The Beduin of the Negev

If the state wishes to end its ongoing conflict with the Negev Beduin, it must adopt a holistic solution based on human rights.

BEDUIN TAKE part in a protest in Beersheba 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
BEDUIN TAKE part in a protest in Beersheba 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Over the past month, The Jerusalem Post has run two opinion articles from the same author on the subject of Arab Beduin in the Negev. The articles characterize Beduin villagers as illegal settlers against whom the government is powerless, and accuses Israeli human rights organizations of “ignoring Israel’s democratic process” by advocating on behalf of residents of unrecognized Beduin villages in the Negev. My father was born in such a village, and with all due respect to the author of the articles, he has it backwards: if anything, it is Israel’s democratic process that is ignoring us.
There are 35 unrecognized Beduin villages in the Negev, with populations varying from 400 to 5,000 residents (for comparison’s sake, the average Jewish rural community in the Negev has a population of 300).
Approximately two-thirds of these villages were in existence before the establishment of the State of Israel.
The remaining third were founded by families displaced by the government from elsewhere in the Negev in the 1950s. Referring to unrecognized Beduin villages as “illegal settlements” is misleading and offensive to our right to equality.
While legitimate disputes over land ownership may indeed arise, conflating Beduin historical existence with illegal settlement and accusing the government of “giving land away” insinuates that the Beduin have no rights to their ancestral lands.
Beduin Arabs reside on 3 percent of the Negev territory. Yet the state continues to present us as trespassers looking to take over Israel’s Negev and endanger its national interests. In 2007, the government created the Goldberg Commission, tasked with “regulating Beduin settlement in the Negev.” In 2008, the commission published its findings, declaring, among other things, that the Beduin community of the Negev must be viewed as equal citizens; that the conflict is one between the government and its citizens and not a clash of nationalist interests; that forced migration to the “Siyag” (the area between Beersheba, Dimona and Arad where the first Beduin communities from the Negev were forcibly moved in 1966) was a source of the problem, not the solution; and that the primary principle to be employed in arranging Negev settlements should be recognition of the existing villages.
Despite these important principles, the government did not move to ratify such actions, but rather appointed another committee, the Prawer Team, charged with outlining a plan for the implementation of the Goldberg Commission’s recommendations.
Instead of moving forward in the spirit of those principles, the Prawer Team backpedaled, refusing to recognize existing villages, recommending instead the forced uprooting of more 30,000 Beduin from their homes in direct contradiction of the Goldberg Commission’s recommendations.
The Prawer Plan is flawed not only because it is an unjust and impractical solution, but because the process itself is not based on inclusion, cooperation and the values of equality and democracy.
The Prawer Team did not have a single Beduin member of the community on it. The core element of democracy is participation – it is the right to have a say in the decisions that affect our fate. The Prawer Committee did not even seek participation from the Beduin community in the formulation of its preliminary outline, or take the community’s criticism into account subsequent to its publication. If this is a democratic process, it is indeed one that ignores the rights of its citizens.
Regavim, a representative of which authored the two articles cited above, accuses Israeli human rights organizations of working to weaken the State of Israel by defending the “rights” of Beduin in the Negev (the quotation marks are the author’s – I shudder to think what he intended by them). As an attorney for Israel’s oldest civil rights organization, I can attest that the rights we defend are the rights guaranteed to all Israeli citizens, the most fundamental of which is the right to equality.
The right to equality was the basis for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s recent petition against the government’s decision to establish seven new settlements in the area of Mevo’ot Arad. According to the explanatory notes to the decision, it was made as part of “the Zionist vision to make the desert blossom” and includes among its goals the “strengthening organized Jewish settlement.”
The total area of the planned settlements – approximately 45,000 acres – is described in the notes as an area “empty of population” containing two Jewish communities, four isolated ranches, and “sparse Beduin scatterings.”
These “sparse Beduin scatterings” are actually five unrecognized villages, two of which were even recommended for recognition by the Construction and Housing Ministry.
The government opposed the recommendation and sought their evacuation on the grounds that the area is “extremely valuable and sensitive from an environmental and scenic perspective.” Now, in the same area, the same government is trying to establish new Jewish communities, uprooting 8,000 Beduin citizens in the process.
When a Jewish Israeli wants to move to the Negev, it is called development of the south, but when Beduin already living there want to continue to live in the same place, it is considered an effort to “take over state lands.” Why should a new Jewish village displace an existing Arab village? Each of the 35 unrecognized villages meets all of the objective planning criteria for recognition, including permanent population, population size, number of resident adults and number of residential units. Why is 300 enough Jews for a new community, but 400 Beduin too few for a historic village to be recognized? The condition of the Beduin citizens of Israel in the Negev reflects an inherently flawed state policy that dates back to 1948: denial of the Beduin’s historical ties to the land, forced relocation from fertile areas and concentration into much smaller and less fertile areas, and refusal to recognize existing villages and their rights to land.
The result for Beduin citizens is a cruelly absurd reality in which their government not only considers the homes in which they were born and raised illegal, but denies them the opportunity to obtain a building permit that would assure a more secure future.
If the state wishes to end its ongoing conflict with the Negev Beduin and to alleviate the plight of the residents of the unrecognized villages, it must adopt a systematic, holistic solution based on respect for the human rights of the Beduin, their culture and way of life.
It must, on the basis of objective planning criteria and distributive justice, grant recognition to all 35 unrecognized Negev villages in their current locations, and to the traditional Beduin ownership mechanisms. The solution should also recognize the Beduin’s historical rights and ownership rights to their lands in the Negev, and involve the Beduin public in planning decisions. This will guarantee the proper integration of the Beduin communities in this region, save the state huge amounts of resources and allow for the healthy and normal development of the Negev region and its inhabitants, Arab and Jews alike.