Are we citizens of this country or not?

The only solution is for them to recognize that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.” – Knesset Internal Affairs Committee member Moshe Feiglin, during an official visit to the Beduin city of Rahat on November 24, 2013.

DEMONSTRATORS AGAINST Prawer-Begin plan outside Knesset 370 (photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
DEMONSTRATORS AGAINST Prawer-Begin plan outside Knesset 370
(photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Readers of this paper might know what its like to be part of a minority. Even if it’s just the strange feeling you get every December morning as you walk by a giant Christmas tree in your town’s main square, you know that there are times when the dominant culture can feel, well, dominating. Sometimes you might even feel like a second-class citizen. But while it’s one thing to feel like a second-class citizen, it’s quite another to be told so officially.
There’s been much ado lately about a piece of legislation being pushed through the Knesset called The Bill for the Arrangement of Beduin Settlement in the Negev.
The bill, also known as the Prawer Plan or the Begin Plan, is being touted as a much-needed resolution to the “problem” of Beduin habituation in the Negev.
The legislation is complicated and far-reaching, so before diving into the details, let’s just make sure we’re all on the same page vis-à-vis the “problem” the bill sets out to solve.
90,000 Beduin citizens live in 35 Negev villages that are not recognized by the State of Israel. The oldest of these villages predate the establishment of the state; the newest were created in the 1950s when Beduin, who at the time were subject to martial law, were forcibly removed from their lands elsewhere in Israel.
More than half a century later, these 35 villages still do not appear on maps. They are not connected to water, electricity, or basic infrastructure like roadways, let alone basic government services like health clinics and schools. Their residents are among the poorest and least-educated people in this country.
If the state’s failure to bring these citizens along with it into the 21st century was the problem that prompted the Begin Plan, we would expect certain things of the solution. First and foremost, we would expect a solution that addresses this failure and seeks to correct it.
But the Begin Plan does not do this. Instead it conflates the issue of the unrecognized villages – essentially a land-use and urban planning matter – with the separate issue of outstanding land ownership claims dating back to the state’s establishment.
Rather than bring the Beduin community forward, the Begin Plan will uproot almost 30,000 people, destroy dozens of villages, and continue a failed policy of forced urbanization for Beduin citizens.
Why would their solution be so different from the one we expected? Because of how they frame the problem.
The problem, according to the government, is that Beduin are squatting on state land. The problem is that the Beduin are “taking over” the region, and interfering with a vision for a Jewish-controlled Negev. The problem is that we Beduin fail to recognize that our basic rights as citizens of this country are trumped by the fact that “the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.”
Viewed through that lens, the solution proffered by the Begin Plan makes perfect sense. Concentrate the Beduin into as few townships and villages, and on as little land as possible. Never mind that it means imposing patently unequal planning criteria. Never mind that tens of thousands of people will be dispossessed of their lands and their livelihoods, their fates sealed into poverty. Never mind that centuries of history will be erased along with the cultural fabric of dozens of communities.
The problem of non-Jewish Beduin living on far too much of the Negev’s inherently Jewish land will be solved.
The notion that Beduin are “squatting” is such blatant doublespeak that I can barely bring myself to address it. Beduin build without permits because permits cannot be issued for nonexistent villages that don’t appear on a regional urban plan. The Beduin constitute 33 percent of the Negev’s population and control just three percent of its land. But apparently this is far too much for the government to abide.
Alongside the promulgation of the Begin Plan, the government is promoting various initiatives to encourage Jewish development in the Negev. In other words, whereas Beduin habitation is a problem to solve, Jewish habitation is a goal to achieve – so vital a goal, apparently, that the government is willing to waive the same planning standards for recognition being applied to the Beduin villages under the Begin Plan. While Jews are being encouraged to engage in agriculture, Beduin are being stripped of that privilege, forced to move into townships and abandon their agrarian way of life.
The ostensible justification for all of this injustice is the settling of outstanding ownership claims for lands in the Negev. But the two issues are separate.
The Alternative Master Plan for Beduin Villages in the Negev, prepared by the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages, Sidreh (a Beduin women’s organization) and Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, is a detailed regional plan for the area that demonstrates how villages can be recognized in their present locations irrespective of outstanding land claims.
“The land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people.” Perhaps this statement resonates with conscientious members of Israel’s majority as a biblical promise, a religious tenet, or a cultural ideal. But as official government policy? It’s exclusionary, racist and unforgivable.
The author, an attorney, heads the Rights of the Negev Beduin project at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama walks to a press conference. (Reuters)