Terra Incognita: A question of land

The government, despite excellent management of national parks, has disastrously mismanaged the Negev, turning it over de facto to the Beduin while restricting the ability of Jews to build on it.

Beduins 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Beduins 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
When Jews lived under the yoke of others, they were often prevented from owning land. Researchers into Jewish history and anti-Semitism tend to forget this fact when examining the way anti-Jewish laws were startlingly similar in the Muslim world, and the Christian world. What is slightly more shocking is the fact that the Zionist dream of turning Jews into tillers of the soil has been partially frustrated by the fact that they have little access to land ownership. This unacknowledged tragedy also sheds light on an interesting reason for the settlement project in the territories acquired in 1967.
It is a widely known fact that about 93 percent of the land inside the Green Line is owned by the state. This is due to historical factors. For instance the Negev, which makes up half of the land, was all state land before 1948 and passed into the hands of the government after the end of the British Mandate. All the lands held by the Jewish National Fund and other pre-state Jewish purchasing organizations such as the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association came under the control of the Israel Lands Administration by 1960.
Another 12% of the land came under government control through the Absentee Property Law after 1948. The government doesn’t actively control all the land in its hands, in fact large amounts of it are leased to individuals or institutions with long-term leases that make it appear the individuals actually own the land. The government mismanages its land, especially in the Negev, allowing it to be invaded by people who illegally build on it.
HOWEVER, ONE legacy of the government control of land has been an addiction to planning that has parallels only in the planning monstrosities common in the former Soviet bloc. Israelis were reminded of this in the recent decision by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to push for the development of apartments for young couples rather than luxury homes in Kiryat Hayovel, rather than letting the market decide.
It is the same across the country. Rarely can one see something being built that has not already been “approved” by various bureaucrats and planning regimes that adhere to “master plans.”
The refrain is always “there isn’t enough land in this country, so the government must plan everything and people need to live close together in developments.”
Of course, what would happen if people were allowed to buy land privately and develop it themselves with their own tastes?
The tragedy of the planning addiction has been that Jews arriving since the foundation of the state have found themselves stuffed into apartments and dispatched to places that are ready to “absorb” them. The excuse for the tent cities-cum-ugly apartment towers where immigrants have been housed since the 1950s has always been the same: “not enough land.”
There is a problem with this excuse. There are people here who were allowed to develop land the way they pleased and there are people who do own private land. These two groups consist of pre-state Jewish settlers of the kibbutzim and moshavim and Arabs. The 7% of land that is privately held is almost all owned by Arabs. Recent data released from the Central Bureau of Statistics shows the affect this has on home ownership. In Nazareth, 82% of people are homeowners. In the rest of the country, 66% are homeowners.
The tragedy that has befallen Jews in terms of access to land and home ownership can be seen in places like Beersheba, home to some 186,000 Jews, many crammed into tenements and ugly buildings.
By contrast the 76,000 Beduin in unrecognized villages around Beersheba have unfettered access to some 600,000 dunams of land. The supposed plight of these Beduin, which is championed by such “human rights” organizations as Bimkom, Sikkuy, Adva center and Shatil, most of which are supported by the EU and the New Israel Fund, twists around the facts to make it appear it is the Beduin who suffer.
Habitat International, for instance, claims that the unrecognized Beduin villages represent 14% of the citizens of the Negev but only control 1.3% of the land (i.e. of 13 million dunams). In fact the Beduin control much more land than the Jewish population and each Beduin has a disproportionate amount of access to land. The only Jews in the Negev who control more land than the Beduin are the kibbutzim. It should be said there is nothing wrong with the fact that some own more than others, but there is something wrong when only certain groups have access and others do not.
THE SAME is true across the country. A Jew arriving in 1950 and moving to a development town next to an Arab village, where he and his Arab neighbor lived in squalor (as many did in the 1950s), would today find that while he owns a dank apartment and most of his children rent in Tel Aviv, his Arab neighbors have dozens of free-standing homes. Jews attempting to escape this malaise by moving to the West Bank find themselves accused of being “illegal settlers.”
According to international law that may well be true, but beyond ideology it is also the strangling feeling of not being able to live where one wants that drove Jews outside the Green Line.
Before 1967, immigrants saw that kibbutz members were given control over vast stretches of land and allowed to erect fences around it and deny others the ability to live with them, while they were confined to development towns that, after 1967, provided them with the incentive to search for a home and an acre to call their own. It is no surprise that supporters of the free-market Herut (later Likud) and General Zionist parties were overwhelmingly urban dwelling Jews who yearned for economic freedom in the landscape.
The supposed reason for denying Jews the right to own land is that they might then sell it to foreigners. This paternalism is similar to the money for the Holocaust survivors held “in trust” and routed to the Claims Conference which had the best interests of “the people” at heart.
The government, despite excellent management of national parks, has disastrously mismanaged the Negev, turning it over de facto to Beduin while restricting the ability of Jews to build on it. The peace camp, which is dominated by descendants of pre-state Jewish immigrants who live in kibbutzim or in nice homes, has a new political motto declaring themselves “Zionists not settlers.”
But what happened to the Zionist goal of providing all Jews with freedom, freedom to build their own homes and acquire their own land? There are illegal settlements, in the West Bank and in the Negev, and if one is to be demolished for “peace” it would be a betrayal if the Jews were not at the very least given the right to settle in the other on their own terms.

The writer is a Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies fellow.