The Beduin conundrum

Israel cannot continue to tolerate a state of lawlessness and anarchy like the one afflicting the Negev.

Demonstration against Prawler plan Beduin (photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
Demonstration against Prawler plan Beduin
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad)
Israel’s Arabs, Palestinians and Beduin lived up to the billing given for a string of demonstrations they organized over the weekend in protest against a plan to regulate Beduin settlements in the Negev. “Day of Rage” it was. Tires were burned, rocks were hurled as were firebombs and other objects, and at least one police officer was stabbed. The epicenter of the unrest was the Beduin town of Hura in the Negev, where about 1,500 demonstrators vented their rage and police resorted to tear gas and water cannon. Shocks were also felt in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Sakhnin, as well as Ramallah and Gaza City. In Berlin, London, Rome and Istanbul solidarity protests were staged.
Mostly British celebrities such as musician Peter Gabriel, artist Antony Gormley, actor Julie Christie, film director Mike Leigh and musician Brian Eno signed a letter published in the Guardian demanding that the British government hold Israel to account for its purported human rights violations and “obligations under international law.”
Demonstrators, critics and assorted other Israel bashers conflated the “Palestinian cause” with the “Beduin cause.”
The Beduin in Hura waved Palestinian flags; the British artists chastised their government for continuing to “export arms to Israel” at a time when the Jewish state held “occupied Palestinian territory” and displaced “Beduin Palestinians”; and Arab Israelis joined forces with Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza to defend the Beduin. The Day of Rage was yet another indication that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not born in June 1967, but in May 1948, and that even the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1949 armistice lines will not settle the conflict taking place inside “Israel proper.”
For decades consecutive Israeli governments have neglected the Beduin and, as a result, have helped create a state of lawlessness in the Negev, a territory which makes up over half of the entire area of the State of Israel, not including the West Bank. About 70,000 of around 210,000 Beduin who live in the Negev – primarily in the triangle created by Beersheba, Dimona and Arad – are squatters residing in about 40 “unrecognized” villages. These Beduin exist in a sort of “state within a state.” They live on land to which they have disputed legal claims, they pay no taxes and they therefore do not receive basic services from the State of Israel such as roads, water, electricity, garbage collection and schooling. Because they tend to live in loose groups, the Beduin living in unrecognized villages have taken control of, or laid claim to, about 600,000 dunams (60,000 hectares) in the Negev, or about 5% of the total. If their claims were to be granted these Beduin would end up with a bit less than 10 dunams per person on average, more than any other group in Israel, including kibbutz members.
In contrast, Jewish Israelis, who make up about 70% of the Negev’s population, live primarily in relatively densely populated towns and cities like Beersheba. As a result, builtup Jewish towns occupy about 4% of the Negev.
At least since 2007, when the Goldberg Committee was created and was followed by the Prawer Committee, attempts have been made to consolidate the Beduin population into a smaller number of recognized towns in which the Beduin would obtain deeds to their land, would pay taxes, would receive state services and would, hopefully, become more fully integrated into Israeli society.
On the eve of January’s national elections, then-minister Bennie Begin presented what has become known as the Prawer-Begin bill, which was passed in the cabinet by a wide majority. The bill allocates about NIS 7 billion over a five-year period to provide compensation to about 30,000 Beduin who will be forced as part of the consolidation process to move and to build physical and social infrastructure and institutions in new recognized Beduin towns or to expand existing ones.
Unfortunately, radicalized Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, left-wing NGOs and various international figures like the British celebrities who signed the protest letter have complicated matters by attempting to conflate the Beduin issue with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Still, no country – Israel included – can continue to tolerate a state of lawlessness and anarchy like the one afflicting the Negev. If the Prawer-Begin bill is doomed to failure – not because it is unfair to the Beduin but because it has been so widely delegitimized – another, similar, solution will have to be implemented. Every attempt should be made to a reach a solution through dialogue and cooperation. The plight of the Beduin has been neglected for too long.