Beduin legislation, beyond the veil

The Israeli government announced last Monday it will go ahead with a plan to settle longstanding land disputes with the country’s Beduin population.

Beduin boy on rubble of demolished house 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Beduin boy on rubble of demolished house 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Israeli government announced last Monday it will go ahead with a plan to settle longstanding land disputes with the country’s Beduin population.
The plan, which requires relocation of approximately 30,000 people, has drawn intense fire from civil rights groups. As with most legal issues affecting the State of Israel, rhetorical hyperbole is at full blast.
ACRI-appointed lawyer Rawia Aburabia claims that the state has “declared war” on the Beduin. In a press release, NGO Adalah calls the government’s decision “part of an overall racist policy against Palestinian citizens of Israel.” At the +972 blog Imjad Iraqi writes, “Despite attempts to disguise the Plan as beneficial for the [Beduin], it aims to concentrate Arab communities in as little territory as possible and erase the [Beduin’s] claims to their historical lands. Jewish citizens, of course, will continue to build new residences without such fears.”
Provocative statements like these completely overlook the realities of the government’s plan. More than that, they allege sinister intent to “ethnically cleanse” the Negev. One imagines the Beduin being tossed out of romantic desert hideaways only to be replaced by imperialist Jewish settlers carrying Israeli flags.
IN THE spirit of balanced debate, let me offer a few points of clarification. By all accounts the Beduin of the Negev are in bad shape. As citizens of Israel they enjoy the same civil and political rights as every other citizen. However, their communities are by far the most impoverished in the country. Recent studies estimate that two-thirds of Beduin live below the poverty line, and in unrecognized villages the numbers are even higher. Unemployment, low education rates, drug abuse and crime plague their neighborhoods.
In the meantime, they are Israel’s fastest-growing population. With a birth rate of 5.5 percent – among the highest in the world – Israel’s Beduin community doubles in size every 15 years. Viewed purely from a social welfare perspective, the Beduin present a serious problem that Israel cannot avoid any longer.
The Negev, meanwhile, is more than just a desert – it’s the key to Israel’s future. Although it comprises 60% of the country’s land area, the Negev only supports 8% of its population. Compare this to Israel’s coastal region, where population density and living costs have spiraled out of control, and one understands that the Negev simply must be developed. The recent discovery of natural gas offshore has provided the energy needed for large-scale desalination and irrigation efforts. Once developed, the Negev will create unparalleled opportunities for all of Israel’s citizens.
Unresolved Beduin land claims gravely threaten this development. As of 2007, the Beduin had laid claim to approximately 600,000 non-contiguous dunams of state land; irregular bits and pieces of property scattered across the northern Negev. The problem isn’t that the Beduin make property claims, it’s that they don’t have evidence to back them up. Failure to record land holdings under the Ottoman Empire severely limits their ability to prove title today. Many of them don’t have legal title at all, and instead base their claims on the fact of continuous squatting. Years of government inaction and accommodation have allowed unrecognized villages to proliferate on state land and frustrate any serious attempt to improve the region.
It is important to point out that these “villages” are typically nothing more than ramshackle camps inhabited by a few hundred squatters. Photos on the Internet reveal the true squalor of these places, which from a distance look like heaps of scrap metal.
Tucked away in distant wadis and hilltops, they lack running water, electricity and modern sewage. Vermin and disease are constant realities. Critics condemn the government for failing to provide utilities to these remote outposts, but few understand just how huge such a public works project would be. The state wants to aid these Beduin, but doing so on a systemic level demands truly comprehensive change.
THE STATE’S current plan is well-calculated, wellintentioned, and arguably quite fair. It calls for the recognition of most illegal villages and the relocation of some Beduin (about half of the unlawful residents, or 20% of all Beduin in the Negev) to nearby development towns. The state has consulted Beduin on the design of these towns and is custom-building neighborhoods to accommodate their unique lifestyle.
Those who can prove ownership of land until 1979 will receive new lands to farm; the rest will receive significant monetary compensation. Many Beduin can, and already do, apply for additional grants and financial assistance from the state. Last September, the Israeli cabinet approved an NIS 1.2 billion package to facilitate the entire project.
The fact that right-wing Jewish groups are furious over the plan is indicative of just how pro-Beduin it really is.
Whatever one thinks of the plan, Israel is well within its sovereign rights to launch it. Sovereignty demands that a state be in complete and exclusive control of all the people and property within its borders.
For decades the State of Israel had lost this control in many parts of the Negev.
It has tolerated illegal building on state land. It has ignored tens of thousands of citizens who don’t pay rent or taxes. It has coped with mounting crime in Beduin areas, driven by crippling poverty. Now, recognizing their duty to guarantee the welfare of all citizens, Israeli leaders have finally agreed to make painful and costly decisions.
Governments frequently must choose between two equally unattractive options. In this case, Israel is choosing aggressive reform over the status quo. The plan is not perfect and does require tens of thousands of people to leave their homes. For them we should feel sympathy. However we must also recognize that Israel is trying to deal with difficult social problems as effectively and delicately as possible while fully abiding within the rule of law.
For that we should be commending, not condemning, the government.The writer is a 2012-2013 Tikvah Fellow in New York City.