Beduin community.
The fact that it is the same groups in government who also support the creeping annexation of the West Bank by the establishment of illegal settlements on Palestinian land is an irony which seems lost on them.
For their part, the Beduin claim that these lands have always belonged to them, but say they are unable to show any form of land registration or title deeds from an era when no such formal system of land registration was ever carried out. Oral tradition, as is the case with many indigenous groups throughout the world, is sufficient proof, they argue, of uninterrupted residence in these communities.
Like so much else in the Israel-Arab and Israel-Palestine arena, the enflamed conflict with the Beduin is a lose-lose situation. A community which, in the formative years of the state was prepared to find ways of coexistence, no longer sees itself as being part of the democracy whose ground rules include forceful removal from what they argue are their ancestral lands.
The second and third generation of Beduin leaders and politicians are highly educated and far more politically aware and sophisticated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and are able to undertake the political struggle which their parents’ generation was not capable.
The state, for its part, has dug its heels in. Some government members would like to reopen the whole matter in the light of what they see as too soft a policy. One of the main architects behind the recommendations was none other than former minister Benny Begin, not known for his centrist or left-wing views, and whom the right wing now accuses of having acted too softly.
They are happy to exploit the recent demonstrations and renewed violence in an attempt to prevent the implementation of the recommendations and with a view to implementing a more draconian policy.
It has been argued that 80 percent of the Beduin community are prepared to go along with the Prawer recommendations on the condition that the government fully honor its commitment to recognize the remaining settlements as fully fledged townships and local municipalities – although they are highly sceptical that even the recognized Beduin communities will ever share the same levels of services and development enjoyed by their Jewish neighbors. All socio-economic analyses of the country’s settlement network clearly indicate that the Beduin communities have the lowest levels of development and the worst system of public and municipal services in the country.
The notion of shared landscapes is totally belied by the fact that the Jewish and Beduin communities live in almost totally segregated and separate communities.
Each insists on maintaining control and to that effect uses political and historical arguments which do not allow for compromise. Based on the events of the past weekend, the situation between the State of Israel and the Beduin is going to get a lot worse before it ever becomes any better – if it ever does.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.